Hammurabi's Code: An Eye for an Eye

"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is a paraphrase of Hammurabi's Code, a collection of 282 laws. Hammurabi ruled the Babylonian Empire from 1792-50 B.C.E. Although he was concerned with keeping order in his kingdom, this was not his only reason for compiling the list of laws. As his empire grew, he wanted to unify the various groups he controlled.

In the introduction, Hammurabi stated that he wanted "to make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak." The laws themselves protect widows, orphans, and others from being harmed or exploited. However, the Babylonians clearly did not live under a social system that treated all people equally. "If a man has destroyed the eye of a man of the gentleman class, they shall destroy his eye .... If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner ... he shall pay one mina of silver. If he has destroyed the eye of a gentleman's slave ... he shall pay half the slave's price."

The code outlines rules for witnesses and those making accusations of crimes. For example, "If anyone bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, if it be a capital offense charged, he shall be put to death."

Hammurabi's Code details how theft or destruction of property should be handled and gives guidelines for dealing with trade and business problems.

The code also gives rules for family matters such as marriage, divorce, incest, and adoption. Payment amounts for the work of doctors and other professionals are outlined. Although the pay for doctors was good, they suffered severe punishments for fatal errors. The code states that "if a physician make a large incision with the operating knife and kill him ... his hands shall be cut off."

The Code covers issues related to farming and herding animals, and the ownership and sale of slaves. Women had the right to buy and sell property and to obtain a divorce. All parties in a trial had to act honestly, and court officers had to be free of corruption so that the justice system could function effectively.

There are differences between ancient Babylonians and today's laws. For example, Hammurabi's Code required accusers to bring the accused into court by themselves.

Source: Hammurabi's Code: An Eye for an Eye
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