Justice and Judgment in the Laws of Hammurabi and Moses
Laws are put into place to keep the people of society in good standing, they are written as a guideline of crimes and subsequent punishments that create a sort of moral code by which citizens should live by. One of the earliest and most famous law codes created was that of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king. The law code of Hammurabi originates in ancient Babylon and dates to 1760 BC, this predates the law code of Moses which dates to 1312 BCE. When one is to compare these two ancient codes it is quite easy to see their shocking similarities. Both of these codes have religious backgrounds, Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god Shamash, and Moses receiving his code of law from God. In fact some scholars argue that due to their similarities these two different bodies of work may in fact be related to one another, the thought is that Hammurabi’s code was a direct predecessor of Moses’ law. These two works have influenced lawmakers of governments to this day, although the punishments of old are much more severe, the presumption of innocence and the thought of a trial were given birth to in these two early codes. In the following we will take an in depth look at the vast array of similarities and differences in these two codes, and also a look at the two men who delivered them.
Hammurabi was a Babylonian king, he was the best known ruler from the Amorite dynasty. Little is known of Hammurabi’s early life, until the time he inherited the throne in 1792 BC at a particularly young age. Known mostly for his code of laws which were “once considered the oldest promulgation of laws in human history” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010) Hammurabi strived to be a just ruler, which was commonplace for all Mesopotamian rulers at the time. His code of laws were “inscribed on a diorite stela set up in Babylon’s temple of Marduk, the national god of Babylonia” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010) so that all citizens could see them. In all there were 282 case laws that varied from family law, criminal law, economic provisions, and civil law, the punishments set forth in his laws are considered extremely harsh in current times.
Moses, most known for his delivery of the ten commandments, was born of Hebrew descent in a time where all Hebrew male children were to be killed as ordered by the pharaoh of Egypt, through some luck Moses was raised in the pharaohs palace and was taught many things. After some time of living in Egypt after witnessing a Hebrew slave being brutally beaten Moses fled Egypt to become a herdsman in the desert. Moses was then chosen to deliver the Hebrew people from slavery, and also was in charge of being their chief lawmaker, where upon Mt. Sinai God himself instructed Moses of the ten commandments. Later Moses would more in depth create a code of laws in five books, which are published in the old testament of the bible.
One common occurrence found with Moses and Hammurabi are the laws about the respect one should show for their parents. In these ancient times family interaction was a part of everyday life, and their were many laws governing family affairs. In both codes we can see that the father of a household was the primary decision maker and overall leader of the unit, and disrespect towards him was intolerable. Law 195 of Hammurabi’s code states that “If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off. “ (King, 1910) with this law we can already begin the see the seriousness of the offence. According to Moses’ law “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death.” (The Holy Bible, Exodus 21:15)
Another area that is touched upon by both codes of law is that which pertains to thievery. A mans possessions are considered sacred in ancient times as they are today, taking that which is not rightfully yours is considered the utmost of disrespect and was considered a very serious offense. An example of this can be seen in Law 14 of Hammurabi’s code which states “If any one steal the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.” (King, 1910). In comparison to the law of Moses which states “If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die.” (The Holy Bible, Deut. 24:7). This principal does not only apply to the theft of a person but to the theft of a persons belongings, Hammurabi Law 21 “If any one break a hole into a house (break in to steal), he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.” (King, 1910) this law does differ from the law of Moses which states “”If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed. A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” (The Holy Bible, Exodus 22:2-3), where no matter the instance the offender should be put to death according to Hammurabi’s law we see in Moses’ law that depending on the time of the day the offender may only be required to pay back what was taken, if he could not he would be sold into slavery, also it is important to note in Moses’ code that if the offender was killed in daylight hours than the defender would be held accountable for his death.
A very famous quote that is said to this day is “ an eye for and eye”, this quote in fact originated with the Law of Hammurabi. In ancient times ones personal body was considered to be a temple, and any assault on it in any fashion was the highest of crimes. We can see this illustrated in the Law of Hammurabi which says “ If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out….If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken. …If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.” (King,1910) this law almost directly mirrors the law of Moses which states “If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.” (The Holy Bible, Leviticus 24:19-20) the only difference here is that with the Law of Hammurabi if the offender is of higher social status than he who he injured, the offender may be required to pay only a fine for his offense.
As we can see in the quotes from the previous paragraphs there is a distinct similarity in a general perspective of law in ancient times according to Hammurabi and Moses. It is until we take an even deeper look do we see that in actuality there are subtle differences that set these two codes of law apart, and create with that great uniqueness to both works. Although both codes were spiritually derived, the law of Moses was the only to touch upon religious proceedings and the proper way to go about them, giving specific instructions on special feasts and on the proper practices of sacrifice, the law of Hammurabi does not in an in-depth fashion touch upon religious ceremonies in any form. Also differences can be seen in the unique punishments given for certain offenses committed, where as one may be put to death for a crime according to the law of Moses the offender may only be fined according to the law of Hammurabi. In the end we can see how the morals and values of ancient times were fairly similar across the board, we can now see that after taking a closer look at these two codes of law that they were obviously created in two different time periods with two separate understandings of what was deemed suitable punishment for a certain crime, but without a doubt it is quite easy to see the moral similarities these two different people shared.
1. Hammurabi. (2010). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 02, 2010, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/253697/Hammurabi
2. Code of Hammurabi. (2010). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 02, 2010, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/253710/Code-of-Hammurabi
3. King, L.W. (1910). The Code of Hammurabi. Retrieved March 04, 2010, from
4. The Holy Bible. King James Version. (1611)