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As a lawyer I have often wondered the evolution of the rules of behavior from word of mouth and the rule by divine right of kings to a written code of behavior come from? While the Code of Hammurabi is not the first written set of rules of behavior it is one of the earliest, the most complete and perhaps the best known.
Hammurabi was the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, reigning from 1792 BC to 1750 BC. Somewhere in that time frame, he fashioned a compendium of 282 laws that set standards of conduct and justice for his empire in ancient Mesopotamia.
Etched on an imposing seven-and-a-half-foot diorite pillar, or stele, the commands covered everything from property rights and criminal behavior to slavery and divorce, and promised brutal punishments for all who disobeyed.
In the prologue or introduction to the list of laws, Hammurabi states that he wants “to make justice visible in the land, to destroy the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak.”
So begins the Law Code of Hammurabi:

“Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not haim the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Sham.ash, and enlighten the land, to further the well­ being of mankind …”

While it’s notorious for its catalogue of barbaric punishments, Hammurabi’s Code also set several valuable legal precedents that have survived to this day. The compendium is among the earliest legal documents to put forth a doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty.”
The Code also includes a modern take on judicial procedures. For example, when two parties had a dispute, legal protocol allowed them to bring their case before a judge and provide evidence and witnesses to back up their claims.
I think phrases like “black letter law” and “written in stone” have come down to us through the ages from that seven and a half foot black diorite stone pillar that is Hammurabi’s Code.

Bradford Pelton

Author Bradford Pelton

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