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“.
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.
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.