(ham myoo ray' bi) King of Babylon about 1700 B.C. who issued a famous code of law. His name probably means, “Hammu (the god) is great.” The name Hammurabi belongs to the family of Semitic, not Akkadian, personal names and began appearing in cuneiform texts about 2000 B.C. Two kings of Yamhad, who were contemporaries of the king of Babylon, bore the name. In addition, the name was borne by the king of Kurda and by an official from the Old Babylonian period. Prior to Hammurabi, the kings of Babylon had Akkadian names.
According to the cuneiform alphabet system of writing from Ugarit, the name should be ascribed Hammu-rapi. The meaning is still debated. The first element is the name of a god. The second refers to “healing.” Four views are supported. Some believe Am refers to a god and rabu to being great. Thus the name means “Am is great.” Others think the term means “my family is widespread.” Still others hold the position that it means “the sun god heals.” Some scholars identified Hammurabi with the biblical king of Shinar named Amraphel (Genesis 14:1,Genesis 14:9). However, this option is held by few modern scholars.
Kingdom Hammurabi was the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon. He was the son of Sin-muballit and the father of Samsu-iluna. He ruled over Babylon for 42-43 years. Although we have more and better evidence for his reign than any other king of his dynasty, the precise years he ruled cannot be determined. Four positions are held. The ultra-high chronology holds 1900 B.C. for his first year of his reign. Probably, the most widely-held view is that his first year to rule was 1792 B.C. Others hold a middle chronology with 1728 B.C. as his first year. The low chronology places 1642 B.C. as the first year.
Although most scholars present Hammurabi as one of the great kings of his era, a recent scholar sees him as a minor king in comparison to his peers, pointing to the correspondence found at Mari as evidence. For the first ten years of Hamhymurabi's reign, Babylon appears to be subservient to Assyrian rule. Later, his serious rivals were Zimri-Lim of Mari, Rim-sin of Larsa, and Ibal-pi-El of Eshnunna along with his Elamite allies.
From his seventh to eleventh years he destroyed Malgum, attacked Rapiqum, warred against Emutbal, and captured both Isin and Uruk (Erech).
Despite an uneasy truce with Assyria and Eshnunna, Hammurabi spent the middle twenty years of his reign preoccupied with local affairs. Evidently, he was consolidating and organizing his kingdom. He built religious shrines, civic buildings, defensive walls, and canals during this period. The archives at Mari reveal about 140 letters sent between Babylon and Mari during this era. Four of the letters are addressed by Hammurabi to either the king or court officials at Mari.
In year 29 of his reign, he won a decisive victory over a coalition holding the east side of the Tigris River, which opened the way for him two years later to attain victory over Larsa and gain control of the southern cities. Change in the balance of power resulted. The last twelve years of his rule were uninterrupted warfare. In year 35 he dismantled Mari and Malgium. In year 38 he conquered Eshnunna. Yet these latter wars at best were an “offensive defensive” against the pressures of invading peoples. In the latter years he built walls along the Tigris and Euphrates and in year 43 fortified Sippar with an earthen wall. While the early years witnessed military and political expansion which was probably initiated by his father, Sin-muballit, the latter years saw the kingdom shrink.
Religion Scholars assign the famous staged-temple-tower or ziggurat “E-temen-an-ki” to his reign. The name means “The House of the Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth.” It was one of the seven wonders of the world. This giant structure may have influenced the biblical writer in
his narrative of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4-9). Hammurabi placed Marduk, a local deity, at the head of the Babylonian pantheon, where he remained for subsequent centuries.
Lawgiver In 1898 some fragments were published of cuneiform tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria. These fragments were thought to be part of an old “book of Law” dating to the First Babylonian Dynasty. In December 1901 and January 1902 in the old royal city of Susa, a diorite stone measuring two and a quarter meters high and almost two meters in circumference was found. The stone was a relief of Hammurabi with 44 columns of ancient cuneiform writing. The stele proved to contain the collection of Hammurabi laws.
The stone was engraved late in Hammurabi's reign. It was probably set in the great Esagil Temple of Marduk in Babylon with copies sent to other centers. In 1160 B.C., following a successful raid on Babylon, the Elamite Shutruk-nahhunte carried it to Susa.
The relief of Hammurabi shows him receiving a sceptre and a ring from Shamash, the divine law-giver. The sceptre and ring are symbols of justice and order. The stele begins by describing the king's divine call to “make justice to shine forth in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked, that the strong might not oppress the weak… to give light to the land.”
The diverse elements of the expanded kingdom demanded a precise definition of individual rights. The large economic dependence upon slavery and the overwhelming personal indebtedness provided the means and reason for developing a standard of law. By setting the wages for technical and agricultural laborers and by decreeing the release from debt or slavery, the king could control much of the life of the nation. This was done by a periodical “pronouncement of righteousness.” This usually occurred in a king's first year of reign. In his first year, Hammurabi decreed the standard of law which would govern the economic and religious life of all Babylonians. This compares to the “reforms” of the Hebrew kings, who by restating allegiance to the Torah in their first year as king, “did the right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3).
Hammurabi's laws probably date from his first year as king, but they were not compiled and edited until the conclusion of his reign.
Two hundred eighty-two paragraphs or judgments of Hammurabi remain. These are not comparable to modern codes. The cases are grouped by subjects, but rarely are they stated in terms of general application. The laws are primarily the king's verdicts regarding specific cases. Some of the cases are similar to the law codes of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, Eshnunna, and the Hebrew laws. The code in general does not discuss religious affairs. Punishments include immersion in the river, “lex talionis,” fines, restitution by labor or in kind, and death. Penalties varied according to the class of the offender. Three classes were recognized: freedman, state-dependent, and slave. The code covers the following subjects:
(1) Various offenses and crimes (¶1-25). These include false witness similar to
Deuteronomy 19:16-17; witchcraft, which is forbidden in
Exodus 22:18; action against evil judges similar to
Deuteronomy 16:18-21. The death penalty was imposed for robbery or receipt of stolen merchandise from a palace or a temple. Hebrew law allowed for restoration for such offenses (Exodus 22:1;
Leviticus 6:2). The penalty for dereliction was death or thirty- or ten-fold restitution depending on the class of the accused. Hebrew law asked for double-restitution (Exodus 22:1-4,Exodus 22:7). The death penalty was prescribed for kidnapping, theft of slaves, looting, and robbery.
(2) Property (¶26-99). Distinction was made between crown-tenants, fief holders, and tenant farmers. Much is stated about loans of either money or seeds against future crops. A farmer had four years to produce a fruit crop from trees before repaying his loan. In Hebrew law, the first-fruits of the fourth crop had to be dedicated to God.
(3) Commercial law (¶100-126). These laws regulated partnerships and agencies, sales, and transporting merchandise. These treat slaves and debtors more harshly than do the Hebrew laws.
(4) Marriage (¶127-161). These cases involve the rights of both parties, dowry settlements, bridal gifts, marriage offenses, and divorce. Adultery with a married woman, as in Hebrew law (Deuteronomy 22:22), resulted in death for both individuals. Death was the punishment for rape as in
Deuteronomy 22:25. An adulterous wife was sentenced to trial by ordeal in both codes (Numbers 5:13-22). A husband captured abroad had his marriage protected. Likewise, this was the intent of
Deuteronomy 24:5. The references to concubinage and the protection of the female from reduction to slavery or divorce, except for offenses against the first wife, shed light on patriarchal practices (Genesis 16:2,Genesis 16:4;
Genesis 21:8). Incest is prohibited by each.
(5) Firstborn. As in Hebrew law (Exodus 13:2;
Deuteronomy 21:15-17), the first-born had special rights.
(6) Adoption (¶185-194). Males could be granted sonship or disowned by oral pronouncements. Unruly, violent sons were corrected by cutting off the offending limb.
(7) Assault (¶195-208). Damage to persons and property were thoroughly discussed. Liabilities of builders and surgeons were especially noted. Hurting pregnant women was severely punished as in the Hebrew law (Exodus 21:22-25).
(8) Agricultural work and offenses (¶241-267). As in
Exodus 21:28-32 the owners' responsibilities for gorings by oxen are discussed in great detail.
(9) Rates and wages (¶268-277). The differences between the conditions in early Israel and the urban communities of Babylon are evident in these paragraphs.
(10) Slaves (¶278-282). These paragraphs discuss the purchase and sale of slaves.
A particular genre of Ancient Near Eastern literature is known as the “law code.” Nine separately identifiable law codes are known to have existed in the Old Testament era. Seven of them are in the form of cuneiform documents: Ur-Nammu, Lipit-Ishtar, Eshnunna, Hammurabi, Assyrian Laws, Hittite Laws, and Neo-Babylonian Laws. The other two that are comparable are found in the Bible (Exodus 21:1-22:16;
Deuteronomy 21-25). All nine are remarkably similar in form and content. All are casuistic in style, dealing with specific cases with an if… then form.
What is the purpose for such law codes? Some scholars believe they are more literary than legal. In this view their purpose was never legislative. They were “royal apologia.” They were to lay before the public, posterity, future kings, and the gods, evidence of the king's execution of the divinely ordained mandates. Other scholars say that the codes are “scribal exercises.” This views Hammurabi more as a scribe than as a judge. Thus, his work is theoretical literature designed to illustrate his wisdom. Others understand the law codes to be from a tradition similar to compiling lists of omens, medical prognoses, and other scientific treatises. The purpose of these series was to act as reference works for the royal judges in deciding difficult cases. This probably began as an oral tradition and gradually became a systematic written corpus.
Significance The Hammurabi code resembles Hebrew law in form, style, and general content. Thus some scholars believe the Hebrews were influenced by Hammurabi's code through the Canaanites among whom they settled.
Whatever the similarities, important differences are obvious. First, the Hammurabi code presupposes an aristocratic class system that did not prevail in Israel. Second, Israel could never have viewed the state as the custodian of the law. Third, Hebrew law is characterized by a more humane spirit. Fourth, Hebrew law maintains a high ethical emphasis. Fifth, the pervading religious fervor makes the Hebrew code unique. Sixth, Hebrew law is set within a covenant relationship.
Gary D. Baldwin