Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bonus 15 - Code of Hammurabi

Plaster reproduction of the Law Code of Hammurabi,
showing King Hammurabi before Shamash the sun god.
Original is the the Louvre, Paris. Used with permission of OIM.
In 1700 BC the Amorite king, Hammurabi (1729–1686 BC), took the throne of the new Babylonian dynasty. He was the sixth king of the first dynasty of Babylon and reigned for 42 years (1792–1750 BC). Immediately he began to expand his new empire to eventually include Assyria and northern Syria. Hammurabi was a great military leader and lawgiver. In the first year of his reign Hammurabi fulfilled a promise to the Babylonian god Marduk and established an extensive law system which encompassed nearly every area of ancient life. The document, based on previous Sumerian laws, is over 300 paragraphs long (282 laws) and included sections on social, moral, religious, commercial and civil law. Justice was placed within the reach of every man although it favoured the rich (Amelu).1.

A copy of this law code has been preserved in the Stele of Hammurabi (ca. 1789 BC) and resembles other law codes found in the ancient Near East (i.e., Code of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur [ca. 2050 BC], the Codex of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin [ca. 1870 BC], along with later Hittite, Assyrian and Mosaic laws).  The stone (diorite) column (2.25 metres - 7.4 ft. high) resembling a black index finger is inscribed in the Akkadian language and is one of the most famous ancient Near Eastern law codes located outside of the Bible. The top of the stele has an engraved picture of Shamash, the sun-god, seated on a throne handing a scepter and ring to Hammurabi. This symbolizes the divine origin of the great law code which king Hammurabi received and reinforces the motivation for keeping these laws.

The stele was plundered in 1160 BC by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte following his conquest of Babylon and it was taken away to the Elamite capital of Susa (modern Khūzestān, Iran) where it lay until it was discovered in 1901 AD by Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, a member of an expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan and V. Scheil. Today it is on display in the Louvre Museum.
Detail of the top of the stela inscribed with Hammurabi’s code,
showing the king before the god Shamash; bas-relief from Susa, 18th century BC.
Original is the the Louvre, Paris. Used with permission OIM.

The code of Hammurabi was a complex, well developed code of law for the period in which it was used. It is phrased in a typical casuistic (Latin casus, meaning “case”) style, where each separate law states a hypothetical case followed by the appropriate penalty. This is in sharp contrast to the Mosaic laws which are formulated as commands.

Similarities between the code of Hammurabi and the Hebrew law code include the principle of lex talionis (Exod 21:22–25; Lev 20:10; 24:19–21; Deut 19:16–21; 22:22). The Code of Hammurabi states: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out” (Hammurabi’s code §129). Rather than encouraging revenge this law safeguarded excessive inequity by maintaining that the punishment must meet the crime. An arm or leg could not be excised for the loss of an eye. Also, the death penalty was prescribed on those who have committed adultery (Hammurabi’s code §129; Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22) or in the case of causing death (Hammurabi’s code §230).

Although many people attempt to magnify the similarities between the two codes, the distinctive differences are striking. For example, the biblical law favoured the needs and rights of the poor and underprivileged while the ancient Near Eastern law favoured the rich. The Code of the Hammurabi observes the class distinctions in the outworking of its law with a lower view of human life, making no distinction between deed and intent while the Mosaic Law does not. 

Also, Hammurabi lived three centuries earlier than Moses and they shared different religious backgrounds and codes of ethics. The mosaic laws were characterized by a distinctly monotheistic (one god) religion which consequently placed a higher value on ethical and moral conduct. For example, the Ten Commandments were basically spiritual in nature and considered universally binding regardless of one’s station in life.

There have been four main theories which attempt to harmonize the similarities between the two law codes:
  1. The first, known as the theory of dependence, sets forth the hypothesis that the Hebrew laws were dependent on the Hammurabi code for their content. However, the differences and not the similarities argue against this idea. For example, with regards to justice for the outcast and downtrodden, the Hebrew law is significantly different.
  2. The second is called the theory of intermediate transmission and asserts that the Canaanite culture influenced the Hebrew people at the time of the invasion and their settlement in Canaan, and continued to influence them until the two became closely associated.
  3. The third has been called the theory of cognateness, and purports that both codes had been influenced by a common Semitic background during the era of Abraham and Hammurabi.
  4. The final theory is called the theory of independence and sees the two legal systems as having a common Semitic heritage but not consciously borrowing from one another. This view stresses that the similarities are due to their geographic proximity.
While it is unlikely that the Hebrew law code was based on the code of Hammurabi, certainly the Hebrew law was not given in a vacuum. It is certainly evident that Abraham had contact with the law codes in Ur and that the people of Israel had intimate contact with the Canaanites. God’s revelation was given in time and space not apart from the understanding of the Hebrew people. But God’s Word clearly declares Israel’s laws to be unique and based on a special covenant relationship with God. Morally and ethically the Mosaic Law was superior to the Code of Hammurabi.2.

The code of Hammurabi is significant in that it is the most comprehensive and well-preserved law code of ancient history apart from the biblical law. The similarities between the Code of Hammurabi and the Israelite legal code attest to the antiquity of biblical law and the pervasive nature of law in the ancient Near East. As well it indicates that the writing of the Mosaic laws in a legible script at an early date is not unreasonable and corresponds harmoniously with ancient practices.

The code of Hammurabi provides an historical picture of the society and the civilization of the ancient Near East. It points out the humanitarian structure of ancient society which put a strong emphasis on family and morals. It was not the barbaric uncivilized culture that we so often think of when discussing ancient people. Rather we have a sophisticated structure of well-ordered law which encompasses all of society.

1. Donald J. Wiseman, “Hammurabi,” ed. Merrill C. Tenney and Moises Silva, ZPEB (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, September 19, 2009), 30–32.
2. J. I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, and William White, eds., Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1997), 379.

For Further Study
  • Böhl, F. M. King Hammurabi of Babylon in the Setting of His Time. Opera Minora. Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1956.
  • Driver, G. R., and John C. Miles, eds. The Babylonian Laws. Ancient Texts and Translations. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007.
  • Hammurabi. The Oldest Code of Laws in the World: The Code of Laws Promulgated by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, BC 2285–2242. Translated by Claude Hermann Walter Johns. Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2000.
  • Mieroop, Marc van de. King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
  • Richardson, M. E. J. Hammurabi’s Laws: Text, Translation and Glossary. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005.
  • Roth, Martha T. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. 2nd ed. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997.

 This bonus information was quoted from

David E. Graves, Key Themes of the Old Testament: A Survey of Major Theological Themes (Moncton, N.B.: Graves, 2013), 243-46.

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