Thoughts on the Code of Hammurabi

The massive obelisk detailing the famous laws of Hammurabi, king of ancient Babylon, begins with a prelude; an opening allusion to ancient Akkadian deities. The gods of Anu, Anunaki, Bel and others who once once ruled over mankind made Hammurabi a great man by blessing the land and the mighty “everlasting” empire of Babylon. The law begins in reference to the gods, then it makes reference to the uniquely divine land and the empire of the Babylonians, and lastly the law describes how the gods ordained and chose Hammurabi (who is referred to in the first-person, present-tense). Hammurabi was chosen by the gods to bring righteousness to the land, and also to bring balance so the weak would not dominate the strong, and to “further the well-being of mankind.” His kingship is both local to the immediate needs of Babylon, and also universal in the Babylonian desire to ‘serve all of mankind.’ This universalist theme has continued through ancient Athens (see Thucydides), and Rome (see Cicero), and it has continued into the present-day as the universalist imperial idea of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ in a phrase echoed by the United States.

Like the ‘words’ of Moses (or “commandments”), the laws of Babylon also appeal to a higher, divine power in order for the laws to hold sway. Both Israel and Babylon share a common appeal to divine law. However, Mosaic law originates directly from God himself, while Babylonian law is merely divinely inspired. The laws of Babylon are given by one man, Hammurabi, who is charged by the gods, but all of his laws involve punishments and rewards of human beings, not of divine retributions.

The code of Hammurabi was uncovered in early 20th century excavations. The language is cuneiform Akkadian, and the laws are scrawled across a giant finger-shaped structure. Perhaps they were publicly displayed for all to see, so that they may know the laws. Recall that Moses’s laws were scribed upon stone tablets. Similarly with Solon, and the constitution of Athens found among the writings of Aristotle. The voice of the law-giver is not enough justification for the force behind the laws.

The laws of Hammurabi, in total, number 282. Many offer a hypothetical example (“if…”) followed by an equivalent punishment compensation (“then…”). For example, Law Number 3: “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” Some laws, if broken, require the punishment of death, while others demand payment instead.

This formulation of law is akin to a contemporary syllogism, or perhaps even a mathematical equation. The statement implies balance and equivalence. It also points at a certain degree of equality among all cases by leaving little room for nuance. The syllogistic form of lawmaking is a reminder of the early conversations in Plato’s Republic, in which the notion of debt-payment plays a prominent role, as the idea of justice implies a certain transactional relationship, an equality of exchange, in the same way monetary matters are handled.

Recall the necessary prohibitions for the good of the city as identified in the writings of Aristophanes: promotion of the divine, prohibitions against incest, prohibitions against father beating. The first criteria is satisfied in the prologue to the code of Hammurabi. The second criteria is satisfied in several laws from (Law# 154-157 i.e.: “If a man be guilty of incest with his daughter, he shall be driven from the place -exiled”). The third criteria is satisfied in several of the laws (Law #195: ” If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off”).

The laws close with a reminder of the greatness of king Hammurabi – he was chosen by the gods, brought peace and prosperity, and subdued the enemies of Babylon – conquering Sumer and Akkad. It also contains a divine curse against any man who attempts to change or manipulate the law in the future. It is not a ‘living constitution’ as a modern legal scholar might say.

Approximately half of the code deals with matters of contract law. A third of the code deals with families and relationships between citizens, such as inheritance, and divorce. Other laws are related to military service or the penalties for a judge who issues incorrect decisions.

I recall observing the massive stele that sits at the Louvre in Paris many years ago. At the top is a carved image of Shamash, the god of highest things, like the sun and justice. He is being worshipped by Hammurabi. It was found among the ruins of ancient Susa. The prevailing opinion of current scholarship is that the code was taken from Babylon by Elamite conquerors around the 12th century and brought to Susa (Persia).

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