The Significance of the Code of Hammurabi

How is the Book of the Covenant similar to and different from other legal codes of the Ancient Near East, like the Code of Hammurabi?

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Answer

There are a number of ancient Near Eastern collections of laws, say from Egypt, from Babylon, those kinds of places, that do have significance as we try to interpret the book of the covenant in the book of Exodus. But, by far, the most important of those is the Code of Hammurabi. This is a well-known collection. It's dated usually around 1772 or so BC, and this collection of laws, coming from the great Babylonian King Hammurabi, is magnificent in the ways that it gives us insights into the book of the covenant that Moses gave to Israel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Now, there are just as many differences as there are similarities between these two collections, the book of the covenant and the Code of Hammurabi. So, we mustn't act as if somehow Moses got these from Hammurabi or something like that, because while Hammurabi does predate Moses by centuries, the reality is that there are differences as well. And the magnificence, in this discovery of Hammurabi's law code, probably the most significant thing that it gives us is the fact that… Well, it's two things, actually. First, that when you read the Code of Hammurabi, apart from the preface, the prologue and the epilogue of the code, it seems very disorganized. I mean, it seems like he jumps from one thing to another, to another, to another, this policy to that policy, this policy to that policy. And this is helpful because, when interpreters of the Bible look at the book of the covenant, they usually want to push very hard to find some kind of rationale for the order of all the laws that are in the book of the covenant. But in reality, when you look at the book of the covenant in Exodus and compare it to Hammurabi's law code, you can see that it's just about as ad hoc as the Book of Hammurabi is as well. Moses goes through this, then he goes through this, this, this, this. There are only very loose associations. So there's no tight outline that can be justified for the book of the covenant and the book of Exodus.

There's a second thing, however, and that is a contrast, a great contrast. When you contrast the punishments that are given in the book of Hammurabi, you find that violations for different classes of people, violations against different classes of people had different levels of payment or punishment given to them. Moses' covenant, the book of the covenant is much more egalitarian; it's much more having to do with your offending God, and no matter what kind of person you're offending or hurting, this is the requirement, this is what's necessary: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth; do what is just, not treat the upper class better than you treat the lower class.

But even beyond that, there's a third thing that I think that we'd have to say about this, and that is we learn from the book of Hammurabi's laws the function of this collection. The function was for Hammurabi to provide for local judges in various cities around his nation a standard, a set of precedents for judgments that they were to render out there in their various locations. You see, it was impossible for everyone to come to Hammurabi, everyone to come to him and get judgments directly from him. So his central court established these policies. But also, it was impossible for Hammurabi to write down every possible scenario that a local judge might face. And so, the Code of Hammarubi was written not to give direction for every single kind of case, but rather to give precedents for judges to apply with wisdom, and that, of course, is exactly what the book of the covenant was. As Moses was setting up the legal system of Israel. He provided them, the judges in local communities, with precedents, not with every single possible situation that might come up. It was the job of the judge to interpolate, to use wisdom that they had gained from experience to figure out how I have this law, I have this law, now how do I deal with this particular situation that sort of falls between those? And that helps us a great deal. So, there's a great deal of benefit to comparing the Code of Hammurabi with the code that we find in the book of the covenant.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.