Question: "Did Moses copy the Law from the Code of Hammurabi?"
Answer: Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who reigned from 1795 to 1750 B.C. He is remembered today for promoting and enforcing an organized code of laws. The Code of Hammurabi, discovered on a stele in 1901, is one of the best preserved and comprehensive of ancient writings of significant length ever found. The Hammurabian Code is divided into 12 sections and consists of 282 laws, 34 of which are unreadable. The Code is primarily a case-by-case formula of customary law covering administrative, civil, and criminal issues. The complexity of the laws and their subject matter reveal much about ancient Babylonian culture.
About 300 years after Hammurabi, in 1440 B.C., Moses recorded the Law for the Israelites. Because the Mosaic Law contains some similarities to Hammurabi’s Code, some critics of the Bible believe that Moses copied from the Hammurabian Code. If they’re right, and Moses simply stole from the Babylonians, then the whole episode at Mount Sinai is false (Exodus 34), and the inspiration of Scripture is suspect.
Both Levitical law and Hammurabi’s Code impose the death penalty in cases of adultery and kidnapping (Leviticus 20:10; Exodus 21:16; cf. Statutes 129 and 14). Also, there are similarities in the law of retaliation, such as “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 21:23-25; cf. Statute 196). Statute 206 of the Hammurabian Code says, “If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, ‘I did not injure him wittingly,’ and pay the physicians.” The Law of Moses is comparable: “If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed” (Exodus 21:18-19).
There are other examples, but in all truth, such resemblances do not demonstrate that Moses plagiarized Hammurabi’s Code. What the similarities do show is that murder, theft, adultery, and kidnapping are problems in every society and must be addressed. Even today, countries throughout the world have similar laws. Such parallels certainly don’t prove plagiarism.
Similarity in penal codes should be expected in civil societies. Both Babylon and Israel had laws against murder, but it doesn’t follow that one stole the idea from the other. Should one country not prosecute a crime simply because another country has a similar law?
The differences between Mosaic Law and the Hammurabian Code are equally significant. For example, the Law of Moses went far beyond the Code of Hammurabi in that it was rooted in the worship of one God, supreme over all (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The moral principles of the Old Testament are based on a righteous God who demanded that mankind, created in His image, live righteously. The Law of Moses is more than a legal code; it speaks of sin and responsibility to God. The Hammurabian Code and other ancient laws do not do this.
The Code of Hammurabi focused exclusively on criminal and civil laws and meted out harsh, and sometimes brutal, punishments. In this way, Hammurabi has more in common with Draco than with Moses. The Law of Moses provided justice, but it also dealt with spiritual laws and personal and national holiness. As a result, the Mosaic Law dealt with the cause of crime, not just its effects. The Mosaic Law elevates the value of human life, and its whole tenor is more compassionate than that of the Hammurabian Code. The spiritual dimension is what makes the Law of Moses unique.
In his book Highlights of Archaeology in Bible Lands, Fred Wight writes, “The Mosaic Law gives strong emphasis to the recognition of sin as being the cause of the downfall of a nation. Such a thought is entirely lacking in Hammurabi’s Code. . . . The great fundamental principle of the laws of God in the Hebrew Bible may be summed up in the words: ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy’ [Leviticus 11:45]. Such a principle as this was utterly unknown to the Babylonians as seen in their law code.”
There is a dramatic difference in perspective between Hammurabi and Moses. One’s focus is horizontal, while the other’s is vertical. Archaeologist Alfred Hoerth, author of Archaeology and the Old Testament, says, “The Old Testament law code is religiously oriented, while others are civil. The Mesopotamians believed the god Shamash gave Hammurabi his law code so people could get along with one another. In the Bible, the law code was given primarily so people could get along with God.”
This is what sets the Mosaic Law apart from all the other law codes of antiquity: its strong emphasis on spiritual matters. The closest the Hammurabian Code comes to effect such spirituality is its proclamation that those who stole from the gods would be put to death. Unlike the Mosaic Law, Hammurabi’s Code had no provision for forgiveness.
The theory that Moses’ Law is simply a rewording of Hammurabi’s has largely been abandoned today, due to the fact that similar law codes, even older than Hammurabi’s, have been found in various other places. These would include the Cuneiform laws, written as early as 2350 B.C.; the Code of Urukagina, 2380 B.C.; the Code of Ur-Nammu, 2050 B.C.; and others.
Most critics accede to the fact that the Babylonian laws were probably well-known to the Hebrews of Moses’ day. When God communicated His Law, He used language that the Israelites were already familiar with, and this would explain similar wording for similar laws.
Both Hammurabi and Moses recorded a complex system of laws that were unique to their times. Hammurabi claimed to receive his code from the Babylonian god of justice, Shamash. Moses received God’s Law atop Mount Sinai directly from Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. There are some similarities between the Mosaic Law and the Code of Hammurabi, as would be expected from two legislative systems. However, their significant differences demonstrate the baselessness of the charge that Moses copied from the Code of Hammurabi.