An Eye for an Eye
Hammurabi’s Code of Law
While working with the Israelites within the framework of their own choices, God still desires to lead His people into further blessings and righteousness. The mosaic law is an amazing example of how God achieves His purposes, working all things together for good without infringing on people’s freedom to choose their own systems. We have established that Moses setup a system of laws prior to those given at Mount Sinai. Without input from God, we could safely assume that the law by which their contemporaneous surrounding nations were governed.
One of the predominating legal systems that was used at the time is Hammurabi’s Code of Law. It is one of the oldest sets of laws discovered by archeologists. It predates the Mosaic law by hundreds of years, and yet there are great similarities between the two systems of civil law. The Hammurabi’s Code of law is inscribed on a seven-foot-tall sirite stele (ancient upright stone pillar markings) that is currently on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Having the history and exploits of nations inscribed upon buildings, walls, or monuments was a common practice in ancient times, and we derive a great amount of historic knowledge about these kingdoms from archeological finds. It was also a custom of these ancient civilizations to engrave the laws of the land on stone and publicly display them before the surrounding nations so that none need be unaware of what was expected of them by the governing lands. Interestingly enough, Israel also participated in this ancient custom. We see evidence of this as outlined in Deuteronomy in God’s instruction to his people.
And it shall be, on the day when you cross over the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime. You shall write on them all the words of the law, when you have crossed over, that you may enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey,’ just as the LORD God of your fathers promised you. Therefore it shall be, when you have crossed over the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones, which I command you today, and you shall whitewash them with lime. And there you shall build an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones; you shall not use an iron tool on them. You shall build with whole stones the altar of the LORD your God, and offer burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God. You shall offer peace offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God. And you shall write very plainly on the stones all the words of the law (Deuteronomy 27:2-8
When Joshua led the tribes of Israel over the Jordan, we see that he did as the Lord commanded, writing the laws upon the large stones and setting them up near Mount Ebal, which was near Shechem (Joshua 8:32). This area surrounding Shechem was later referred to as “the plain of the pillar” (Judges 9:6, KJV). The Lord intended for all the surrounding nations to also benefit from the instructions that were given to the Israelites. This radically advanced law was to be Israel’s wisdom in the sight of the nations that surrounded them:
“Surely I have taught you statues and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statues, and say surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And What great nations is there that has such statues and righteous judgments are in all of his law which I set before you this day?” Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
God knew that His statues and judgements were far more righteous than those of the prevailing civil law. As per the inscription on his stele, Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who lived about the time of Abraham and was a self-proclaimed “deity” to be worshipped and revered in his kingdom (similar to Nebuchadnezzar and the Egyptian pharaohs). On his stele, Hammurabi also declares both himself and his laws are altogether righteous. His law was the prevailing standard of conduct influencing the nations of that time, especially since most of them were under the control of the Babylonian empire. Hammurabi’s name is not mention in biblical record, but some biblical scholars have equated him with King Amraphel who was the king of Shinar mentioned in Genesis 14:1. The land of Shinar is equated with Babylon in that Nimrod was the first Babylonian king who established his kingdom in the land of Shinar.
And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar. (Genesis 14:1).
And the beginning of his (Nimrod’s kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar (Genesis 10:10).
As mentioned, there are many apparent similarities between the Hammurabic and Mosaic laws, in addition to their manner of public presentation on pillars. There are many internal biblical evidences that indicate that the people of Israel were familiar with this law and would have been ruled within its framework. Abraham came out of the land of Ur, which was ruled by Babylon, so he would have been directly governed by Hammurabi’s Code of Law or a modified version of it. In Abraham’s immediate family, we can see evidence of the influence of the Code of Hammurabi in an example where Judah, Jacob’s son, applied its principles to a family situation. This is recorded in Genesis: And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.” So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned” (Genesis 38:24).
Judah’s judgement upon Tamar seemed to indicate that death would be a normal penalty inflicted upon women accused of adultery. The SDA Bible Commentary provides us with some insight into this occurrence:
Let her be burnt. Judah gave this order by virtue of his authority has head of the family. This probably seemed to him a fortunate opportunity, furthermore, to extricate himself from his obligation to provide her with a husband. Tamar was regarded as the bride of Shelah, and as such was to be punished for breach of chastity. The Mosaic law provided for stoning under such circumstances (Deuteronomy 22:20-24). Only in the case of a priest’s daughter, or the certain forms of incest, was burning enjoined (Leviticus 21:9; 20:14). Judah’s sentence, therefore, was more harsh than later Israelite law required. Whether he acted according to the customs of his time, or on other grounds, cannot be determined. The code of Hammurabi lists two crimes for which the punishment is burning. Section 110 of the code states that a “devoted one” (see Genesis 38:21) who opens a wineshop or enters a wineshop for a drink shall be burned alive, and section 25 provides that a thief shall be cast into the burning house from which he had attempted to steal property. (SDA Bible Commentary vol. 1, p. 430).
The Code of Hammurabi specifically placed the death penalty by drowning upon the crime of adultery, as per Hummurabi code #2 (H2). However, as mentioned in the SDA Bible Commentary, burning was another form of capital punishment used in Babylon (see also the case of the three worthy Hebrews, Daniel chapter 3). Death by drowning could only occur in close proximity to water, of course, Judah’s encampment was in the desert, so other forms of capital punishment would have had to be enjoined. In any case, we can see that he was at least familiar with a course of law that called for death for adultery and the Code of Hammurabi was the most likely law to have influenced him.
In order to grasp at least a minimal understanding of the extent that Hammurabi’s code of Law influenced the minds, behaviors, and laws of the Israelite people, it would be helpful to chart some examples of the resemblances of the two codes of law. The first resemblance we can see is found in similar structures of the two laws:
|Exodus 21:18-27||Hammurabi’s Code of Law|
|Verses 18, 19; bodily injuries received during a fight||H206-208 bodily injuries received during a fight|
|Verses 22, 23; injuries of a pregnant woman during a fight, causing a miscarriage||H209-212; injuries of a pregnant woman during a fight causing a miscarriage|
|Verses 24, 25: the “Eye for an Eye” principle||H196, H197, H200 Injuries to the eye, bone, and tooth (to the upper class); lex talionis|
|Verses 20, 21, 26, 27: Injuries to slaves||H199: injuries to slaves|
The above section of law shows how the Mosaic laws are written in similar sequence and with similar penalties, in some cases, to the Code of Hammurabi. This is not isolated case of sections of law being similar, though. Other examples show similarity in form and content, in groups of laws, as indicated in the table below:
|Exodus 22:10-14||Hammurabi’s Code of Law|
|Verse 10: if a man deliver unto his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it:||H263: If he lose an ox or sheep entrusted to him, he shall compensate the owner, ox for ox, sheep for sheep.|
|Verse 11: Then shall an oath of the LORD be between them both, that he hath not put his hand unto his neighbor’s goods; and the owner of it shall accept thereof, and he shall not make it good.||H266: If a stroke of God (accident) happen in a stable, or a lion kill it (any beat), the shepherd shall declare his innocence before God, and the owner of the stable shall suffer the loss.|
|Verse 13: If it be torn in pieces, then let him bring it for witness, and he shall not make good that which was torn.
Verse 14: And if a man borrow ought of his neighbor, and it be hurt, or die, the owner thereof being not with it, he shall surely make it good.
|H267: If a shepherd overlooked anything (negligence), and an accident take place in the stable, the shepherd shall make good in cattle or sheep the damage for which he is at fault, and give to the owner.|
There are also many more examples of laws that are listed singularly with the same uncanny similarity. Without taking an exhaustive approach to comparing these laws, we can point out a few of the most striking cases where the two codes of law show resemblance:
|Mosaic Law||Hammurabi’s Code of Law|
|Exodus 22:18: Leviticus 20:27; Death penalty for Sorcery||H1 Death penalty for sorcery|
|Exodus 22:1-4: Fines for theft of animals||H8 Fines for theft of animals (death if not paid)|
|Exodus 21:16; Death for kidnapping and selling people||H14: Death for kidnapping the son of a freeman|
|Deuteronomy 22:21, 24; Leviticus 20:10; Death penalty for adultery||H129 Death penalty for adultery|
|Deuteronomy 22:25; Death to one who violates a betrothed virgin||H130 Death to one who violates a betrothed Virgin|
|Genesis 29-30 The Mosaic law has no parallel, but the story of Isaac with Rebekah and Hagar bear huge similarities; Exodus 21:8 disallows concubines from being sold.||H144-147: A childless wife can give a maid to bear a child in her place; she’s never to be equal; she can be treated as a servant or sold.|
There are many more examples of similarities between the two codes of law in the areas of civil law such as issues surrounding land rental, inheritance, items held in trust or hired out, slaves as payment for debt, cultivation of new land, stewardship of the land, negligence of work toward hired property, etc. All these similarities in structure and content show a heavy dependence on the Code of Hammurabi.
The Lex Tallionis in Hammurabi’s Code of Law
The strength of the literary dependence of the Mosaic law upon Hammurabi’s code of Law could be considered as indicative that the literal interpretation of the lex talionis principle could also be predominately influenced by or derived from the Code of Hammurabi’s use of the lex talionis expression. Let us examine the most compelling examples of “eye for eye” laws written in Hammurabi’s Code of Law.
|Hammurabi’s Code of Law: lex tallionis origins|
|H116: If the seized dies of blows or of bad treatment in the house of his detainer . . . be the son of a freeborn man, then the son of the merchant shall be put to death.|
|H196: If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.|
|H197: If any one breaks a man’s bone, one shall break his bone.|
|H200: If a man knock out the teeth of a man who is his equal in rank, one shall knock out his teeth.|
|H209: If a man strike a free-born woman and produce a miscarriage, he shall pay 10 shekels of silver for the loss (of that in her womb). H210: if that woman die, one shall put his daughter to death.|
|H229: If a builder built a house for any one and did not build it solid; and the house, which he has built, fell down and kill the owner; one shall put that builder to death. H230: If it kill a son of the owner of the house, one shall put to death the son of the builder.|
|H263: if he lose an ox or sheep instructed to him, he shall compensate the owner, ox for ox, sheep for sheep.|
We can clearly see that the Code of Hammurabi was utilized in ancient Babylon hundreds of years before the Mosaic Law came into existence, and it used the “eye for an eye” expression. Anyone who would have been governed within that time and in those regions would have been familiar with this expression. This weight of evidence confirms that although used in a specific manner in the Mosaic law the “eye for eye” principle did not originate in the Mosaic law. As a matter of fact, many of the ancient laws, even those predating and contemporary with the Code of Hammurabi, reflected the “eye for eye” principle. Most of them, however, took a literal approach to the application of these laws. This is precisely the mind-set out of which God wished to bring His people. In Exodus 21 usage of the lex talionis (which is the first mention of this expression), we find the following statements: “Life for life, this seemingly excessive penalty for an injury that was largely accidental and with no intention of taking life, was probably the reflection of an old law like that of the ‘avenger of blood’ . . . It must be remembered that there were certain provisions in these laws that Moses tolerated, such as the ‘bill of divorcement,” because of the “hardness” of their “hearts” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 19:3-8). It is also to be kept in mind that some of these Mosaic enactments were not absolutely best from the divine viewpoint but were imperfect (Exodus 20:25; Psalm 81:12). They were relatively the best that God’s people, at that time and in their state of moral and spiritual development, would receive and obey. . .
Eye for eye. This law was also quite general among ancient nations. Solon introduced this law, in part, into the code of Athens, and in Rome it was included in the Twelve Tables. Numerous laws of similar nature were included in the ancient Code of Hammurabi, a king of Babylon who lived about the time of Abraham. . . .
If the literal interpretation of this law were insisted upon in our Lord’s day (see Matthew 5:38-42), it must have been the Sadducees, for they refused to read into the law a spiritual interpretation. No good would have been served by requiring, literally, “eye for eye.” It would have meant great loss to the individual doing the injury, without bringing the least gain to the one injured. Persistent requirement of compensation is quite different from a passionate desire for revenge. (SDA Bible Commentary vol. 1, p. 615).
When we compare other biblical texts, we can see that “eye for eye,” applied in a literal way, has no place in Gods thinking or methodology. Jesus further clarified that it has no place in God’s thinking even when applied in a figurative way, for the “turn the other cheek” principle is one that foregoes any notion of compensation. God is consistent, and His principles are everlasting. Even when working with us within our own paradigms, He strives with people to bring them toward principles of mercy and righteousness. He teaches principles of reaping and sowing and of loving our neighbors as ourselves: You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:18).
If we are to bring intellectual honesty to bear on these issues, we are faced with questions requiring careful contemplation. Traditional belief held to scrutiny can reveal inherent contradictions. For example, was providing cities of refuse for the manslayer in agreement with principles of a literal application of lex talionis (see Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 19:5, 6; Joshua 20:3-5)? When David thought to avenge himself against Nabal’s refusal to send provisions for his soldiers in exchange for their protection, did God not send Abigail to divert him from this course of action (I Samuel 25:32-34)? Does God work against Himself and the laws He has put in place? Or are we just failing to understand the cultural and moral context, purpose, and intent of the laws that were instituted in the Old Testament? If we do not diligently strive against reading through the filters of our assumptions, which results in the building of belief systems based on appearances, we will completely fail to understand how God patiently works with flawed people, within their flawed paradigms, to work out His purpose in His time and wisdom.
The principles of God’s kingdom are infinite, timeless, and absolute, and the Lord has made it clear in His Word that we are not to take vengeance into our own hands. God’s purposes are always accomplished in righteousness and self-sacrifice.
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
. . . that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified (I Thessalonians 4:6).
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds (II Corinthians 10:3, 4).
Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? (I Corinthians 6:7).
When God says not to avenge ourselves, it goes beyond giving up notions of retaliatory satisfaction. It includes not demanding compensatory action or replacement of any material goods that were lost. When He says He will repay, our thinking has been that He would strike down the perpetrator Himself, in lex Talionis fashion, but by now we should be able to see that God himself repays His enemies the same way that He asks us to repay by rendering good for evil. Another consideration and level of meaning we can confidently assign to God’s method of repayment is with regard to our compensation.” He will repay us, as well. Our reward as given is given in Christ, all of heaven poured out for us and the inheritance, with Him, of all things. Another gem of truth to apply here is to think of the potential result of repaying our enemy with Good. God’s intent is to win that person to Himself, and what if He should succeed? What more wonderful repayment could we receive than to gain a friend for eternity who would rather lay down his own life than to see us harmed? The one who had wanted to take from us for his or her own pleasure now wants to serve and please us through the ceaseless ages to come!
In our next post in this series, we will examine the Righteousness of the law and Christ and the law.
If you have not had an opportunity to read the other posts in this series, I invite you to click the links below.
|01 He Wanted to Teach Respect||05 Approaching the Study of God|
|02 Why a Tree to Teach Respect||06 The Constitution of the Government of God|
|03 The End of the Great Controversy||07 A Perfect Law|
|04 Isaiah’s Wonderful Prophecy||08 God’s Principles Tested|
|09 A Summary of God’s Constitution||13 The Supreme Revelation|
|10 Contrasting Statements||14 Urged to Destroy|
|11 Statements and Principles||15 Magnifying the Law|
|12 Does God Destroy – If so? But How||16 Go the Second Mile|
|17a An Eye for an Eye||18 The Mystery of Iniquity|
|17b An Eye for an Eye||19 The Mystery-Unfolding Cross|
|17c An Eye for an Eye||20 The Way of the Cross|
|17d An Eye for an Eye||21 Rods and Serpents|