Saturday, June 18, 2011

Did Moses Plagiarize from the Code of Hammurabi?

The Code of Hammurabi (Hammurapi).

Critics of the Bible use to question whether a complex code of laws, such as that which Moses penned, could have been written at so early a time (c. 1446 BC). Their question was answered in 1901. It was then that a French excavator by the name of Jacques de Morgan unearthed a black stone monument (called a stele) more than seven feet tall at Susa in southwest Iran. The monument, which is now on display at the Louvre in Paris, contains 282 laws inscribed on it and is known as the Code of Hammurapi (a spelling scholars now prefer to Hammurabi).
       Hammurapi, an Amorite, was the sixth and best-known ruler of the first dynasty of Babylon. He lived from about 1792 to 1750 BC so it is generally acknowledged that Hammurapi’s code of laws was compiled nearly three centuries before the Israelites were at Mount Sinai. [1] The discovery of these laws and other ancient codes unearthed since then [2] has forever silenced questions about whether or not complex laws existed at the time of Moses. Surely they did.
       But the discovery of the Code of Hammurapi gave rise to another challenge, one that continues to be propagated by critics of the Bible. Critics like to point out that there are similarities between the Code of Hammurapi and the Old Testament laws and then claim that Moses plagiarized or borrowed his ideas on how to govern a nation from Hammurapi. And “Because that was the case,” critics contend, “Moses’ words originated with man, not God, and Moses’ whole story about receiving instruction from God on Mount Sinai goes out the window!”
      Well, in response to this, I’ll start out by acknowledging that Christians and Jews recognize that there are some similarities between the Code of Hammurapi and the Mosaic Law. Allow me to share with you three of the more apparent examples. As you read through them, ask yourself “Does it appear as though Moses plagiarized the Code of Hammurapi or might something else be going on?”


Code of Hammurapi, no. 14:
“If any one steal [3] the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.” [4]

Exodus 21:16:
“He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”


Code of Hammurapi, no. 8, 22:
“If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death…If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.”
Exodus 22:1–4:
“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep. If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double.”


Code of Hammurapi, no. 196–197, 200:
If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken…If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.”

Exodus 21:22–25:
“If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

      So as you can see, there are some similarities. And there are a few other lines that could be compared. [5] But similarities do not prove plagiarism. Most of the similarities in the two sets of laws are limited to the fact that both codes address things like murder, stealing, adultery, kidnapping, etc., problems that every society must address. This is hardly proof of plagiarism. The country I live in, the United States of America, has hundreds of laws concerning these matters as well. So does India, France and Australia. Do the similarities between our laws mean that we plagiarized from these countries? Of course not. The similarity in some of our laws points not to plagiarism, but to the fact that humans are made in the image of God and He has written His Law on the hearts of all people (Romans 2:15). Societies of every stripe know that certain things are wrong (stealing, kidnapping, murder, etc.). And so laws against those things have shown up in codes all around the world for thousands of years. So if similarities in our laws don’t mean that we plagiarized from other countries, why conclude that the similarities between Old Testament laws and the Code of Hammurapi are the result of plagiarism?
      But the critic raises a good question, “What about this peculiar saying regarding an ‘eye for eye’? It seems odd that this saying would end up in both codes if there wasn’t some sort of plagiarism going on.”
      The “eye for eye” statement is certainly the most mentioned example of “plagiarism.” But I want you to notice something in the passage above (no. 196). Hammurapi does not say, “An eye for an eye.” He simply says, “His eye shall be put out.” Moses says, “Eye for eye,” but not Hammurapi. I see no compelling reason to conclude that Moses’ words (“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,”) are the result of plagiarism. The concepts–that punishment should fit the crime–are similar but the words are different. I point this out to you because I’ve had people tell me, “Hammurapi said “An eye for an eye,” three hundred years before Moses!” Uh, no. That’s not accurate. The wording is different.
      And even if it could be maintained that Moses’ words concerning appropriate retribution were too similar to the Code of Hammurapi to be original, I would still not be troubled, for God may have purposely expressed His will to Moses with words and concepts that the Israelites were already familiar with. Many of the Babylonian laws were already well known in that region of the world at the time of Moses. So there’s a chance that the Israelites were familiar with Hammurapi’s laws regarding equal retribution long before they arrived at Mount Sinai. Rather than give laws to the Israelites with new terms, God may have communicated this concept (equal retribution) in terms the Israelites were already familiar with (eye for eye).
      Other blows to the plagiarism charge include the fact that the remedies and punishments for many of the legal issues are quite different (even as seen in the laws above regarding stealing) and that the Old Testament laws are presented as an expression of a holy God (Leviticus 19:1–2). This is not at all the case in the Code of Hammurapi. Fred Wight, author of Highlights of Archaeology in Bible Lands, comments on this:

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…Also 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” [Lev. 11:45]. Such a principle as this was utterly unknown to the Babylonians as seen in their law code. [6]

Archaeologist, Alfred Hoerth, also comments on this:

The Old Testament law code is religiously oriented, while the others are civil. The Mesopotamians believe the god Shamash gave Hammurapi 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. [7]

      So, while there are some similarities between the Code of Hammurapi and the Old Testament Law, the vast differences between the codes show the plagiarism charge to be without warrant.

For more help on topics like this one and to learn how archaeology has vindicated the Bible, check out my book Archaeological Evidence for the Bible (PDF, e-book, $7.95).

1. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament, 171.
2. The Holman Bible Dictionary states: “Archaeologists now have five cuneiform law codes which were written before the time of Moses: those of Ur-Nammu, Eshnunna, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and the Hittites.” The code of Ur-Nammu of the city Ur dates to 2100 BC (Fant and Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible, 60); an excavation at a site called Nuzi in east central Mesopotamia revealed similar laws dating to the fifteenth century BC (Hoerth and McRay, Bible Archaeology, 46).
3. The use of words like “steal” or “knock” that should have an “s” on the end are not typos, but accurate to the original translation.
4. From translation of the Code of Hammurapi at
5. Compare Hammurapi 195 with Exodus 21:15; 206 with Exodus 21:18–19; 209–210 with Exodus 21:22–25; 250–251 with Exodus 21:28–32.
6. Wight, Highlights of Archaeology in Bible Lands, 72.
7. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament, 171.