A document written on two cuneiform tablets around the time of the patriarch Abraham, containing a law code in a style and language similar to parts of the famous Code of Hammurabi, has been discovered for the first time in an Israeli archeological dig.
The code, dating from the Middle Bronze Age in the 18th and 17th centuries BCE, was found at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s excavations this summer at Hazor National Park in the North. However, it has not yet been determined whether the document was written at Hazor – where a school for scribes was located in ancient times, or brought from elsewhere, said Prof. Wayne Horowitz of the HU Institute of Archeology.
Horowitz, who heads a team that is preparing the Hazor law code fragments for publication in book form, said this week that the discovery opened an interesting avenue for possible further investigation of a connection between biblical law and the Code of Hammurabi.
The Hazor excavations – known as the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in memory of Israeli archeologist and politician Prof. Yigael Yadin – are being held under the direction of Horowitz’s colleagues Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman. Yadin directed previous excavations at the site in the 1950s and 1960s and found numerous documents in the palace area.
Cuneiform script is the world’s earliest known writing system and first appeared in the Sumerian civilization of southern Iraq, starting as a pictographic system of writing. It was used widely as a writing system in the ancient Near East. Documents were written with a reed stylus on clay tablets, leaving wedgeshaped impressions (the name “cuneiform” comes from the Latin word for “wedge”). Gradually, cuneiform turned into linear drawings.
The newly discovered fragments were written in Akkadian cuneiform script and refer to issues of personal injury law relating to slaves and masters. They are reminiscent of similar laws in the famous Babylonian Hammurabi Code of the 18th century BCE that were found 109 years ago in what is now Iran. The new fragments were found by chance in the palace area.
The researchers said that the laws also reflected to a certain extent a number of biblical laws such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth.” Jewish sages have regarded this verse from Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy as an order not to actually remove the eye or tooth of someone who causes another person to lose one, but to require financial compensation equal to its value. So far, among the words that have been deciphered are “master,” “slave” and a word referring to bodily parts, apparently the word for “tooth.”
Horowitz said the text style was similar to that of the Hammurabi Code, which was enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, and consists of 282 laws with scaled punishments, adjusting “an eye for an eye” as graded depending on social status, such as whether a slave or a free man was involved. The Hammurabi Code limited even the king’s powers, but did not constitute a Western-style constitution, scholars say.
The fragments, said Ben- Tor, now form the largest corpus of documents of cuneiform texts found in Israel. Previous documents dealt with such subjects as the dispatch of people or goods, a legal dispute involving a local woman, and a text of multiplication tables. Also found over the years were an ancient bilingual dictionary, legal and economic documents and texts for predicting the future. This demonstrates that Hazor was a center of scholarship and administration and a circle of highlevel scribes during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, said Ben-Tor.
The archeological team, which is continuing to dig under the sponsorship of HU and the Israel Exploration Society, will soon begin uncovering a monumental building dating to the Bronze Age, where the team members expect to recover additional tablets.
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