The Code of Hammurabi
In the winter of 1901-02, a French archaeological team, under the direction of M. J. de Morgan, discovered at ancient Susa (cf. Shushan — Esth. 1:2) in southwest Persia, a black stone stele (some 7 ft. tall). On it was the “Code of Hammurabi.”
The monument, which had been captured by the Persians, contained 282 laws reflecting the Babylonian judicial regime of the 18th century B.C. It is now in the Louvre in Paris.
Hammurabi was a king of the first Babylonian dynasty. Though there has been some controversy over the exact time of his reign, it is now generally believed that he ruled for 43 years (c. 1792-50 B.C.).
A comparison of this code, with that of the Hebrew system in terms of both similarities and differences, suggests a number of interesting things. Let us give consideration to some of these.
Moses too complex?
First, hostile critics of the Bible long argued that the Levitical code could not have been authored by Moses, as Old Testament testimony asserts (cf. Lev. 1:1), and as New Testament evidence confirms (Mt. 19:8; Mk. 7:10; 10:2-5; Jn. 7:46-47).
Supposedly, the Hebraic system is much too structured and formal to have come from such a distant historical era.
The discovery of Hammurabi’s code exploded that theory. It is at least two centuries older than the Mosaic system, and yet is structured in a precise fashion.
Civil law must have higher authority
Second, both the Mosaical system and Hammurabi’s suggest that civil law, which is designed to regulate human social conduct, must be based upon a higher standard than the arbitrary whims of man.
The Mosaic economy appeals directly to the authority of Jehovah (cf. Ex. 20:1ff). The Hammurabi stele, in a more indirect manner, hints of the same principle.
For example, at the top of the stele, there is a carving of Hammurabi standing before the sun god, Samas, who is extending a scepter to the king. This probably suggests that these laws were to be regarded as buttressed by divine authority.
Some ordinances specifically state such. A partnership between two businessmen is ratified by an oath “before the gods” (Barton 1937, 387).
On the other hand, there is a dramatic difference in attitude. Moses emphatically credits God as the source of his law, while Hammurabi, both in the prologue and in the epilogue, boasts that he, not Samas, is responsible for justice in the land (Barton 1937, 406).
Universal principles of moral law
Third, the common laws of these systems, which protect life and property (frequently almost identical in phraseology), reveal that there is an ultimate moral standard lying in the background of these codes. Other ancient legal codes argue similarly.
This reinforces Paul’s affirmation in the book of Romans that there was an original moral law, embedded in the conscience of man, that either accused or excused him (Rom. 2:14-15).
Noted archaeologist Siegfried Horn contends that these “similarities show that [the moral principles] go back to the same God, the Author of right and truth” (1955, 40).
Fourth, a comparison of the systems demonstrates how well-adapted each was for its own land.
In dry Palestine, a man must be careful not to start a fire that burns his neighbor’s crop (Ex. 22:6). In the Babylonian code, a man had to guard against leaving his sluice gate open so that he did not flood his neighbor’s field. There is no comparable ordinance in the Mosaic law, because canal irrigation did not exist in the hills of Canaan.
This is but one evidence of the independency of the accounts. Contrary to the charges of some critics, the Hebrew code was not borrowed from Babylon.
“There are many similarities [between the Mosaic system and the Babylonian] since they are dealing with areas where there is universal agreement. In spite of the resemblances there is no evidence of borrowing” (Hayden 1982, 608).
Mosaical code elevated by divine inspiration
Fifth, there are numerous examples which reveal that the Mosaic code, given by divine inspiration, has a “more elevated character than its Babylonian counterpoint” (Horn 1955, 40). Consider several cases.
The Hebrew law contains generous provisions for the poor. Every seventh year, the Israelite land owner was to let his land “lie fallow,” that the poor might reap the “volunteer” produce (Ex. 23:10-11; cf. also Lev. 19:9; Deut. 24:19).
By way of contrast, rich Babylon made no similar provision for its indigent. Dr. Barton stated that Babylon “felt no such social sympathy” (1937, 385).
The issue of slavery is always troubling. Ideally, God never intended that one human own another. Hebrew law was introduced into a primitive culture where slavery was common. It was not designed to radically overthrow this evil institution in a moment of time.
Rather, Israelite law was intended to regulate the practice, and sow the seeds that could lead to its eventual abolition—with the ultimate assistance of the teaching of Jesus Christ.
But note this point of contrast between the Israelite code and Hammurabi’s. Under the Babylonian regime, harboring a runaway slave brought a death sentence. But the Hebrew system forbade returning to his master a slave seeking refuge (Deut. 23:15).
Again, note this difference. A Hebrew servant who loved his master and volunteered his services for life, had his ear pierced as a token of the agreement (Ex. 21:6). The Babylonian slave who merely said to his owner: “You don’t own me,” had his ear cut off!
Consider the case of Sarah and Hagar, during the days of Abraham, even long before the Mosaic law was given. When Sarah proved barren, she offered Hagar, her handmaid, to bear a child for Abraham (Gen. 16:1ff). The code of Hammurabi reveals this as a common practice in the ancient Near East.
However, if the handmaid later “ranks herself with her mistress,” she could be sold into slavery. “The concubine shall be fettered and counted among the slaves” (Caiger 1944, 30).
Hagar apparently adopted a disposition somewhat like this (cf. Gen. 16:4). Sarah, therefore, actually was quite merciful in that she only “cast out” her insolent servant (Gen. 21:10).
The Hebrew religion was elevated above that of its pagan neighbors.
No crude heathenism
Finally, the Israelite code was not cluttered with the crude polytheism of heathenism, nor with its superstition. The code of Hammurabi, to the contrary, was encumbered grossly by both.
The explanation for this distinction is obvious. The former originated directly with the true God; the latter, though containing traces of a moral genesis, had degraded over many generations of time.
The many lines of evidence establishing the Bible’s credibility are amazing.
- Barton, George A. 1937. Archaeology and The Bible. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union.
- Caiger, Stephen L. 1944. Bible and Space—An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology. London: Oxford University Press.
- Hayden, R. E. 1982. “Hammurabi.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. II. Revised, G. W. Bromiley, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Horn, Siegfried H. 1955. Light From the Dust Heaps. Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald.