The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon

Louvre Museum

Stela of Hammurabi, from Susa (modern Shush, Iran) ca. 1792-1750 B.C. Basalt, height approx. 7′ (2.13m). Musee du Louvre, Paris

From a distance, it appears to be a simple, large, black stone stela, shaped like an index finger, with a straightforward relief of two figures at the top (the fingernail):

Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi, King of Babylon, stands before the sun god Shamash. Note Hammurabi’s hat, similar to Gudea’s, and the horned helmet of Shamash signifying his status as a god. Ray’s of the sun rise behind his right shoulder and in his right hand he holds a measuring rod and rope ring, symbols of justice and power, which he gives to Hammurabi. Although Hammurabi appears to wave a greeting with familiarity, there is still a sense of reverence indicated by Hammurabi remaining standing in the presence of the god and the god’s much larger size relative to Hammurabi. (If Shamash were to stand, he would tower over Hammurabi!) Public domain via

Upon closer inspection, however, the majority of the stela is covered in intricate Akkadian cuneiform script, lines and symbols converging and connecting to form the most complete collection of formal laws in antiquity. It pre-dates Biblical law by 400 years.

Stele of Hammurabi

There are about 3500 lines of cuneiform text reading from right to left. In the introductory section, Hammurabi decreed that with these laws he would “cause justice to prevail in the land and to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak nor the weak the strong.” Most of the laws deal with trade and property matters, but Hammurabi did address domestic issues, physical assault, lying, theft, marriage, and even medical malpractice, and did mete out the justice which Shamash bestowed upon him. And, again, this was all 400 years before the Ten Commandments!

Some of the more intriguing decrees include:

#22:   If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.

#129: If a couple is caught in adultery, they shall both be tied up and thrown in the water.

#137: If you divorce your wife, you must pay alimony and child support.

#196: “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone…” (Sound familiar? An eye for an eye? Quid pro quo?)

#218: A surgeon who bungles an operation shall have his hands cut off.

#282: If a slave shall  say, “You are not my master, ” the master can cut off the slave’s ear.

The Code of Hammurabi was intended to not only provide laws to the land of Babylon, but to serve as a model for other societies. Further, not only has it influenced laws over the millenia, it has given us a marvelous look into the culture, art, and literature of the age, and was copied by scribes for over a thousand years.



Code of Hammurabi.

Law Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon.

Steves, R., Smith, S., & Openshaw, G. (2013). Louvre Tour: Musee du Louvre. Rick Steves’ Paris 2014.

Stokstad, M. (1995). Babylon and MariArt History.