Hammurabi and his God Given Code of Laws
At that time, the gods Anu and Enlil, for the enhancement of the well-being of the people, named me by my name: Hammurabi, the pious prince, who venerates the gods, to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak,…
(Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Prologue)
Although Hammurabi’s Code of Laws is one of the most famous collections of laws from the ancient world, it is certainly not the oldest . In fact, it is preceded by at least two other codes of laws, namely the Laws of Ur-Namma (c. 2100 B.C., Ur) and the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1930 B.C.., Isin). It may be pointed out these ancient Mesopotamian texts are not legal codes in the modern sense, i.e. collections of written laws compiled according to specific subject matters ( civil code, penal code, etc.), but were rather compilations of laws “carved in stone”. Although these collections preceded that of Hammurabi’s, it cannot be said that the latter borrowed directly from the former, as these were legal rules of political entities that were independent of each other.
So, who was Hammurabi? Hammurabi (reigned from 1792-1750 B.C.) was the sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon. During his long reign, he oversaw the great expansion of his empire, and made Babylon a major power in Mesopotamia. By the time of Hammurabi’s death, Babylon was in control of the whole of Mesopotamia, although his successors were not able to maintain this control. This may be due to the lack of an effective bureaucracy, as his active participation on regional wars meant that he did not focus on establishing an administrative system that would ensure the continual running of his empire after his death.
A depiction of Hammurabi. Photo source .
Despite the rapid disintegration of his empire, his code of laws has survived the ravages of time, though it was only in the 20 th century that they were rediscovered by archaeologists. These laws defined various types of crimes and the penalties to be applied. For instance,
If a fire breaks out in a man’s house, and a man who came to help put it out covets the household furnishings belonging to the householder, that man shall be cast into that very fire.
(Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Laws, 25)
Despite the ‘eye for an eye’ type of punishments such as the above, Hammurabi’s Law Codes allowed different punishments to be meted out to persons of different social ranks. Thus, for instance,
If an awīlu (upper class person) should blind the eye of another awīlu, they shall blind his eye. If he should break the bone of another awīlu, they shall break his bone. If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver. If he should blind the eye of an awīlu’s slave or break the bone of an awīlu’s slave, he shall weigh and deliver one half of his value (in silver)(Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Laws, 196-199)
Therefore, it can be seen that in some cases, an offender’s punishment depended on the social status of his victim.
One final thought: Whilst writing this article, one of the most interesting reading materials I came across was a book called “ Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi ”, by David Wright. According to Wright, the law collection of the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:23-23:19) is “directly, primarily, and throughout dependent upon the Laws of Hammurabi”. Although I’ve not read the entire book (which was over 500 pages long), what struck me was the theoretical framework used by the author to approach the topic. In my opinion, by framing the question in terms of ‘who influence whom?’, one risks drawing imaginary and unnecessary lines that divide ancient cultures. Instead, a different approach, in which parallels and similarities are seen not as the result of one culture influencing another, but rather due to them being within the ancient Near Eastern cultural sphere, and thus sharing a common heritage. As this has been done with Near Eastern and Archaic Greek literature, perhaps it could also be done with law codes. Some ‘food for thought’ for today.
Featured image: Detail of Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, the Louvre Museum. Photo source
Andrews, E., 2013. 8 Things You May Not Know About Hammurabi’s Code. [Online]
Available at: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-hammurabis-code
[Accessed 2 April 2014].