Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Was Hammurabi Thinking?

Consider these interpretations of Hammurabi’s legal code: His main interest is in preserving his society. He’s not trying to change anything, start anything new, or end anything old. He’s got momentum in his civilization, and his goal is to keep it going strong. Babylon was around for several centuries before and after Hammurabi, so he’s in the middle of a good run. So we look at one of his laws not as a moral statement, but as a principle for keeping a society strong. Any society that consistently acts outside of his laws will dissolve into chaos – at least, that’s what he thinks. Hammurabi is not interested in morality. He’s not saying that a certain action is “wrong” or “evil” – he’s simply saying that he wants a community that is capable of existing into the future and not destroying itself. Think about the difference between “good vs. evil” and “legal vs. illegal” – this is the difference between morality and legality. I also think that Hammurabi is not terribly interested in religion. True, he mentions some magic and mystic topics in his laws, and the laws are carved on a tablet that pictures the Babylonian sun god Shemesh, but if we examine the logic of the laws themselves, they are more political than religious. Hammurabi’s society was certainly interested in myth and magic, which is very different than our modern conception of religion as a relationship with a deity. A society embracing myth and magic includes, in the case of Mesopotamia, the concept of a “fertility religion” – a belief system centered on ways to make crops grow, and make the livestock robust. Remember that famine was a real and serious threat. So persuading the sky god to give rain, and the earth goddess to make plants grow, was the main goal of “fertility religion.” This still falls under the heading of “myth and magic,” because the goal is to manipulate – to make something happen. Our more modern concept of religion, by contrast, centers on communicating with a deity – worship, prayer, conversation – and serving a deity.