Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Glimpse into Hammurabi’s World

The code of Hammurabi - also sometimes transliterated into our alphabet as Hammurapi - is a staple for history classes. It stands as an early marker for the concept of the rule of law.

Beyond its legal ramifications, however, it can tell us about Babylonian society at the time. A law code reveals the values and the problems of a society: nobody bothers to make a law against something unless someone’s been doing it.

Hammurabi’s society has quite of bit of magic and superstition: talk of casting “spells” and of “sorcery” inhabits the code, and such things are dealt with through trial by ordeal, which implies either that the river has supernatural powers, or is being manipulated by some supernatural spirit.

The class structure of Babylon is quite rigid, and the laws can confidently mete out punishments based on whether a crime was committed against an aristocrat or against a commoner. In any case, human life is quite cheap, and is readily extinguished for mere crimes against property.

The coarse equation of human life with money is evidenced in cases concerning the death of a slave or of a pre-born child.

Despite its underdeveloped pre-religious spiritual outlook, the economics and mathematics of Hammurabi’s code are relatively sophisticated. There is talk of altering interest payments during years in which the weather reduced the harvests.

Likewise, the legal documentation is not simple-minded, as is independently confirmed by other cuneiform texts from the same era.

Gender inequality is starkly presented in cases of adultery. A woman convicted, or in some cases even merely accused, receives capital punishment. It is implied that a man in the same circumstances receives a lesser punishment, if any.

Hammurabi’s code, probably written sometime prior to 1750 B.C., reflects a modern sensibility against incest; a man who sleeps with his daughter is exiled.

The lex talionis is quite literal between equals, but a freeman who harms a slave can simply offer money as restitution.

A certain liability is born by someone who knew that his ox was in the habit of goring. The frequency of agricultural specifics reveals the extent, and the type, of farming which supported the society.

Hammurabi’s code is a rather neutral legal document, as opposed to a moral statement. Certain actions entail specific consequences, but are not condemned as immoral, and no imperative against them is given. One might simply understand the fine of silver coins as the price to be paid if one wishes to injure a neighbor’s slave.

The code is designed to support, reinforce, and maintain the status quo in Babylon. It reflects a static society, not a revolution in social forms. This fits a circular sense of time, rather than a linear conception of time which allows for progress.

Hammurabi’s people were outer-directed, motivated by shame or the avoidance of it. Motive does not play a large role in legal consideration.

Moses will form, in many ways, a counterpoint to Hammurabi, in a Hebrew society which, only a few decades after Hammurabi, will be quite different on some of these points.