Once upon a time, in the ancient Babylonian city of Mesopotamia, there lived a king by the name of Hammurabi. He called on Shamash–the ancient Sun God–who represented justice, morality and truth. Shamash’s twin sister, the Goddess Inanna, was known as the Queen of Heaven.
The ancient ones believed that as the Sun rode through the heaven on his chariot, he saw everything that happened in the world. Alongside his sister Inanna, Shamash was the enforcer of divine justice and was believed to take an active role in human affairs; aiding those who were in distress.
In the not-so-distant past, it seems that rulers such as Hammurabi would evoke and consult with a higher power to create law and order. The stele of the Code of Hammurabi features an image of Hammurabi with Shamash where he is portrayed as receiving the laws directly from the Sun God.
The Code of Hammurabi, which consists of 282 laws, is among the oldest translatable writings in known history. From the little that historians and archeologists have gleamed about him, Hammurabi was considered a fair leader who was concerned with the welfare of his people. By today’s standards, however, we might be tempted to label him a dictator.
Criticisms notwithstanding, the fact remains that our modern legal system is not too different from Hammurabi’s time and is even considered to be a continuation of it. This early system of justice is the ancestor of our modern legal system. Hammurabi’s code was simple in that it concerned itself with the practical matters of the day and not with high-minded principles and ideas. One of the main tenets of the code is that it was a strict system of incentives and disincentives and embedded within its system a margin of safety to deter unnecessary risk-taking. With regards to commercial transactions, Hammurabi’s system balanced and united the interests of the person getting paid with the person who was paying.
The code did not accept excuses or explanations for mistake or fault and was openly displayed for all to see. By casting the laws in stone, Hammurabi rendered them immutable and beyond his personal ability to change.
The text contains a list of crimes, their various punishments as well as settlements for common disputes. It also contains guidelines for the conduct of citizens. While a social hierarchy placed some in privileged positions, the code proscribed punishments to all; with punishments varying depending on the status of offenders and victims.
Citizens and lawmakers understood that abiding by these rules meant a more ordered society where public welfare was taken into consideration. While certain punishments will be seen as draconian by modern standards, the code formalised the fundamental responsibility of the individual to act in the context of public interest.
The code was grounded in commonly-accepted principles of morality and ethics; providing a clear set of norms for citizens to reside in peace as well as prosper economically. For centuries after his death, Hammurabi’s laws continued to be copied by scribes as part of their writing exercises and they were even partially translated into Sumerian.