Overview

Understanding the historical and cultural context of the Old Testament is perhaps one of the most important principles of sound biblical hermeneutics. 

Typically, conservative and liberal scholars have responded in one of two ways in attempting to understand the relationship between the biblical text to other ancient Near Eastern literature. Some conservative scholars posit that the biblical writers were completely unaffected by the surrounding cultures in which they wrote, and that the biblical text is entirely original. Progressive and liberal leaning scholars, on the other hand, hold that the biblical writers heavily borrowed, if not outright stole ideas from the literature of the nations and cultures surrounding them. It is our view, that both extremes are to be rejected, while maintaining and defending the uniqueness and fully inspired and inerrant nature of the original text (autographa). 

The Code of Hammurabi Stele 

The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1754 B.C.) is an ancient inscription which illustrates the relationship between the Bible and its ancient Near Eastern historical and cultural context. It was believed to be one of the oldest and most complete law codes in the world, when it was first translated in 1902. 

The black basalt stele is 7.38 ft in height, 2.13 ft wide. It is written in Akkadian cuneiform script. It was discovered in Persia by M.J. de Morgan, a French archaeologist, while working at the ancient acropolis of Susa, Persia (Shushan in the book of Esther) in the winter of 1901-1902. The stele was broken in three parts but was quite easily restored. 

Hammurabi (left) stands before the Babylonian god of justice, Shamash, (seated right). On top of the Hammurabi stele

Hammurabi (also spelled Hammurapi) was the sixth of eleven kings from the Old Babylonian (Amorite) Dynasty. He reigned the longest for a total 43 years (from 1728 to 1686 B.C.) [1]. Historical inscriptions indicate that he promulgated his famous law code early in his reign. The date-formula for his second year, “The year he enacted the law of the land,” indicates when Hammurabi very likely adopted and enacted the legal code. 

The black diorite stela, is shaped like a finger pointing upward. The top of the “finger” is engraved with a bas-relief showing Hammurabi standing before the Babylonian sun-god Shamash (god of justice). The stele is engraved in Old Babylonian cuneiform, and is incised on both sides. It is the longest and most complete legal documents yet discovered in the ancient Near East. It is the longest surviving text from the Old Babylonian Period. 

The stele was originally set up on the Esaglia, the temple of Marduk in ancient Babylon, so that the people of the city could see it and read it. Inscriptions on the large black stele claim that it is the original copy, as other copies were placed in different cities throughout the empire. In about 1207-1171 B.C. the stele was taken to the old Elamite capital of Susa as a trophy of war by the Elamite warrior Shutruk-Nahhunte. It was at Susa that French archaeologists discovered it in 1901-1902.

A Brief Summary of Hammurabi’s Law Code 

It should be noted that Hammurabi did not invent the statutes inscribed on the 6ft. black stele. His law code was likely inspired by, and is an elaboration and expansion of earlier law codes such as the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Law of Eshunna. Urbanization (or city living) and economic trade was still in its nascent era when it was written, and the laws center around potential conflicts that could arise between citizens. 

Hammurabi’s law code consisted of 282 laws. Each law describes a potential case with a verdict prescribed for each case. The punishment and/or verdict depended on the social status or social standing on the individuals involved, as culture was highly stratified in Southern Mesopotamia at that time.  In Hammurabi’s day, ancient Mesopotamian society was divided into three classes: free-men or noblemen (“awīlu”), commoners, and slaves.

Perhaps one of the most well known aspects of his famous law code is the principle of lex talionis [or, law of retaliation], or “an eye for an eye.” However, it should be pointed out that the lex talionis principle found in Hammurabi’s code only applied to individuals of the exact same social standing. Under Mosaic law, all were equal under the law no matter what their social status happened to be. 

The code consisted of laws regulating contractual matters (nearly half of them), terms of transactions, liability for construction work, property damage, inheritance rights, divorce, paternity as well as many others. There are even provisions which address military service, and laws concerniing the proper methods of brewing beer. 

For capital offenses, the death penalty would be imposed, although the method of death was not always specified. Three types of capital punishment mentioned are burning, drowning, or impalement on a stake. For non-capital offenses, punishments could include the removal of a hand, ear or eye, and/or the hot branding of various body parts [a practice that is actually still in place in some parts of the Middle East]. 

Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard note that: “Many OT laws (e.g., the Ten Commandments) fail to specify a penalty for violations and to task an authority with enforcing compliance. They seem to simply assume an honor-system of self-enforcement by the Israelites themselves” [2].

How the Law of Hammurabi Fits into Old Testament History & Chronology 

Genesis 11:31 states, “And Terah took his son Abram and is grandson Lot, the son of Haran and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.” 

According to Old Testament scholar, Dr. Eugene Merrill, “It is impossible to know precisely when Abram left Ur for Haran. He was old enough to be married and yet young enough to be under the patriarchal authority of his father. Despite the fact that his name is mentioned first in the genealogy, he was the youngest of Terah’s three sons” [3].

A conservative chronology of the Old Testament places Abraham’s birth around 2166 B.C. (Gen. 11:26), sometime during the Bronze Age (ca. 2100-1805 B.C.). In Mesopotamia this would have fallen during the time of the Old Babylonian empire. At that time Haran, was populated primarily by a race known to the Sumerians as MAR.TU and to the Akkadians as Amurru (biblical Amorites). It is likely that Abram became conversant in the Amorite-Semitic dialects which were spoken there, and also became intimately familiar with the nomadic lifestyle as well [4].

As the population grew and urbanism (living in cities as opposed to nomadism, and/or hunting-gathering) increased in Southern Mesopotamia, it gave rise to such Amorite city-states as Isin Larsa – the largest one being the city of Babylon itself. During that time, the Old Babylonian empire had eleven rulers. Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) was the sixth, and by far the most influential and illustrious of them all. 

By the time Hammurabi was reigning in Babylon, Abraham had been long dead (d. 1991 B.C.), and his grandson, the patriarch Jacob had already entered Egypt along with Joseph and his other sons (ca. 1876 B.C.). The Israelite sojourn in Egypt lasted approximately 430 years (ca. 1876-1446 B.C.). Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in 1446 B.C.. Approximately 300 years separates Hammurabi’s law code (ca. 1754 B.C.) and the Mosaic law in the Torah (ca. 1446-1406 B.C.). The two law codes do share some similarities, but there are also significant differences as well. 

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HAMMURABI’S LAW CODE & OLD TESTAMENT LAW

SIMILARITIES 

Because of the striking similarity between some of the laws inscribed on the Hammurabi stele and laws recorded in the Mosaic law, some scholars have concluded a direct literary dependence between the two: the Mosaic law, being dependent on the [earlier] Hammurabi code, as well as other sources in the ANE (ancient Near East). There are certainly some direct similarities. Here is one example:

Code of Hammurabi

Law 196: If an awīlu (free man) should blind the eye of another awīlu (free man), they shall blind his eye. 

Law 197: If he should break the bone of another awīlu (free man), they shall break his bone. 

Law 200: If an awīlu (free man) should knock out the tooth of another awīlu (free man) of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

Mosaic Law (Torah) 

Leviticus 24:19-20 – “Anyone who maims another shall suffer injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” 

A number of other laws are also identical or nearly identical between the two sets of laws. Another example, are the statutes for the liability of the owner of an ox if it gores someone to death. In the Code of Hammurabi the statutes are encoded in Laws 250-252, whereas in the Mosaic law, the nearly identical laws are recorded in Exodus 21:28-29. 

Ox (Bull’s) head from the Queen’s Lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur [Iraq], in Southern Mesopotamia (British Museum, London)

DIFFERENCES 

While there are certainly some direct similarities between Hammurabi’s law code and the Mosaic Law, they disappear when one digs deeper into the details. The differences can be noted in the origins, the basis and the purpose of the two respective sets of laws. 

Additionally, if we compare the literary structure of the law found in the Pentateuch with other laws in the ancient Near East we can also see some differences. Old Testament scholar John Walton has pointed out some valuable insights and comparisons. 

In the Pentateuch the law is presented as essentially a self-revelation of God, whereas laws in the ancient Near East are presented as a self-glorification of the king. The laws in the Pentateuch are presented as a covenant charter and organized vision of the ‘right’ exercise of what it means to be a holy nation, whereas in the ancient Near East, laws are presented as a political charter that synthesizes an entire and detailed vision of the right ‘exercise’ of justice. The Pentateuch presents laws as stipulations of the covenant, whereas laws in the ancient Near East the laws are a treatise on proper jurisprudence. Laws in the Pentateuch attempt to portray the ideal covenant keeper, whereas ancient Near Eastern laws portray the ideal king [5].

ORIGIN OF THE LAWS

Code of Hammurabi – Although Hammurabi stands before the Babylonian god, Shamash (the god of justice), he is not actually receiving the laws from him. The primary reason why Hammurabi is presenting himself before Shamash is to show his commitment to maintain stability in the state (Babylon). His inscribed laws are presented as evidence of this. Hammurabi’s laws didn’t originate with him, but were very likely an expansion of even earlier laws such as the Code of Ur-Nammu (2050 B.C.), and the Laws of Eshunna (1930 B.C.) as well as others.

Mosaic Law – Moses directly received the Ten Words (“debarim”), or Ten Commandments from YHWH at Sinai (written by the very finger of God Himself, Ex. 20). The other Mosaic laws in Leviticus-Deuteronomy were also given by God to Moses via direct revelation (from God to Moses). The origin of Mosaic law is in the eternal nature of God Himself, not in the vacillating and ever changing needs of the city-state.  

BASIS OF THE LAWS

Code of Hammurabi – The laws of Hammurabi focused on keeping order and stability in the city-state. The laws are all casuistic [case law], in other words, “If….then.” Establishing “justice” in Babylonian culture meant securing order in society. Egyptian culture and the role of pharaoh in Egypt was very similar with it’s concept of ma’at. Babylonian law had no sense of divine morality, because the gods themselves were not involved with questions of morality” [6].  The basis for the law in Mesopotamia was the glorification of the king, and to show his power, rule and control of the state. 

Mosaic Law – The basis for the Mosaic laws were God’s perfect and holy moral nature. The OT laws are a reflection of His moral perfection. The Mosaic law and many Levitical regulations are also casuistic [case law], but many are also apodictic [absolute law] (“You shall not… You shall”). The underlying basis of the Mosaic law is God himself (Deut. 4:7-8). 

PURPOSE OF THE LAWS 

Code of Hammurabi – The laws of Hammurabi are primarily regulative and concerned with order and establishing justice in the state. Hammurabi’s code centers around nascent urbanization in Southern Mesopotamia, which introduced new social relationships between citizens of the city-state (Babylon). The city-state would function smoothly and efficiently when its citizens knew what was expected of them and how behavior and relationships should be regulated.

Mosaic Law – The purpose of the Mosaic Law was/is complex and multifaceted: A. The moral laws in the Pentateuch pointed to the holiness and moral perfection of YHWH with a goal of causing His people Israel to look to Him for grace (hesed) (see Isa 1, 1 Sam. 15:22-24). B. The Mosaic laws were also both practical (having genuine physiological benefits to those who practiced them), as well as didactic, both to the nation of Israel, as well as the other nations it came in contact with. They were given to set the nation apart (“make holy”) the nation of Israel, in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern nations and cultures which surrounded it. In Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Moses elaborates on this point:

“See I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these great statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”

C. Finally, the OT laws point to Christ Himself, who came to fulfill all that was written in the law, both literally and figuratively (see Luke 24:27; John 5:39). The Apostle Paul stated in Galatians: “Therefore the law (Torah) was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come we are no longer under a tutor” [7].  

Concluding Thoughts 

The Code of Hammurabi is a fascinating artifact from ancient Babylon that helps to illuminate the world of the Old Testament patriarchs. It has much in common with the Mosaic law, but yet it also differs greatly because of the great religious differences between ancient Israel and ancient Babylon. “The Biblical [law] code acknowledges Yahweh alone as Israel’s God, and is particularly suited to a people who have just left slave status. The Hammurabi code presupposes urban life in southern Mesopotamia with its merchants and highly civilized culture” [8].

While artifacts like the code of Hammurabi illuminate the ancient world of the Old Testament Patriarchs, they also reveal the uniqueness of the biblical record and the God of the Old Testament as distinct from all the other “gods” in the ancient world.

ENDNOTES

[1] see, Theophile J. Meek, “The Code of Hammurabi,” in James Pritchard, Editor, The Ancient Near East, Volume 1, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973, Sixth Printing, pg. 138-139. For an excellent introduction to ANE law and the OT, also see S. Greengus, “Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Law,” ABD (Anchor Bible Dictionary), 4:242-252. 

[2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 344. 

[3] Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1996), 28. 

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] summarized from, John Walton’s, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 274 [emphasis mine]. 

[6] Clyde E. Fant & Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 65.

[7] For a more in-depth hermeneutical treatment on the relationship between the OT Mosaic Law and the New Testament, see Klein, Blomberg & Hubbard, pp. 341-350 “Genres of the Old Testament: Law.” For an apologetically related treatment of Old Testament laws and Christ, see the entry on Matthew 5:17-18 in Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe’s, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), pp. 331-32.

[8] E. Leslie Carlson, “Hammurabi, The Law Code Of,” in Charles F. Pfeiffer, Editor, Wycliffe Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), pp. 276-280.