The Code of Hammurabi

Doug Roush
The Code of Hammurabi, was discovered by a French archaeological expedition under the direction of Jacques de Morgan in 1901-1902 at the ancient site of Susa in what is now Iran. It was written on a piece of black diorite, 2.25 m (7 ft. 5 in.) in height, and contained 282 sections. Although the block was broken into three pieces, the major portion of it has been restored and is now in the Louvre in Paris.

Many scholars believe that the code is actually a series of amendments to the common law of Babylonia. It addresses legal procedure with statements for penalties for unjust accusations, false testimony, and injustice done by judges. In addition, it states laws concerning property rights, loans, deposits, debts, domestic property, and family rights. The sections covering personal injury invoke penalties for injuries sustained at the hand of another as well as permanent injury incurred by unsuccessful operations that were performed by physicians. In addition, the code established rates for various services in trade and commerce.

The Code of Hammurabi and the Written Word
Bible critics once made the charge that Moses could not have written the first five books of the Old Testament because the art of writing was not developed until well after his death. This criticism, however, has been negated by a multitude of archaeological discoveries, among which is The Code of Hammurabi. Free and Vos have stated:

The Code of Hammurabi was written several hundred years before the time of Moses (c. 1500-1400 B.C.). . . . This code, from the period 2000-1700 B.C., contains advanced laws similar to those in the Mosaic laws. . . . In view of this archaeological evidence, the destructive critic can no longer insist that the laws of Moses are too advanced for his time (Free, Joseph P. and Howard F. Vos [1992], Archaeology and Bible History 103, 55).

The Code of Hammurabi, among other discoveries of ancient writing, established beyond doubt that writing was practiced for hundreds of years before the time of Moses. This fact is so well documented by archaeological discovery and historical confirmation that only the dishonest or  misinformed critic of the Bible would appeal to this line of argumentation.

Similarities and Contrasts Between the
Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses
The other misuse of the Code of Hammurabi against the Law of Moses by Bible critics was the similarities between the two systems. Since it had been established that the Code predated the Law, it was charged that Moses had plagiarized Hammurabi, or at least had borrowed from him.
It is true that the Code and the Law contain many similarities. However, most of the similarity ends with the topics they address. The specifics as to how the topic is handled are, in most cases, different, if not contrasting.

Bible critics often point to the principle of equal retribution in the Code. Paragraphs 196, 197, 199 establish, an eye for an eye, a broken bone for a broken bone, and a tooth for a tooth, respectively. However, the Code treats those who are born free, made free, and slaves differently in the matter of retribution. Equal retribution is practiced only toward those who are born free. A price of one gold mina was to be paid to an injured freed man, and if the injured be a slave, the offender was to pay one-half of the slaves value to his master. No mention is made of a slave who suffers permanent injury at the hand of their owner, however the Law of Moses provided for the freedom of a slave that was so injured (Exod. 21:26-27).

The Law provided that, “. . . he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death” (Exod. 21:15). In comparison and contrast, the Code provided, “If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off” (§195).

Numerous comparisons can be made between the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses. Few are exactly the same, however the similarities are striking. Perhaps one explanation for these similarities can be the civil and moral portion of the law of God that was handed down by word of mouth through the patriarchs. Just as there are similarities between the Mosaic Law and the law of Christ in their moral principles, it should not be surprising to find hints of the civil and moral aspect of the Patriarchal Law in the written codes of ancient cultures; even though these cultures had become corrupt and, like Hammurabi, attributed their code to gods of idolatry.

Explanation of Pre-Mosaic Customs
Among the Patriarchs
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Code of Hammurabi is the insight it provides into the customs of patriarchal cultures. Although, as near as one can now tell, Abraham lived shortly before the time of Hammurabi, other ancient writings verify that many of the customs that Hammurabi codified were widely practiced by patriarchal cultures.

For instance, Abraham had resigned himself to the situation that Eliezer of Damascus, “one born in my house (i.e., the son of one of his slaves) is mine heir” (Gen. 15:2-3). This statement is consistent with the practice of adoption as outlined in the Code of Hammurabi and other, more ancient codes. Therefore, in the mind of Abraham, adoption of a child born to one of his slaves presented a acceptable cultural solution to God’s promise as it was stated in Genesis 6:2-3.

In addition, the insistence of Sarah, Rachel, and Leah for their husbands to bear them children by their handmaids (Gen. 16:1ff; 30:1ff, 9ff) is consistent with the cultural custom that is described in paragraphs 144 and 146 of the Code of Hammurabi. As written in the Code, it is apparent that the practice was common prior to the time of Hammurabi; however, his code protected all parties involved in this arrangement.

Paragraphs 159-161 of the Code address fair treatment of the “purchase price” for a bride in the event the prospective groom or father-in-law should change his mind about the marriage. Although there are some differences, the practice of a purchase price or dowry is consistent with what we find in Genesis 24:10, 53, where we find Abraham’s servant went in search of Isaac’s prospective wife with “all goodly things of his master’s in his hand,” and then giving Rebekah and Rebekah’s mother and brother precious things. The practice of a “purchase price” being paid to the father of the bride is especially evident in the case where Jacob, when he did not have possession of a “purchase price,” worked for Laban for two consecutive seven year periods to satisfy the “purchase price” for each of Laban’s daughters, Rachel and Leah.

Archaeological discoveries provide us with some fascinating information that enhances our appreciation of the Bible record. Perhaps, most striking, as exemplified in the early years of Abraham, is how ancient cultures attempted to make God’s revelation fit their cultural practice rather than fully embrace God’s promise. Thousands of years have passed, but man continues to make the same mistakes. However, like Abraham, we come to know the grace of God and his blessings when we fully accept him at his word.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p3  January 4, 2001