The codex

A reproduction of a the 7-foot basalt pillar inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi. The original, found in Iran but originating in today’s Iraq during the 18th century BCE, stands in the Louvre; this copy was part of an exhibition in Berlin. (Image credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan via Flickr)

A Nation of Laws. This month I got to a point in my story where I needed to give some detailed background about what had happened to my characters between the Exodus and the present moment, 20 years later. I decided that one of them, Tal, was going to spend ten years pretending to be the wife of a secretly gay caravan owner. It was a purely transactional marriage: Tal could live out her frowned-upon passion, making music and learning new songs and languages; and her Amorite husband Muranu would get cover for his homosexuality. This meant that I needed to do some research into what life was like in a caravan during biblical times.

I suspected there would not be a lot to find, and I was right. Because they are always on the move, caravans don’t leave much for archaeologists to dig up millennia later, like courses of brick walls or mosaics on floors — or, most importantly, texts on lasting materials like fired pottery. But to my surprise, I did discover a source of caravan law: the Code of Hammurabi. And I was delighted to learn about the rights of women both within and outside of marriage from the Code as well.

All I had ever known about the Code of Hammurabi was that it was the first set of laws in human history (which is wrong: it wasn’t) and that it was the origin of the “lex talionis,” the law of retaliation encapsulated as “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” But the more I read the Yale Law analysis of the Code, the more deeply impressed I became. There is a proviso for judicial impeachment: “If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge’s bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement.” There is fiduciary responsibility: “If a merchant entrust money to an agent (broker) for some investment, and the broker suffer a loss in the place to which he goes, he shall make good the capital to the merchant.” 

The Code includes extensive rules about medical fees and medical malpractice: “If a veterinary surgeon perform a serious operation on an ass or an ox, and cure it, the owner shall pay the surgeon one-sixth of a shekel as a fee . . . If he perform a serious operation on an ass or ox, and kill it, he shall pay the owner one-fourth of its value.” Even the upkeep of property is not neglected: “ If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.” 

Photo by Steve Douglas on Unsplash

Of course, the death penalty is also strewn liberally throughout the Code as well, mostly for theft but also for crimes such as running up the price of liquor or hiring a mercenary to carry out one’s military duties. As barbaric as that might sound to modern ears, however, the current Republican front-runner for the 2024 presidential race has a position that isn’t much better: “We’re going to be asking everyone who sells drugs, gets caught selling drugs, to receive the death penalty for their heinous acts,” Donald Trump declared during his campaign announcement in November 2022. “Because it’s the only way.”

It’s lucky for the former president that the Code of Hammurabi doesn’t apply to getting out of military service by claiming bone spurs.

Lotus Eaters. I was searching for a comparison to someone who was sounding delusional, sort of the biblical equivalent of, “You must be tripping,” when I found out from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that Nile lotuses are hallucinogenic. Not only that, they are apparently a form of ancient Viagra. “The treatment of erectile dysfunction with apomorphine is not new: the Mayans and ancient Egyptians were well acquainted with the clinical effects of an apomorphine-containing plant,” Nymphaea caerulea or blue lotus. 

Sounds like fun times.

Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

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