Alice C. Linsley
Archaeology and anthropology contribute to our understanding of ethics among ancient peoples and civilizations. 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 Hammurapi did not spring suddenly into existence. They represent centuries of social development and social control.
The Code of Hammurabi dates to about 1750 B.C. 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.
Ancient codes appealed to a high authority for their validity. The Code of Hammurapi was engraved on a stele more than 7 feet high. At the top of this stele of dark stone appears an image of King Hammurapi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the god of justice. Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative. The Code of Hammurapi closes with this statement: “The righteous laws which Hammurapi, 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. This is why even today among many tribal peoples women give birth in a birthing hut on the edge of the village. They may also be required to stay at that hut during their monthly bleeding. 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.
Ancient laws such as those found in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and in the ancient Vedic writings, are 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 chiefs. Others direct the proper treatment of slaves, foreigners, widows and orphans.
The clay tablet of the code of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi is dated to 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.)
Ethics of Family and Territories
The earliest forms of government were kinship based. The ethics of those archaic communities developed out of their kinship. For example, Afro-Asiatic chiefs married close female relatives. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah. Their father was Terah, but they had different mothers. Abraham also married Keturah (Gen. 25) who was his patrilineal parallel cousin. That means that Keturah’s father and Abraham’s father had a common male ancestor. It was easier to govern when everyone shared a common ancestor from whom they received a common ethical and moral outlook.
Later forms of government involved control of larger territories. Rulers formed alliances with potential aggressors, often by contracting a marriage between their sons and daughters. Treaties to support one another in the even of attack from a third power were formalized by marriage, or by the exchange of gifts, and by solemn ceremonies that included animal sacrifices followed by a night of feasting. The cultural exchange that took place because of the peace between tribes led to sharing some ethical views.