Code of Hammurabi

Did an ancient legal code from Babylonia form the basis for the Mosaic Law embodied in the Old Testament? Does the existence of the Code of Hammurabi reduce the law of God to a mere human code?

The existence of a noted artefact from antiquity containing Hammurabi’s Code has prompted questions like these and cast a shadow of doubt over Moses’ meeting with God on Mount Sinai. So the archaeological investigation of the Code of Hamurabi is one that Christians and Biblical scholars have an interest in.

Black Stone Monument

In 1901 an ancient stone monument, eight feet high, was found in the Susa acropolis, in the Persian mountains. The stele was originally created and placed in Babylon by King Hammurabi of Babylon who lived from 1792-1750BC.

Hamurabi ruled over a vast empire and his monument lists the many places where he exercised dominion, telling of his many contributions to his various subjects.

The stele was taken to Susa by a conquering prince from the neighboring country of Elam in Iran in the 12th century BC.

The monument is now housed in the Louvre Museum in France, where it is described as “a work of art, history and literature, and the most complete legal compendium of Antiquity“.

The Code

Hammurabi’s monument contains cuneiform script and Akkadian language writing presented in three sections. The opening and closing paragraphs speak of Hammurabi’s appointment and blessing from the many gods, his dominion over many peoples and the many curses which will come upon those who oppose him.

The central portion contains 282 legal pronouncements which form the legal code which Hammurabi applied in his kingdom. Those legal pronouncements cover family relations, commercial transactions, property inheritance, prescribed punishments for theft and other evils, and more.

Hammurabi described his code as designed for specific maintenance of justice in the realm. “That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans … in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries.”


Hammurabi ruled over what is thought to be the world’s first metropolis. It was a multi-cultural society, under his supreme leadership, but sweeping across various cultures and peoples. His code, therefore, became a universal reference point, superseding the local, tribal customs and imposing royal edict and pronouncement as to how matters were to be resolved.

Hammurabi’s code is thought to date from about 1740 BC, created from legal precedents which were established during his reign. It is also thought to be drawn from two pre-existing Sumerian legal documents which have not survived to our time. Those codes were drawn up first by Ur-Namma, king of Ur (2100 BC) and then Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c.1930 BC).

To put those dates and places into Biblical perspective, Abraham originated in Ur of the Chaldees, born 1998 BC. One hundred years later, 1898 BC, Isaac was born. At the time Hammurabi was composing his code the 12 sons of Jacob were being born, from which sprang the 12 tribes of Israel (Jacob’s name was changed to Israel by God).

Hammurabi probably had a legal team who drafted it for him, based around rulings which had been made in various courts, principally the Babylonian court.

There are some contradictions and illogical prescriptions in the code, where two similar cases are treated differently. This is probably accounted for by the compilation process from case law.


Most items in the code are legal prescriptions, presented on the basis of person, action and outcome. Should a particular type of person (described in a class system) do a particular type of action, to a particular type of person, then the prescribed penalty shall be such and such.

The same action committed against people of differing station resulted in different penalties. People who occupied the highest class in society, such as members of the court, were protected by the higher penalties for injury against them. However, they were also punished at a higher rate, due to their ability to pay larger fines and probably the expectation of a higher standard from them.

Enduring Influence

Hammurabi’s code was referred to until just a few centuries before Christ. This fact is ascertained by the later copies which have been found. Fragments of the code were found in the ruins of Assur-bani-pal’s library at Nineveh and later versions, titled Ninu ilu sirum (from the opening words of the code) have been found, including reformatting into chapters.

Much of the code remained in force through the subsequent Persian, Greek and Parthian eras, preserving the Babylonian way of life. Aspects of the code persisted into the Syro-Roman era and were even adopted into the Mahommedan law of Mesopotamia.

Hammurabi’s code employed a cruel retribution upon offenders, including grim retaliatory punishments such as cutting off hands, poking out eyes, drowning, killing family members. Mohammedan law incorporates similar cruelty, such as cutting off the hand of the thief. Thus Hammurabi’s code resonates today in selected legal settings.

Hammurabi and Moses

Hammurabi composed his code half a millennium before Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. The existence of Hammurabi’s code has prompted many who deny the supernatural nature of Moses’ life and ministry to construe that Moses simply reworked the Law of God from existing resources, such as Hammurabi’s code.

Consequently it is interesting to compare the codes passed to us by both Hamurabi and Moses. Do they have much in common or are they significant in their independent approaches and concepts?

Mosaic Law is first summarised in the Ten Commandments, but is then expanded into an extensive compilation of pronouncements about things religious and civil.

Contrasts between Hammurabi and Moses

While there may be parallels in some of the legal items listed in the different law codes the differences and contrasts are significant. They are so significant that they argue against Hammurabi’s code have any real place in the Mosaic Law.

The choice similarity that is promoted involves Moses’ use of the term, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which resonates with Hammurabi’s prescription for similar retribution. While that similarity can be argued, the reality is that there is a profound distinction. Hammurabi prescribes the process of exacting retribution, to satisfy an aggrieved person. Moses establishes a legal principle, where no more can be demanded than was lost. Hammurabi celebrates retaliation, while Moses offers justice.

Hammurabi’s code is prescriptive, listing almost 200 precepts. They are rulings to aid a judge in making a determination in a legal case. The Law of God is not built on prescription, but on principles. Moses laid out many principles which did not need to be itemised in codified prescriptions. The principle was supreme over the precept. In Hammurabi’s Mesopotamian science, however, the particular never governs the general. Every particular had to be spelled out and prescribed. Law was not a matter of principle, but of prescribed outcome and punishment.

Hammurabi’s code was State Law. It was the dictate by Imperial decree, just as the English have a tradition of Imperial Law. It was, therefore, not divine. Although Hammurabi claimed to be graced by the gods and given special wisdom thereby, he asserts that the code is his own and he imposes it by his own authority. Moses, on the other hand, never made any claim to the laws which he received from God. They were always the Law of God, given by revelation, not by human comprehension.

Hammurabi’s laws were fixed on action, without regard for cause, excuse or mitigating circumstances. The effect was primary. God’s Law, on the other hand, gives great emphasis to motive and intent. The outcome being important, does not destroy the issue of intention, whether accidental, on the spur of the moment or premeditated.

The Place of God

While Hammurabi’s code acknowledges and lists deities, it fails to elevate deity. Trespass and theft from a temple is on a par with the same actions against a court. But the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue, as it is sometimes called) starts out with a demand for God’s primacy. The first three (thirty percent) of the fundamental laws were directly related to God’s being. No gods before the True God; No idols; No blasphemy of God’s name.

God’s fourth command is that the Sabbath day be honoured. This is stated as being in honour of God resting on the seventh day. Jesus Christ later declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So this fourth commandment had the dual function of honouring God and enforcing a blessing on mankind.

So the first forty percent of the Decalogue has no prescriptive, punitive, civil application. It is about God’s elevation and man’s welfare.

The fifth command is to honour parents. This, like those first commands, is a matter of heart and principle, not prescription. The final five cover civil life, not religious issues, but they are stated as matters of principle. Life is precious. Sexual intimacy is the preserve of marriage. Property rights are to be upheld. Truth is to be protected. Inner, personal contentment is to be maintained.

Religion and Civics

The expanded law of Moses includes the Levitical order – the administrative and religious functions of the priests and their Levite assistants. Matters that are legal are intermingled with religious duties, prescribed sacrifices, health regulations, tests for truthfulness, and so on.

While Hammurabi devoted his code to civil issues, effectively relegating the religious codes to oblivion, God, through Moses, revealed a deeply religious society which saw civil existence as an extension of God’s presence and reality in the whole of life.

Another testimony to the divine nature of Moses’ Law is that the Ten Commandments and the extended laws reflect a divine perspective. They are not set out as resolving human concerns, but of serving divine requirements. They are not about bringing peace among men, but bringing people to a place of respectful worship of God. The demands of a vengeful heart in a wronged person are not the concern of the Law of Moses. Provision is made to protect people from such things, with cities of refuge. God’s heart toward man and man’s heart toward God are more important considerations than man’s need for restitution and vengeance.

Moses and Hammurabi Stand Apart

The contrasts in construction, content and context reveal that what Moses brought down from Mount Sinai had nothing to do with what Hammurabi constructed for his kingdom. Babylon came and went, then later revived before being swept away. Hammurabi’s issues of social and civil justice have not prevailed as a lasting code to uplift mankind.

The Law of God, given through Moses, has remained the outstanding and unparalleled legal, social and moral code for all cultures in all centuries of human history.

Hammurabi is dead and gone and his code has faded with time. The Living God lives on, and so too does His law. Hammurabi cannot claim any of God’s glory.

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson Cracks Cuneiform

Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was born in Chadlington, Oxfordshire, England, on April 11, 1810.  He became a member of the British diplomatic service, lived in Baghdad … and dabbled in archaeology. His younger brother, George Rawlinson, became a noted historian.

At the age of 17 he joined the military service of the East India Company, posted to the Middle East, and six years later helped reorganise the Persian Army. Almost thirty years after starting with the East India Company he became one of its directors. But he also had posts on behalf of the British Government.

Rawlinson took an interest in antiquities and was able to gather numerous artefacts which he donated to the British Museum.

Rawlinson knew modern Persian and other Oriental languages. Unbeknown to Rawlinson, Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a German epigraphist had already made progress with deciphering cuneiform, but relied on many guesses and could not complete the task. While cuneiform inscriptions were abundant they were mostly short statements. Rawlinson hoped that a longer text would prove more helpful.

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An extended cuneiform text was known to exist in the mountains between Hamadan and Baghdad. A large panel of sculptured figures and many lines of text was presented in three scripts. Rawlinson assumed that the message was repeated in the three different types of symbols, making it possible to cross reference the message.

His deciphering of 1,200 lines of writing found upon the Behistun Rock was a major break-through in unlocking the ancient Babylonian script. The inscription had been created by Darius the Great and tantalised Rawlinson with the opportunity to crack the cuneiform symbols.

For four years (1835-1839) Rawlinson clambered up and down the imposing 1,700 feet high isolated rock … and there, 400 feet above the ground, “standing on a narrow ledge about a foot wide with the aid of ladders from below and swings from above, he made squeezes of the inscriptions” (Halley’s Bible Handbook).

The Afghan war delayed his studies … then he went back to Baghdad where he was appointed British Consul … and where he continued to scale and examine the Behistun inscription.

“Often in the intense heat he worked in a summer house at the bottom of the garden, a pet lion lying at his feet and a water-wheel from the river Tigris pouring water over the roof to keep it cool.”

Once Rawlinson succeeded in copying most of the great Behisitun inscription he began work on the script that was simpler than the others, which appeared to be alphabetic. The others seemed to be pictographs, ideographs and phonetic characters.

Rawlinson hypothesized the texts belonged to the period of the Archaemenid dynasty in Persia, of the Old Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Behistun was set up by Darius the Great of Persia about 519 BC. It told how Darius came to the throne and overcame those who threatened the Persian Empire. This statement was widely known throughout his realm.

Once the Persian text had been translated, it was possible to study of the other two languages. One was correctly assumed to be Babylonian. This discovery is very important to students of Assyriology since Babylonian and Assyrian languages were both Semitic and closely related. The third type was called Median or Scythian. It was the most difficult of all. It was related to the Elamite tongue, the language of Susa.

In 1846 he presented his findings to the Royal Asiatic Society.  The cuneiform symbols had finally yielded their secrets.  Now Bible scholars began to read the ancient monuments and see what light they shed upon the Holy Scriptures.

Semetic speaking Babylonians and Assyrians used the cuneiform for hundreds of years, but later discovery showed the Sumerians as the inventors, using it before 3000 BC. Rawlinson received a knighthood, as well as numerous academic awards, for this groundbreaking work which was the breakthrough for much further discovery.

Rawlinson died in 1895, and has since been known as the “Father of Assyriology“.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

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The Curse of Beneficial Systems

We create systems to facilitate good practice, but those systems create artefacts and outcomes which become a curse to us. I have an example in mind and you may be able to relate to it. So let me take you on a reflection and observation walk through the subject of ‘systems’.

Let’s Hear it for Systems

Just about everything works best if the processes are understood and the best practices are followed. That fact is where we get such notions as benchmarking, world’s best practice, time and motion studies, efficiency and so on. A good system is a means of streamlining a process and setting in place appropriate checks and balances to ensure that things are done properly.

Jet pilots must go through a disciplined check-list process before take off because so much is at stake once they get into the air. Henry Ford revolutionised vehicle manufacturing through his production line system churning out black Model T Fords. Good salesmen have a mental check-list which they are attentive to as they guide their client toward the sale. Courts, distribution businesses, hospitals, schools, garbage collection and just about all other processes of life are governed by some form or systematic regulation and process.

So let’s hear a big cheer for systems! Without them many things would fall into disarray – the loss of proper array, or order. We enjoy speed, accuracy, efficiency, reliability and service, among many other benefits directly due to good systems. Systems are incredibly beneficial.

Systems Impose Limitation

For all the obvious benefit of systems, however, they impinge on many processes a form of limitation. Every routine and regulation prescribes a preferred process and outcome, but automatically restricts or denies other outcomes, which may have their own inherent benefits.

The process and outcome of a system, assuming it can be properly regulated and achieved consistently, effectively removes variety, diversity and creativity from the process. The choice of process and outcome is made by someone who may not have the best view in mind. Once a system is in place it may work against the discovery of better process and outcome, simply because it limits the possibility for discovery and exploration of other outcomes.

School systems seem to be failing to produce a high level of academic and personal ability in many students. The system itself militates against some exploration of better options. Traffic flow systems are the product of studies and analysis and the best option that seems to be available at the time. But how many times have you been frustrated by a red light that holds you back from an empty intersection? I find it frustrating to stand at a pedestrian light, being held back from walking across a street where there is zero traffic. The system is in place to protect me, but it creates an artificial limitation of freedom which earlier generations enjoyed readily.

Systems impose limitation. Your only hope is that the benefits of the system outweigh the downside imposed by the limitations.

The Smell of a Baby

Last month my tenth grandchild was born. This grand-daughter will be often talked about in the annals of our family history, as she managed to be born on the kitchen floor! Baby Acacia came faster than her mother expected. Before the parents could get off to the hospital my daughter-in-law, Katie, found herself in second stage labour. So she proceeded to give instructions to her husband and promptly gave birth on her father’s kitchen floor. A dinner event turned out to be much more than expected.

When we caught up with the mother and baby the next day my wife, Susan, was in awe of something she had never noticed before. The baby had a most wonderful fragrance on the skin. Susan kept drawing in long breaths to enjoy the amazing scent. It was reminiscent of a lovely powdery perfume.

Baby Acacia had not been bathed by then and so the natural fragrance from the birth was still on her skin. And that’s when the whole impact of systems hit us.

Hospital Births

Susan has given birth to seven children. She is no slouch when it comes to childbirth and mothering. But she had never smelled the lovely fragrance of the baby like she did with baby Acacia. Why not? Because of the “system”! Susan gave birth to seven babies in various hospitals. Hospitals rely on systems to make sure everything that needs to be done is done and nothing is neglected. Those systems may not be perfect, but they are a guarantee against neglect, malpractice, and so on.

In order to mechanise processes and teach systems to a wide range of people so consistent and uniform practice is maintained, the systems need to be fairly straight-forward and as simple as possible. The hospital system for dealing with newborn babies is such a system.

I recall being in the delivery ward when our children were born. With the earlier births the process was taken over by the nurses who weighed the baby and checked various things before the mother was given much time with the baby at all. Washing the baby was seen as an important early process to tick off the list.

So that’s what happened to that lovely newborn baby fragrance on the skin of each of my children. That fragrance was taken from us, by the System! We had had idea we had missed it. The system gave no attention to it and we had no idea of our loss.

Rippling Repercussions

With that one case in mind consider the question of how many other impacts are imposed onto us by systems. The repercussions of these systematic processes and their prescribed outcomes ripple through our society and impact our lives constantly.

We are under constant impact from systems. Roads create regions of higher exhaust pollution. Waiting rooms create highly infectious environments. Schools frustrate highly intelligent children who must stay in step with the class average. Courts employ legal processes not understood by the average citizens they are there to serve. Mass distribution provides variety, but only of the most marketable kind, not the way you may want or need it. Got the picture?

Systems that Blind

Systems also blind us to what else may be possible. The existence of a system that has regulated processes and predictable outcomes imposes a certain stricture on our thinking. People tend to stick with what they know, for better or for worse, and so the existent system imposes itself on the thinking of the populace. This has the effect of blinding us to what else may be available.

Just listen to a conversation where someone announces they are going to do something outside the system. What you will hear is a chorus of protest from people who accept the prevailing system as something like a gift from the gods that is not to be challenged. The person’s choice might be a home birth, running their car on home brew, representing themself in court, owner building, or whatever. If you are near such a conversation listen in to the responses from those who feel bound to the systems.

And mull over the fact that while we are blessed by beneficial systems we are also cursed by them as well. That might help you improve on the systems in your life. It might lead you to help us all enjoy more beneficial systems. Good Luck.