The Code of Hammurabi
(with a comparison to the Commandments Given to Moses)

     There are notable similarities between the Code of Hammurabi and certain Israelite legal materials, especially the Book of the Covenant. For instance, as in Israelite law, the Code of Hammurabi contains the law of retribution in kind (lex talionis), which prescribes proportional punishment: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

If a man has destroyed the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If he has broken another man's bone, they shall break his bone. (196-97)

     Book of the Covenant

If any injury occurs, you shall take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, beating for beating. (21:23-25)

    While such physical retaliation may seem brutal, in fact, it was humane in its day. Specifying restitution in kind prevented resort to harsher punishments for such offenses, typically the death penalty. The existence of this code and others like it demonstrate that Israel shared with her neighbors an ideal of justice that would be administered by a righteous king. In Israel, David and Solomon were thought to epitomize this ideal.

    There are notable similarities between the Code of Hammurabi and certain Israelite legal materials, especially the Book of the Covenant. For instance, as in Israelite law, the Code of Hammurabi contains the law of retribution in kind (lex talionis), which prescribes proportional punishment: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.


    The commandments begin with God's self-identification and also evoke the exodus.

1 And Elohim spoke all these words, saying, 2 "I am YHWH your Elohim, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of enslavement. (20:1-2)

    This prologue to the commandments emphasizes the loving character and concern of God in rescuing the Israelites from slavery. First he delivered them from slavery, then he came to them with a covenant. The implication of this prologue is that obedience to these commands would be Israel's expression of appreciation, and not an onerous imposition from a distant and demanding God.

3 "You may not have any other Elohim (translated as either "gods" or "God") except me." (20:3)

    This command prohibits devotion to any deity but Yahweh. Perhaps to your surprise, it does not categorically deny the reality of other gods.

4 "You may not make for yourself a sculpted image, or any representation of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth below, or in the water under the earth. 5 You may not bow down to them or serve them; for I YHWH your Elohim am a possessive god, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who disown me, 6 but showing loyalty to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." (20:4-6)

    This command prohibits using any physical form to represent Yahweh. Nothing that God has created could ever adequately represent him. The only thing that bears a likeness to God is humankind, which was created in his image, "after his likeness," according to Genesis 1. This command to appropriately honor God stresses the seriousness with which God treats loyalty and disloyalty. The reference to heaven above, earth below, and water under the earth in the formulation of this command is evidence that the Israelites had a tri-level concept of the cosmos. This is also evident in the creation narrative of the Priestly source (see Chapter 1.1).

7 "You may not take the name of YHWH your Elohim in vain; for YHWH will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain." (20:7)

    This command originally intended to prohibit taking false oaths. More than that, it also forbade disrespect shown to God by using his name wrongly or frivolously. God's name was special. It was the nearest the Israelites came to possessing any part of God, and had to be treated with the utmost care. Later Jewish practice takes this prohibition so seriously that the name of God, and even the word God, was never spoken, with phrases such as "the Lord" and "the Name" used in its place, and G_d used in print.

8 "Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. 9 Six days you may work, and do all your jobs; 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your Elohim; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident alien who lives with you; 11 for in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them, and ceased from work on the seventh day; by doing this YHWH blessed the Sabbath day and made it a holy day." (20:8-11)

    The Sabbath command institutionalizes a periodic cessation of typical daily work. The Hebrew term shabbat literally means "cease, stop, rest." The warrant for such a time of inactivity is the pattern of creation in which God completed his efforts in six days and ceased work by the seventh. The explanation from creation was added by the Priestly writer to provide the reason for Sabbath observance. The Deuteronomy 5 restatement of this command warrants Sabbath rest by recalling Israel's period of slavery in Egypt and God's deliverance from it. In this light, Sabbath rest commemorates Israel's freedom rather than God's creation.

12 "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days in the land which YHWH your Elohim gives you may be numerous." (20:12)

    Respect must be shown to ancestors and especially parents. A high social value was placed on children's duty to care for parents, and veneration of ancestors, even dead ones, was broadly practiced in the ancient Middle East. Note that this is the only command that is future oriented and holds the promise of blessing attached to its observance. The blessing is evidently one of communal more than individual application, assuring lasting possession of the Promised Land.

13 "You must not murder." (20:13)

   This is a prohibition of murder, and not of killing generally. Capital punishment was mandated for a variety of offenses in the Hebrew Bible (for example, see 21:12-17).

14 "You must not commit adultery." (20:14)

    In its original setting this command primarily prohibited sexual relations with another man's wife. This prohibition against the sexual promiscuity of married persons is aimed to protect the blood line of offspring. This was a crucial issue in matters of inheritance where a father wants to be sure he and not someone else has sired his heir.

15 "You must not steal." (20:15)

    Stealing in the first instance probably applied to persons rather than property in the biblical world. Kidnapping was a common ancient practice (see 21:16 where the same Hebrew verb is used) and this commandment was intended to provide for personal security. Later it was extended to material property.

16 "You must not bear false witness against your neighbor." (20:16)

    Here deceitfulness and perjury are in view, perhaps first of all in a judicial setting. However, the commandment extends to a general protection of personal reputation, which is crucial for maintaining social order.

17 "You must not covet your neighbor's estate: that is, you must not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (20:17)

    This is the only command that was intended to regulate attitude rather than behavior. The reason is clear: coveting, or deeply desiring what is not one's own, is a state of mind that often leads to other prohibited behaviors. Contentment with what God has already provided is implicitly enjoined.

The commands naturally divide into two general categories. The first commands define behaviors that apply to the people's relationship with God. This relationship is an exclusive one that demands total loyalty. The latter commands define behaviors which apply to relationships within the community. Both categories of behavior together constitute the essence of covenant. Put positively they command this: Love God and your neighbor as yourself (see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).

Most of the Ten Commandments take the form of absolute law, also termed apodictic law. The commands, in other words, are unconditional. They apply with no "ifs, ands, or buts." Even though most of these commands are negative in form ("do not do this"), this does not imply that God's requirements were oppressively restrictive. In fact, they merely placed certain general types of actions and attitudes out of bounds. Beyond that they leave a rather wide latitude for freedom of action. They were certainly not perceived as oppressive by the Israelites, who found delight in God's law (for example, see Psalms 1 and 119). Although cast in the negative, they can be considered general policy statements which were intended to shape the broader religious and moral character of the nation.