The oldest profession

By Legal Eagle

No, I’m not talking about that kind of solicitor, I’m talking about the other kind of solicitor. The one who tells you what the law is. You may think you can shake us off, but the evidence shows we’ve been around for a lo-o-o-ong time, at least 3700 years.

Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have found and translated fragments of an ancient legal code written in cuneiform.

History of the Ancient World reports:

The fragments, written in Akkadian cuneiform script, likely refer to issues of personal injury law relating to slaves and masters, as gleaned from the words deciphered so far, which include “master,” “slave,” and a word referring to bodily parts, apparently the word for “tooth.”

“The document we have uncovered includes laws pertaining to body parts and damages. These laws are similar to laws in the Hammurabi Codex, as well as to laws along the lines of ‘an eye for an eye,’ mentioned in Exodus,” said Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. Ben-Tor and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman are heading the team of archaeologists at Tel Hazor who made the find.

The Code of Hammurabi is an ancient law code, created ca. 1790 BC in ancient Babylon. It was enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, and consists of 282 laws, with scaled punishments, adjusting “an eye for an eye” as graded depending on social status, of slave versus free man.

Let’s look at the specifics of the Code of Hammurabi. Laws 196 – 201 say:

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

197. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.

It is interesting to compare this with similar laws of lex talionis in the Torah. There are a number of instances in the Bible. Leviticus 24:19–20 says:

Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

Exodus 21:22–25 says:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Deuteronomy 19:21 says:

Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Why then do we not see the Jews literally imposing these punishments? Rabbi Eliezer (in the minority) said “An eye for an eye – literally” but the other sages in the Talmud read these laws to mean that a person must pay compensation if they injure another. (See Bava Kamma, 83b84a, which is incidentally one of my favourite volumes of the Talmud). One of the arguments is ingenious. Rabbi Simon ben Yohai raises the possibility of a person with no eyes blinding another person with eyes. He reasons that the injured party could not remove the injurer’s actual eyes because he has none. Because the rules are interpreted to be universal, it must be contemplated that compensation be paid instead.

Of course, such notions are present in early European societies too – see eg, the Saxon notion of weregild.

Perhaps this fragment of text will show the relationship between the Code of Hammurabi and the Torah. I hope they find other bits. Isn’t it interesting, that even in a society which is a long way away from our own, people are still struggling to best work out how to compensate others for wrongs done to them? I’m fascinated by the topics of wrongs, compensation and vindication. It seems that it’s something that’s been fascinating people for a long, long time.

P.S. While I was researching this post, I found a recording of a guy reading out an excerpt from the Code of Hammurabi. How unbelievably cool is that?


  1. Posted July 28, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    A lot of the Old Testament is borrowed from the Babylonians and Akkadians. Just as generous bits of the New Testament are borrowed from ancient Egyptian mythology.

    There’s nothing new under the sun … 😀

  2. Posted July 28, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Hmmm. Where did Abraham come from? Ur. (The flood went from 7 to 40 days as well).

    But a joke: A doctor, an architect and a lawyer were arguing about the oldest profession. The doctor mentioned the removal of adam’s rib – an operation. The architect mentioned separating earth sea and heavens to create order from chaos, a design. The lawyer piped up “and who do you think created the chaos in the first place?”

    Back OT: Skipping the personal injury, (I wonder what Minister Garrett would say about the penalties for building contractors causing death), I’m tickled by the fact that the problems of incompetent judges (permanently disbarred and fined) and consumer protection (weights and measures) were considered so important, so long ago.

  3. Posted July 29, 2010 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    Vaguely on topic, you might like this post on contemporary African law on witchcraft.

    Mesopotamian society was quite sophisticated. Hammurabi lived in the C18thBC, it had been literate since the C31stBC and urbanised almost that long. So Hammurabi is drawing on over a thousand years of urban, commercial, literate experience. The common law only officially draws on about 800 years (since time immemorial starts in 1198), even though it developed out of legal customs centuries older still.

    Not that all that was progress: women had more legal, economic and political rights in C8th England than they did in C18th England. (The Anglo-Saxons would have found coverture marriage bizarre.)

  4. Posted July 29, 2010 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Not everything about the Lex Talionis was irreparably bad, although societies that moved beyond it had rude things to say about it where it persisted for too long — both Ulpian and Gaius make rude comments about Persian and Jewish civilisation for clinging to it for too long, and having to come up with legal fictions to evade its nastier consequences. By that stage Roman law (for citizens) had moved to a system of fines and imprisonment with the death penalty reserved for only three offences — murder, rape and treason.

    Interestingly, one of my classicist friends was telling me yesterday that some recent document finds indicate that the Romans — although maintaining for much of the Empire’s history an all-volunteer military — were known for depositing lads with a few minor ‘priors’ into the army. They’ve found records of young men given a choice between a hefty fine and the legions when it comes to affray, assault, theft and various public order offences. Some things never change…

  5. TerjeP
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

    Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

    Or is it do unto you as you have done unto others.

  6. Posted July 29, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    The Jewish and Greek versions are both negative liberty versions: ‘do not do to others…’. The Christian version is a form of positive liberty or political perfectionism: ‘do unto others’. Once again Ulpian pointed out how different these were in practice. The first requires restraint; the second requires working out what is good and then doing it to others. Years later Isaiah Berlin conceptualised these as ‘negative and positive liberty’.

  7. TerjeP
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I think I prefer the cultural implications of the Christian outlook and the political/ legal implications of the Jewish outlook. Although in practice Israel seems from afar to be a state that is quite big on positive rights.

    Who was Ulpian?

  8. Posted July 29, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    (I’ll just point out that some of the quips at the bottom of the article don’t represent his actual opinion, but snide asides scattered throughout his commentaries). Like most educated Roman pagans, he didn’t like Christians, considering them ‘hysterical exhibitionists’ who overvalued the opinions of victims and the ignorant.

  9. Patrick
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    The Christians laughed last and are still laughing, though, however hysterically that may be.

  10. TerjeP
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Yeah but they had to put a lot of people to the sword to get there.

  11. Posted October 12, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    very conflicting… luckily we don’t suffer an eye for an eye these days.

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