The Code of Hammurabi vs. the Law of Moses

Hammurabi Stele
The Code of Hammurabi

Week four at ECS brings us to a study of The Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Mesopotamian series of laws that predates Moses by a thousand years.  Hammurabi was ruler of Ur in Abraham’s day and had a rather expansive and lengthy rule.  Surviving today are about 250 laws etched in an eight-foot stele that also features an image of the king receiving the laws from the sun god Shamash.  Most likely, this stele was a trophy, changing hands multiple times as its possessors were conquered.  Somewhere in there, some thirty-five laws were scratched out, otherwise we’d have just over 280 laws.

Last week we observed an example of a savior story from the mind of men in The Epic of Gilgamesh that contrasts starkly in a number of ways from the great savior story of Jesus Christ.  But for all of its differences, there are some similarities, which stem largely from a common state of mankind four thousand years ago and two thousand years ago (and today!): man is completely corrupt and in dire need of rescuing.

Similarly, part of what is so interesting about The Code of Hammurabi is how it compares (and contrasts) to the law of Moses.  Consider some areas of similarity:

  • Justice.  Given that the image of God is in all men, and given that the law of God is inscribed on the hearts of men, it comes as no surprise that some of the laws in The Code are just.
  • Civil order.  If a people would apply The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses, each offers  a recipe for civil order.
  • The Lex Talionis, or “the principle that a person who has injured another person is similarly injured in retribution” (hat tip to Wikipedia for the helpful, concise definition.)  There’s lots of eye-for-an-eye type language in The Code, which also pops up in Moses, too.    

And to be fair, there are more similarities than these.  But of far more striking significance are the differences.  Consider some of them with me:

  • Sanctity of human life.  The Code of Hammurabi represents a lower view of human life than Moses.  For instance, in The Code of Hammurabi, the consequence for theft is to repay ten- to thirty-fold. If that’s not possible, the thief is executed.  That’s never the case in Moses.
  • Favoring the privileged vs. protecting the oppressed.  Protection of the oppressed is near to God’s heart; not so much with Hammurabi.  Many of Hammurabi’s laws favor the free and wealthy.
  • Justice.  Though some of The Code of Hammurabi is just, much of it is eminently unjust.  There is no injustice at all in the law of Moses.
  • Mercy.  The notion of mercy is exceedingly rare in Hammurabi, but appears with regularity in Moses.
  • The focus of the laws.  The vast majority of The Code of Hammurabi concerns money, property, and business transactions.  While these are addressed in Moses, the focus on moral laws, loving and honoring God and taking care of man’s relationship to God are strong emphases in Moses.

These are but a few of the differences that pose real problems for those who try to argue that Moses borrowed from Hammurabi.  The two codes (i.e., of Hammurabi and of Moses) come from different starting points and points of authority.

Flashing back again to last week, in the person of Gilgamesh we are offered an example of what sort of a savior we could expect if we were left to ourselves: a fearful, corrupt, powerful, but ultimately impotent mortal who is a lot like us.  Gilgamesh contrasts with Christ.

The Code is the law as written by man. In The Code of Hammurabi we are offered an example of a system of laws that represents man’s best effort at justice…and it’s colored profoundly by Hammurabi’s self-promotion and self-interests.  The Code of Hammurabi contrasts with the Code of Moses, which comes from the true God, is inspired and reflects His just and unchanging nature.

If you’re interested in a more complete defense of any of these points, you could ask me, but why not read The Code yourself?  It only takes a few hours and will give you a deeper understanding of the heart of man and appreciation for the heart of God.

Lessons from The Epic of Gilgamesh

The ancient Babylonian story The Epic of Gilgamesh occupies a well-deserved spot in the Omnibus syllabus. Our recent study of the poem gave us opportunity to examine a whole host of worldview-enriching lessons for our students.

In case you’re not familiar with Gilgamesh, Sean Higgins provided a short rundown of the story and the main characters in his own blogpost, which I’d recommend. Sean’s recurring thought throughout his reading of Gilgamesh was one of gratitude: “Thank God that our God is not like Gilgamesh.” And that ought to be where we end up – and remain – at the end of our reading. But I was impressed with a few other takeaways from Gilgamesh. I’ll off your three of them for now.

Man did not write the Bible

Gilgamesh is one of many savior stories in the canon of Western literature. The notion of one person rescuing others, being a hero, and so on resonates deeply within men…for good reason: God made it like that. He’s a really great storyteller! It is evident from the reading of Gilgamesh that the ancient Babylonians were aware of the nature of man (that is in turn reflected in the nature of their gods): he is sinful and prone to destroy himself and is in need of rescuing; he needs a savior.

And Gilgamesh is the ancient Babylonians’ idea as to what sort of a savior men need. Gilgamesh is how men would (and did!) write the story; the gospel is how God would (and did!) write the story. John MacArthur often makes the case that Scripture is its own best defense. This is most evident in the gospel. If the Bible were from the mind of man, Jesus would look and act more like Gilgamesh. But it’s not! Think about it:

Jesus is humble; Gilgamesh is proud. Jesus delayed his glory; Gilgamesh manufactured and ensured his glory. Jesus is fully God and fully man; Gilgamesh is two thirds god and one third man. Jesus endures but does not fear death; Gilgamesh fears death. Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him; Gilgamesh dreaded what awaited him upon death.

Men just wouldn’t write the story the way God did!

It’s no wonder Jesus was a stumbling block

If Gilgamesh is any indication as to what ancient pagans envisioned a savior should be like (and the Jews’ apparent expectations regarding the Messiah would also be consistent with this), then they would have expected the Messiah of the Bible to be a conquering demigod-type military hero who would subdue his enemies, establish his own greatness and promote his own glory…like Gilgamesh.

Imagine their surprise when Jesus shows up in his first coming, meek, humble and wise. His humility alone would have been difficult to understand.

Make no mistake: Jesus will ultimately vanquish and destroy his enemies and liberate the captives and establish his governmental authority on the Earth. It was just not in his plan when he came the first time.

A stream will never rise above its source

The gods of ancient Babylon were amoral. That is, they had no sense of morality. They were capricious and sinful, selfish and unpredictable. They – like the natural men who gave birth to them – are driven chiefly by their own desires. We see this absence of morality again in the pantheons of Greece and Rome. It makes for an interesting mythology, but it provides little direction as to how to lead a righteous or happy life.

It is no surprise then, that Gilgamesh is amoral. How could he have a sense of morality when the gods he worshiped did not? This distinguishes the true God from the false gods of ancient Babylon and other polytheistic cultures: He is absolutely holy, good, just, powerful and yet righteous. He is not capricious, but is unchanging.

Now, this has far-reaching application, especially for any who wish to lead, to be the source of a stream. But for now, it’ll suffice to merely echo the sentiment: Thank God that God is not like Gilgamesh.

Changing the World from a Basement

The following is the address given by Sean Higgins during the inaugural convocation of Evangel Classical School on Tuesday.

Many school years ago Solomon wrote that the end of a thing is better than the beginning. I did not graduate highly enough in my class to argue with him, but I do know that you can’t get to the end without a beginning. You’ve got to start somewhere. This is our start, a sunny first day of school, an historic beginning for Evangel Classical School. Lord willing, we’ll finish well, however long it takes us.

When the end is worth it, it’s worth getting going even if you don’t have everything in place. C.S. Lewis wrote,

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.

Over the last few years, and especially over the last year, a growing number of us have realized how much there is to learn and, in particular, how much we, as Christian parents, have to learn. The simplicity of being made in the image of the Triune God means that we are to be mini-creators everywhere we go. Not only that, but we’ve also come to appreciate Abraham Kuyper’s declaration that rings out over a planet full of opportunities.

There is not a square inch [one thumb’s width] in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!”

The world is Christ’s, we are Christ’s, and He would have us live everywhere and in all things for His sake. That means that building homes and governing nations should be done for Him, which means that math and history and politics must be mastered for Him first. We are to sing songs and write books for God, which means that we must learn how God made harmony and poetry to work in His world. It also means that we must learn how to read, which means that we must start with the alphabet and phonetics, which means we must learn how to sit still. Christ cares about it all, so we must care about it all.

Today is a small beginning. God admonished His people not to despise the day of small things in Zechariah 4. His people were returning home from exile and were charged to rebuild the temple as they anticipated the Messiah’s coming. With such a huge project before them, with so few raw materials and with so many enemies, God encouraged them that He was pleased for them to start small. Likewise for us, though the beginning is small, we trust that God is pleased with it.

G.K. Chesterton famously said that “[I]f a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And here we are.

On one hand, our beginning is small, it is less than ideal. Our second greatest certainty is that we will do some things badly. So be it. Our greatest certainly, though, is that the opportunities are so great that we can hardly wait to get to work and try to catch up to where we should be. Christ is Lord everywhere so we have to start somewhere. Jesus has no jurisdiction clashes; you name it and He reigns over it. His reign covers everything He created and holds together in the universe; no principle or person is neutral. We want students who will grow up to laugh at any worldview that denies it. This is our Christ’s Lordship worship boot camp in a basement, as little as it may be.

On the other hand, it could be said that we already have too many good things to claim that this is hard. We have a delightfully suited-just-for-us place. We have more pencils than the apostle Paul. We have 30 years of a classical education movement ahead of us to learn from. We have families involved here who actually have lives worth sharing with students. We have a local church that supports us. We have the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Institutes of John Calvin and beautiful chairs and a magical mascot that hardly anyone one knows what it is…yet. Considering how many things we have to be thankful for, it’s hard to say that we have it hard.

What makes it hard is that we’re entering a new field in the battle between good and evil, between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. We are taking aim at the world system, at rebellion and unbelief, and we can be certain that the enemy would prefer us to sit on the sidelines.

Evangel Classical School is a front-line offensive campaign for Christ’s sake. From the first meeting of the school committee less than a year ago, we committed to fight and confessed that the first place we must fight is against the sin in our own hearts. We want to show the students how to deal with sin, to show them how to repent from laziness, fear, grumbling, and unbelief. By God’s grace we’ll kill our own sin first as we grow as disciples of Christ.

Isn’t that exactly what we want our kids, our students, and the following generations to have? More than brains crammed full of facts, more than grammar paradigms and dead languages and big textbooks and logic debates, we want our students to love God with all their hearts and minds and to believe that they are responsible to figure out all the ways that they can honor Him in the world no matter how crazy it seems! We want them to count the cost and then go to battle!

We don’t want our kids to want someone else to do it. We don’t want them to wait for all things safe and predictable and comfortable, for the “perfect” conditions. We don’t want them to work in reliance on their giftedness but rather because they believe God. We want them to walk by faith, ready to deal with the challenges of the battle even if they don’t have all the resources. We want them to be starters and singers. We want them to be just like us, only better. We want them to have first days like this, only bigger.

We do not have everything we need. We don’t even know enough to know all the things that we need that we don’t have. As others have said, we are attempting to provide an education that none of us received in order to slingshot these young people into a life we are still learning to run. Whether they use five smooth stones or five Latin verbs, we want them to fell giants and fight the dragon. We want them to read great stories, as they learn to write great stories, so that they will live great stories. We know it’s right and we praise the Lord that He’s brought us to the first day of changing the world from a basement.

For this year at Evangel Classical School, and we pray for many school years to come, we cry Soli Deo gloria!