The Code of Hammurabi (Reading Notes)

Updated: Aug 27, 2018

NOTE: These are merely private reading notes that I may develop into something later. This is not currently a blog entry, per se.

2. So, if you throw a person into a river and they sink, then they must have been guilty. If they float, then they must have been innocent, which makes the accuser a slanderer, which means the accuser must be put to death. So, if someone robs me or rapes my wife — but also happens to know how to swim or float on his back — then he gets away Scott-free and I end up getting stoned to death. I don’t know, Mr. Hammurabi; that sounds pretty crazy to me!

5. If a judge renders a wrong judgment due to negligence, then he must pay 12 times the judgment amount, AND he will never work again as a judge. That creates a very strong incentive to avoid judicial mistakes! What happens to an American judge if he gets it wrong? Why should an American judge avoid being careless?

15-20. It must have REALLY SUCKED to be a slave. It is incredible to me how the concept of human rights was limited to only certain kinds of humans. It is only recently that economic improvements have freed the conscience to tell the truth, at least in most of the world.

21. If you put a hole in someone’s house in order to rob them, you shall be put to death EVEN BEFORE THE HOLE IS FILLED! Now THAT is swift and accurate justice! But how can you properly adjudicate the thing faster than it takes to repair a hole?

23. If someone robs a house and is not caught, then the community where the robbery occurred must compensate the victim’s loss, even if they had nothing to do with the robbery. Consider for a moment how strongly this incentivizes each community to police itself!

25. If you help someone put out a fire at his house, but rob him in the meantime, they’ll throw your ass on the very same fire! But what if you didn’t do it? When is your day in court?

32. If you are captured in war but a merchant buys you as a slave, you can buy your freedom if you have the means. If you don’t have the means to buy your freedom, then your community or nation must pay the merchant for your freedom. In any case, you will never be asked to trade your estate for your freedom if you were purchased as a slave after being a prisoner of war. Thinking of people as property creates all kinds of paradoxes. How can you have the absolute right to keep your estate when, as a slave, you have no right even to live as you wish?

48. You can wash a debt-tablet in water to erase it. I’ve seen some of those ancient debt tablets. They are made of clay. I wonder what the penalty might have been for illegally “cancelling a debt” by washing the tablet in water.

53. If your dam breaks and floods your neighbor’s fields, you will be sold into slavery. Quite an incentive to keep the dam from breaking!

108-110: You don’t want to be a woman tavern-keeper in ancient Babylon! They’ll put you to death for overcharging for your drinks, or if an evil scheme is hatched in your tavern! Consider, however, how strongly this incentivizes tavern keepers to listen carefully to their customers and report any conspiracies immediately. Criminals like to drink, so they probably like to discuss their plans in a tavern. This is the polar opposite of the “don’t snitch” mentality that prevails in our most crime-ridden communities.

116: If a merchant beats a debt prisoner to death, his punishment is to have his son killed — but only if the prisoner was a free man. If the prisoner was a slave, then the punishment is to pay 1/3 of a mina of gold (whatever that means). BEING A SLAVE MUST HAVE SUCKED BALLS. Being a son must not have been much better.

117: You could sell your wife or children as slaves in order to pay a debt — but they had to be set free after three years. Nonetheless, CAN YOU IMAGINE?

132: So, if someone says you cheated on your husband, but you say you didn’t, you have to jump in a river so everyone can see whether or not you float. WTF?

135: Your wife can bone another dude if you are taken as a prisoner of war, but if you come back eventually, then she has to leave her new husband and children to come live with you. Who would want that?

137-140: The terms of divorce are surprisingly fair. If he dumps her after she has borne him children, she essentially gets a portion of all that is his. If she has not borne him children, he has to back all of her “purchase money” and dowry. If there was no purchase, he has to give her one mina “as a gift.”

141: If a woman starts acting up too much, the dude can marry another woman and turn his first wife into a household servant! Wow! Those were the days!

146: If you have a child with your wife’s slave (i.e. maidservant), you can still keep the maidservant as a slave even though she has borne you children. Ouch.

148: If your wife is struck with disease, you can marry another, but you cannot put your sick first wife out on the streets. You must take care of her in perpetuity, with your new wife around, for as long as she wants to stay with you. Sounds AWKWARD.

153: If you kill a man’s wife or your own husband in order to be with another man, you and that other man will be impaled on a fucking stick. Speaks for itself.

154-157: If you fuck your daughter, you are driven from home. If you fuck your mother, you are burned. Why the difference?

179: Prostitutes had rights in ancient Babylon, and were even referred to as “sisters of gods.” What does this mean, exactly?

180: Prostitutes were considered unmarriageable, but they also had specific inheritance rights that were nonetheless significantly less than their male siblings.

192-193: If you are the son of a prostitute or paramour (i.e. your biological father’s illicit lover), and you disown your adoptive parents, they have the right to cut your tongue out! Holy shit! If the son of a prostitute or paramour who has been adopted into another family goes to his biological father’s house, the adoptive family has the right to stab out your eyes! WTF?

194: If a child dies in the care of wet nurse, and it is discovered that she nursed another child beyond or instead of the one entrusted to her, they can cut her breasts off! Jesus!

195: If you hit your father, you get your hands cut off. Christ! What if your father hits you first? What if he beats you relentlessly? What if clearly deserves it? What if it is self-defense? This is the ultimate in old-school thinking.

196: Starting here, we get the familiar “eye for an eye/ tooth for a tooth” formulation. But it is clear that slaves don’t count as much. It’s only an eye for an eye between equals.

209: It is interesting to note that striking a woman and causing her to miscarry is worth only ten shekels. That’s essentially what we call abortion, and it (a human life according to many today) is only worth ten shekels!

218: If a physician screws up and kills the patient, they cut off his hands!

219: If a physician accidentally kills a slave, he must give the owner a new slave. That’s it! It is clear from this that many human beings were counted as nothing more that property, just like livestock or tools. How awful.

229 (and thereabouts): There is no free market here. All of the prices for major services are literally set in stone by (literally) a central government.

254 (and thereabouts): Life as an ox in ancient Babylon must have sucked a fat one.

282: The penalty for a slave rejecting his master is to have his ear cut off. This is considerably more lenient than what happens to an adopted son (of a prostitute) who rejects his father. In that case (as per 192), they cut out your tongue! Why is a slave treated more leniently than an adopted son?


The prologue and the epilogue make it pretty clear that Hammurabi was not a humble king. He thinks a great deal of his wisdom.

It is also clear that the religion of ancient Mesopotamia was extremely detailed, just like any religion today. We often gloss over this, but conception of their deities certainly doesn’t feel any more “mythological” than ours. For them, it was quite elaborate and undeniable.

Hammurabi places a curse on any future ruler who changes his law, writes over it, or claims authorship of it. This thing is literally set in stone! He encourages anyone who has a claim of injustice to go straight to the tablet (which, I presume was erected next to a statue of Hammurabi in the center Babylon) and seek refuge.

There is no concept of a “living document” here. None at all.

You can learn a great deal about the gods just by reading the curses Hammurabi places upon those who ignore his law. He calls upon each god in turn to issue a curse corresponding to that god’s role.

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