If you landed on this page to learn about ancient legal codes, you are in for a treat. This short article compares ancient codes with criminal law found in the bible (not all law in the bible is criminal law) and shows differences that many university professors fail to highlight. It also gives biblical reasons why there are some limited similarities between the bible and other ancient legal systems. If you have questions about laws found in the bible, feel free to email us at supremejustice.org or order our book on the subject.
Is it possible that men knew God’s basic criminal justice law long before Moses was born? Yes, and such knowledge helps to explain how so many ancient cultures had similar laws. In primitive societies after Noah’s flood, oral traditions and established customs dictated laws governing behavior. Oral tradition is why Enoch’s prophecy of Christ’s return, uttered prior to Noah’s flood in Genesis, does not appear anywhere in written form for thousands of years, until after Christ’s resurrection, when it was finally written down in Jude 1:14. Likewise, God’s basic criminal code was passed down verbally in various degrees of purity. For example, in Genesis 26:5, the Lord complimented Abraham for his faithfulness, saying, "Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws," alluding to the possibility that Abraham knew the basics of God’s criminal justice system centuries before Moses. As such, good criminal statutes were available to ancient cultures, though like today, societies often corrupted the law into things God would not endorse. As a result, when oral traditions were eventually inscribed into clay or carved into stone, the written record sometimes included the bizarre. For example, The Code of Hammurabi prescribed that a person accused of sorcery should throw himself into a river. If he drowned in the river, then the Babylonians considered him guilty!
What are some of the ancient written legal codes and when were they written? The Code of UrNammu, circa B.C. 2000, existed as a set of laws toward the end of Abraham’s life. King Bilalama’s Code of Eshnunna, circa B.C. 1925, was written near the death of Isaac. The Code of Lipit-Ishtar, circa B.C. 1868, was written shortly before Jacob died. While the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, The Code of Hammurabi, circa B.C. 1750, was chiseled into a 7-foot by 2½-foot pillar. The Mosaic Code (Law of Moses), circa B.C. 1445, was written after the Egyptian exodus of the Hebrews. Coincidentally, The Hittite Code was written about the same time as The Law of Moses.
In forgetting that God had made known basic criminal law to ancient men such as Noah and Abraham, critics of the Bible assert that Moses plagiarized other nations to create laws for Israel. However, because societies in general and Abraham in particular disseminated laws by way of oral tradition, it is not surprising to find that some of these ancient legal codes contain similarities among themselves. For example, note the following similarities from the Code of Hammurabi with the Bible:
"If a citizen has struck a citizen in a brawl, and has caused him injury, this citizen shall swear, "I did not strike him deliberately, but he shall pay the bill of the physician." (CH 206). Compared with, "And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed: if he rise again and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed" (Exodus 21, 18 19).
"If a citizen hired an ox, and god smote it and it has died, the citizen who hired the ox shall swear by god (to be innocent) and then shall go free" (CH 249). Compared with, "If a man deliver unto his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it: then shall an oath of the Lord be between them both, that the hath not put his hand unto his case is not subject to the claim" (Exodus 22:10).
"If the ox of a citizen is a gorer, and his city council make it known to him that it was a gorer, but he did not cut its horns, or tie up his ox, and the ox has gored to death the son of a citizen, he shall give one-half mina of silver" (CH 251). Compared with, "If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:28-29).
However, there is something far more remarkable and abundant than the few similarities between ancient legal codes and God’s criminal code of the Bible: the many differences between them. For example, in ancient Babylon, there were three distinct social classes each with different laws and punishments: the amelu, or senior class, the mushkinu, or the working class of commoners, and the slaves, who were little more than chattel to their masters.[i] The Code of Hammurabi states the following:
“If a senior has knocked out a tooth of a senior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth” (HC 200), but, “If he has knocked out a commoner’s tooth, he shall pay one-third mina of silver.” (HC 201)
“If a member of the aristocracy has struck the cheek of another member of the aristocracy who is of the same rank of himself, he shall pay one mina of silver.” (HC 203), but, “If a commoner has stuck the cheek of another commoner, he shall pay [only] ten shekels of silver.”
Even though Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house in Egypt and would be familiar with The Code of Hammurabi and other such legal systems, the law that he penned was radically different. Though there are different groups of people mentioned in The Mosaic Code, including slaves, when it came strictly to criminal law, God commanded equitable and impartial treatment of all people, regardless of their social status: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour” (Leviticus 19:15); “Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous” (Deuteronomy 16:19).
Another of the many differences between ancient legal systems and God’s criminal justice system is their capital punishment statutes. When reading ancient legal codes that existed prior to Moses, it is interesting to list the number of crimes against property that carried the death penalty and compare them to all the crimes against people that had no death penalty. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, states, “If a man committed robbery and has been caught, that man shall be put to death.” In comparison, The Hittite Code, written at the same time as the Law of Moses, contained no death penalty for the crime of murder. In contrast, in the Law of Moses, God gave no death penalty for crimes against property. Instead, God mandated death in many instances when the crime was against people - and not just for murder. Thus, on the issue of capital punishment alone, the Law of Moses is remarkably opposite in practice from prominent legal systems of the ancient world as found in the Code of Hammurabi and the Hittite Code.
Even when ancient laws stipulated death for crimes against people, the character of those laws were often at odds with what God gave Moses. For example, both the Code of UrNammu and the Code of Eshnunna state that in cases of adultery, only the woman would be executed (definitely a law written by men). These laws existed roughly half a millennia before Moses climbed Mt. Sinai. However, when Moses delivered the law he had received from Jehovah, it reaffirmed equal justice for men and women: both the man and woman caught in the act of adultery are to be executed (Leviticus 20:10).
The way ancient laws were introduced marks yet another difference between the statutes given to Moses and the laws of ancient cultures. The extant preambles to ancient legal codes contain an over abundance of bragging. In each instance, the king details a long list of accomplishments as to why he is worthy of being chosen by the gods to be judge, lawgiver, and spokesman for the nation. Mighty feats of both the man and the gods that chose the man are memorialized in these preambles. For example, in English, the preamble to the Code of Hammurabi contains almost a thousand words to commemorate its pompous inauguration.
Standing in stark contrast to all the preambles of ancient legal codes is the one given by Moses when he first descended from Mount Sinai to give law to Israel: “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). In English, the preamble to Mosaic law is only twenty-two words! Absent are the grand embellishments common in other preambles, and this curt introduction truly speaks to the authenticity and magnitude of the Exodus story itself: when God said He was the one that brought Israel out of Egypt, He said it all! There was no need to embellish the message or promote the messenger, because the devastation of both Egypt and its plethora of false gods was a well-known fact to the surrounding nations (Joshua 9:9). In fact, of the exploits cited by ancient preambles, the majority of them faded from existence long ago, whether they were temples or the wealth of a certain city. Only Jehovah’s preamble is still valid: Jews walk among today’s nations, having been taken out of Egypt’s house of bondage over three thousand years ago, and Egypt never regained its former glory.
In an optimistic moment, Moses did boast in the legal system that God gave to Israel, and he recognized that it stood out from among other legal systems. Moses’ confidence that other nations would view Israel’s laws in a positive light could have been fully realized if Israel had been faithful to Jehovah. The Gentiles would have looked at Israel’s prosperity and sought out why they were doing so well compared to pagan nations. Moses thought the obvious reason would be Israel’s godly legal system:
“For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
[i] Wooley, L. The Sumerians. AMS Press, New York. 1970. pg. 95.