Freethought Almanac

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Hammurabi and the 99%

By Ronald Bruce Meyer
11/27/2011

I am not a scholar but a fan of history. I also believe strongly in public support of public education, so that even childless citizens are not compelled to live among morons. So, hearing about what a crisis the American education system is in – so much so that it can be remedied only by changing to a business model, underpaying teachers, increasing class size and computerizing the metrics of education “outcomes” – it was with trepidation that I examined the history textbook a student I know uses in his Baltimore County (MD) high school: Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

In it is not one mention of Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king who ruled (by the most popular chronology) from 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE, or about 42 years. The law code he devised about 1780 BCE is important for two reasons. The most important reason is the light the Codex Hammurabi sheds on the secular development of law. Even when historians mention Hammurabi, they lie about his Codex, saying it was given to him by the sun-god, Shamash (Šamaš), as depicted on the 8ft. polished black diorite stele on which his 282 laws (of which 34 do not survive) are inscribed in cuneiform. I’ve seen it in the Louvre.

The stele (pronounced in two syllables, in case you’re interested) has been described as an index finger pointing skyward. On its “fingernail,” at the top of the column, you can see a depiction of Hammurabi standing before Shamash. Hammurabi makes a sign of reverence toward Shamash, and Shamash hands to Hammurabi, not the law code but the royal scepter. Nobody denies that Hammurabi, like most leaders, ancient and modern, appealed to god to legitimize his rule. But most scholars say Hammurabi received the code of law from the god – even when their own translation of the text says explicitly, “Laws of justice which Hammurabi, the wise king, established.”

I mention this not just because it is still more proof that you do not need a god to tell you what is right and what is wrong. I also to point out that omitting or misrepresenting this history to our public school students does them a disservice. When the topic turns to the morality preached by the ancient Hebrews 1300 years later, in which is copied all the worst elements of the Code of Hammurabi (such as the lex talionis*), while ignoring all the best – such as rights for women, including divorce rights, fairness to workers, including a minimum wage, and fair trade among businesses** – how is education served rather than religious indoctrination? The Code also contains no mention of temple prostitution, the slander Herodotus laid on Babylon, but instead prescribes heavy penalties for sex crimes (especially among priestesses) and even adultery.†

The other reason Hammurabi’s Code is important, even today, is that it is something the “Occupy” movement will recognize as aligned with their stated interests. The entire code is based upon principles of justice that have been unknown throughout history until modern times. And yet, the protections for the “99%” that are found in the Codex Hammurabi are becoming progressively weakened by the 1%, based on the spurious notion that America can become prosperous again only if we become a nation of beggars, with no social safety net. Tearing holes in the social safety net tears at the fabric of society – indeed, it tears apart the whole notion of a nation: that the United States is a society, and not just a nation of “haves” and “have-nots.”

I’ve seen little evidence of the largest churches, as opposed to the dying ones, popularly known as “mainstream,” promoting the interests of the 99% and the Occupy movement. For its part, government is either blind to the real human misery borne by the 99%, or actively siding with the 1% in attempting to evict the occupiers, as if an idea can be evicted (rather than validated) by officials desperately trying to stamp it out. It appears that free speech is allowed only with a corporate-government script, and at a time and place and channel of the choosing of the 1%. Did I wake up in China today?

We could take a page from ancient history, one omitted from at least one high school textbook published by a major corporation, and at least try to follow what the greatest ancient lawgiver promoted as the purpose of the Codex Hammurabi: so that “the strong shall not injure the weak, and the orphan and the widow shall receive justice.”

*Lex Talionis: an eye for an eye, proof of the very ancient origin of the Codex.
**There is even evidence of managed health care under the Code: see this link.
†The Catholic Encyclopedia revealingly says, “[while] the Babylonian corpus juris... is founded upon the dictates of reason, the Hebrew Law is grounded on the faith in the one true God, and is pervaded throughout by an earnest desire to obey and please Him....” In my opinion, and for this reason, I believe the earlier code is the better one.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer

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