This paper will consider the law codes of ancient Mesopotamia and compare them with the Moses’ Law Code and Jesus’ pronouncements at Gethsemane. Both the latter are here considered as offshoots of the Mesopotamian law traditions in that both function as founder declarations of future societal normalcy. In the ancient world such documents optimistically sounded a new ruler, new polity and new beginnings.
Law was extremely important in Mesopotamian society and affected nearly every aspect of Sumerian and Babylonian life. The practice deeply influenced neighbouring societies such as Judaea and initiated, due to the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and consequent Hebrew exiles, the establishing of Hebrew as Judaism, a law-based religion (Moses: Conversion Myth). YHWH himself was reconstituted as a judge-like personality.
Sumerian laws appear to have been mainly situational with responsibility on judges to determine the directives of important kings-the true judges. There was nonetheless no actual name for law. The Sumerian di and Akkadian dinu designates the legal case, the legal decision and the process itself, Ni-si-sa means the greatest good and ni-gi-na constancy and integrity with all the gods responsible for overseeing law and justice, and special responsibility accorded to Utu/Shamash, the sun god.
Many commentators express extreme doubt over the description Law Codes to describe these documents.Hammurabi’s codes (dealt with below) are never mentioned in court judgements. Many claim they serve a literary or scientific purpose (see below). The notion that they are academic treatises on law seems the most appropriate idea except that there is an abiding idea that law in the past was exactly like law now (Rubio, 34). It clearly did not depend on dry tomes to meet every occasion but gave immense flexibility to the court and individual judgement.
UrukAgina’s Law Code (2380-2360)
King (lugal or ensi) UruKAgina’s law code, Lagash, Sumeria, provides the accepted structure of prologue-laws-epilogue. Although this is usually considered the first law code, it may be predated by others not yet found or at least partial examples of a recognisable code. King UruKAgina’s Law Code details abuses of Lugalanda, the previous Lagash ruler, which can be understood as the employment of different social and political policies to UrukAgina. Although long considered an early social reformer, modern commentators do not believe he was but rather a new man, someone outside of the elite who was attempting to limit secular power and replace it, as in previous centuries, with Temple power. As the head of the Temple authorities, he effectively took over the wealth of his rivals, thereby protecting his power base from future attack. UruKAgina’s reforms were meant to legitimise his authority-that indeed of a usurper.
Still, many commentators feel this is simplistic and that he simply looked to the past to legitimise his reforms, while of course shoring up his power base. In Social Reform in Ancient Mesopotamia (169) the writer suggests that each reform added to greater state exploitation but the narrow context of the reforms may not provide a complete overview. Although Irani and Silver dispute the positive effects on those dispossessed by the previous elite, other commentators accept the genuineness of UruKAgina’s claims. Many of the reforms seem social or economic, providing actual decisions for actual situations. It may have represented straight-forward economic reforms and perhaps reflects an ongoing debate over appropriate economic governance, as there is now in modern politics. Gabor (2019) pinpoints the giving back to the gods the land taken by the previous ensi, and in fact ordinary citizens might have benefited from the Temple by reacquiring property or use of property no longer in private hands. Civic Libertas forum pleads that the document was the first known Bill of Rights but that remains uncertain.
It is thought that UrukAgina’s economic reforms increased the wealth of his immediate family who were given Temple land and the ‘code’ shows the first evidence of misogyny, with cruel punishments selected only for women and possible increased power of men in marriages.Balancing this Elizabeth Meier Tetlow (2004) demonstrates that women were treated better in 3rd millennium Mesopotamian law codes than in 2nd millennium law codes.
There are no ‘if’ clauses in UruKAgina’s law code of the kind that exist in other Sumerian law codes.
- When Ningirsu, warrior of Enlil, granted the kingship of Lagash to Urukagina, selecting him from among the myriad people, he replaced the customs of former times, carrying out the command that Ningirsu, his master, had given him.
- He removed the head boatman from control over the boats, he removed the livestock official from control over asses and sheep, he removed the fisheries inspector from control….
- He removed the silo supervisor from control over the grain taxes of the guda-priests, he removed the bureaucrat responsible for the paying of duties in silver on account of white sheep and young lambs, and he removed the bureaucrat responsible for the delivery of duties by the temple administrators to the palace.
- The… administrators no longer plunder the orchards of the poor. When a high quality ass is born to a shublugal, and his foreman says to him, “I want to buy it from you”; whether he lets him buy it from him and says to him “Pay me the price I want!,” or whether he does not let him buy it from him, the foreman must not strike at him in anger.
- When the house of an aristocrat adjoins the house of a shublugal, and the aristocrat says to him, “I want to buy it from you”; whether he lets him buy it from him, having said to him, “Pay me the price I want! My house is a large container—fill it with barley for me!,” or whether he does not let him buy it from him, that aristocrat must not strike at him in anger.
- He cleared and cancelled obligations for those indentured families, citizens of Lagash living as debtors because of grain taxes, barley payments, theft or murder.
- Urukagina solemnly promised Ningirsu that he would never subjugate the waif and the widow to the powerful
An overall effect is that the document advertises UruKAgina and also a or the desired society. It is a normalcy text.
The code of Ur-Nammu of Ur, although often now ascribed to his son, Shulgi, includes references to the gods’ participation in his acquisition of the throne- indicating another usurper or a group outside of the traditional elite. This seems common. In the later code of Lipit-Ishtar it is the god who through Utu as a result of the mediation of Enkil the king causes ‘righteousness and truth’ to shine forth. The code itself begins with a prologue, as was standard. In a similar fashion to the UruKAgina law code, in the prologue the king claims to have provided the state with social justice, getting rid of malcontents and violence. According to the text, he brings Justice (nig-si-sa) and Truth (nig-gi-na),
This rhetoric reverberates within later Hebrew ideologies and is further embedded in Christian beliefs-both religions claiming to have invented the idea.
As considered above, rulers routinely emphasised the general population’s welfare in relation to the rich and powerful, laying stress on the welfare of the weak and vulnerable. The connection to the later claims of Jesus-as king and defender of the weak-can be seen.
Lipit-Ishtar (1930 BCE)
The code of king or ensi Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (1930 BCE) employs curses directed towards anyone who considers erasing the engraved words.
Obliterating a persons’ words meant obliterating them in the ancient world as well as the values their dedications give life to. Keeping your name visible meant keeping the king named alive through other’s memory. Lipit-Ishtar desired too to extend truth (nig-gi-na) throughout the land, which might simply have been a metaphor for the king’s power and his relationship to a god. Truth is commonly employed in that fashion by believers in one or other of the Abrahamic religions, and seems specifically associated with the written word.
Eshnunna Law Code (1770 BCE)
King Dadusha of Eshnunna law code is very similar to Hammarubi’s (King of Babylon) Law Code but begins with a date formula not a prologue. While also like the preceding examples noted above it is closer to Hammurabi’s example. All the previous codes were written in Sumerian, the Eshnunna Law Code and Hammurabi’s were written in Semitic languages.
The question is for me – did Israel speak the same language as the Sumerian and use cuniform – seems that the Sumerian used clay as did Moses bringing down the 10 commandments by the finger of god who wrote on them hmmm?
Hammurabi’s Law Code: Babylon
Around the fall of Ur III, Babylon was a small settlement established by Amorite tribes, who were known as MAR.TU in Sumerian and amurru in Akkadian. They appear to have been migrating nomads from the West. Their less sophisticated attitude towards women compared to Sumerian culture (not particularly civilised at times either) is considered the result of their nomadic roots. As the Amorites had been migrating into Sumeria and Akkad since the early 3rd millennium this seems simplistic, also we cannot be certain that they were all connected to each other. They might have been a number of groups affected by famine or changes in climate who all came from the West, Syria, Turkey, Armenia (de Boer, 2014).
As city-states jostled for power, led by Isin and Larsa, Babylon began its rise defeating more and more larger cities around it in both the East and West. Hammurabi created his empire only in the last ten years of his life, and it barely survived his son and successor. In that short time, Sumeria was under a single administration within the same ideologies. Local economies and administrations were subject to Babylon.
The stele on which the laws are carved has the image of the sun, Shamash-god of justice, at the top with Hammurabi offering veneration to the god. Below is the prologue, laws and epilogue. The stele stands 2.2.5 metres high, not large by modern standards and indeed dwarfed by Egyptian stele. Apart from the above, Hammurabi is mentioned as King of Justice. In this vein, he may mean law rather than any values attached to it. The stele contains a list of Hammurabi’s conquests. It was probably set up late in his reign and appears to be an advertisement for his kingly achievements. Indeed the prologue is a hymn to the king’s glory (Yoffee, 1988), praising his piety. This is a religious document, not simply a rendition of the king’s justice. In any religion that personifies ideas and values, and all pagan religions do, religion is in every word and deed.
As monotheistic gods include everything, thereby absorbing past gods, they tend to make the same claim. Also included in the first part of the prologue are the words raggum u senam ana hulluqim dannum ensam ana la habalim-to destroy the wicked and evil so the strong do not oppress the weak. While the phrasing might indicate that wickedness and evil are associated with the rich and powerful, as the writers never include themselves, the words may simply mean the king’s rivals and enemies who may challenge for the throne and if they win it will rule badly.
When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel 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.
Hammurabi, the prince, called of Bel am I, making riches and increase, enriching Nippur and Dur-ilu beyond compare, sublime patron of E-kur; who reestablished Eridu and purified the worship of E-apsu; who conquered the four quarters of the world, made great the name of Babylon, rejoiced the heart of Marduk, his lord who daily pays his devotions in Saggil; the royal scion whom Sin made; who enriched Ur; the humble, the reverent, who brings wealth to Gish-shir-gal; the white king, heard of Shamash, the mighty, who again laid the foundations of Sippara; who clothed the gravestones of Malkat with green; who made E-babbar great, which is like the heavens, the warrior who guarded Larsa and renewed E-babbar, with Shamash as his helper; the lord who granted new life to Uruk, who brought plenteous water to its inhabitants, raised the head of E-anna, and perfected the beauty of Anu and Nana; shield of the land, who reunited the scattered inhabitants of Isin; who richly endowed E-gal-mach; the protecting king of the city, brother of the god Zamama; who firmly founded the farms of Kish, crowned E-me-te-ursag with glory, redoubled the great holy treasures of Nana, managed the temple of Harsag-kalama; the grave of the enemy, whose help brought about the victory; who increased the power of Cuthah; made all glorious in E-shidlam, the black steer, who gored the enemy; beloved of the god Nebo, who rejoiced the inhabitants of Borsippa, the Sublime; who is indefatigable for E-zida; the divine king of the city; the White, Wise; who broadened the fields of Dilbat, who heaped up the harvests for Urash; the Mighty, the lord to whom come scepter and crown, with which he clothes himself; the Elect of Ma-ma; who fixed the temple bounds of Kesh, who made rich the holy feasts of Nin-tu; the provident, solicitous, who provided food and drink for Lagash and Girsu, who provided large sacrificial offerings for the temple of Ningirsu; who captured the enemy, the Elect of the oracle who fulfilled the prediction of Hallab, who rejoiced the heart of Anunit; the pure prince, whose prayer is accepted by Adad; who satisfied the heart of Adad, the warrior, in Karkar, who restored the vessels for worship in E-ud-gal-gal; the king who granted life to the city of Adab; the guide of E-mach; the princely king of the city, the irresistible warrior, who granted life to the inhabitants of Mashkanshabri, and brought abundance to the temple of Shidlam; the White, Potent, who penetrated the secret cave of the bandits, saved the inhabitants of Malka from misfortune, and fixed their home fast in wealth; who established pure sacrificial gifts for Ea and Dam-gal-nun-na, who made his kingdom everlastingly great; the princely king of the city, who subjected the districts on the Ud-kib-nun-na Canal to the sway of Dagon, his Creator; who spared the inhabitants of Mera and Tutul; the sublime prince, who makes the face of Ninni shine; who presents holy meals to the divinity of Nin-a-zu, who cared for its inhabitants in their need, provided a portion for them in Babylon in peace; the shepherd of the oppressed and of the slaves; whose deeds find favor before Anunit, who provided for Anunit in the temple of Dumash in the suburb of Agade; who recognizes the right, who rules by law; who gave back to the city of Ashur its protecting god; who let the name of Ishtar of Nineveh remain in E-mish-mish; the Sublime, who humbles himself before the great gods; successor of Sumula-il; the mighty son of Sin-muballit; the royal scion of Eternity; the mighty monarch, the sun of Babylon, whose rays shed light over the land of Sumer and Akkad; the king, obeyed by the four quarters of the world; Beloved of Ninni, am I.
The law codes are abstracts of Jural behaviour, of what might occur and the possible responses of the court. There are it seems 281 rulings stated in causuistic form, as if, Yoffee opines, the act had already occurred with the protasis (if clause) followed by an apodosis (then clause) in present/future (Yoffee) -not dissimilar to many pronouncements of Jesus (If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword).
The laws are written with a consistent formula, ‘If’ followed by the crime and then the punishment. One consistent formula, clearly reflecting court practices, is accuser and subsequent proof of the accusation, which if the accuser can provide it will cause the accused to be punished but if not the accuser suffers the punishment, which might be death. While making the accuser act as a detective, it is clearly a deterrent to false accusation, and allows some, if not too much, chance of achieving the truth. These instances function outside of clear evidence and contracts. One case itemised is that of a slave woman who claimed her recently deceased owner had manumitted her before they died. The judgement was that she should provide proof in a certain time period. She did not and was given as a slave to the relative of her previous, now dead owner.
- If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.
- If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.
- If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.
The punishment of death for an extensive number of crimes is not evident in previous law codes indicating a possible brutalising of society or simply a straightforward reflection of larger numbers ruled and greater tendencies towards violence. The following rule demonstrates that an accused and convicted individual could plead clemency and likely receive it. These ruling are situational, may happen and may not.
When a subject was been thoroughly dealt with a new subject is introduced in the last sentence of the previous subject. Yoffee provides as evidence rule 195 that discusses a son striking a father and the consequences to general cases of assault and battery. Nevertheless many topics are not dealt with, including buying and selling, quality and quantity of merchandise. Those topics routinely dealt with concern conflict between peoples, often regarding property, indicating perhaps the cosmopolitan nature of the Empire.
Unlike the previous law code, most of the laws themselves have survived. The conditional form implies that the punishments are only advised and do not need to be carried out. It is possible they represent the maximum possible penalty. Lesser crimes involved imprisonment or the paying of fines.
Norman Yoffee, writes that one core attribute of states is law. Therefore a written law was elemental to rule, to authority and the nature of its power. Written laws nevertheless in Ancient Mesopotamia were not directed towards the general population or necessarily its elite but to the gods and future kings. The nature of laws, written or transmitted orally, can be developed for social control or simply because all societies require some means of sorting out disputes that tend to arrive when people live in communities. The larger the communities the greater number authorised to dispense judgement and justice. As I have previously noted the Hebrew religion at times resembles an ancient court of law, with Abraham and YHWH disputing the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, YHWH’s tendency to talk in judgement tropes, and the way later Judaic society became judgement based. John the Baptist judges Herod on his marrying his brother’s wife based on an aspect of the dubious logic of ancient law; people are judged for male reinforced morals; every aspect of life is subject to the judgements of others.
Laws legalise human responses to challenge and conflict. Equally it legalises the actions of authorities, whether kings, priests or democracies. The origins of laws can differ: some come from the people, others from god (i.e. priests), and others from the ruling caste (priests and kings). The fact that written codes have been discovered does not mean they were applied by ancient courts. They may simply have displayed the king’s literate or erudite nature and to have been a reinforcement of kingly power. Nevertheless, they do appear to have advertised ideal states and processes of normalcy. They are elite declarations. Shamash, the sun god, was also the god of wisdom, thereby naturally attached to law and kings. As the sun throws light on and into darkness both regions justify his use-the ruler needs to see what his people are doing and light and knowledge are commonly combined.
Hammurabi’s laws according to Yoffee (1988) are a series of abstract rules regulating jury behaviour. Referencing Gluckman, Yoffee points to the importance of legal praxis and its social roots. Yoffee (1988) speaks of the role of laws, specific to the Hammarubi context, in ideologies of power and the legitimisation of the power of central authorities. In this context comparisons can be made with the Hebrews’ Moses Covenant, which here is considered a post-Exilic instrument. As can be seen above, each set of laws promulgated and encouraged policy reform in the same way as a new political group sets out its intended policies to the electorate. It demonstrates future normative behaviour of both ruler and people. Moses Covenant does exactly the same, but in the name of an imaginary leader or king. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount fulfils the same design. Both the Moses’ Covenant and the much briefer Jesus’ New Covenant set out political and social proposals.
Fire, thunder and lightning suggests other gods, such as Enlil.
Many scholars have over the past century and a half noted the similarities between the Hammurabi Law Code and that assigned to Moses, in effect placed under his name to reflect YHWH’s involvement-not very different to the involvement of Shamash the Sun God.
Stanley A. Cook, a traditionalist in these matters, as one example claims that both set of laws were based on tradition, not innovation, but perhaps his claims that the Moses Law Code has primitive elements does not reflect the rite-bound, ritual based society proposed by priests after the exile period. He nevertheless points to laws known to have existed much later in Jewish history that are placed within the Moses’ Code and that the laws and instructions appear to reflect different social and political conditions. Cook’s presentation of an accumulated code is based on his acceptance of the Bible as an historical document written down over time. Nothing really supports this and most historians who make this claim seen unduly convinced by the holy texts. Laws from nomadic tribes can be understood within the context of the recent present and do not require the identification of an unlikely and very distant Jewish nomadic past, which is probably no more than myth. Understanding Hebrew literature as a compendium of the Near East solves these apparent social and political divisions.
The modern approach, more convinced of the more recent nature of Judaic literature, speaks of the Moses’ Laws as resembling Platonic concepts, but just as likely they owe a debt to many other Near Eastern cultures. The Avesta has largely been lost so comparisons are now impossible. Nevertheless it is possible that there were many similarities with the Moses’ Code and the religions holy works were destroyed after the Islamic conquests for that reason.
Receiving the Law
Moses climbs the mountain where he will discuss matters with god. Mountains, as in Sumerian and Greek religions, were commonly seen as homes of the gods. God is proclaimed by thunder and lightning in the manner of a thunder god, and indeed Enlil the Sumerian god. God descends to Mount Sinai in fire-as in the manner of the Zarathustra deity. God demands that Moses brings the people to him but has strangely, for a god, forgotten he has sanctified the mountain until Moses reminds him. This episodes shows Moses partnership with god (first shown when Adam names animals) and also paves the way for priestly intercession. The 12 Laws (from 20.3 until 20.17 (one law is doubled up) are in two parts-the first half dozen on the correct worship of YHWH (until 20.9), and then the second half dozen concerning behaviour within the community. 20.9 contains references to the family, as 20.10 concerns behaviour within the family. The Commandments thereby imitate Hammurabi’s Code in have signposts at the end of one kind of law and carrying them forward into the next. The laws are rounded of by a second reference to the household.The laws regarding god come first as this is a priestly law.
These are less laws than orders as no clear punishments or assumptions on how the law is kept. The introduction-Law 20.9 and Law 20.17- of domestic servants (slaves) indicates the laws are directed at the fairly well off, not the poor. If considered situational, it is still not all embracing. As effectly such laws concerning social position occur in the middle and end of the 12 laws it seems directed towards the powerful. The autocratic nature of the 12 laws is reflected again in the householders autocratic relationship with his household. In this way, such a household is posited as an ideal. Not coveting or desiring neighbour’s goods (and wife-desiring husbands is fine) is a law for community stability.
The following laws, of which there is no initial indication, concern daily lives in the manner of the Mesopotamian law codes from UruKAgina onwards expressing thereby claims for normalcy. Let the reader be reminded on the nature of these laws (in fact they look more like advice, situational examples that can, but only can, be dealt with in the manner provided): a servant or slave is bound for 7 years and if he marries the children of his union belong to his master. Law or ruling 21.6 demonstrates the fate of any servant or slave who disobeys his master, showing its connection to Mesopotamian law codes. A large number begin with the ‘if’ clause. The society the Moses Code reflects is not that of peasants or necessarily urban poor but of moneyed classes-household communities more closely reflecting the modern middle class or an elite. The laws back up the wealth and power of these specific classes. The New Normalcy is one of the Hebrew rich- or householder at least.
Although the Moses Law Codes were written down after the exile, during the period of Persian and Greek rule, some of the laws are archaic, as above, for the period they were written down. This should not be seen as evidence of their age but evidence instead of the tablets the ancient post-Exilic priestly scribes were plagiarising
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