Law in Mesopotamia—Deuteronomy 19

One of the most important responsibilities of any ruler in the ancient Near East was to maintain order and justice within the kingdom. The Egyptians called it maat, and Mesopotamians referred to it as the misharu shakanu, “to establish just order or bring about justice” on behalf of the god Shamash.

During the biblical period, ancient Mesopotamia seldom codified or wrote laws down. Communities were small, and people learned the rules that governed them through association and cultural transference. Those who grew up in the community knew what the rules were and followed the “common law.” A group of elders who listened to individual cases and decided what was best for all parties concerned would handle disputes. Such decisions, or “case law,” became the foundation for future rules governing similar situations. If an injured party was not satisfied with the settlement, then they could appeal to the ruler or chief who would make a final verdict.

The earliest law codes, dating between 2400–1900 BC, appeared in Sumer. As the birthplace of written language, Sumer was a sophisticated culture that became the model for many later civilizations. As time progressed and disputes arose, scribes would write down the rules governing them in a series of legal prescriptions. The Laws of Urukagina (ca. 2350 BC), Ur-Nammu (ca. 2100 BC), and Lipt-Ishtar (ca. 1930 BC) sought to establish harmony and justice in the land. Such laws attempted to eliminate cruelty, evil, and violence while protecting widows, orphans, and the poor from the greed and corruption of influential individuals. Sexual assaults against citizens and slaves could result in the death penalty, and crimes that produced bodily injury were fined in silver rather than by extracting physical retribution. The new laws helped bring prosperity to the region, as well as creating a uniform system of weights and measures, a stable trade center, and a secure marketplace for conducting business.

Later Mesopotamian cultures such as the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians adopted many of the legal principles first established by the Sumerians. The Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1900), the Middle Assyrian Laws (1350 BC), and the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1750) sought to clarify common law by codifying royal decrees. As with the Sumerians, the king continued to be responsible for administering justice and maintaining order, but in practice, he would delegate civil disputes to lesser authorities. Mesopotamian courts had clear guidelines governing how to decide cases. Courts had to establish the facts before rendering a verdict firmly. They could summon citizens to testify, and if necessary, the courts had the legal authority to have witnesses brought in from anywhere in the kingdom. The authorities would require those testifying to take oaths before the symbol of a god or in a temple to ensure honest testimony. Documents, usually in the form of small tablets, were examined to provide a full accounting of the facts. Cases convened at the city gate or the temple courtyard to include the public in the legal process. The local council of elders, the district court, or even the king himself could render a verdict following a review of the case. They announced their decision to the general public through a herald who stood at a temple entrance and shared the news. The sheriff, who had the authority to retrieve stolen goods and administer punishment, would carry out the sentence. The king usually judged murder cases, and an executioner would deal out any capital punishment.

The penalties for many crimes in ancient Mesopotamia seem quite harsh and unforgiving by modern standards. Even unintentional actions that resulted in personal injury received severe punishment. One of the earliest legal concepts found both in Mesopotamia and in the Old Testament is “the right of retaliation” or lex talionis. This unwritten tribal rule allowed those who had been seriously injured by another party to seek retribution or revenge. In a society governed by a single ruler with absolute authority, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a way of bringing balance to the community and restoring order. If left unchecked, however, such retribution resulted in blood feuds and armed conflict. It could lead to the deaths of innocent people and the disruption of the community. To prevent a complete breakdown of society, a king assigned harsh punishment to most crimes, because if the punishment was not severe enough or the justice delayed in any way, the family of the victim might seek retribution beyond the severity of the crime. The Amorite custom demanded quick and severe punishment of the guilty party in equal measure to the crime committed.

Some scholars have noted the similarity between Mesopotamian legal decrees such as the Code of Hammurabi or Ur-Nammu and selected laws found in Exodus and Leviticus. The lex talionis mentioned above appears in Exodus 21:22-24: “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child a swift so that harm follows … then you shall give life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot …” (see also Lev. 24:19, 20 and Deut. 19:21). It also appears in the code of Hammurabi: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out” (L196; see also L197-210).

While the practice was common in the ancient Near East, the most significant difference between Old Testament and Mesopotamian law relates to social class. Unlike the Mesopotamian decrees, the Bible does not make any class distinctions. Whereas a Mesopotamian nobleman might pay only a fine for an offense, a craftsman would be put to death or have an eye gouged out for the same action. However, in the Old Testament, the punishment for a crime was equally applied to all levels of society. If someone unintentionally shed blood, the person could flee to the Temple or a city of refuge. This Old Testament precept initially sought to ensure that all persons were treated equally regardless of class and thus prevent the powerful from taking advantage of the weak.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Jesus reinterpreted the lex talionis tradition of revenge into a message of love since the potential for its abuse was so great. By instructing his followers to “turn the other” cheek (Matt. 5:39), Christ undid centuries of tribal blood feuds and the fear of retribution by releasing individuals from the responsibility of taking justice into their own hands without divine guidance.


Stiebring, Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture.

Chadwick, First Civilizations: Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.

Richardson, Hammurabi’s Laws: Text, Translation and Glossary.

Bienkowski and Millard, Dictionary of the Ancient Near East.

Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia.