Tablet Venerating Hammurabi

Tablet Venerating Hammurabi

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Fertile Crescent Unit

This article is brought to you by the 18th Century B.C.E.!

You know some of the laws of the land:

Do not break any windows.
Drive slower than 65 m.p.h.
Don't steal that cookie.

But do you know the laws of the past? What if you were to trip and fall into a time machine and find yourself 4,000 years in the past? Would you know how to act? We had better learn what sorts of laws early humans came up with just in case. That way, if you do ever find yourself in the past, you can know which laws are still the same . . . and if you can take that cookie or not.

So where do we search for laws that old? Do not cheat. No Internet. Some things on there were written by people who don't know what they are talking about. In order to know that something is true, we will need real pieces of history. Someone on the internet could tell you the wrong thing and get you thrown in jail in the past. Let's see . . . anything left over from the 1700's B.C.E. will not be written on paper. We need to look for stone. Babylon was a very old empire that ran along the Euphrates river and into Mesopotamia, and it's where some of the earliest laws that we know of were written. Let's go check out some of the stones around there. Are the laws here? No?! Looks like the people who found the stone of laws in 1901 moved them to Paris. Off we go.

There they are! Some of the earliest laws. Look, there's a picture of a man set in the top of the stone. He's reaching up and taking the laws from a picture of a god. That must be the man who came up with these laws. Hammurabi was king of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 B.C.E. and came up with some of the earliest laws that we have found. There were two hundred eighty-two laws in Hammurabi's code. No, he was not a mean man who loved rules. The laws were made to help many separate cities get along with each other so they could make one big empire. The U.S. works this way. We all follow about the same laws. (That's why you will not see lots of people running around, stealing cookies.) The laws Hammurabi came up with are below his picture and will give us an idea of what life was like back in Babylon. So let's read them! Hmm. Easier said than done.

What does that even say? The letters are pretty, and kind of look like someone dropped golf tees in little piles, but I cannot tell what it says! Hammurabi's laws are written in cuneiform, a very old way of writing that uses lines carved into clay tablets and stones. Good thing we have someone who reads golf tees . . . I mean cuneiform. What does that say in English? "Eye for an Eye . . . Tooth for a tooth?" That sounds scary.

Again, you know what laws of today are. They are things you follow so you will not go to jail. These new laws were good for Babylon because it brought together many cities . . . but that was not enough for Hammurabi. Remember the picture of his receiving these laws from a god? He believed that people should try to be the best people they could be. A code is a set of rules or laws followed by a people who are trying to become better. This was meant to be more than just laws that tell you what not to do. Most of these laws were trying to keep the weak safe. While Hammurabi took over other cities and then had them follow his laws, it seemed he really was looking out for the people who needed the most help.

If you happen to be in 1700's B.C.E. Babylon, you now know where to look for the rules. The people followed 282 laws written by their king, Hammurabi. They were put into stone in cuneiform so they are not easy for us to read now, but there are people in the world who are way into that kind of stuff. As soon as we understand them, we can decide if Hammurabi's code is still the kind of thing we would like to follow today to become better people. Some of them look out for the weak. And now for the most important question: Could you steal cookies in Babylon? That depends. Do you want your cookies stolen right back?

History for Kids. "Hammurabi of Babylon" History for Kids, 2013.

Tablet Venerating Hammurabi - History

or 3500 years ancient Mesopotamian scribes pressed their reed styluses into damp clay and generated millions of cuneiform texts in various Ancient Near East languages. The earliest written documents in Mesopotamia appear around 3400 B.C., and the last known native cuneiform tablet was written in 75 A.D. Cuneiform text genres include everything from ephemera to literary masterpieces, from medical treatises to historical texts, mathematical and grammatical exercises, beer recipes, international treaties, musical scores, legal codes, religious rituals, sales receipts, maps, and astronomical tables.

Because sun-dried or fired clay tablets are reasonably durable, they have been preserved in the sands of the Near East for millennia, and museums around the world have acquired approximately 400,000 tablets, 34th Century B.C. with thousands being unearthed every year. Cuneiform scholars continue to make unique and valuable contributions to the study of history, law, religion, linguistics, mathematics, and science. The vast majority of cuneiform tablets come from ancient Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, and recent events in Iraq have only underscored the vulnerability of Iraq’s, indeed the world's, ancient cultural heritage. Now, for the first time in history, utilizing technologies developed and invented over the last eight years by the Digital Hammurabi Project at Johns Hopkins University, we are poised to digitally archive, publish, and research high-quality, 3D images of the world’s oldest written documents.

S ince 1999 the Digital Hammurabi Project at Johns Hopkins University has pioneered basic research on digitizing ancient cuneiform tablets, the world’s oldest written documents. In the 150 years since the decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform only about 1/10th of the known cuneiform tablets have been read by modern humans. There are several reasons for this, but three of them are associated with problems that have technological solutions:

1) there has been no standard computer encoding for cuneiform text 2) the tablets are scattered in collections around the world, making for expensive, time-consuming, and, at times, difficult access 3) due to cuneiform’s multi-tiered three-dimensionality (pillow-shaped tablets, wedges pressed into damp clay, and writing that runs onto all edges of a tablet) 2D photography is inadequate for archiving or editing cuneiform tablets. To this day cuneiformists still rely on hand copying the tablets, a very labor-intensive, time-consuming, subjective, and error-prone process.

Scientists, professors, engineers, students, and staff members at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Whiting School of Engineering, and Krieger School of Arts & Sciences have developed and invented world class hardware and software tools for three-dimensional scanning, visualization, and text entry of cuneiform tablets, the foundational documents of world history and world culture.

F unded in large part by a 4-year, $1.65 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant in 2002, the Digital Hammurbi team has invented a 3D surface scanner that scans cuneiform tablets at 4 times the resolution of any comparable technology (over 900 dots per inch). We have developed computer algorithms uniquely tailored for cuneiform tablet reconstruction and 3D visualization. And we have successfully overseen the adoption into Unicode of the first international standard for the representation of cuneiform text on computers.

These enabling technologies will revolutionize cuneiform studies. With high-resolution 3D scans we have, for the first time in history, archival-quality representations of cuneiform tablets, allowing us to preserve them faithfully, and to protect them digitally from vandalism, erosion, and careless handling. We can print 3D plastic models of tablets we can digitally flatten them for 2D print publication we can visualize them in new ways we can digitally manipulate cuneiform text, and finally, we can publish 3D virtual tablets to anyone, anywhere in the world, over the Internet.

Where did Moses really get the Law from?

Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian King, ruled Mesopotamia for 42 years from 1792 – 1750 BCE. He is probably most famous for introducing the Code of Hammurabi—one of the earliest known codes of law. Several copies of the 282 laws have been found, some chiseled into stone and some on clay tablets.

2.25 meter high stele of Hammurabi

The best-known example of the code is the almost complete, 2.25 meter (7.5 ft) high stele, made from black rock (diorite), which bears a depiction of Hammurabi receiving the laws on a stone tablet from the sun god Shamash. The stele is on display in the Louvre, Paris.

Hammurabi’s laws governed slander, trade, slavery, theft, family law, sexual conduct, inheritance and the duties of workers and employers. Punishments for infringing laws were extremely harsh with no fewer than 32 crimes carrying the death penalty. Death was mandated for the expected offenses, such as theft, murder, rape, and perjury. But other offenses warranting the death penalty included helping a slave to escape, sending a substitute when asked to run an errand by a king, drinking wine (if you are a priestess) and building a house that falls down and kills a man (but not if a woman is killed).

Other punishments included cutting off body parts such as fingers, ears, and breasts.

It is clear the code takes children and women to be the property of men—their father or their husband. An extreme example of this is where a man is punished by putting his children to death. For instance, if a man strikes a woman causing her death, the offender’s daughter would be killed.

Naturally, a man is free to have sex with his slaves and with his wife’s maidservants. (This sounds remarkably like Islamic heaven I wonder where they got the idea from?)

Interestingly, women are given rights (though inferior to men). So, next time a Muslim defends the inferior rights given to women in the Qur’an by claiming Muhammad was a reformer who was the first to give rights to women, refer them to Hammurabi. Islam came over 1,000 years after Hammurabi and both give women almost identical rights.

Most interesting of all, are striking similarities between the code of Hammurabi and the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. The first five books of the Old Testament (The Torah) set out these laws and tell the story of their origins. Like Hammurabi’s Laws, the Mosaic Laws were said to have been handed down from a god to a man, in this case from Yahweh to Moses.

The historicity of Moses is disputed among scholars but, if he lived, Rabbinical sources give his birth date around 1,391 BCE. That is, 360 years AFTER Hammurabi died so we can be confident that Hammurabi pre-dated the Moses story.

If you are skeptical that Hammurabi received his laws from the Babylonian sun god Shamash, you should be equally skeptical that Moses received almost the same laws from the Jewish god Yahweh.

What happened here? Did Yahweh see Hammurabi’s laws, like them, copy them, tweak them and hand them down to Moses? Or did Moses (or Hebrew scribes) tinker with the familiar Babylonian laws, and pretend they were a gift from their god?

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Tag Archives: laws of eshnunna

In 1945, on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad, the ancient city of Shaduppum was discovered at Tell Harmal.

Excavations soon got underway, led by Iraqi archaeologist Taha Baqir, and Muhammed Ali Mustafa of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. (Source) The excavations unearthed an Old Babylonian city with a collection of close to 3,000 tablets.

Now, with so many tablets in its hold, it’s no wonder Shaduppum’s patron god is that of writing and record-keeping, and that it was an administrative hub for Babylonia.

First Things First

Although it was established as early as the late third millenium BC, during the days of Sargon of Akkad, Shaduppum didn’t rise to prominence until the second millennium BC, when it served as a Babylonian accounting hub.The city’s name reflects this, by translating into “the treasury,” or “accountant’s office.”

Within Shaduppum’s walls, private homes, one administration building, and seven temples were unearthed, some reconstructed. Of the seven temples, a large one dedicated to Nisaba, the Sumerian goddess of writing and record-keeping, and her consort, sits just inside the city’s gates. That temple’s entrance was guarded by two roaring terra-cotta lions.

One of the terra-cotta lions at Shaduppum, on display at the Iraqi National Museum.

That Terra-cotta lion with his buddy guarding the temple of Nisaba in the city of Shaduppum. (Source)

Accountants aren’t all about numbers!

So, almost 3,000 tablets were unearthed at Shaduppum, but only a few weren’t of an administrative nature, and you’ll find that the nature of these non-administrative tablets is a little surprising.

I find it surprising, anyway, that a city with such a cut and dry purpose had a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest written work of literature, in its vaults. It was some nine decades after the standard Akkadian version of the ancient poem was discovered in Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh, that two tablets of it were unearthed at Shaduppum.

The next surprise is actually two surprises in one.

You see, Iraqi archaeologist Taha Baqir also discovered a set of laws some two centuries older than the Code of Hammurabi at Shaduppum. The Laws of Eshnunna were written in Akkadian on two tablets, marked A and B, dating back to 1930 BC. That’s the first surprise regarding this find. The second one might make you do a double take…

The Laws of Eshnunna, Eshnunna being the city north of Ur where they originated, were promoted by that city’s ruler, Bilalama. In 1948, a year after Baqir’s discovery, Albrecht Goetze translated and published the laws, revealing that though Bilalama had some two-hundred years on Hammurabi, he was a little more progressive than the man whose laws inspired the Ten Commandments. That’s right. Unlike Hammurabi, whose punishments usually featured maiming, if not death, Bilalama implemented a monetary, fine-based penal system. But don’t get too comfortable with Bilalama’s laws, because the more serious offenses, including sexual ones, were punishable by death. That’s pretty progressive!

Shamash: These aren’t the first laws. Hammurabi: What?! Wait–. Shamash: Shhh. Now smile for the chiseler!

Stealing some Greek thunder

Hammurabi was not the only one whose thunder is stolen by tablets at Tell Harmal. The one-upping found in Shaduppum’s collection of tablets didn’t even stop at Mesopotamia’s borders, for it extended all the way to the Greek realm, delivering the two bombshells I’m going to talk about now.

Now, even if you used math class (or history) as nap time, the names Euclid and Pythagoras should sound familiar to you. And if not (it’s okay), I’ll refresh your memory: Euclid of Alexandria is the father of geometry, and Pythagoras of Samos proved that in a right-angled triangle, aka, the Pythagorean Theorem.

The tablets that steal a bit of Greek mathematician thunder. Sorry, Bros.

Though the fact still remains that Euclid and Pythagoras gave us the official real deal, complete with proof and universal mathematical truths, two tablets dating to the early second millennium BC deliver the same newsflash Hammurabi got about his laws: Kinda’ been there, kinda’ done that.

The algebraic-geometry on one tablet (the one on the left in the picture above) features work similar to Euclid’s, dealing with the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle. The other tablet features a problem with a rectangle whose length and width are calculated using what is essentially the Pythagorean Theorem.

Pythagoras: *A long, deep, deep, deep SIGH*

Another look at Shaduppum

So, the first round of excavations at Tell Harmal was fruitful, but a second round in 1997 turned out to be all about details. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage allowed more excavations at Tell Harmal that year, this time by a joint effort between Baghdad University and the German Archaeological Institute.

Because of Shaduppum’s relatively late rise to prominence, in the spring of 1997 and autumn of 1998, the collaborative project took a closer look at the rock layers of the city, confirming different ages in the multiple building layers.

Most interestingly, stratigraphy of the city’s walls showed it was not fortified until the rise of Babylonia in the second millennium BC, suggesting that its rise to prominence was quite significant–it went from being a city so inconsequential it lacked fortification, perhaps, to a city with pronounced walls. Evidence also suggested then that the city had been destroyed by fire and destruction around the time of Hammurabi, then rebuilt.

It’s a very interesting project that you can read more about here.

A city of consequence

There remains much we don’t know about Shaduppum, that we may never know, but one thing is clear: Shaduppum was a city that had a little bit of everything that made it a Mesopotamian city worth a look.

The Greatest Library Before Alexandria

The bronze-age city of Mari was second only to Babylon, and the library of tablets it held offers rich insight into all aspects of an intricate political world.

Much has been written about the Islamic State’s destruction of Nineveh in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, but other sites of paramount historical importance have suffered. Such is the case for the Syrian city of Mari, which throve during the Bronze Age under the rule of King Zimri-Lim and was second in status only to King Hammurabi’s Babylon among its contemporaries. The palace at Mari has yielded one of the greatest caches of ancient political correspondence, providing invaluable archaeological insight into the international politics of the early second millennium BC.

At Mari, one report from war archaeology surveys has found that 1,286 pits – evidence of looting activity – were dug in just seven months between 25 March and 11 November 2014. The primary target was Mari’s spectacular royal palace. The modern region in which Mari is located – Deir ez-Zor – is currently a site of explosive violence. In recent years, ISIS has destroyed hundreds of thousands of invaluable manuscripts in libraries and other institutions of learning across Iraq, with the justification that many historical documents or artifacts represent pre-Islamic culture that it deems polytheistic or idolatrous.

Founded around 2900 BC on the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mari was located at a trade crossroads between Syria and Mesopotamia. An early example of urban planning, complete with irrigation canals and a reservoir, it grew in prominence over the next millennium, expanding around 2000 BC. It reached its zenith in the 18th century BC, when, in 1775 BC, Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari, assumed the throne. After marrying the daughter of his patron, the king of Yamkhad, a Semitic kingdom centred on Halab, Syria (ancient Aleppo), Zimri-Lim further solidified ties by marrying his children to foreign monarchs. His daughters kept up diplomatic correspondence with their father, providing him with a widespread intelligence network. He also allied himself with the powerful king of Babylon, Hammurabi, whose sons often visited Mari.

Thanks to Zimri-Lim’s network of alliances, Mari enjoyed a peaceful period. Its economic prosperity, due to trade and the production of textiles, allowed Zimri-Lim to expand the existing royal palace to 260 rooms, spread over 100 acres, adding frescos depicting historic events like his coronation. His architects built a stunning fountain in the shape of a goddess holding a vase of water, which was discovered in fragments and has since been reassembled the fountain served as both a pleasing ornament and a religious manifestation of fertility imagery.

In this palace, the contents of which were excavated in the 1930s, archaeologists discovered records and official correspondences, which were part of one of the earliest extant political archives. Other smaller archives have been found at other cities, providing evidence that kings did not rule in a vacuum they exchanged information, solicited it from informants in order to best educate themselves and recorded it for posterity. Zimri-Lim and his government documented contact with foreign monarchs in an extensive library over 22,000 tablets, mostly written in Akkadian, the ancient Near Eastern diplomatic lingua franca, were discovered. On these tablets, Zimri-Lim recorded alliances with other cities. Written copies of treaties were distributed to both parties, outlining terms, invoking gods as witnesses and including curses to prevent both parties from violating those agreements.

Around 1762-61 BC, Zimri-Lim’s ally, Hammurabi, marched on Mari. He sacked and destroyed the city, effectively removing it as a significant power from the world stage. Besides taking Zimri-Lim’s treasures, his soldiers also took some of the contents of the Mari archive. As Assyriologist Marc van de Mieroop has written in King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography, the Babylonians inventoried the tablets, seized much correspondence between Mari and other cities, which they took home to Babylon, and abandoned the remaining tablets in the ruins of the destroyed palace. The 20,000 tablets left behind were excavated millennia later, in the 1930s, mostly in situ.

The remaining tablets from the Mari archive – the contents of which mostly date from the last century of the city’s existence, perhaps due to increased recording of diplomatic activity during this period – include thousands of letters sent to the king by different authorities and shine a light on relations with other Levantine and Mesopotamian powers. The documents that were not letters were mostly legal, economic, political, religious and administrative and show the ways in which monarchs interacted with one another, whether militarily or diplomatically.

This archive was outstanding in terms of its scale at this point in time while there are archives of comparable or even larger size from earlier centuries, few have been published in their entirety. The Mari tablets reveal intricate negotiations and power dynamics between kings of city-states and focus on relations between nomadic tribes and non-nomadic groups. Indeed, as Matthew Battles noted in Libraries: An Unquiet History, it is not until the seventh century BC that there was a widely known and translated archive of comparable size (a multilingual and multi-genre collection organized by Ashurbanipal II in his capital of Nineveh) in Mesopotamia.

Many of the tablets to survive are correspondences between royal authorities in Mari and their allies and enemies, including negotiations of dynastic marriages and the corresponding exchange of gifts. The only reason we know so much about the political and personal affairs of Mari and its allies is due to the extensive correspondence preserved in the archives. For example, a series of fascinating personal correspondence reveals some serious trouble in the royal clan of Mari.

From these letters, we learn that Zimri-Lim married one of his daughters, Inibsharri, to a conquered vassal who already had a family he insisted that Inibsharri be made her new husband’s chief wife. But when Zimri-Lim went home, his new son-in-law restored his first wife to her role as queen. Inibsharri wrote angrily to her father, complaining that her rival took all the presents given to her husband for herself and that Inibsharri herself was shut up in the palace like a nobody. Zimri-Lim told his daughter she could return to Mari if she really wanted to Inibsharri took him up on the offer, but went to a different nearby city instead of her father’s palace.

From these same library sources, we know that Zimri-Lim appointed another daughter, Kirum, as governor of one of his vassal towns called Ilan-Sura. However her husband, Haya-Sumu, also claimed the same role. The newlyweds butted heads over who was in control leading to Kirum receiving death threats from her husband. Haya-Sumu feared she was more loyal to her father than to him – in fact, she did send home lots of local news to her father.

Compounding the problem, Zimri-Lim had already married one of his other daughters, Shimatum, to Haya-Sumu. Kirum was neglected in favour of Shimatum, who jockeyed with her sister for power. Complaining to her father that courtiers no longer sought her royal opinion and that Haya-Sumu deprived her of the company of her ladies-in-waiting, Kirum threatened suicide, but when she disobeyed her husband, Haya-Sumu said, ‘If you do not come with me, I will kill you with a bronze dagger and go.’ Zimri-Lim’s official in Ilan-Suri told his king that he feared for his daughter’s life, so Haya-Sumu divorced Kirum, who returned to Mari. The political implications of this are not immediately obvious, since Haya-Sumu was still married to Shimatum, Zimri-Lim’s son-in-law, but one suspects that domestic matters in the royal household of Ilan-Sura were much calmer after Kirum’s departure.

The reason for the souring of relations between Mari and its biggest ally, Babylon, are unknown. Perhaps Hammurabi wanted Mari’s wealth and control of trade routes, arable land and water supplies, or they came to blows over territory they both coveted. One archived letter from Zimri-Lim asked his wife, Queen Shibtu, to consult oracles to discover if Hammurabi would attack Shibtu responded that oracles indicated Zimri-Lim would defeat the Babylonian king. Sadly, that was not the case.

Today, the archives can be found in the Louvre in France, as well as Syrian museums in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Deir ez-Zor. The fact that many artifacts of such extraordinary significance still reside in Syrian museums – despite colonialist attempts to plunder others’ cultural heritage for their own gain, as well as ISIS’s efforts to obliterate the very same gems – is remarkable. The Mari tablets still stand as witnesses to the survival of the knowledge in the face of modern adversity.

Carly Silver is a writer, editor and historian, who has written for the Smithsonian, the Atlantic, Atlas Obscura and Archaeology. @CarlyASilver

Was Amraphel (Genesis 14) Hammurabi the King of Ur?

Question: I have a couple of questions about Genesis 14: I heard that King Amraphel, king of Shinar was probably identified as Hammurabi the Babylonian ruler. So that's one question, are they the some person? Question two is that if they are the same person your chronology of Abraham's timeline (on the &ldquoPatriarch's Timeline" of the web site,) doesn't agree. For instance, Abraham was born in 1906 BC and was 86 years old when Ishmael was born, making the year 1820 BC but Hammurabi's reign started in 1792 BC? A good 32 years out. Any thoughts?

Answer: Yes, I have had thoughts about this for quite some time. Firstly, I think the likelihood that Amraphel and Hammurabi were the same person is high. Hammurabi was of Amorite descent and spoke a Semitic language. The Sumerian language was disappearing at this stage, as told in Genesis 11:7 &ldquoCome, let us go down and confuse their language.&rdquo The Sumerian language has no current successor, the language went extinct. So we can take Sumerian out of the equation. That's helpful because we can see links between Hebrew and the Semitic Amorite and Akkadian languages.

Let's break the name of Hammurabi down:

Hammu or Ammu is an Akkadian word meaning a male (paternal) family member. The Hebrew word &ldquoam&rdquo means the same. The Hebrew word Amraphel begins with Am.

The second part of the word rabi, or as the Encyclopaedia Britannica remark, the name is &ldquoalso spelled Hammurapi.&rdquo The Akkadian word &ldquorapi&rdquo means healer. The Hebrew verb for healer is &ldquorapha&rdquo. Reminding us of the famous verse in the Bible which is Exodus 15:26 Jehovah-Rapha: The LORD who heals.

So linguistically the name works in both Hebrew and Akkadian.

The timeline often quoted for the date that Hammurabi began his reign is indeed, 1792 BC - this is the "middle chronology". But there are three timelines that can be used, only one is correct of course. The three possible timelines relate to cuneiform tablets that record observations about the planet Venus rising on the horizon in conjunction with the new moon. The astronomical observations were made during the reign of the fourth king after Hammurabi, so it's easy to work backwards to obtain the time of Hammurabi's reign because we know the length of the reigns. We have modern day expertise regarding the movements of the planets and can check the dates ourselves when Venus and the new moon were in sync during that period. We now know that there were three occasions when Venus and the new moon appeared together. If we extrapolate the three possible dates to the beginning of Hammurabi's reign we get dates of 1848 BC, (long chronology) 1792 BC, (middle chronology) or 1736 BC (short chronology). We can go for either option but if we go with the long chronology then the dates tie in perfectly with Abraham's dates.

Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born and the battle with Amraphel took place shortly before this. So the year would have been around 1822 BC, according to the long chronology Hammurabi would have been in power for 26 years at that point. His reign ended in 1806 BC.

In his book, &ldquoEpisodes From the Early History of Astronomy,&rdquo Asger Aaboe writes, &ldquoP. Huber has convincingly shown that only the &ldquoLong Chronology&rdquo makes sense. So Hammurapi began his reign in 1848 BC."

The Code of Hammurabi

In 1901, Swiss archeologists Gustave Jequier discovered a large stone stele in what is today western Iran. That large stone was 2.25m or 7.5 feet tall and was covered with cuneiform writing.

After it was translated, it was found to have been a list of 282 laws written down by the Babylonian King Hammurabi. The laws covered many of the same issues that people deal with in the modern world.

Learn more about Hammurabi’s Code, the world’s first written laws, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by

My audiobook recommendation today is Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek.

In Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek tells the story of Mesopotamia from the earliest settlements seven thousand years ago to the eclipse of Babylon in the sixth century BCE.

At the heart of this book is the story of Babylon, which rose to prominence under the king Hammurabi from about 1800 BCE. Even as Babylon’s fortunes waxed and waned, it never lost its allure as the ancient world’s greatest city.

You can get a free one month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to or clicking on the link in the show notes.

Hammurabi was the king of the Babylonian Empire from approximately 1792 to 1750 BC.

Just to put this into perspective, this was over 1,000 years BEFORE the city of Rome was founded.

As Babylonian emperors went, Hammurabi was pretty successful. When he rose to power Babylon was a relatively minor player in the region, and when he died, he had conquered most of Mesopotamia along both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The region was almost entirely in what is modern-day Iraq.

Like any good king, when Hammurabi wasn’t conquering nearby kingdoms, he was passing laws and making sure that his kingdom ran smoothly and efficiently.

It is believed that Hammurabi sent out scholars to the various kingdoms he conquered to collect the various laws of all the realms, and then collected them into a uniform code of laws for everyone.

The result of this was the Code of Hammurabi, which is believed to be 282 laws regarding any number of different infractions, crimes and disputes.

The laws were inscribed on stone and clay tablets and spread around the kingdom.

The stele which was found in 1901 is exceptionally well preserved.

The object itself is a hard, black stone known as diorite. It is shaped like a giant human finger.

At the top is an image of Hammurabi receiving the laws from the Babylonian god Shamash. There is then a preface which states the following:

“Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers so that the strong should not harm the weak so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.”

About 600 years later, the stele was taken by the King of Elam, Shutruk-Nahhunte. If you have ever watched the 2002 movie The Emperor’s Club with Kevin Kline, you will remember that Shutruk-Nahhunte was used as the example of someone that no one remembers….except that now I just mentioned him in a podcast…..and he was in a movie.

Under the reign of Shutruk-Nahhunte it was believed that he erased 2 to 3 dozen of the laws originally written by Hammurabi. Researchers have been able to recreate the deleted laws by finding other clay tablets with the laws written on them.

Sometime after that it was buried, and ancient things tend to do, and it was rediscovered in 1901.

So what does the Code of Hammurabi say?

Many of the laws are examples of what is known in Latin as “lex talionis”, which is a law where the punishment is similar to the crime. You might know it better as “an eye for an eye”.

Law 196 states: “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone.”

However, the rules were different depending on what social class you were in. For example, I didn’t read the entirety of law #196 just now. The rest of it is as follows:

If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price.

So, the social status of the victim of a crime was a consideration in the law.

If some of this sounds familiar, that is because it is very similar to the laws in the bible in the book of Leviticus. The Code of Hammurabi was written well before the Book of Leviticus, so it is quite possible if not probably that some of the laws from Leviticus were adopted from Babylonian laws.

The final version of Levitcus was written after the Jewish Babylonian exile, so it is very possible.

There are laws in the code that deal with commerce, divorce, rent, liability, and even medical malpractice. There are even laws dealing with contracts and issuing reciepts.

It is true that most of the laws are of a rather brutal, “if X then Y” variety, with punishments ranging from drowning, burning, severing hands, gouging eyes, etc.

Most of these types of laws are no longer on the books in most countries. However, there are some surprisingly forward-thinking laws for something which was written down 3,700 years ago.

For example, law #149 states:

If this woman does not wish to remain in her husband’s house, then he shall compensate her for the dowry that she brought with her from her father’s house, and she may go.

That is basically an ancient version of no fault divorce.

However, there was one concept that was in the Code of Hammurabi which was revolutionary, and it is still with us today. That is the concept of being innocent until proven guilty.

In fact, these are the very first of the laws written down. Here are the first three laws:

Law 1: If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

Law 2: If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

Law 3: If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.

So, basically they had really harsh perjury laws, and they made it really hard to pass frivolous lawsuits.

So, while I don’t think anyone would really want to live under the Code of Hammurabi today, it is an important part of the humanity’s legal history. Old Hammurabi’s 282 laws written in stone were the first step in creating a system which has lead to the 175,268 pages of the The United States Code of Federal Regulations today.

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  7. Daylan

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