Monday, March 29, 2010

The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses with Copious Comments, Index, and Bible References / W.W. Davies -- Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1905

More recent translations of The Code of Hammurabi are probably more reliable than Davies's 1905 translation, but the "copious comments, index, and Bible references" in this translation make it well worth perusing. Davies writes in his introduction that Hammurabi flourished about 2250 BC. More recent historians place him 500 years later (see Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy and The Ancient Near East, Vol 1, edited by James B. Pritchard); but even this later date places his Code well before Mosaic Law, and so it is interesting to see what in Mosaic Law is prefigured in Hammurabi's Code. Davies's volume goes beyond annotating Hammurabi with Biblical citations. It often includes the full Biblical text for comparison and is valuably augmented by his commentary.

The strong similarities between the two legal systems probably does not indicate a direct borrowing of one from the other, but instead is evidence of the continuity between the Old Babylonian society and Judea of the first millennium BC. The Code is a remarkable compendium of contract law, family law, and criminal law. There are even regulations for sentencing and clues to judicial procedure. Careful study can reveal the relative legal standing of different elements of the society and broad principles of justice, most generally: lex talionis.

Punishments ranged from fines -- usually a multiple of the value of what was illegally lost, stolen, or destroyed -- to whipping, mutilation, and death. Executions generally were accomplished by drowning or burning the felon, possibly burning him or her alive.

The parallels with Mosaic Law and even with contemporary legal principles are sometimes striking, leading one to wonder how deeply seated is our sense of justice.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the inventory of social positions and occupations that can be generated from the Code, giving the careful reader a vivid picture of life in Old Babylon where grains, fruit, cattle, oxen, sheep, asses, and goats provided sustenance. The Code regulates farmers, herders, orchard growers, tenants, landlords, sailors, traveling salesmen, teamsters, business agents, money lenders, doctors, artisans, brick makers, tailors, stone cutters, carpenters, builders, tavern keepers, kings, priests, sacred prostitutes, slaves, masters, indentured servants, husbands, wives, concubines, fathers, step-fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, neighbors, and aliens. The mores and behavior of these people are revealed by the laws that Hammurabi found necessary to promulgate. Infractions were few enough to be regulated, but frequent enough to need regulation.

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