Doesn't the Code of Hammurabi "eye for an eye" concept predate Biblical law?

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Answered Questions

We could call this a "fully-loaded" question: the questioner assumes two things as facts which are not facts, hoping that you will accept them without challenge. Therefore, let's challenge them. To do this, we must separate his question into two related questions:

  1. Does the "eye for an eye" (lex talionis) concept predate the law of God articulated by Moses in the Sinai Covenant (circa 1400 B.C.)?
  2. Does the Code of Hammurabi actually support lex talionis?

Lex talionis before the Sinai Covenant

Yes, the "eye for an eye" concept (lex talionis) was revealed to mankind prior to the time of Moses. We see it implied in the following commandment given to Noah, as recorded in Genesis:

6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in his own image. Genesis 9:6WEB

For more information, see Was God's law available prior to Sinai?.

Hammurabi's Code is not talionic

The word talion comes from the Latin talio, meaning "such" or "like." The idea is that retributive justice is limited to a "like" punishment inflicted upon the person actually responsible for the offense. This directly opposes the escalating tribal feuds that are common in tribal cultures ("you kill one of our family, we'll kill two of yours"), which often involve punishing people who are only guilty of being related to the original offender.

The concept of talion ("like punishment" as justice) is from God, not Hammurabi. All you need to do is read the Code of Hammurabi (which I encourage you to do -- it's not very long) to see how deficient it is, compared with God's standards for justice.

Here are some examples from this Babylonian law code:

(198) If [a man] has destroyed the sight of a working man or broken a bone of a working man, he shall pay one mana of silver. (199) If he has destroyed the sight of another man's slave or broken a bone of another man's slave, he shall pay half his value in silver. ... [1]

Comment: This is price-fixing the penalty for injury. Also, the penalty was not paid to the slave who was the victim (and the slave was certainly not given his freedom). It was paid to the owner of the slave.

(202) If a man has struck the cheek of a man who is more important than he, he shall be struck in the council 60 times with an ox-tail. (203) If one man has struck the cheek of another such man of similar status, he shall pay one mana of silver. (204) If a working man has struck the cheek of another working man, he shall pay ten shekels of silver. (205) If a man's slave has struck the cheek of another man, they shall cut off his ear.[2]

Comment: The above are just a few examples of the pervasive class distinctions (and price controls) in the penalties of Hammurabi's code. How could anyone possibly claim that these are talionic penalties? Cutting off an ear for striking a man on the cheek?

(209) If a man has struck the daughter of a man and has made her lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for the foetus.

(210) If that woman has died, they shall kill his daughter.
(211) If he has made a commoner's daughter lose her unborn child by the violence, he shall pay five shekels of silver.
(212) If that woman has died, he shall pay half a mana of silver.

(213) If he has struck a man's slave-girl and made her lose her unborn child, he shall pay two shekels of silver.[3]

Comment: Examples of price-fixing the penalty of homicide. Also vicarious punishment -- killing a man's daughter if he kills a woman.

(L7) If a man has bought silver, gold, a slave, a slave-girl, an ox, a sheep, a donkey or anything else from a man's son or a man's slave without properly witnessed receipts, even if he has accepted them just to look after them, that man is a thief, and shall be killed.[4]

Comment: Death penalty for not getting a receipt. Biblical law not only doesn't force people to get reciepts, it has no death penalty for theft or other property crimes.

(L8) If a man has stolen an ox, or a sheep, or a donkey, or a pig, or a boat he shall pay thirty times its value if it belongs to a god or a temple and repay ten times its value if it belongs to a workman. If that thief does not have enough to pay he shall be killed.[5]

Comment: You are given the death penalty if you cannot pay back what you stole. There is nothing of this kind in Biblical law.

(25) If there has been an outbreak of fire in a man's house and a man who has gone to put it out catches sight of the private possessions of the owner of the house and takes them, that man shall be thrown into that same fire.[6]

Comment: Death penalty for looting, a property crime.

(108) If instead of grain a brewer has accepted silver weighed with a large weight-stone for the price of drink, thus making the price of the drink less than the price of the grain, they shall prove that brewer guilty and throw her into the water.[7]

Comment: The River Ordeal (in Babylon) would normally result in death.

(229) If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made his work strong enough and the house he has made has collapsed and caused the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be killed. (230) If it has caused the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall kill that builder's son.
(231) If it has caused the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give a slave for the slave to the owner of the house.[8]

Comment: Vicarious punishment again, which is completely disallowed in Biblical law.

  1. M. E. J. Richardson: "Hammurabi's Laws. Text, Translation and Glossary", T&T Clark International: London, New York, 2004., 105
  2. Richardson, 105
  3. Richardson, 105
  4. Richardson, 45
  5. Richardson, 45
  6. Richardson, 51
  7. Richardson, 75
  8. Richardson, 109