The PLEA: Hammurabi's Code

The PLEA: Hammurabi's Code

From the Laws of Hammurabi’s Code

Today, approximately 275 laws from Hammurabi’s Code are known. Each law was written in two parts: A specific situation or case was outlined, then a corresponding decision was given. Below is a sample of the laws of Hammurabi’s Code. What do these laws say about the worldview of Babylonian society? How do they relate to our worldviews today?

The Code’s Prologue

The Code had a lengthy prologue. Part of it read that Hammurabi was summoned by the gods:

... to make justice to appear in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked that the strong might not oppress the weak.

Prologues have been part of laws since at least the Code of Ur-Nammu (2100 BCE). Today, we call them preambles. Plato said that the purpose of preambles was to “persuade citizens to obey important laws by speaking to their hearts and minds through both reason and poetry.”3

Would people be more accepting of laws they disagreed with if they better-understood the reasons why we have the law?

3. Roach, K. (2001). Preambles in Legislation. McGill Law Journal 47, 129 -159, p. 131.

Punishment for Crimes

The Code’s punishments are outrageously harsh:

  • Law 22. If a man has committed robbery and is caught, that man shall be put to death.
  • Law 195. If a son strikes his daughter, his hands shall be hewn off.

One problem with absolute punishments is that every case is unique. For example, stealing a mint from your grandmother’s candy dish is not the same as stealing her retirement savings. Because each case is unique, most laws today spell out a range of punishments that judges can choose from.

Why is it important that judges have flexibility to determine appropriate punishments?

Equality under the Law

Not all people were treated equally under Hammurabi’s laws. For example, while “an eye for an eye” applied if a free man was the victim of an assault, slaves were dealt with differently:

  • Law 199. If he puts out the eye of a (free) man’s slave, or breaks the bone of a (free) man’s slave, he shall pay half his price.

In short, slaves were dealt with as property and not as equal human beings. Today the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that “Every individual is equal before and under the law.” Among other things, this means that there is one set of criminal laws for all Canadian society.

Why must the law protect everyone equally?

Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth

The age-old adage of retaliation “an eye for an eye” finds roots in two of Hammurabi’s laws dealing with assault:

  • Law 196. If a man has put out the eye of a free man, they shall put out his eye.
  • Law 200. If a man knocks out the tooth of a free man equal in rank to himself, they shall knock out his tooth.

While retribution has a role in achieving justice, some people believe that “an eye for an eye” can set off a dangerous cycle. For example, in his book Stride Toward Freedom American Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.

Is an eye for an eye a reasonable way to restore order after a wrong has been committed?

Minimum Wages

The Code regulated many wages:

  • Law 257. If a man has hired a farm-labourer, he shall give him 8 GUR of corn a year.
  • Law 258. If a man has hired an ox-herd, he shall give him 6 GUR of corn a year.

Today, most industrialized countries have minimum wage laws. However, these laws have not stopped growing economic inequality. This has led some people to call for maximum wage laws. For example, a 2013 Swedish referendum asked voters if executive pay should be capped at 12 times what the lowest-paid worker at that company makes. Voters rejected the proposal.

To what extent should laws regulate wages in society?

Builder’s Responsibilities

The Code made builders responsible for their work:

  • Law 229. If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made his work sound, and the house which he has built has fallen down and so caused the death of the householder, that builder shall be put to death.
  • Law 232. If it destroys property, he shall replace anything that it has destroyed; and, because he has not made sound the house which he has built and it has fallen down, he shall rebuild the house which has fallen down from his own property.

Laws have continued to evolve to ensure construction standards. However, instead of punishments such as death, governments today create laws that prescribe minimum standards. It is believed these laws will ensure quality and help prevent tragedies.

Why is it necessary for governments to regulate such areas as construction?

The Many Translations of Hammurabi’s Code

Many translations of Hammurabi’s Code have appeared in many languages. Every translation has important differences. A look at translations of the Code’s first two laws reveals this:

  • The first law deals with “nertu.” Nertu has been translated as capital crime (a crime where the possibilities of punishment include death); homicide (the killing of a person); and manslaughter (taking a life without the intent to kill). Each of these are different terms under the law.
  • The second law deals with “kispu.” Kispu has been translated as sorcery by some and witchcraft by others. These are different concepts: witchcraft is a power traditionally believed to be possessed within a person, while sorcery is a learned practice.

Translation can even have racial implications. Early versions translated “salmat qaqqadim” as black-headed people. Recent translators have acknowledged that this is literally correct, but they believe “salmat qaqqadim” was meant as a figurative expression for all of humankind. More controversially, L.W. King’s 1915 translation claimed that Hammurabi was the “White” king. Other English versions did not make such a translation. This has led some people to discount King’s version altogether.

Words matter. When studying Hammurabi’s Code, it is important to consider what translation is being used. This edition of The PLEA uses Driver and Miles’ 1955 version, the most-cited translation of the Code.


Translations of the Code at the University of Saskatchewan Law Library.