The ancient Near East was a geographical region made up of various city-states and clans. Each of these populaces had its own respective cultures but each influenced the others in a mutual cultural exchange. It is important to understand that when speaking of the Hittites, Amorites, Hebrew, Phoenicians, etc. that we are speaking about individual units of a greater collective whole. They all primarily spoke a dialect that was related, shared architectural technology, held common views of the world and expressed the same myths and legends. The ancient Mesopotamian region was quite homogenous on many levels. It is therefore of no surprise that these ancient people shared a similar legal system.
The most comprehensive code of law discovered by archeologists in 1901 is called the Code of Hammurabi and is the ancient legal code of Babylon dated from 1754 B.C.E. The sixth king of the ancient Babylonian dynasty, Hammurabi (1795 to 1750 BCE), is said to have received the Law from his God, an inspired legal canon. The laws are all inscribed upon steles and tablets and were displayed in public so that every citizen knew what was required of them. The Hammurabian Code is divided into 12 sections and consists of 282 laws, 34 of which are unreadable.
Other Near Eastern legal codes have also been discovered and researched such as those of the King of Ur- the Code of Ur-Nammu (2050 BCE), the Laws of Eshnunna (1930 BCE), and Lipit Ishtar Isin (1870 BCE). We also now possess the later laws of the Hittites, Amorites and the Hebrews. All of these legal systems are influenced by one another in a time and place when culture and geography were shared and not so dissimilar.
About 300 years after Hammurabi, in 1440 BCE, Moses recorded the Law for the Israelites. This Mosiac Law or the Torah shares many similarities with the Code of Hammurabi as well as with the other legal texts of the age. This is not to state that Moses copied the laws of Hammurabi rather it is to assert that it is quite evident that the Torah wasn’t written in a vacuum and isn’t as unique in comparative literature of the Near East as some would like to believe. The Torah, like other similar texts, was derived from the minds of Iron Age, Near Eastern people who shared cross-cultural ideals.
Following are a few examples of similarities between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi:
·Torah- Exodus 21:2: "If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.”
Hammurabi- section 117: "If a man become involved in debt, and give his wife, his son or his daughter for silver or for labor, they shall serve three years in the house of their purchaser or bondmaster: in the fourth year they shall regain their freedom."
·Torah- Exodus 21:18: "And if men contend, and one smite the other with astone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed; if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed."
Hammurabi- section 206: "If a man strike another man in a noisy dispute and wound him, that man shall swear, 'I did not strike him knowingly'; and he shall pay for the physician."
·Torah- Exodus 21:22: "If men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall surely be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine."
Hammurabi- section 209: "If a man strike a free woman and cause her fruit to depart, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fruit."
·Torah- Exodus 21:24: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."
Hammurabi- section 196: "If a man destroy the eye of a free man, his eye shall be destroyed." section 197: "If he break the bone of a free man, his bone shall be broken." section 200: "If a man knock out the teeth of a man of the same rank, his teeth shall be knocked out."
·Torah- Exodus 21:28-32: "If an ox gore a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be surely stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox was wont to gore in time past, and it hath been testified to its owner, and he hath not kept it in, but it hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. .... If the ox gore a man-servant or a maid-servant, there shall be given unto their master 30 shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”
Hammurabi- sections 250: "If an ox, while going along the street, gore a man and cause his death, no claims of any kind can be made. If a man's ox be addicted to goring and have manifested to him his failing, that it is addicted to goring, and, nevertheless, he have neither blunted his horns, nor fastened up his ox; then if his ox gore a free man and cause his death, he shall give 30 shekels of silver. If it be a man's slave, he shall give 20 shekels of silver."
There is no doubt that the early Israelites who left Egypt were well versed in the laws of a pre-Sinaitic Torah. Jewish tradition declares that there was a valid legal system before the giving of the Torah at Sinai and that the patriarch Abraham kept all of the laws of such a legal system (Bereishit Rabbah 82:14). These laws were respected ad studies by the early Hebrews until the time of Sinai according to Maimonides (Maimonides' Commentary to the Mishnah, Chullin 100b). However, there is another perspective that is articulated by Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (1455-1526 CE), who argues that all of these pre-Sinaitic laws are still in effect and rather than suddenly being abrogated by the Sinai experience the Torah includes these previous laws in both its content and context (Mizrachi to Genesis 1:1). I find the position of Rabbi Mizrahi to be quite evident in the context of the examination of the historical and archeological record.