The Long History Of Legal Codes

March 22, 2020 Category: History

People have been composing tracts outlining formal political systems since the Bronze Age.  As a point of departure, it’s worth surveying some of the earliest instances.

The oldest written legal code is the “sebayt” [instructions for just rule] by the Egyptian vizier, Kagemni for Pharaoh Sneferu c. 2600 B.C.  It seems that Egyptian pharaohs Hapshetsut and Akenaten also had formalized legal codes.  And the “sebayt” of Egyptian vizier, Ptah-hotep for Pharaoh Djed-kare Asosi [alt. “Izezi”] was engraved c. 2400 B.C.

In Mesopotamia, the “sebayt” of a Sumerian king of Shuruppak (pertaining to the son of Ubara-Tutu) was composed in the 26th century B.C.  Later, the Sumerian code of Ur[u]-kagina (written for a Sumerian community called “Umma” by the king of Lagash) was composed in the 25th or 24th century B.C.  The most notable feature of that legal code were its anti-corruption statutes.  Interestingly, for Ur[u]-Kagina, the prevailing theme seemed to have something to do with the just nature of the godhead (as illustrated by the mantra of Shamash).  In other words, the chief deity was the source for (basis of) all justice; all we had to do was heed his commands.  That was over a thousand years before the commandments were purportedly delivered to Moses…which was itself over seven centuries before Hebrew scripture was eventually composed (during the Exilic Period).  And it was THREE MILLENNIA prior to Mohammed’s fabled constitution in the Arabian oasis town of Medina.

Those treatises on governance were followed by the “sebayt” for Pharaoh Merykara (21st century B.C.)…and then the “sebayt” by Pharaoh Amenamhat for his heir (20th century B.C.)  The contents of the latter would be adopted twelve centuries later by the Kushite (Nubian) king, Piye of Napata.

When it comes to Abrahamic lore, a question arises: Shall we suppose that Yah-weh had a hand in any of this?  That is, did the Abrahamic godhead intercede so many centuries before Abraham himself would have even lived?  If not, then what, might we suppose, was going on?

Another way to pose this query: Was compassion for the needy anything new when the authors of the new Testament enjoined their audience to help the poor, the orphan and the wayfarer?  No.  Such sentiments–indeed: such social imperatives–had existed since the earliest civilizations.  A Sumerian hymn went as follows: “Who knows the orphan, who knows the widow, knows the oppression of man over man, is the orphan’s mother, Nanshe, who cares for the widow, who seeks out justice for the poorest.  The queen brings the refugee to her lap, finds shelter for the weak.”

In Mesopotamia, the code of Ur[u]-kagina was only the beginning.  From the 23rd century B.C., we find indications (ref. inscriptions on the Sargon Epos) of how the first empire in history, that of the Akkadians (in Mesopotamia), was governed.  Also worth recalling were the codes of…

  • Ur-Nammu (late 22nd / early 21st century B.C.)
  • Eshnunna (20th century B.C.) {1}
  • Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (19th century B.C.)
  • Hammurabi of Babylon (18th century B.C.) {1}
  • Nesilim of Hattusa [land of the Hatti] (17th century B.C.)

Each of these in some way proclaims that its laws are ordained to effect justice and facilitate the commonweal.  Notably, the code of Ur-Nammu sought to “establish equity in the land” amongst all people, while aiming to “banish malediction, violence, and strife”; all in the name of the pre-eminent Sumerian deity, “Utu”.  From what we can surmise about archaic Babylon, even those in a position of indentured servitude (alt. slaves) were able to own private property, buy their freedom, and even run their own businesses.  Chattel slavery was quite rare.

The renown Code of Hammurabi permitted slavery under certain conditions, but had strict rules against the maltreatment of anyone who was in a position of servitude.  The code stipulated conditions under which slaves were to be freed, including when they married non-slaves.  It allowed slaves to own private property, and even their own small businesses.  Moreover, slaves could purchase their own manumission.  Thus any enslavement that may have existed was effectively indentured servitude, not chattel slavery.  Incredibly, Hammurabi’s code also instituted a minimum wage for labor.

Even during the Iron Age, Babylonian (read: Assyrian) society granted women far more rights than sharia law in Muslim countries grants EVEN TODAY; and it empowered women more than the Roman Catholic church ever did.  In the Assyrian Empire, women could own–as well as buy and sell–land, operate small businesses, and testify in court as equals to men.  (Work on the democratic element of Assyrian society has been done by Thorkild Jacobson at the University of Chicago.  For more commentary on women’s rights in different cultures throughout history, see my three-part series on Female Empowerment.)

To keep this timeline in perspective, it is worth nothing that this was all well over a millennium prior to the composition of the earliest Judaic scripture, Deuteronomy: arguably the most tribalistic, genocidal tract ever composed.

In the 15th century B.C., the Hittite code of law (originating from Hattusa, Kussara, or Kanesh under King Telipinu) included prohibitions against assault and theft.  It also included terms for public service, contracts, taxes, and tariffs; as well as guidelines for marital relationships.  It would still be almost a thousand years before Mosaic law was formalized by scribes in Babylon.

Speaking of the Judaic decalogue: The material in Deuteronomy (and in the Book of Joshua, for that matter) seems to have been cribbed directly from a Hittite treaty between the king of (the land of) “Hatti” and the Assyrian king, Tuppi-Teshub of (the land of) Amurru from the late 14th / early 13th century.  (Note that “Torah” just means “legal instructions”; and Mosaic law did not become relevant in Judaic lore until after the early prophets (“Nevi-im”)–that is: not until the Mishnaic period.  Certainly kings David and Solomon were not aware of the commandments–as neither of them either mentioned them…OR, for that matter, even followed them. {2}

Meanwhile, in Egypt during the so-called “Amarna Period”, it seems that both Hatshepsut (15th century B.C.) and the revolutionary monotheist, Akhenaten (14th century B.C.) produced formal codes of law.  In the 13th century B.C., the “sebayt” of Ani was composed for Queen Nefertari under Ramses the Great.  It’s opening line: “Truth is sent by god.”

Per the standard Abrahamic narrative, we are asked to believe that the Creator of the Universe was–all the while–keeping the “correct” legal code in his back pocket, while all these societies–struggling to do as they believed their gods wanted–were getting things wrong for hundreds of generations.  He seems to have been content to watch all human civilization stumble in ignorance for millennia.

Put another way: The Abrahamic deity–in all his bounteous wisdom–was biding his time.  This means that he sat idly by (presumably, on his throne) as mankind went awry everywhere on the planet, century after century after century.  This rather far-fetched rationalization for the peculiar delay in human enlightenment belies claims of beneficence on the part of a creator god.

With respect to Islam, the implications here are even more ignominious.  For proponents of the Sunnah are expected to believe in things that–upon even cursory reflection–are bonkers (a litany of iniquity adumbrated in my essay on “The Universality Of Morality”).  This fickle cosmic overlord–so adamant about everyone doing things a certain way in order to remain placated–withheld the Sunnah from mankind over the millennia.  He did not divulge the secrets to salvation until finally, at long last, he decided to deliver it to a single person at a completely arbitrary point in human history.  His choice: An illiterate Bedouin merchant in the Hijaz. {19}

And when this omniscient super-being eventually got around to giving mankind the climactic memo, it failed to address even the most fundamental of human rights…or articulate even the most basic points of civil society…or provide even the most elementary insights into the natural world.  With this in mind, let’s continue our survey into the Iron Age.

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