Did Abraham Live by the Hammurabi Code?

There are places in the Bible that can easily be misunderstood without the historical, political and cultural context of the events described. Thanks to the 1925-1931 excavations in the ancient city of Nuzi (north of Mesopotamia), as well as the archives found in the city of Mari (in modern Syria), we can answer some interesting questions, earlier causing confusion to Bible readers. Here are a few biblical stories, whose meaning becomes much clearer, knowing the historical background of the described events. 

Eliezer

As we read the book of Genesis, we come across the following passage: Abram said: O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?And Abram said, Behold, You have not given me offspring, and behold, my household is my heir.” (Genesis 15: 2-3). Abraham had no children and he laments to the Lord that his house steward, whom he calls his household member, will become his heir. Although it appears strange to us, the tablets found in Nuzi bear witness to the practice, existing in the 15th-14th centuries B.C., according to which a childless rich family could adopt a slave housekeeper as the legal heir of their estate. Perhaps Abraham had already adopted Eliezer by the cited time and assumed that he would become his heir. According to the documents found in Nuzi, the adopted son’s responsibilities as an heir included managing the estate of his parents, taking care of them during their lifetime and arranging a decent funeral for them. In the event of a blood son’s birth, the heirship was conferred to him, while the adopted son retained either a smaller or even a commensurate share of the inheritance. 

Sarai and Her Maid

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said (Gen. 16:1-2). According to the ancient legal norms enshrined in the Code of Hammurabi, an infertile wife could give her maidservant to her husband in order for her to give birth to an heir, who then was to become the adopted son of the lawful wife. If a father calls his sons, born from a slave, “my sons”, then after his death, they were equated with his sons by blood (paragraph 170 of the Hammurabi Code). 

Sarah

Ancient tablets explain to us possible reasons why the angel of the Lord ordered Hagar to obey her mistress Sarai and return to her (see Gen. 16:9). The fact is that Hagar, having conceived Abraham’s son Ishmael, began to treat Sarai with contempt because of her sterility, which caused Sarai to drive Hagar out. According to the laws of Hammurabi (paragraph 146), if the servant, who gave birth to the householder’s children, becomes exalted and treats the lawful wife as an equal, then the lawful wife has the right to put a stigma on her, affirming her position of a slave. 

Jacob and Laban

Interesting details can be seen in the story of Jacob, Laban and Rachel. In Gen. 31:38-39 Jacob tells Laban that I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. According to Law 244 of the Hammurabi Code, if a lion or other wild animal tore an ox or a donkey, the loss falls on the owner of the herd, and not on the shepherd, for such a case is equated to force majeure, of which the shepherd is not guilty. However, as we see, Jacob considered it his loss, pleasing his father-in-law and deserving even greater God’s blessings. 

Another notable episode is the one describing the theft of Laban’s household idols by his daughter Rachel (see Gen. 31:19). How can one explain this seemingly strange act of Rachel? According to the clay tablets found in Nuzi’s archives, the right to possess the domestic gods automatically meant the right to own land and family property. Rachel, having kidnapped family idols, in fact deprived her brothers and Laban himself of their documentsproving their right to own property. Clearly that provoked Laban’s pursuit of Jacob. 

So, as we can see, archaeological finds, shed light on many difficult and hardly incomprehensible places in the Old Testament, helping to restore the correct cultural and religious context of the described events in Sacred history. Biblical archaeology cannot provide answers to all the difficult questions, which are of interest to us. Its merit, however, lies in the fact that one way or another, directly or indirectly, it confirms many facts and explains numerous details of the biblical story, which previously seemed implausible or, at least, strange. When reading the Bible, one should always remember this God-inspired Scripture being not only the Word of God, but also a human word with its own completely earthly history.

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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