The well-known stela bearing Hammurabi’s laws never returned to Mesopotamia. It remained in Susa until the winter of AD 1901–1902, when French excavations uncovered it in three large pieces, from which it has been reconstructed. The cracks can still be discerned in the monument. It was discovered alongside nine smaller fragments made of similar basalt stone material and inscribed with the same text. Some of these can be joined to one another, and scholars reconstruct at least three other monumental stelae bearing the Code of Hammurabi, which apparently originally stood in different Mesopotamian cities.
Nearly the entire text of the Code of Hammurabi is preserved, thanks in part to numerous copies of it on clay tablets found throughout Mesopotamia. The composition begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, both of which are in the style of a Babylonian royal inscription. These opening and closing remarks exalt Hammurabi as a ‘king of justice’ (Akkadian shar misharim). A famous passage from the epilogue reads:
Let any wronged man who has a lawsuit come before the statue of me, the king of justice, and let him have my inscribed stela read aloud to him, thus may he hear my precious pronouncements and let my stela reveal the lawsuit for him; may he examine his case, may he calm his (troubled) heart, (and may he praise me), saying: ‘Hammurabi, the lord, who is like a father and begetter to his people, submitted himself to the command of the god Marduk, his lord, and achieved victory for the god Marduk everywhere. He gladdened the heart of the god Marduk, his lord, and he secured the eternal well being of the people and provided just ways for the land.’ May he say thus, and may he pray for me with his whole heart before the gods Marduk, my lord, and Zarpanitu, my lady.1
Between the rhetorically loaded prologue and epilogue are the laws themselves. They take the form of a series of ‘if . . . then . . .’ statements. These case laws address various social themes. For example, sections 250–251 read as follows:
§250 If an ox gores to death a man while it is passing through the streets, [then] that case has no basis for a claim.
§251 If a man’s ox is a known gorer, and the authorities of his city quarter notify him that it is a known gorer, but he does not blunt(?) its horns or control his ox, and that ox gores to death the son of a free person, [then] he [the owner] shall give 30 shekels of silver.2
This way of forming ‘if . . . then . . .’ pronouncements was a widespread phenomenon in the ancient Near East. In fact, we have laws of this sort in the Bible on the topic of goring oxen in Exodus 21:28-29:
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.
But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.
Not only are the grammar and topic of these laws in Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi similar, but their reasoning is similar. What is to be done to the owner of a goring ox depends in both cases upon whether the ox was already known for goring. It appears that this way of reasoning was widely recognised as just. But despite their similarities, these sets of laws served different purposes in their respective writings. Exodus presents them as requirements of God’s covenant with Israel, while in Hammurabi’s Code they are meant to demonstrate the just ruling of the king, as part of his royal propaganda.
For this reason, we should not view Hammurabi’s Code as a law code in the modern sense at all. ‘Law code’ in English has the connotation of a systematic collection of the rules of a society, which are intended to govern that society through its practice of law. The wording of laws matters, and they are quoted as authoritative rulings in legal proceedings. But the Code of Hammurabi is not a systematic collection, and we have no evidence that these were the rules of Babylonian society or that they had a governing role. In fact, there were other legislative texts in Babylonian society and such texts (or their rules) are occasionally cited in everyday documents of legal practice.
Hammurabi’s laws have a different use. They appear to have been more at home among the scribal students and ancient scholars who fostered Mesopotamian literature. They are the beginnings of ancient scholarly speculation about justice, which were put to use in the royal rhetoric of King Hammurabi. It is hard to know who read Hammurabi’s Code apart from the scribes. The monument stands 225 cm tall and the inscription is written in an archaic script, which was not in everyday use by scribes and certainly not known by most people. It seems likely that the text on the monument was not accessible to the general population. Instead we should view the monument and its text functioning, not as legislation, but as propaganda.
There is a relief portrayal on the upper front of the stela which particularly illustrates this propaganda: Hammurabi (left) is portrayed standing before Shamash (right), the god of justice, who is seated and holds out a rod and ring toward the king. The extension of the rod and ring to Hammurabi indicates the gods’ selection of him as their human agent for the proper order of justice. This portrayal is a powerful sanction of the king’s claim to be a just ruler.
Hammurabi’s rhetoric was successful. Very soon after the composition and installation of the stelae in Mesopotamia, Hammurabi’s laws began to be copied by Mesopotamian scribes and used as part of the curriculum for students. This practice continued for over a thousand years. The Code of Hammurabi was thus taken up into Mesopotamia’s canon of traditional literature, and the memory of Hammurabi’s persona kept alive, at least among the literati. Today, Hammurabi’s Code ranks alongside the Gilgamesh Epic as one of the most famous ancient Mesopotamian compositions. Modern tributes to Hammurabi attest to his importance in modern jurisprudence: there are replicas of the stela in the Headquarters of the United Nations, New York, and the Peace Palace in The Hague, which houses the International Court of Justice.
Hammurabi’s Code stands apart from the laws given to Israel in its limited readership and political purposes. The code’s most obvious (and intended) legacy cemented Hammurabi in history. In contrast, the Torah set out for Israel a unique system of life. Even though they share areas of concern formed by their ancient context, the social order set out in Israel’s covenant and law is firmly grounded in Yahweh’s self-revelation in creation, his rescue of Israel from Egypt, and his word given to Moses, not the wisdom of ancient Near Eastern kings and scholars. God instructs his people to take his words to heart. They are to teach them diligently to their children, to talk about them from morning until night. They are to fasten the words of the covenant to their heads and hands, and write them on their doorframes and gates as a constant reminder that they live in relationship with the God of justice (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). God’s instruction is not merely for some elite group of scholars to study and copy, but for all the people to know and obey.