What is the Cod of Hammurabi? Did Moses copy parts of it in the Mosaic Law?
Who Was Hammurabi?
Hammurabi was the sixth king in a dynasty of 11 kings of Babylon. At the beginning of the second millennium, a group of Amorites migrated into Mesopotamia integrating into the urban social and political culture of the region. Early in the 19th century BC, Sumu-abum rose to power in Babylon creating a new Babylonian dynasty of Amorite kings. Sumu-abum and his early heirs focused on the immediate area surrounding Babylon, building canals, temples, defensive fortifications, and creating a strong political and military network. During this period Babylon was surrounded by strong political and military powers including Elam and Eshnunna to the east, Mari to the west, Larsa to the south, and the Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia to the north. Hammurabi reigned over the Babylonian empire for 42 years (longest of any kings of the dynasty) and used his military and diplomatic skills to gain control over all Mesopotamia. Like his predecessors before him, Hammurabi began his reign by focusing on the geographic area around Babylon and by the thirty-second year of his reign, Hammurabi seized control of all Mesopotamia, consolidating power in Babylon. During the final 10 years of his reign, Hammurabi again focused on domestic issues and it is in these years that the law code was developed.
Code of Hammurabi
The best preserved and longest of the surviving examples of the Law Code of Hammurabi dates to 1760-1750 BC and contains almost 300 laws covering a wide range of social areas, including: false testimony, degrees of murder, lesser forms of injury, property damage, marriage, theft, robbery, kidnapping, theft, and commerce. The text, written on an eight foot high stele1, originally stood in Babylon and was later moved to Susa after a raid by the Elamites. The law code was not the first to be developed as there were other examples date to the third millennium 2100 BC. Although not the earliest, the Code of Hammurabi is significantly longer and better written than prior law codes. In addition, over 50 copies of the code have been unearthed suggesting the code was important to Babylonian culture and the Babylonian scribal tradition. The code segregated legal remedies by the social class of the individual. Three social classes of people are identified including: Aw lu – free men, landowners, and nobles; Muškenu – middle class, free but likely tenant farmers; and Wardu – slaves. Women and children are especially protected in the laws often equaling the rights of free men. Some economic prices were fixed, and commercial transactions often included a warranty. The code is comprised of customary law, royal edicts, and past court cases. The epilogue includes: a summation, statement describing how Hammurabi fulfilled his duties, blessings, and curses. The code was designed to show the gods that the king was performing his duty to uphold justice.
The Law Code of Hammurabi and the legal code in the Bible exhibit several points of similarity. Both codes are written in the third person and both are based in caustic law, a legal code based in legal precedent using the language “If a person… (offense), then… (judgment).” In addition, the two codes cover many of the same classes of offense with similar judgments. A few of the similarities are demonstrated in the table within your notes – we will only review a couple examples here:
The Book of the Covenant and the Law of Hammurabi seem closely related in the legal context of the language and it is easy to see how the Covenantal Laws of Israel and other nations had influence, one upon the other. There is a shared common purpose because both laws contain caustic consequences for those who break these laws and consequently, both act as a deterrent to crime, whether moral or civil, which is why they were written in the third person. Both share in the protection of marriage, family, property damage, injury, murder, robbery, theft, kidnapping and even in commerce. They both act as stabilizers of society. For Israel, they constituted expectations from God in how we are to live with our neighbors and I personally see this as foundations for the U.S. and other nations as well so that authorities may rule in relative peace. Both laws share similar language because they share similar expectations for society and for the stability of each nation. Prosperity for the Babylon and blessings for Israel would be natural consequences of obedience to these laws and was in the best interest for both nations, even though for Hammurabi, it was for political and military purposes.
As for as differences between the two laws, the authority or source are different, as one is from God and one from Hammurabi, whose reasons are self-serving, but God’s are for the benefit of all people, regardless of their social or economic standing. Hammurabi felt that he was chosen by the god of Enlil, only one among many, to be made the shepherd of Babylon but Moses knew that He was a chosen vessel of God, the One and True God, to be shepherd the nation of Israel. Other differences concerned the violation of laws of Hammurabi constitutes violations against Hammurabi himself and the nation but violation of the Covenant are sins against God Himself, even though affecting Israel as a whole. Different too was the fact that God was interested in creating a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, but Hammurabi’s motivation is for prosperity and longevity on his throne. Therein lies significant differences…the Covenant protects the disenfranchised members of society, regardless of their place or rank in society while the Code of Hammurabi is interested only in the “free men” class and gives special protection to the middle and higher social classes of Babylon. This is seen in the laws of the Code as the awilu are given special status and protection but the lower classes, the wardu (slaves) and the mushkenu (free person of low estate) have no such protection and are significantly more liable. While biblical law sees human life as more valuable than material possession, the Code treated significant material loss as sometimes worthy of death.  Conversely, God requires a life for a life but the Laws of Hammurabi may only require financial compensation.  It is interesting that silver was the main currency of Babylon but gold is the primary precious metal used in the inner sanctuary, as one is inferior to the other, so is God so much more precious and valuable than human governments. The superiority of God’s Laws is that obedience (and holiness) is the desired outcome so that relationship with God is possible. The Law of Hammurabi’s goal is for longevity of the king and prosperity for the nation.
The conclusion is that although both may share common ground in that they contribute to civility and order, preventing chaos in society, the Covenant stands supreme over the Code because of its Author who is no respecter of persons; not so with the other author (Hammurabi) which had regards to a person’s social standing. For Paul, the law was a means of knowing what sin was (Rom 7:7) and understood that God intended it to show the inability of humans to present themselves as holy before Him by works (law keeping) and that “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [and that] the righteousness of God [is] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21-22). The Code has no such ability to make a person righteous because “one is [only] justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28) and no amount of civil obedience could ever make one perfect, even though we should strive to “uphold the law” (Rom 3:31c). The good news is that even though we can’t possibly fully obey the law as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:23-25).
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also Host of Spiritual Fitness and the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.
1 In Babylonian society there were mainly three classes; the awilu, a free person of the upper class; the wardu, or slave; and the mushkenu, a free person of low estate, who ranked legally between the awilu and the wardu. “Babylonia Social Hierarchy.” Bible History. http://www.bible history.com/babylonia/BabyloniaSocial_Hierarchy.htm (Accessed March 9th, 2017).
2 Desmond T. Alexander. From Paradise to the Promised Land (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2012), 217.
3 Ibid., p. 219.