The Code of Hammurabi
Hammurabi’s Law Code was the earliest known law code in existence. King Hammurabi is remembered for his ‘Code’ or collection of laws. It was modeled on existing laws, but this was the largest law code assembled. The Code has 282 provisions which dealt with many aspects of life, including family rights, trade, slavery, tariffs, taxes, prices and wages. The Code tells us much about Babylonian society. The Code of Hammurabi is inscribed on a stone slab over 2 meters (6ft) high. At the top, the King is shown receiving laws from the Babylonian sun god, Shamash.
The laws are not the same for rich and poor, but the weak were given some protection against the tyranny of the strong. The Code was not the only law code in Mesopotamia, but the only one written in stone. The code was based on retribution, not justice, and varied unfairly between social classes.
Though in some ways the Code of Hammurabi strikes our modern eyes as a bit violent and primitive, it noteworthy that the Sumerians developed a legal system that was so specific. Not only that, we can see some of the foundations of our own modern legal ideas underpinning the Code as we read through it.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. If he satisfy the elders to impose a fine of grain or money, he shall receive the fine that the action produces.
5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge’s bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment.
In western society some aspects of modern family relationships and composition can be traced to ancient Mesopotamia and Babylonia. Ideas such as the wedding, marriage and divorce began developing then. Through innumerable legal documents from the Sumerian to the Seleucid period, we see the individual as father, son, brother or husband. The root of these relationships started with a proposal, followed by the marriage contract, and ending with the wedding. The young Mesopotamian couple then chose where to live. In certain circumstances, the male had to decide whether to have another wife or a concubine. In no time, the newlyweds begot children. The father, as the head of the family, had complete authority over them. This authority extended to such matters as adoption and inheritance. How big the family unit got depended on where in Mesopotamia it formed.
The family unit in Mesopotamia was small and restricted for the most part. In certain regions of southern Babylonia, however, clan-like or even tribal organizations of some sort existed. In neo-Babylonian times, a measure of family consciousness appeared in the form of ancestral family names for identification purposes. The first step in creating a family unit, whether small or clan-like, is of course the marriage. Ironically, for most of history, it left the prospective bride out of the decision-making process.
Marriage was regarded as a legal contract, and divorce as its breakup were similarly affected by official procedures. The future husband and his father-in-law agreed on a contract and if a divorce occurred, the father-in-law was entitled to satisfaction. The contract made between the suitor and the father of the expected bride stipulated a price for the maiden’s hand. She received the sum given to the father. If the marriage did not produce children then the price the groom had paid for his wife was returned to him upon on her death, if it had not been returned previously. Lack of children was not the only reason for returning the price paid for the wife; her death could create a refund.
Once married, the girl became a full member of her future husband’s family. If he died, she would marry one of his brothers or, if he lacked brothers, one of his near relatives. If these conditions did not take place, her father returned all his rights over her, and gave back all the presents that she had received except those consumed. Conversely, if the girl died, and her intended husband did not want to marry one of her sisters, he would take back all the presents that he had given her. An agreement once reached indicated that the actual wedding ceremony could now take place.
I enjoy this proverb also found amongst Sumerian writing….”Man for his pleasure, Marriage. On thinking it over….Divorce.”
The oldest proven records of brewing are about 6,000 years old and refer to the Sumerians. It is said that the Sumerians discovered the fermentation process by chance. A seal around 4,000 years old is a Sumerian “Hymn to Ninkasi,” the goddess of brewing. This “hymn” is also a recipe for making beer. No one knows today exactly how this occurred, but it could be that a piece of bread or grain became wet and a short time later, it began to ferment and a inebriating pulp resulted. These early accounts, with pictograms of what is recognizably barley, show bread being baked then crumbled into water to make a mash, which is then made into a drink that is recorded as having made people feel “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful!” It could be that baked bread was a convenient method of storing and transporting a resource for making beer. The Sumerians were able to repeat this process and are the first civilized culture to brew beer. They had discovered a “divine drink” which certainly was a gift from the gods.
The Sumerians recorded the movements of the planets over hundreds of years. A Sumerian priest who could read the cuneiform text about astronomy could tell you 50 years in advance on what day there would be a lunar eclipse. They had very accurate astronomical information, which we have confirmed with our modern science. They actually listed the distance between the outer planets and correctly cited the color of the outer planets such as Uranus and Neptune. When we sent the Galileo and Voyager probes into deep space in the late 70’s and early 80’s they took the first color pictures on the outer planets. NASA’s pictures exactly matched the Sumerian descriptions from 6,000 years ago as bluish-green planets.
Evidence of their knowledge can be seen is this amazing cylinder seal found in the British museum. Where as a backdrop to the drawing, we see our solar system with all the planets we know of and the sun listed correctly in the center. We did not know the sun was in the center of our solar system well into the time of Copernicus and Galileo. They used advanced mathematics combined with new advances in the telescope to make these conclusions. But somehow the Sumerian culture from 6,000 years ago already knew this information. But how did they know?
The Sumerians were the first ones to divide the heavens into 12 parts, assigning each section of the sky with a symbol. Remember the number 12 as we will see it has a key influence in our our modern culture directly passed down from the Sumerian culture. As we move into later sections of the book, we will discuss in more depth the profound importance of the 12 signs of the zodiac and the precession of the equinox as seen in the constellations of the night sky.
Bear in mind that the Sumerians identified the 12 constellations of the zodiac and the precession of the equinox—and we still use the same system today. They clearly had a remarkable system for understanding the night sky, and they were quite familiar with a race of beings who came to them from out of that sky. In fact, with any study of ancient Sumerian texts, it becomes more and more clear that the Sumerians did not come up with everything they knew just on their own. As we move on, keep in mind also the image of the astronaut so clearly carved into the Nazca plain that we discussed earlier. Keep in mind the inexplicable faces of the megalithic statues on Easter Island, the remarkable astronomical significance of the arrangement of the Egyptian Pyramids and the massive stones that make up Stonehenge. You must ask yourself—what is the connection among all these things?
Probably the most significant contribution the Sumerians made to human history and culture is the written word. The Sumerian form of writing was called cuneiform script. It consisted of someone using what looked like an over sized screw driver that they would then turn and twist into wet clay, leaving the symbols behind. Cuneiform script has over 400 characters. That is pretty amazing for the first alphabet we have on record.
What is more amazing is what they wrote in the clay. They wrote most of their text in wet clay, then would place these clay tablets into a stove and make them into stone. They literally coined the phrase “writing in stone.”
Along with their stone tablet texts were small round stone cylinder seals that had reversed carved images cut into the stone. And when pressed into wet clay they leave the positive imprinted image. It was quite an ingenious way to have an ancient printing press. They could easily create tablets and images to spread throughout the culture.
They used this system of writing to record all kinds of information. Mainly it was used to record daily transactions of sales, or texts for education.