King Hammurabi, The Code of Hammurabi(Early Eighteenth Century B.C.E.)
The law code promulgated by King Hammurabi (r. c. 1792–1750 B.C.E.) of Babylon elucidates the
inner workings of Mesopotamian society, the cradle of the world’s first civilization. The copy of the
code excerpted here is inscribed on a stone pillar, crowned by a sculptural relief depicting the god of
justice commissioning Hammurabi to write the laws. This image embodies the Mesopotamian belief
that kings were divinely appointed and thereby responsible for imparting justice and promoting their
subjects’ well-being. As a messenger of the divine will, King Hammurabi influenced both the public
and private lives of his people. As the following selection reveals, he was especially concerned with
protecting property rights and a social hierarchy that positioned slaves at the bottom and free
persons at the top. By codifying laws in writing, Hammurabi helped set an enduring precedent in the
From James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with supplement
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 164–78.
When lofty Anum, 1 king of the Anunnaki, 2
(and) Enlil, lord of heaven and earth,
the determiner of the destinies of the land,
determined for Marduk, 3 the first-born of Enki, 4
the Enlil functions over all mankind,
made him great among the Igigi, 5
called Babylon by its exalted name,
made it supreme in the world,
established for him in its midst an enduring kingship,
whose foundations are as firm as heaven and earth—
at that time Anum and Enlil named me
to promote the welfare of the people, 6
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,
to rise like the sun over the black-headed (people), 7
and to light up the land. . . .
When Marduk commissioned me to guide the people aright,
to direct the land,
I established law and justice in the language of the land,
thereby promoting the welfare of the people.
At that time (I decreed):
If a seignior 8 accused a(nother) seignior and brought a charge of murder against him, but has not
proved it, his accuser shall be put to death. 9
If a seignior brought a charge of sorcery against a(nother) seignior, but has not proved it, the
one against whom the charge of sorcery was brought, upon going to the river, 10 shall throw himself
into the river, and if the river has then overpowered him, his accuser shall take over his estate; if the
river has shown that seignior to be innocent and he has accordingly come forth safe, the one who
brought the charge of sorcery against him shall be put to death, while the one who threw himself into
the river shall take over the estate of his accuser.
If a seignior came forward with false testimony in a case, and has not proved the word which he
spoke, if that case was a case involving life, that seignior shall be put to death.
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