Hammurabi was a First Dynasty king of Babylon and inherited the power
from his father Sin-Muballit, in c. 1792. Babylon was one of the many ancient city-states that dotted the Mesopotamian plain and waged war on each other for control of fertile agricultural land.
The kings who came before Hammurabi had begun to consolidate rule of central Mesopotamia under Babylonian hegemony and by the time of his reign, had conquered the city-states of Borsippa, Kish, and Sippar. So Hammurabi ascended to the throne as the king of a minor kingdom in the midst of a complex geopolitical situation.
The first few decades of Hammurabi’s reign were quite peaceful. Hammurabi used his power to undertake a series of public works, including heightening the city walls for defensive purposes, and expanding the temples. In c. 1801 B.C., the powerful kingdom of Elam invaded the Mesopotamian plain.
Elam tried to start a war between Hammurabi’s Babylonian kingdom and the kingdom of Larsa but the two kings made an alliance when they discovered this duplicity and were able to crush the Elamites, although Larsa did not contribute greatly to the military effort. Angered by Larsa’s failure to come to his aid, Hammurabi turned on that southern power, gaining control of the entirety of the lower Mesopotamian plain by c. 1763 B.C.
Hammurabi was assisted during the war in the south by his allies from the north and continued to expand his kingdom. Next the Babylonian armies conquered the remaining northern states, including Babylon’s former ally Mari. In just a few years, Hammurabi had succeeded in uniting all of Mesopotamia under his rule. Of the major city-states in the region, only Aleppo and Qatna to the west in Syria maintained their independence. However, one stele of Hammurabi has been found as far north as Diyarbekir, where he claims the title “King of the Amorites.”
Hammurabi is best known for the new code of Babylonian law, known as the Code of Hammurabi. It was one of the first written laws in the world, the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed on a stele and placed in a public place so that all could see it, although it is thought that few were literate. The stele was later plundered by the Elamites and removed to their capital, Susa; it was rediscovered there in 1901 and is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The code of Hammurabi contained 282 laws, written by scribes on 12 tablets. Unlike earlier laws, it was written in Akkadian, the daily language of Babylon, and could therefore be read by any literate person in the city.
The structure of the code is very specific, with each offense receiving a specified punishment. The punishments tended to be very harsh by modern standards, with many offenses resulting in death, disfigurement, or the use of the “Eye for and Eye, Tooth for a Tooth” philosophy. The code is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence, and it also suggests that the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence. Yet, there is no provision for extenuating circumstances to alter the prescribed punishment.
A carving at the top of the stele portrays Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god Shamash or possibly Marduk, and the preface states that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods of his people to bring the laws to them. Parallels between this narrative and the giving of laws by God in Jewish tradition to Moses and similarities between the two legal codes suggest a common ancestor in the Semitic background of the two. Fragments of previous law codes have been found. David P. Wright argues that the Jewish law used Hammurabi’s collection as a model, imitating both its structure and content.
A vast number of contract tablets dated to the reigns of Hammurabi and his successors have been discovered, as well as 55 of his own letters. These letters give a glimpse into the daily trials of ruling an empire, from dealing with floods and mandating changes to a flawed calendar, to taking care of Babylon’s massive herds of livestock.
Hammurabi died and passed the reins of the empire on to his son Samsu-iluna in c. 1750 B.C. and he is not named in the Bible.