What was the Code of Hammurabi and Mosaic Law? Do you think that the Code of Hammurabi and Mosaic Law were too strict? What would you change, if anything? Why or why not?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Code of Hammurabi was one of the world's first legal systems. It was written by King Hammurabi, a Babylonian of the Mesopotamian civilization, in the early 1700s BCE. The Code was written in cuneiform, the earliest known written language. In Hammurabi's Code we see scaled, retributive justice, or lex talionis—this means that a crime is usually met with a similar punishment. Gandhi later summarized this as "an eye for an eye." Let's look at some of Hammurabi's Code to get a sense of how this retributive justice worked. For reference, the number is the "law." There were 282 of them.

197. If he breaks a nobleman's... bone, his bone shall be broken.

200. If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out. [tooth for a tooth]

218. If a physician performs an operation and kills someone or cuts out his eye, the doctor’s hands shall be cut off.

These three laws represent some of the retributive justice—if the hands of a surgeon kills someone or removes an eye, that surgeon loses the hand. If a man knocks out another man's tooth, he will also lose that tooth. However, Hammurabi's Code is not so simple as to ignore social classes and gender roles. One thing we can learn about Babylonian society through Hammurabi's Laws is that there were different expectations for different social classes, and women were not treated equally to men. First, some examples of social class difference:

197. If he breaks a nobleman's... bone, his bone shall be broken.

198. If he puts out the eye of a freed man, or breaks the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he puts out the eye of a man's slave, or breaks the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

In this instance, if a man breaks the bone of a nobleman, he too shall have his bones broken. But if he breaks the man of a freed man (implying he was one not free or is of a lower class), then he doesn't have to suffer a broken bone but has to pay a fee. If a man breaks the bone of a slave, he only needs to pay half the value of the slave. What we're witnessing here is a codified social system. That punishments are meted out based on your social class is something that will have a long lasting effects on future social hierarchies. Let's look at how Hammurabi's Code treats women:

109. If outlaws meet in the tavern and are not captured and delivered to the court/palace, the female tavern-keeper shall be put to death.

110. If a holy woman opens a tavern door or enters a tavern for a drink, she shall be burned to death.

There are other examples regarding marriage and intimacy, but these two laws demonstrate for us that women are given and held to different expectations than men. Oftentimes women...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

are given harsher punishments than men for similar crimes, or only the woman is guilty of the crime.

Hammurabi's Code also shows us, however, the idea of innocent before proven guilty:

127. If any one "point the finger" at (slanders or accuses of adultery) a holy woman or someone else’s wife but cannot prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked (by cutting the skin, or perhaps cutting off half his hair.)

In other words, if someone is blamed but guilt cannot be proven, the person who "pointed the finger" or accused the innocent party of the crime will be punished.

The Mosaic Law, or Moses' Laws, were the laws written by Moses. These are also commonly called the Ten Commandments. It also refers to the first five books of the Torah. Among these laws are some of the ones still practices by those of Jewish and Christian faith, like "thou shall not kill," "thou shall not steal," and "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." There are some similar themes to Hammurabi's Code, including ideas about not lying about crimes.

I personally do not believe that they were too strict, as they were some of the first examples of codified law. However, there would be some things I would change (retroactively, and coming from a 21st century Western perspective) concerning their treatment of women. It is important to remember context, though, and try to understand how societies functioned which gave way to codes like this. Clearly, Hammurabi's Code and codes like it provide historians with insight in to how life functioned in the 18th century BCE and beyond.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team