Comparison of Hammurabi, Hittite, and Assyrian Codes

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Jewish tradition attributes the Noahide Laws directly to the Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9), and indirectly to the L-rd's first commandment to Adam HaRishon (Genesis 2:16). These traditions claim both antiquity and universality for these ancient laws.

We have some information about several ancient legal systems, such as the the Hammurabi, Hittite, or Assyrian Codes due to the preservation of some ancient cuneiform tablets and stones upon which the statutes of these codes were engraved. But no original text of the Noahide code survived, and even the existence of such a text has never been reported. There have been attempts to find traces of the Noahide legal system within other legal systems such as the Hammurabi, Hittite, and Assyrian Codes. Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein reviews in his book "The Seven Laws of Noah" one such attempt.

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein concludes that Philip Biberfeld's study, while interesting, is not conclusive. He says that the earliest sources to give systematic treatment to Noahide Law are talmudic, and the earliest book of the Halakha which undertakes to delineate the Seven Laws is the Tosefta, attributed to Hiyya bar Abba, born circa 160. (Other scholars are of the opinion that the "Book of Acts" of the Christian New Testament refers to Noahide Laws (see Noahide Law in the New Testament) and was composed around 62 CE, one hundred years before the Tosefta).

Philip Biberfeld's Study

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein says:[1]

Nevertheless, a 1948 study by Philip Biberfeld tries to surmise the existence of an early Noahide legal system from due scrutiny of the extant Near East codes.[2]

Biberfeld begins by posing the oft-mentioned problem concerning the seeming hodge-podge arrangement of statutes within the Hammurabi Code, the Hittite Code, and the Assyrian Code. A second problem he raises centers on the occasional point of great similarity, amidst some wholly dissimilar material, in these three codes. Then Biberfeld focuses attention on the Noahic laws and notes their serial arrangement in the Talmud. As enumerated in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a, the Seven Laws of Noah are:

  1. Justice An imperative to pursue social justice, and a prohibition of any miscarriage of justice.
  2. Blasphemy Prohibits a curse directed at the Supreme Being.
  3. Idolatry Prohibits the worship of idols and planets.
  4. Illicit Intercourse Prohibits adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality.
  5. Homicide Prohibits murder and suicide.
  6. Theft Prohibits the wrongful taking of another's goods.
  7. Limb of a Living Creature Prohibits the eating of animal parts which were severed from a living animal.

Making use of the above categorization, Biberfeld observes that the other three codes admit of the following breakdown:[3]

Hammurabi Code

1-5 1. Justice.
6-126 2.Theft.
127-193 3. Illicit Intercourse.
193-282 4. Homicide.

Hittite Code

1-18 1. Homicide.
19-186 2. Justice and Theft (mingled).
187-200 3. Illicit Intercourse.[4]

Assyrian Laws

1-2 1. Blasphemy and Theft (committed by a woman).
7-55 2. Illicit Intercourse and Homicide.
Parts II and 111 3. Theft and Justice.[5]

Biberfeld draws attention to the fact that the subject heads included in the above codes can be classified within the framework of the Seven Noahide Laws. Not, of course, that each code possesses a counterpart to each of the seven Noahic areas of law, but that each code contains what it does because that is what it inherited from the Noahic tradition. In addition, Biberfeld notes a tendency for the seriatim arrangement of the subject heads in the three codes to correspond to the order assigned to the Seven Laws of Noah by the talmudic source.[6]

Pointing further to the numerous similarities in style, order, and phrasing which the cuneiform codes have in common with the juridical sections of the Pentateuch - which in turn share with the Noahide tradition a common Divine source – Biberfeld concludes: The Hammurabi, Hittite, and Assyrian laws have ultimate roots in the earliest Near Eastern legal tradition, namely, the Seven Laws of Noah. That is, each oi the cuneiform codes records a separate partial reconstruction, development, or adulteration of a then waning Noahide system.

As indicated in the notes, Biberfeld's interesting thesis has shortcomings. A major weakness is the undue significance Attributed to the order of the Seven Laws as cited in the Braitha of Sanhedrin 56. Differing arrangements are to be found in other sources, as in the Tosefta, Abodah Zarah 9, and in Genesis Rabbah 16.6. Furthermore, the order cited by the Braitha of Sanhedrin is apparently based on the order in which these seven laws are derived from the verse in the second chapter of Genesis discussed there. As careful a traditionalist as Judah Halevi considered this exegetical derivation far-fetched and but a mnemonic device of the oral tradition (Kuzari 3.73). If so, the serial order is not likely to have any historical or conceptual implication.


  1. Lichtenstein, Aaron. "The Seven Laws of Noah". New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press and Z. Berman Books, 2d ed. 1986
  2. Philip Biberfeld, "The Bible and the Ancient Law Codes" (An Appendix), Universal Jewish History. New York: Spero Foundation, 1948, pages 129-56.
  3. For text of the three cuneiform codes translated to English, see: Smith, op. cit., pages 181-274 (Appendix II, III, and IV).
  4. Biberfeld's own breakdown and nomenclature is as follows with respect to the Hittite Code: 1-18 1. Assault and Battery 19-163 2. Laws of Theft 164-186 3. Ritual laws and some other laws 187-200 4. Unnatural sins, Incest, Adultery That he designates number three separately as Ritual laws is based on a questionable interpretation of sections 164-167: Sections 164-5 are too fragmented to permit any such supposition; see Smith, ad locurn, who refrains from reading anything into these tattered sections. As for 166-7, it may have nothing to do with the ritual law of kilaym (mingling seeds while planting), as Biberfeld, op. cit., page 141, would have us think. Rather, it seemingly involves the attempt on the part of a thief to demonstrate his ownership of a field by his sowing it. Section 166 reads, " If anyone sows seed upon seed, they shall put him by the side of the plow and harness a pair of oxen and place this one over against those and them over against him, and the man shall die, and he who had first sown the field shall take it..." (Biberfeld, op. cit., page 139).
  5. Here again Biberfeld's breakdown is inaccurate, for it completely omits parts II and III of the Assyrian text, cited in Smith, op. cit., pages 237-45. The categorization offered above is a reconstruction based on both Smith and Biberfeld.
  6. Concerning the Hammurabi Code, which assigns to Theft the number two place, instead of the expected number four place, Biberfeld reasons (op. cit., page 136), "There [in the Noahide Laws] the first group, Dinim, was followed by the religious crimes, Blasphemy and Idolatry, which are omitted in the [Hammurabi] Code. The only religious crime which remained in the Code was the theft of goods of a god or temple. Consequently, they are used to introduce the next laws and, belonging to the group Theft and Robbery, this group is given precedence over the other ones." I see only conjecture in Biberfeld's explanation. Instead, one may wish to consider the following explanation, supported by the fact that it simultaneously explains the mis-arrangement of Justice in the Assyrian Laws, and partially explains the place of Theft and Justice in the Hittite Code: In the Hammurabi Code, Theft is number two because it relates to Justice, which is number one. That is, there was a tendency in the emergence of the ancient codes for Justice and Theft to fuse. This tendency stems from the lack of a clear line of demarcation between the two, since Theft could be a part of Justice. The lack of clear distinction between the two is no mean problem even in the Noahic seven, and several writers have questioned the need for differentiation of Theft and justice into separate categories. Both Chavel and Eisenstadt in their respective editions of Nahmanides' Pirush al HaTorah (Commentary on the Pentateuch,) on the Genesis 34:25 verse, note this as being problematic according to Nahmanides' broad interpretation of justice, which renders justice not merely an obligation on society to set up a court system, but also sees justice as alluding to a body of directives to the court on what constitutes justice and equity. (Our third chapter "Justice", clarifies the view of Nahmanides.) Similarly, in the Assyrian Laws the tendency for Theft and justice to fuse resulted in the misplacement of Justice next to Theft, which is in its rightful place as number three. Along the same lines, we see that in the Hittite Code, Theft and justice are mingled.