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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.



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Hammurabi (Ha-am-mu-ra-bi), the sixth king of the first Babylonian dynasty; well known for over fifty years to students of Babylonian history. Inscriptions of Hammurabi were published by Rawlinson in 1861 and Oppert in 1863; the “Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian tablets, etc., in the British Museum” contained many letters and other documents belonging to his period; finally the most valuable work of L. W. King, “Letters and Inscriptions of Hammurabi” (1898-1900) supplied a mine of information on the reign of the now famous Babylonian ruler of 4000 years ago. The origin and etymology of Hammurabi’s name are somewhat puzzling, for this name does not appear to be distinctly Babylonian. Later scribes regarded it as foreign and translated it Kimtarapaashtum, “great family”, a fairly good rendering of Hammurabi in the S. Arabian dialect. It is noteworthy that, with only two exceptions, the names of the kings of that so-called Babylonian dynasty are likewise best explained from the Arabic. This fact gives much weight to the hypothesis, first suggested by Pognon in 1888, of the Arabic or Aramean origin of that dynasty. All scholars seem to agree that the nationality of these rulers must be sought in the “land of Amurru”, whereby the Babylonians designated all the regions lying to the west (N. and S.) of their own country.

There is not so great a divergence of opinions as to the date to be assigned to Hammurabi. The King-lists would suggest 2342 B.C. as the date of his accession; but it is now commonly believed that these lists need to be interpreted, for from the “Chronicles concerning early Babylonian Kings”, published by L. W. King (1907), it appears that the first and second Babylonian dynasties were not successive, but in part contemporary; the first kings of the second dynasty (that of Shesh-ha) ruled not at Babylon, but on “the Sea-country”. Other indications furnished by Nabonidus, Assurbanipal, and Berosus lead us to lower the above date. Thureau-Dangin and Ungnad place the reign of Hammurabi between 2130 and 2088 B.C.; Toffteen adopts the dates 2121-2066 B.C.; King suggests 1990-1950 B.C.; Father Scheil, O.P., says 2056 B.C. is the probable date of the king’s accession, which Father Dhorme places in 2041. Hammurabi’s was therefore a long reign. Since the victorious expedition of Kutir-Nahbunte, in 2285, against Babylonia, the latter country had been in a condition of vassalage to Elam. Under Hammurabi’s predecessors, it gradually improved its condition; but it was reserved to him to free it from the foreign yoke. In the thirtieth year of his reign, Hammurabi defeated the army of Kudur-Lagamar (?), King of Elam, thereby winning Babylonia‘s independence; the ensuing year he completed this success by conquering the lands of Iamutbala (W. of Elam) and Larsa, and taking, in consequence, the title of King of Sumer and Akkad. Other triumphs followed: Rabiqu, Dupliash, Kar-Shamash, possibly Turukku, Kakmum, and Sube fell into his power, so that towards the end of his life he had knit together into a mighty empire N. and S. Babylonia, and very likely extended his sway, at least nominally, over the land of Amurru as far as Chanaan.

The warlike exploits of “Hammurabi, the strong warrior, the destroyer of his foes, the hurricane of battle”, are not perhaps such as would make him the peer of the most renowned captains; what has won for him a well-deserved prominent place among the rulers of kingdoms is that to his military achievements he joined the wisdom of a consummate statesman in the government of his vast domains. From the brief outline of his reign sketched in the “Chronicles” we learn that every year there was some important work accomplished: temples erected or restored, cities built or embellished, canals dug, agricultural progress promoted, justice reestablished; and his letters witness to the attention given by him to every detail of administration: revenue, public works, regulation of food supplies, exemptions from duty. Assyriologists agree that Hammurabi’s reign was, moreover, a period of great literary activity. The interest which attaches to his history has waxed more intense since Schrader proposed, in 1887, to identify this prince with Amraphel, King of Sennaar, mentioned in Gen., xiv. That Sennaar (Hebr. Shin’ar) corresponds to Shaanhaar, an Assyrian name for Babylonia, is beyond dispute; that the two names Hammurabi and Amraphel are phonetically identical, most scholars readily admit; as, moreover, the other names cited in the same context: “Arioch, king of Pontes (Hebr. Ellasar), and Chodorlahomor, king of the Elamites, and Thadal king of nations (Hebr. Goyim)”, may designate Rim-Sin (‘-Riw-Aku), King of Larsa, Kudur-Lagamar, King of Elam, and a certain Thudlhula, otherwise unknown, sar matati, i.e. “king of the (foreign) countries”, the identification of Hammurabi and Amraphel is, to say the least, very probable. We should gather thence that the expedition referred to in the Bible must have taken place before Rim-Sin‘s downfall, when Babylon was still a vassal to Elam, hence before the thirtieth year of Hammurabi’s reign, that is to say, before about 2010, a date in perfect agreement with the probable chronology of Abraham.

The discovery of Hammurabi’s Code has raised him to a leading place in the roll of the greatest men of antiquity. This wonderful document was unearthed partly in December, 1901, and partly in January, 1902, by the French Delegation en Perse, under M. de Morgan, in their excavations at Susa, once the capital of Elam and, later, of Persia. The stele containing the Code is an obelisk-like block of black diorite measuring 7 ft. 4i in. in height and 6 ft. 91 in. in circumference at the base. With the exception of a large carving in relief on the upper end, it was once entirely covered with forty-four columns (over 3800 lines) of text in the old Babylonian wedge-writing. From the inscription we learn that it was engraved for the temple of Shamash at Sippar, and that another copy stood in the temple of Marduk in the city of Babylon, and the discovery of various fragments makes it probable that more copies had been set up in different cities. This stele, now in the Louvre Museum, was carried off from Sippar, about 1120 B.C., by Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Elam, who set it in his capital as a trophy of his victory. To this circumstance should likely be attributed the chiselling away of some five columns of the text, probably to make place for a record of the Elamite ruler’s triumphs, which, however, was never written. The relief carved at the upper end of the stele represents the king standing before the sun-god Shamash seated upon a throne, clothed in a flounced robe, wearing the swathed headgear and holding in his hand the scepter and ring.

With wonderful promptness, the editio princeps of the text, accompanied with a French translation, was published late in 1902. A German version by Winckler, and one in English by Johns, appeared in 1903. The text of the inscription may be divided into three parts: the introduction, the Code, and the conclusion. In the first part there is a lengthy enumeration of Hammurabi’s honorific titles and a recital of his deeds of war and peace, ending with these words, very aptly prefacing the Code: “When Marduk sent me to govern men, to sustain and instruct the world, right and justice in the land I established, I brought about the happiness of men”.

According to a fragment found in Assurbanipal’s library, the Code contained 285 “legal judgments of Hammurabi” (Cuneif. Texts, etc., XIII, pl. 46 and 47). Fr. Scheil estimated that the five columns erased, as has been described above, contained about forty laws; the exact number might be 37, thus giving a total of 285; at any rate, the numbering of the editio princeps is usually followed.

An idea of the comprehensiveness of the Code may be gathered from the enumeration of the legal matters, both civil and criminal, dealt with in it. It opens with two laws concerning ban and witchcraft (§§ 1, 2), two dealing with false witnesses (§§ 3, 4), and one on prevaricating judges (§ 5). The next laws treat of theft (§§ 6-8), stolen property found in another’s hand (§§ 9-13), kidnapping (§ 14), escape and kidnapping of slaves (§§ 15-20), burglary and brigandage (§§ 21-25). Others are devoted to feudal relations to the king (§§ 26-41); the relations between landowner and cultivator (§§ 42-52), responsibility for damages caused to crops by careless farmers (§§ 53-56) and shepherds (§§ 57, 5$), enactments concerning orchards (§ § 59-65).

Among the laws chiselled off, three have been recovered by Fr. Scheil from mutilated copies of the Code; they deal with loans and house-renting. Following the blank space are provisions touching the respective rights of merchants and agents (§§ 100-107) and the policing of wine-shops (§§ 108-111), appropriation of consignments (§ 112), debts (§§ 113-119), and deposits (§§ 120-126) are also treated of. These are followed by laws treating of the family. Slander against a woman, either dedicated to a god or married, opens the series (§ 127); then, after having defined the position of the woman (§ 128), the Code deals with adultery (§ 129), violation of a married virgin (§ 130), suspicion of unchastity (§§ 131, 132), separation and divorce (§§ 133-143), taking a concubine (§§ 144-149), women’s property (§§ 150-152), various forms of unchastity (§§ 153-158), and the customs regarding the purchase price for, and the marriage portion of, the bride (§§ 159-164). Inheritance laws come next; they define the rights of children, wives, concubines (§§ 165-174), slaves (§§ 175-176), widows (§ 177), and non-marriageable temple-and street-girls (§§ 178-184); provisions respecting adoption and foster-children (§§ 185-193) conclude this important part of the Code. Following are various series of regulations concerning personal damages (§§ 194-214), fees and responsibilities of physicians (§§ 215-227), payment and responsibilities of house-builders (§§ 228-233), ship-builders (§§ 234, 235), and boatmen (§§ 236-240). Another set is devoted to agricultural labor: hiring of domestic animals (§§ 241-249), injuries caused by goring oxen (§§ 250-252), the hiring of persons, animals, wagons, and ships (§§ 253-277). The last regulations deal with slave-trade (§§ 278-281) and the penalty inflicted on rebellious slaves (§ 282).

The conclusion of the inscription sounds like a hymn of high-keyed self-praise. The document ends with a blessing for those who will obey the laws and a long series of curses against him who will give no heed to the laws, or interfere with the word of the Code. Hammurabi’s Code cannot by any means be regarded as a faltering attempt to frame laws among a young and inexperienced people. Such a masterpiece of legislation could befit only a thriving and well-organized nation, given to agriculture and commerce, long since grown familiar with the security afforded by written deeds drawn up with all the niceties and solemnities which clever jurists could devise, and accustomed to transact no business otherwise. It is inspired through-out by an appreciation of the right and humane sentiments that make it surpass by far the stern old Roman law.

Of all the ancient legislations, that of the Hebrews alone can stand comparison with the Babylonian Code. The many points of resemblance between the two, the Babylonian origin of the father of the Hebrew race, the long relations of Babylon with the land of Amurru, have prompted modern scholars to investigate whether the undeniable relation of the two codes is not one of dependence. The conclusions arrived at may be briefly stated as follows. Needless to notice that Hammurabi is in no wise indebted to the Hebrew Law. As to the latter, its older part, the Code of the Covenant (Exod., xxi, 1-xxiii, 19), is intended for a semi-nomad people, and therefore cannot depend on Hammurabi’s enactments. Both codes derive from a common older source, to be sought in the early customs of the Semitic race, when Babylonians, Hebrews, Arabs, and others were still forming one people. The work of the Hebrew lawgiver consisted in codifying these ancient usages as he found them, and promulgating them under Yahweh’s authority. The early Israelite code may, perhaps, seem imperfect in comparison with the Babylonian corpus juris; but, whilst the latter is founded upon the dictates of reason, the Hebrew Law is grounded on the faith in the one true God, and is pervaded throughout by an earnest desire to obey and please Him, which reaches its highest expression in the Law of Deuteronomy.


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