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Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses

Both the Law of Hammurabi and the Mosaic Law were based on the principle of lex talonis - "an eye for an eye." The Law of Hammurabi was more harsh than the Law of Moses, imposing the death penalty for numerous crimes, some trivial, such as creating a public disturbance in a bar.

"That the Biblical laws and the long-known Hammurabi law codes show numerous similarities in content, terminology, and even arrangement is recognized by practically all students of the Bible. But the Hammurabi code itself, as has been shown in recent years, is an Akkadian compilation of laws based largely on Sumerian prototypes" (Kramer, Sumerians, 295).

"The most ancient law code brought to light up till 1947 was that promulgated by Hammurabi, the far famed Semitic king who began his rule about 1750 BC. Written in cuneiform script in the Semitic language known as Babylonian, it contains close to 300 laws sandwiched in between a boastful prologue and a curse-laden epilogue" (Kramer, History, 51).

The Law of Hammurabi is not an entirely original creation, but in turn relied upon older legal tradition going back to the law code of the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu, which in turn is believed to derive from earlier traditions which have not yet been found. The code of Sumerian king Ur-Nammu is older than the Law of Hammurabi and is estimated to date to 2050 BC. This code was given in the Sumerian Ur, the later Biblical Ur of the Chaldees (Kramer 54). Kramer acknowledges that "there are indications that there were lawgivers in Sumer, long before Ur-Nammu was born" (Kramer, History, 55).

"The Sumerians, according to their own records, cherished goodness and truth, law and order, justice and freedom, righteousness and straightforwardness, mercy and compassion. And they abhorred evil and falsehood, lawlessness and disorder, injustice and oppression, sinfulness and perversity, cruelty and pitilessness. Kings and rulers constantly boasted that of the fact that they had established law and order in the land; protected the weak from the strong; the poor from the rich; and wiped out evil and violence" (Kramer, History, 101-102).

"Written legal documents and law codes are found in later periods all over the ancient near East, and there is little doubt that although these may differ in detail for all go back to Sumerian prototypes; even Greece and Rome would probably never have had their written laws had it not been for the Sumerian penchant for keeping a record of their legal transactions" (Kramer, Sumerians, 289).

"The achievements of the Sumerians in the areas of religion, education, and literature left a deep impress not only on their neighbors in space and time but on the culture of modern man as well, especially through their influence, indirect though it was, on the Hebrews from the Bible. The extent of the Hebrew debt to Sumer becomes more apparent from day to day as a result of the gradual piecing together and translation of the Sumerian literary works; for as can now be seen, they have quite a number of features in common with the books of the Bible" (Kramer, Sumerians, 290).

"Several decades ago, the beginning of [Hammurabi's] reign was dated as early as the 20th century BC. It is now generally agreed that this was far too early, and in 1750 BC would be a more likely date. In fact, even this date may prove too high by four to five decades." (Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 243-44). (The "middle chronology" now puts Hammurabi at ca. 1728 – 1686 BC - DS) "There is no reason to doubt that these proto-Hebrews had absorbed and assimilated much of the Sumerian way of life...the law which went forth from Zion (Isaiah 2:2) may have had not a few of its roots in the soil of Sumer" (Kramer, Sumerians, 299).

"The achievements of the Sumerians in the areas of religion, education, and literature left a deep impress not only on their neighbors in space and time but on the culture of modern man as well, especially through their influence, indirect though it was, on the Hebrews from the Bible. The extent of the Hebrew debt to Sumer becomes more apparent from day to day as a result of the gradual piecing together and translation of the Sumerian literary works; for as can now be seen, they have quite a number of features in common with the books of the Bible" (Kramer, Sumerians, 290).

"As literary products, the Sumerian belles-lettres rank high among the ascetic creations of civilized man. They compare not too unfavorably with the ancient Greek and Hebrew masterpieces, and like them, mirror the spiritual and intellectual life of an ancient culture, which would otherwise have remained largely unknown. Their significance for proper appraisal of the cultural and spiritual development of the entire ancient Near East can hardly be overestimated. The Akkadians, that is, the Assyrians and Babylonias, took these works over almost in toto. The Hittites, Hurrians, and Canaanites translated some of them into their own languages and no doubt imitated them widely. The form and content of the Hebrew literary works and, to a certain extent, even those of the ancient Greece were profoundly influenced by them" (Kramer, Sumerians, 166).

"We are but just beginning to learn how ignorant we have been of the civilised past, and how false our ideas have been in regard to it. We are but just beginning to realize that the fragments of Hebrew literature contained in the Old Testament are the wrecks of a vast literature which extended over the ancient oriental world from a remote epoch, and that we cannot understand them aright except in the light of the contemporaneous literature of which they formed a portion" (Sayce, Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments, 24).

It is generally agreed that Sumerian was in decline as a spoken language by the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, although the extent of this decline imputed by scholars varies widely. Some have proposed that Sumerian was used for little more than literary and ritual purposes by the time of the Third Dynasty; others suggest the continued existence a community of native of Sumerian speakers until the reign of Hammurabi some two centuries later.




A lengthy essay regarding issues of Sumerian and Babylonian law is found in C. Leonard Wooley's "The Sumerians" (New York: Norton, 1965).  Sumerian law (as embodied in the code of Ur-Nammu and the laws of Shulgi) was closer to modern law and was generally more human; the code of Hammurabi was draconian with the death penalty for offenses including creating a disturbance in a tavern.  In general, the emphasis of Hammurabi's code on Hebrew law is overemphasized and that of Sumerian law is underemphasized.

"Comparing what exists of the old Sumerian codes with that of Hammurabi, we see the tendency of the Semite has been to exact severer penalties for certain offences, especially for offenses against the sacredness of the family tie; adultery involves death for both guilty parties, whereas under Sumerian law it did not necessarily mean even divorce; the harbouring of the runaway slave belonging to the palace or to a free citizen was a capital offense, whereas in Sumer it was atoned by restitution in kind or by a fine of twenty-five shekels; a slave who disputed his master's rights over him had his ear cut off, according to Hammurabi's code, by Sumerian law was simply sold; but allowing for such sharpening of penalties we can derive from the Babylonian code a very fair idea of the law which the Sumerians had evolved and under which their highly-organized civilization flourished" (Wooley 92-93).

"But men were not all equal before the law.  The code of Hammurabi recognized certain social grades which, if we have the first clear definition of them only so late as 1900 B.C., had existed earlier and may well have been a legacy from primitive ages" (Wooley 95).

He goes on to discuss laws regarding marriage, and how Abraham followed the precise Sumerian law in regard to Sarah and Hagar: "To forestall [the husband taking a second wife when the first was barren] the wife might present to her husband one of her own slaves as a concubine; on giving birth to a child the slave-woman automatically became free (which was not the case if the husband took one of his own slaves into his harem) but was by no means the equal of her old mistress; indeed, should she rashly aim at becoming her rival, the mistress could reduce her again to slavery and sell her or otherwise get rid of her from her house - the history of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar is an illustration of this, for in every detail Abraham was not acting weakly or arbitrarily but was putting into practice the old Sumerian law in which he had been brought up.  A man who had thus received a second wife from the hands of his first could not bring another woman into his house..." (Wooley 103).

"There was, however, an old custom recognized by the Sumerian 'Law of Nisaba and Hani' whereby a son had the right to claim his share of the inheritance during his father's lifetime (a custom which persisted long amongst the Jews, as witness the Parable of the Prodigal Son); the advance would be recorded in legal form and he would have no further claim on his father's estate" (Wooley 104-105).

Hammurabi's code appears to have also had the effect of restricting progress in some areas.  For example, medicine, which had flourished among the Sumerians from the earliest ages - Kramer notes that the early Sumerian medical texts teach empirical treatments free of the incantations and magic that pervaded Babylonian and Egyptian medicine - was stunted among the Akkadians, and through them also presumably among the Hebrews, such that we have no evidence of any medical knowledge among the Hebrews except for oblique references to balms.  Much of this may be attributable to provisions of Hammurabi's law such as this:

"Severe penalties are adjudged for failure and the surgeon worked at his own risk: 'if a doctor shall operate on the eye of a man with a copper lancet and that man shall lose his eye, the eye of the doctor with a copper lancet shall be put out,' and if he operate on a wound and the patient die, his hand is to be cut off; one may imagine that the surgeon preferred to use charms and simples rather than the knife!" (Wooley 111-112).

Here we also get into the concept of the unalterable decrees of earthly law, and unalterable judgments, being an earthly pattern of the heavenly.

"A judge was forbidden to reverse his sentence when once that had been recorded in writing, and the penalty for doing so was a fine and dismissal from office" (Wooley 94).

Although only the references in Daniel explicitly state that decrees of the kings of the Medes and Persians were unalterable at this late date when the Hebrews encountered Mesopotamian culture following the Captivity and the fall of Babylon, it appears that this practice derived from much earlier periods going back to the Sumerians. The kings were believed to be progeny of the gods; therefore the institution of unalterable decrees was believed to be a natural outgrowth of this relationship reflecting the divine mandate of the "kingship descended from heaven."

The decrees of the kings of some ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern nations were unalterable, as we read in the Book of Daniel: "The law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not...Know, O king, that the law of the Medes and Persians is, That no decree nor statute which the king establisheth may be changed" (Daniel 6:12,15). This was believed to be an earthly type of the decrees of the Gods, whose decrees were unalterable as we read in scripture (see Alma 29:4; Alma 41:8; Moses 7:52; D&C 104:2), and from many ancient sources including this Sumerian poem The Pickax:

The lord, in order to bring forth what was useful,
The lord whose decisions are unalterable,
Enlil, who brings up the seed of the "land" from the earth,
Planned to move away heaven from earth,
Planned to move away earth from heaven.
(Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 82).

We find the passage of the mantle of unalterable decrees from the parent gods to the lesser gods in Sumero-Akkadian Epic of Creation when Tiamat tells Qingu (or Kingu, depending on transliteration style): "I have put into your power rule over all the gods! You are the greatest!...Your commands shall always prevail over all the Anukki!...Your utterance shall never be altered! Your word shall be law!" (Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia 240).

A more explicit formulation of this teaching is found in this pronouncement attributed to Enlil following the destruction of Ur:

There is no revoking a verdict, a decree of the assembly.
A command of An and Enlil is not known ever to have been changed.

(Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness, 188-189, citing UE(T) VI2, no 132 obv 7-11; cf. STVC, no 25 obv 18-21).

An is the Sumerian God of the Heavens, Creator of All, and Supreme Ruler; Enlil is the god of the wind and the second of the three principle Sumerian dieties. It is stated of the God Enlil: "Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form - the lord who never changes the destinies that he determines: Enlil..." (a song of the hoe, Black et al., The Literature of Ancient Sumer 313.)


We can find abundant evidence in surrounding nations for corruption of an early religion much closer to what we find in scripture leading to a descent into apostasy.  Yet it is also important to understand that the Mosaic law is not without precedent in related (but different) parallels, and that it did not come about in a vacuum.

The Law of Moses however clearly had some different elements that were directed towards Israel, that were not present in the gospel and the law given to Adam, Enoch, and Abraham.  We can also see that the law of the early patriarchs was different from the Mosaic law, for instance, the Mosaic prohibition against marrying sisters from the same family, or one's own sister.  Abraham's marriage of his half-sister Sarah ("yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife" (Genesis 20:12) and Jacob's marriage of sisters Leah and Rachel would have been forbidden under the Mosaic law. 

We have also for instance the circumcision as sign of the covenant; yet God's instruction to Abraham ("Every man child among you shall be circumcised") did not appear to have been observed in Moses day during the captivity, as we read in the Zipporah story when Moses was circumcised as an adult.  Contrary to common perception, circumcision was hardly a unique Israelite matter.  One point I have not yet encountered in LDS sources, but think is significant, is that Egyptian priests and some of the people "practiced the rite of circumcision, and this was considered a distinctive mark between the Egyptians and the barbarians" (Budge, Dwellers on the Nile, 146).

Key law codes predating the Mosaic Law with significant parallels include:

The Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 BC)
The Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c. 1800 BC)
The Code of the Kingdom of Eshnunna
The Code of Hammurabi.
Also many parallels can be found in Egyptian literature, although we do not have a unified record of the Egyptian law code.

Similar parallels can also be found in law codes which were contemporary to and later than the Mosaic law:

Middle Assyrian Laws (12th century BCE)
Hittite Laws (14th century BC)
Neo-Babylonian Empire Laws (625-539 BC)

When we find parallels, there is nonetheless the "chicken or egg" question which is not readily answered. Secular scholars are inclined to view parallels in antecedent laws as having been "borrowed" by the Mosaic Law, but the idea of both having been influenced by earlier divinely given ones is one that should be kept in mind.

As we look at Moses in the context of his contemporary world, it need not diminish our respect for the inspiration and revelation incorporated in the Mosaic Law.  To the contrary.