The Torah and the Code of Hammurabi


Dear Rabbi, I was learning in school about the ancient Code of Hammurabi, the 6th King of Babylon. He wrote that an eye for an eye is a literal legal penalty. What does the Torah say about this case? Thanks.



  1. The Code of Hammurabi existed around the time of Abraham, and quite possibly some of it was loosely based on the Seven Noachide Laws that were given to all of Mankind. Although there appear to be similarities to the teachings in the Torah, the differences certainly outweigh the similarities.

    The idea of revenge as justice is common to many societies and legal codes and should not be a surprise when found in multiple places. However, a careful study of the Torah will show that this phrase is more correctly translated as “compensation for an eye in place of an eye” and is a completely different idea than found in the code. According to the Torah it is a monetary penalty and not a literal punishment of “taking an eye for an eye” as the Code of Hammurabi states.

    It is extremely important to note that the difference between the Hammurabi Code and the Torah is vast and significant, and transcends merely the nature of any specific penalty or law. They are different in their very nature of approach to life and our purpose in the world.

    For example, Hammurabi was a code of consequences (if you do A, then B, etc.) without any moral content (A is wrong, B is an obligation). The Torah, on the other hand, is replete with moral exhortations and prohibitions. The Code offers special protection and privileges only to landowners and nobility, whereas the Torah offers special privileges and protections to the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

    For further reference I suggest the book Biblical Personalities and Archaeology by Leah Bronner, and Pritchard’s book The Ancient Near East.
    For further discussion on the Torah interpretation of “an eye for an eye”, see Leviticus 24:18-21, Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Kama 83b, and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s commentary

    Best wishes from the Team