Moses and Hammurabi

15 Jun
from Google Images

from Google Images

It can be shown that, prior to the Law of Moses, the Israelite patriarchs most likely lived under the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian law code discovered by archaeologists in 1901.[1] For example, in Genesis 15:2 Abraham recognized that his slave born in his household would be his heir in the event Abraham had no sons. This was determined by the Law of Hammurabi (sec. 191). Sarai’s giving her maidservant, Hagar (Genesis 16:3), to Abraham was also prescribed by this code (sec. 146). Other instances, including Judah’s demanding that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, be executed by fire (Genesis 38:24; cf. sec. 110), and Jacob’s sons’ concession that the thief who ‘stole’ a silver cup from Pharaoh’s palace should be executed (Genesis 44:9; cf. sec. 6), show that the Israelite patriarchs submitted themselves to these ancient Babylonian laws which date back to cir. 1754 BC.[2]

It has been my argument in this current series that the fledgling nation, ancient Israel, was no better off, morally speaking, than any of the nations existing in Moses’ day, including the Canaanites, whom God judged by giving Israel their land. However, when Israel made a covenant with God, trusting him as their King, God worked on a plan to clean up their behavior and to mold them into a much more moral people than their contemporaries. The problem is that the new atheists of our day want to judge the moral ethic of ancient Israel, not according to their contemporaries, but according to our moral standards today, an unsound method, to be sure, considering the fact that we understand morality today as something man claims it is, not what God says it is—and who among modern man speaks for all nations as to what morality is?

Deuteronomy 25:1-3 prescribes a beating of up to forty lashes be given to a guilty party as his punishment. The judge could demand less than forty strikes, but no more, and the reason given is that “your brother is not degraded in your eyes.” In other words the offender was still recognized as one’s brother! Although this may sound harsh, the apostle, Paul, claimed he received forty lashes minus one on five occasions (2Corinthians 11:24). The interesting point is that Paul’s punishment was voluntary. He could have refused the punishment and been put out of the synagogue and no longer numbered as a Jew, but he chose to receive the discipline and remain a Jew. So, how inhuman should we consider forty lashes to be?

In contrast the Law of Hammurabi was more severe, often demanding one’s life, or insisting that one’s tongue, breast or hand be severed. In ancient Egypt similar punishments were considered fair treatment (cutting off one’s nose or ear, for example), and as for beating the guilty, the least the offender might receive is one hundred lashes and up to two hundred could be given, according to the judge. The Mosaic Law held the king and its elite citizens (priests and wealthy class) to the same standard as its ordinary citizens, but the Law of Hammurabi and ancient Hittite law permitted those of social status to be judged more leniently and more favorably if victimized.

Much is often said about the Mosaic principle of “an eye for an eye” etc (cf. Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:17-22; Deuteronomy 19:16-21). However, this should not be taken literally. Rather, it is the principle of ‘like for like’ or justice should fit the crime. Notice the contrast of the Law of Moses and the Law of Hammurabi in the chart below:[3]

Offense Law of Moses Law of Hammurabi
Stealing Restore double (Exodus 22:9) Death (sec. 4)
Burglary Restore double (Exodus 22:7) Death (sec. 21)
Harboring a fugitive slave No offense (Deuteronomy 23:15 Death (sec. 16)
Injuring a slave Freedom given the slave (Exodus 21:26-27). Master compensated (sec. 199).
Injuring a rich man Same injury inflicted (Exodus 21:23-25) Same injury inflicted on the guilty party (sec. 196, 197).
Injuring a poor man Same injury inflicted on the guilty party. Fine of one mina of silver (sec. 198).
Injury followed by death to a rich man’s daughter Each case judged on its own merits. Death of injurer’s daughter (sec. 209).
Injury followed by death to a poor man’s daughter Each case judged on its own merits. Fine of five shekels of silver (sec. 211, 213).

Thus, even if we argue that the punishments of the Mosaic Law must be taken literally (“eye for an eye” etc.), we should be able to see that even here the Mosaic Law was a vast improvement on what its neighbors considered just and fair treatment. One could argue context showing that the Mosaic Law never intended one to take an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” literally, because the legislation for destroying an eye or a tooth of a slave resulted in freedom for the slave, not the same injury inflicted on the guilty party. The same idea is also seen in the New Testament where Jesus prescribes one to cut off his own arm or pluck out his own eye, if they cause one to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Who would argue for literality here? Yet, the Code of Hammurabi did, indeed, call for the cutting off of actual hands, noses, breasts and ears. The punishments written in the code aren’t given in a context of like for like, but even at the time of Moses were “outrageously disproportionate” when compared with the offense committed. Thus, we see God at work in Israel training his hardhearted people (cf. Matthew 19:8) to be more gentle and caring in their behavior toward one another and those who commit offenses.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] One could discover many more examples in the Old Testament before Moses; see Laws Before Sinai, appendix 15 of the Companion Bible.

[3] See Laws Before Sinai, appendix 15 of the Companion Bible.

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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in apologetics


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