Alice C. Linsley
The most ancient moral codes have many features in common. They appeal to the authority of the deity who was recognized by the ruler and they view the ruler as the deity's earthly representative. Another common feature is a concern for purity among the priestly caste as they were regarded as the mediators between the deity and the ruler and his people. Often the rulers themselves were priests, as in the case of Horite ruler-priests. When it came to ritual purity, especially to cleanse from blood guilt, ruler-priests turned to other priests for rituals of absolution. An example of this is found in the account of Abraham returning from battle and receiving the priestly ministrations of Melchizedek.
Most of what we know about ancient moral codes comes from archaeological and anthropological research. These fields, along with linguistics and biblical studies, have contributed enormously to our understanding of ethics among ancient peoples. What follows is a brief overview of some of those findings.
Babylonian clay tablets dating to the 3rd century BC reveal business laws and moral codes of considerable sophistication. Moral codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, did not spring into existence suddenly. They represent centuries of social development in the area of moral law and social controls.
The oldest known law code is that of King Menes of Egypt. It is called the Law of Tehut and dates to about 5200 years ago. Menes made Memphis the capital of a united Egypt and administered justice and issued edicts which were designed to improve food production and distribution, guard the rights of ruling families, improve education and enhance knowledge of the natural world through geometry and astronomy.
Another ancient law code is the code of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi (2095-2047 BC). It originally held 57 laws which covered family and inheritance law, rights of slaves and laborers, and agricultural and commercial tariffs. This code prescribes compensation for wrongs, as in this example: "If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver." (Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 28, Sep/Oct 2002, p. 30.) This type of retributive justice was typical of ancient law codes.
The Code of Hammurabi dates to about 3750 years ago. Hammurabi was an Amorite (Semite) who became King of Babylon about the time that Abraham left his father’s house in Harran and settled in the land of Canaan. The ancient capital of Babylon was about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad and it was large city of the Fertile Crescent. Although the city states of the Fertile Crescent shared many common ideas and practices, these cities were not unified under a single ruler. Instead they were governed by independent rulers who were related by marriage. Marriage was a way to form political alliances and because rulers tended to marry within their kin and tribal groups, marriage also contributed to the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage.
The Code of Hammurabi was engraved on a stele more than 7 feet high. At the top of this stele of dark stone appears an image of King Hammurabi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the god of justice. Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative. The Code of Hammurabi closes with this statement: “The righteous laws which Hammurabi, the wise king, has established . . .” Similarly, Leviticus closes with this: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel.”
Ancient moral codes have a religious quality because religion and government were never separate in the ancient world. Among ancient peoples religious laws governed every aspect of the community’s life. Taboo is an aspect of ancient law that regularizes a community’s notions about supernatural power. Among some ancient Polynesian groups, the high chief’s “mana” was such that the people even avoided having his shadow fall upon them. Those who break a taboo by using something they are not to use or touch or by speaking words that they are not to speak, may be punished or shamed to enforce the social restraints of the community.
An example of a taboo among the ancient Israelites was boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy. 14:21). This was taboo because it violated the binary opposition of life-giving and life-taking that characterized the ancient Afro-Asiatic worldview. This same worldview meant that the blood shed in hunting, war and animal sacrifice could not in anyway be confused with or even physically near to blood shed my women in their monthly cycle or in birthing. The two bloods represent the binary oppositions of life-taking and life-giving. To bring them together or to confuse them was a very serious matter as it blurred the boundary between life and death.
Ancient laws such as those found in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and in the ancient Vedic writings, are also practical. We find instructions for how lepers are to be isolated from the community and restored after they are verifiably healed. Many laws govern family relations, forbidding incest and adultery, and setting guidelines for proper marriage partners, especially for rulers. Others direct the proper treatment of slaves, foreigners, widows and orphans.
The study of ancient moral codes should be done with careful consideration of the cultural context in which those codes developed. It is important to compare apples with apples, not apples with oranges. In this overview we have considered only the most ancient moral codes, which were essentially religious in nature. They are also found among the Afro-Asiatics, peoples in the oldest known language family. The main religious offices among these people were kings and priests. They were the law makers of the ancient Afro-Asiatic world.
Related Reading: Ethics and Binary Oppositions; The Nilotic Substrata of Genesis 1; Menes: Fact and Fiction; The Moral Code of Ani