One of the Oldest Law Codes in the World


Hammurabi, king of Babylon is the author of one of the oldest code of law that is in our hands today. Scholars differ in dating Hammurabi and his Code. Many think he ruled for 42 years between 1792 and 1750 BCE. They date the Code around 1754. It is very possible, and many scholars, such as C. H. W. Johns, author of the 1903 volume “The Oldest Code of Laws in the World,” believe, that Hammurabi is the king of Babylon Amraphel, the biblical version of his name, who is mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 14. In the Bible, the army of four kings, one of whom was Amraphel, attacked and defeated the army of five kings and took the patriarch Abraham’s nephew Lot captive. Abraham gathered a force and attacked the forces of the four kings, defeated them, including Amraphel, and rescued his nephew.

Babylon during the days of Hammurabi covered land far larger than modern Iraq. Abraham grew up and spent much of his life in the southern and later the northern lands controlled by Babylon until he was around 70 years old, when he left the area and traveled to and settled in Canaan. It is possible, the Bible does not discuss the matter, that one of the reasons that Abraham left the country controlled by Amraphel/Hammurabi is that he disliked the laws of the land, the Code of Hammurabi. Since Hammurabi’s Code was found in 1901, many books were composed in which Hammurabi’s code is compared with the laws contained in the Bible. One could say that Abraham defeated Amraphel/Hammurabi and Abraham’s descendants’ law code, the Bible, superseded and bettered Hammurabi’s Code.

The Code, which contains 282 laws, is carved into a seven foot stone that is shaped like a warning pointing index finger. At the top of the stone is a depiction of Hammurabi receiving the stone from the seated sun god Shamash, the judge of heaven and earth.

The Code is far more discriminatory and brutal than the biblical laws. The Code punished the various social classes differently. Rich men were treated better than  all women, poor men, children, and slaves. The Code set the punishments for many crimes and accidents with the rich men paying less than other groups.

People were killed under the Code for many things including taking a slave belonging to another person, helping a slave escape, threatening witnesses in a capital case, and for robbery. If a man killed the son of another person, his son was killed. But, if he only killed a slave, there was a fine. A man who had sex with his mother is killed. A man who stole an animal or ship must pay thirtyfold, if he is poor only tenfold, but if the thief had insufficient money to pay the fine, he is killed. If a man claims that another person is holding property belonging to him and cannot prove his claim, he is killed. An eye was taken from a man who knocked out the eye of another, so too a bone and another body part, even a tooth. But if a rich man knocked out a tooth of a poor man, he only paid a fine. Doctors had to pay if they caused harm. If, for example, a doctor caused the death of a man’s slave he must give him another slave. If a man hit his father, his hand was cut off.

If a woman entered a wine shop to drink wine there, she is burned to death. If a woman commits adultery she is tossed into water to drown, but her husband could agree to save her. If a husband is taken captive and his wife has insufficient money, she may go live with another man. If she has children with the second man and the husband returns from captivity, she must return to her first husband, but her children remain with the second man. If a wife belittles her husband, her husband can send her away without giving her any money. If he wants, he can marry another woman and keep the woman who belittled him as a servant. A man who has no money can give his wife, son, or daughter, to his creditor, and they will stay with the creditor for three years.

A few laws protect wives and children. If a woman hates her husband and has otherwise done no wrong, and her husband belittled her, she can leave the marriage, take her marriage portion, and go to her father’s house. A man cannot disinherit his son if the son committed no serious crime, but he may give one son more property than he gives to his other sons.

The Code reflected some superstitious beliefs of the Babylonians. People were sentenced to death for casting a spell on another without good reason. If the reason was not clearly justified for casting the spell, the man upon whom the spell was cast was plunged into “the holy river,” If he dies there, it shows that the spell-caster was justified, and he can go home free. If he survives, it is proof that the spell was improper and the man who cast the spell is killed.

About half of the laws controlled commerce and set the wages for doing such work as physicians, drivers, builders, shippers, shepherds, sailors, artisans, brick makers, tailors, stone cutters, carpenters, hiring a working ox, and others. There are also laws concerning inheritance, divorce, allowances to divorced wives, paternity, adoption, and sexual conduct.