The Religious Justification for the Code of Hammurabi

I recently heard a caller on a talk show challenge the hosts' contention that religion is an indispensable part of morality and law. In response to the hosts' reference to the Ten Commandments, she argued that the Code of Hammurabi preceded the Ten Commandments. Implicit in her point was--apparently--the notion that the Code of Hammurabi was an example of secular morality.

It is true that the Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest known sets of written laws. It does predate Moses. Dating from 1760 BC, the Code of Hammurabi was set forth by King Hammurabi, of Babylon. It lists 282 laws, including specified punishments for each, on 12 tablets. The code was carved into an eight-foot tall stone monument and kept on public display.

But is it an example of secular morality? Not hardly.

On the stone monument itself, near the top, was a carved portrayal of Hammurabi receiving authority to administer the law from Shamash. The prologue to the code makes this explicit in writing, stating that, "Anu and Bel [Babylonian gods] 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." The Code also claims that Hammurabi was sent by another Babylonian god to "to rule over men, to give the protection of right to the land."

The epilogue reinforces this understanding of the Code's justification. Referring again to Hammurabi it states, "A righteous law, and pious statute did he teach the land." Then near the end:

The great gods have called me, I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city; on my breast I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad; in my shelter I have let them repose in peace; in my deep wisdom have I enclosed them. That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, I have in Babylon the city where Anu and Bel raise high their head, in E-Sagil, the Temple, whose foundations stand firm as heaven and earth, in order to declare justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words, written upon my memorial stone, before the image of me, as king of righteousness.

Thus, the source of the Code of Hammurabi--and therefore its justification--was thought to be no more secular than Moses' reception of the Ten Commandments from Jehovah. There is a significant distinction, in my opinion, in that Hammurabi claimed the right to make the law whereas Moses claimed to have been given the Ten Commandments themselves, but the ultimate claimed source of authority was religious.

Comments

JD Walters said…
Ha! Yet another secular myth demolished. But actually, I never thought that's how skeptics liked to use the Code of Hammurabi (although they usually just flash it in your face without making explicit what it's supposed to prove). I always thought that Hammurabi shows that moral ideals are 'discoverable' independently of a revelation by the God of Israel.
Anonymous said…
I agree but with two important qualifications:

(1) The Code of Hammurabi never makes blasphemy a crime. In that sense, it is more secular.

(2) Mosaic law parallels the Babylonian law in many respects. Usually, the Mosaic modifications are improvements, but not always. This suggests an accomodationist position on divine revelation.

Robert Sutherland
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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