Sometime in the early fourth millennium B.C.E. In Mesopotamia (currently Iran, Iraq and formerly Persia), a very critical event occurred which changed the face of civilization, namely the settlement of the great river valley bounded by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. It was after this pivotal event that writing, art, architecture and new political forms were introduced in Mesopotamia ("The Land Between the Rivers") which brought about the drama so closely linked to Western society.
After several centuries, Semitic nomad shepherds came from the western desert and adopted much of what was then the Sumerian culture. This led to the construction of great cities in the northern regions, such as Kish, Akkad and Babylon. And through the rise and development of these cities, numerous kings emerged that in essence controlled every aspect of human society. One of the mightiest was Hammurabi who established a centralized government that ruled the whole country. Perhaps the most renowned king in Mesopotamian history, Hammurabi is best known for his codification of the confusing, conflicting and often unwritten laws of the Mesopotamian towns and cities. Thus, through the efforts of Hammurabi, order overcame chaos, due to his codes that set the precedent for peace and prosperity in ancient Mesopotamia.
The codes themselves were inscribed on what is now known as the Stele of Hammurabi which shows the great king receiving his inspiration for the codes from the god Shamash. This confrontation between man and god expresses the true humanization of natural law and, not
surprisingly, even influenced later Middle Eastern cultures, especially those found in modern-day Israel. With a close reading of the Old Testament, particularly in the Book of Exodus, one can easily discern that Moses, the alleged author of Exodus, was highly influenced by the codes of Hammurabi.
In the Book of Exodus, the laws are not listed as found in the codes of Hammurabi, meaning that they are imbedded in the text in the form of a narrative. But like the codes of Hammurabi, the laws in Exodus were allegedly handed down to Moses by God Himself, much like Shamash giving the codes to Hammurabi as represented on the stele. Also, the laws in Exodus were meant to be covenant laws given to the people of Israel in order to demonstrate how they must live as the "children of God." Similarly, the codes of Hammurabi were designed as a guide for the people of Mesopotamia and especially Babylon, i.e. through the codes the people were told how to live amongst themselves in a peaceful and orderly society. In essence, in Mesopotamia and Israel, the over-riding cultural factor was the concept of law and authority which guaranteed vitality, stability and continuity within each society.
As a preface to the codes, Hammurabi declares that "When Marduk sent me to rule over men, to give the protection of right to the land, I did right and righteousness. . . And brought about the well-being of the oppressed," meaning that Hammurabi had the permission of the gods to convey their codes and laws to the common man. To begin with, codes fifteen through twenty concern slaves and their masters -- "If anyone receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation
of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death" (Code 16). Likewise, "If he holds the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death" (Code 19). In the Book of Exodus, it is pointed out that "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve, and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (21:2), but if the slave/servant refuses to go, "Then the master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him forever" (21:6).
In the codes, it appears that slaves have little if any rights, especially those that escape from their masters. In Exodus, the slaves/servants have some rights, for the law dictates that a slave can only serve his master for six years in he was bought at auction; in the seventh, year, he can obviously leave by his own free choice. But the biggest difference is the use of the death penalty in the codes. If the master is caught keeping runaway slaves in his house or fails to tell the "major domus" (being a judge or magistrate) of these slaves, he will be "put to death."
In Exodus, if a slave/servant refuses to leave after his six-year term of service, all the master can do to him physically is "bore his ear through with an awl," a reference to a small, pointy tool often used in woodworking. Thus, the slave is then bound to serve his master for life. Possibly, the use of the awl to pierce the slave's ear may be a ritual meant to physically mark the slave so that other will know that he/she is a disobedient person.
In regard to theft and robbery, the codes state "If anyone steal the property of the temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death" (Code 6); "If anyone steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or
a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death" (Code 8), and "If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death" (Code 22). Likewise, the Book of Exodus states "If a man shall deliver unto his neighbor money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man's house; if the thief be found, let him pay double" (22:7) and "If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges to see whether he have put his hands unto his neighbor's good" (22:8). The closest comparison here is that if the thief is caught, he must make compensation in money by paying thirty times the cost of the stolen merchandise (if stolen from the gods or the court) and ten times if the merchandise belonged to a free man; in Exodus, the thief must pay double the cost. But once again, the codes specifically state that if the thief cannot pay or is caught red-handed, then he will be "put to death." It seems that the laws so far in Exodus are not as strict as those in the codes, due to the fact that the Babylonians were notorious for their savagery and eagerness to see guilty persons put to the sword.
In the codes, "If fire break out in a house, and someone who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire (Code 25). Similarly, in the Book of Exodus, "If fire break out, and catch in thorns so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed. . . he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution" (22:6). Again, the Babylonian codes are very strict when it comes to another person's property; even worse, if the person who comes to help extinguish the fire steals the property inside the burning house, he will
be killed. In Exodus, the firestarter only has to make restitution in the form of money or goods for the corn lost in the fire. Interestingly, it appears that the Babylonians were extremely consumer-oriented, meaning that they treasured earthly goods, whereas the Israelites had more concern for their foodstuff.
As to other criminal acts, the code of Hammurabi makes it perfectly clear that "If anyone ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he cannot prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death" (Code 1) and "if anyone 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" (Code 3). These two laws concern charging someone, such as a neighbor or a relative, with a crime against the state. And like so many of the other codes, the person who does the accusing (false witness), if he cannot prove his accusations, will be put to death.