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Covenants and law-codes - law code forms

Contents

  1. Summary
  2. Formal structure
  3. Some examples

Summary

The documentation of codes of laws was a key and regular element in the activities of Mesopotamian rulers from the 3rd dynasty at Ur through Old Babylonian to Hittite and Middle Assyrian times - say 2100-1100 BCE conventionally, or 1900-900 NC. There are also examples from NeoBabylonian times - around 6-700 BCE. Interestingly, there is no record of a similar code of laws committed to writing originating from Egypt, though we do have a large collection of legal judgements from the 5th dynasty onwards. It is possible that law codes were written, but only recorded on perishable material, but perhaps more likely is that justice was seen as embodied in the Pharaoh and his decrees. Elsewhere, writing such a code seems to have been viewed as a necessary activity for a king who wished to prove his fitness in every sphere of rule. There does not seem to have been an expectation of originality, and the same themes recur often with minor changes and adaptations over the years. These codes were extensively copied over the years, often as exercises for beginning scribes. Some are complete, or else the various copies allow a reliable reconstruction to be made, while others are in varying states of completion.

The sequence of laws, both in the nonBiblical examples and in the Pentateuch, is often obscure to a modern reader - there is not a general statement of legal principles followed by detailed outworking. Sometimes, groups of related items are found together - for example a collection of rules pertaining to oxen known to gore - but often the leaps of subject are not easy to follow. As a general rule, the laws regulate the lifestyle of individuals within the society, and contain typical representative situations as models of behaviour. Some situations are spelled out in detail, others left quite vague.

It is not clear to what extent actual cases in the law courts appealed to specific clauses in the law codes, or whether both the codes and the decisions reflected a common perception of justice. Some Old Babylonian legal judgements use the same phraseology as Hammurabi, and we also find the phase "in accordance with the ordinances of the king", but in most cases the judgements are simply recorded with no reference to an external standard.

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Formal structure

The documentary form is quite uniform, and is as follows:

Law-code form
Title or preamble(One or two sentences)
PrologueModerate (10-20%)
LawsMost (60-70%)
EpilogueShort (5-10%)
Blessings for obedience(One or two sentences)
Cursings for disobedienceShort (5-10%)
 
Examples:Ur-Nammu (Ur 3)
Lipit-Ishtar (Isin)
Eshnunna (between Ur 3 and Old Babylon)
Hammurabi (Old Babylon)
Middle Assyrian laws
Hittite laws
NeoBabylonian laws
Overall comparison

The historical prologue here served a different purpose to that of the covenant form. There, within the middle Hittite form, it summarised past relationships between the parties with a view to showing how the treaty was natural and desirable. Here, it sets out a picture of the lawless times encountered by the ruler, their pious relationship with the gods, and the peace and order intended to flow from the acceptance of the laws following. It is, of course, quite probable that the real situation was not as extreme or clear-cut as the picture presented here.

Turning to the requirements, certain themes recur often, as mentioned before. For example, compensation for particular injuries, the rights of those who lend out goods (especially animals) to others, unlawful sexual conduct, and dealing with runaway slaves are common to all of the well-preserved codes. The overwhelming majority of the requirements are known as casuistic - in other words based on example cases. Frequently one encounters the opening phrase 'If a man does... then...'. The other primary form used in law is known as apodictic, in which general principles of conduct are laid out, for example 'You shall...' or 'You shall not...'. This form does not typically appear in the law code forms, but does appear in the treaty forms and in Deuteronomy. An interesting theme to follow through concerns the price set as compensation for loss of a slave - Ur-Nammu sets this at 10 shekels of silver, Esh-Nunna and Lipit-Ishtar at 15 shekels, Hammurabi at 20 shekels (1/3 mina), and the Hittite laws at 2 minas (60 shekels). The Mosaic law, for comparison, sets this at 30 shekels of silver. See the discussion on chronological issues for additional analysis of this.

The epilogue varied considerably in length, partly as it has been badly damaged in most of the examples. It seems more reliably present in earlier texts than later ones. It recapitulates the claims of the prologue to have brought peace and prosperity to the people through the administration of law.

The epilogue usually runs directly into the blessings and cursings. Both are typically quite short in comparison to the main body of laws, with cursings a little more numerous than blessings. Both blessing and curse appear to be directed at a ruler of the nation who keeps or fails to keep the requirements, rather than at individual subjects.

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Some examples

Ur-Nammu
Historical prologue
"Then did Ur-Nammu, the mighty warrior, king of Ur... establish equity in the land, (and) he banished malediction, violence and strife".

Requirements
The first half of the laws section of this is very damaged and unreadable. The areas dealt with in the later parts, in order, are agricultural rights, sexual conduct, the return of runaway slaves, compensation for injury, the conduct of slaves towards their masters, witnesses in courts, and property rights. Penalties for the existing laws are expressed in terms of financial compensation for injury or loss, rather than physical retribution. An example is "If a man, in the course of a scuffle, smashed the limb of another man with a club, he shall pay one mina of silver".

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Eshnunna
Requirements
This code is quite damaged, but the requirements cover fees and prices for goods and services, family relations, sexual conduct, assault and compensation, and animals (including the problems of goring oxen). An example is "If an ox is known to gore habitually and the authorities have brought the fact to the knowledge of its owner, but he does not have his ox dehorned, it gores a man and causes (his) death, then the owner of the ox shall pay 2/3 of a mina of silver. If it gores a slave and causes (his) death, he shall pay 15 shekels of silver". Penalties are a mixture of financial compensation and capital punishment, with the former in the majority - an example of the latter is "If a man gives bride-money for a(nother) man's daughter, but another man seizes her forcibly without asking the permission of her father and her mother and deprives her of her virginity, it is a capital offence and he shall die".

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Lipit-Ishtar
Historical prologue
"...Anu (and) Enlil had called Lipit-Ishtar - Lipit-Ishtar, the wise shepherd whose name had been pronounced by Nunamnir - to the princeship of the land, to banish complaints, to turn back enmity and rebellion by the force of arms, (and) to bring well-being to the Sumerians and Akkadians..."

Requirements
The list of requirements here begins with protecting orchard produce, runaway slaves, the rights of first and subsequent wives and their children, and animals (including the problem of the goring ox). Once again, penalties are financial. Some examples are "If a slave-girl or slave of a man has fled him into the heart of the city (and) it has been confirmed that he (or she) dwelt in the house of (another) man for one month, he shall give slave for slave. If he has no slave, he shall give 15 shekels of silver", "If a man rented an ox (and) damaged its eye, he shall pay one half of (its) price.".

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Hammurabi
Historical prologue
"...Anum and Enlil named me to promote the welfare of the people, me, Hammurabi, the devout god-fearing prince, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak..."

Requirements
This is far the longest surviving law-code, and the requirements are correspondingly extensive and detailed. However, the topics covered are common ones - crimes of theft, runaway slaves, agricultural regulations, debts and the lending of money, sexual relations and family issues, compensation for injury, animals (including the goring ox), and the appropriate wages for labourers. Punishments are a mixture of financial and capital penalties, with the severity often varying between different social classes. Some examples are: "If a freeman's ox was a gorer and his city council made it known to him that it was a gorer, but he did not pad its horns (or) tie up his ox, and that ox gored to death a member of the aristocracy, he shall give one-half mina of silver. If it was a freeman's slave, he shall give one-third mina of silver", or "If a freeman has stolen the young son of a(nother) freeman, he shall be put to death".

Blessings and curses
In this case the curses are substantially longer than the single blessing, "If that man heeded my words ... may Shamash make that man reign as long as I, the king of justice; may he shepherd his people in justice". The curses are predominantly aimed at any ruler who follows Hammurabi, and invoke a variety of gods to shorten his reign and be defeated in war in the event of departure from the code.

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Hittite laws
These apparently were extended over time - studies have been made to seek to identify earlier strata in the laws from later ones. It seems likely that the law code remained essentially the same from partway through the Hittite kingdom period into the later empire, with some changes to accommodate different circumstances.

Requirements
These deal with fights and deaths, runaway slaves, sexual and family relationships, theft, animals and land, agricultural crimes, financial matters such as compensation, rates of hire, and prices, and finally sexual misconduct. Penalties are largely financial, or by replacement of goods, with occasional more severe punishments. There is also considerable recognition of the reality of personal vendetta and revenge short-circuiting the law.

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Middle Assyrian laws
The extant tablets here derive from the time of Tiglath-pileser I (conventionally 12th century BCE, NC 10th century), but the code itself is thought to date from up to 300 years earlier. The introductory parts have been severely damaged and are not readable.

Requirements
These deal with property rights, sexual conduct and the rights of wives and children, divisions of an estate between brothers, cultivation and property, and the theft or purchase of animals. Most punishments here involve beating or physical mutilation, possibly involving a duty to "do the work of the king", in addition to financial compensation. An example is "If, as a freeman's wife passed along the street, a(nother) freeman has seized her, saying 'Let me lie with you', since she would not consent (and) kept defending herself, but he has taken her by force (and) lain with her ... they shall put the freeman to death with no blame attaching to the woman".

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NeoBabylonian laws
These are badly damaged, and the only areas that can be reliably made out relate to property and inheritance laws. The punishments are financial or in terms of material compensation, but the matters tackled in the surviving parts would not be expected to involve more severe retribution.

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