Modern contracts typically follow a certain format: the parties of the contract are identified, the terms and conditions are defined, certain penalties are defined, and the parties (and witnesses, if necessary) sign their agreement.
There is a similarly formatted ancient Near Eastern contract, called a suzerain covenant, though these were much more unilateral; the suzerain has all the power. Conveniently, these suzerain covenants tend to follow a similar format to modern contracts:
- Preamble: the parties of the contract are identified (the suzerain and/or his vassals),
- History: any past relationship between the suzerain and his vassals is described,
- Stipulations: laws are defined,
- Sanctions: rewards and penalties are defined.
Lastly, such treaties could define how the covenant should be kept into future generations ('succession arrangements'), witnesses would be called upon, and the covenant might be ratified with a sacrificial meal.1
Code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi conforms to the suzerain covenant format almost exactly:
- Preamble: '. . . Then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi . . .',
- History: 'I am Hammurabi . . .' Hammurabi takes several paragraphs to describe what he has done for his vassals (reestablished Eridu, enriched Ur, founded the farms of Kish, etc.),
- Stipulations: 'If anyone . . .' Nearly three-hundred laws are prescribed (the actual 'Code' of Hammurabi), covering a wide range of social and criminal issues.
- Sanctions: The written text concludes with another lengthy reminder of what Hammurabi has done for his vassals, brief invocation of reward (those who read the law will be blessed by the gods Marduk and Zarpanit), followed by succession arrangements (future kings may not alter the law), and concluding with warnings of curses against those who violate the law code.
Exodus 20-24 begins with the Ten Commandments. These chapters are, of course, embedded within Israel's historical narrative, but they very closely follow the same suzerain covenant format as the Code of Hammurabi:
- Preamble: 'Then God spoke all these words . . .' The suzerain is identified,
- History: 'I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.' God's (brief) historical relationship with the (newly-forming) nation of Israel is described,
- Stipulations: 'You shall . . .' The Ten Commandments initiate a series of laws, continuing all the way to Exodus 23 (concluding abruptly with the command not to boil a kid in its mother's milk),
- Sanctions: God promises reward to Israel for their continued obedience to the angel guiding them, namely, they will be rewarded with entry and settlement in the land of Canaan.
Exodus 24 depicts a ratification ceremony for this suzerain covenant: Moses reads the laws of Exodus 20-23 to the people of Israel, blood from a sacrifice binds the people to the covenant, and Moses and the elders of Israel partake in a meal with their suzerain on Mount Sinai.2
Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi
Given the similarities in format, loose parallels between Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi are to be expected (e.g. Exodus 21.24 is similar to CoH §196; Exodus 21.28-32 is similar to CoH §251), because they come from the same overarching milieu. There is another law system that dates only a century or two later than the Code of Hammurabi, called the Code of the Nesilim (i.e. the Hittites); this law shares similarities between both the Code of Hammurabi and Exodus 20-24.
However, other than these broader similarities, the actual Ten Commandments (which begin the section of Exodus 20-24) show no direct dependence on the Code of Hammurabi. Some of the Ten Commandments (e.g. you shall not murder, you shall not steal) are so general, it's hardly a surprise we find any overlap between Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi. Yet, when we look into the more specific of the Ten Commandments (e.g. prohibition against idols, prohibition against work on the Sabbath), there are no parallels with the Code of Hammurabi.
The Ten Commandments (indeed, all of Exodus 20-24) shares similarities with the Code of Hammurabi, but they are similarities of culture. There are a few distinct overlaps between the two, but no more than would be expected by their mutual origin in the ancient Near East. The Ten Commandments are not directly dependent on the Code of Hammurabi.
1 Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, p.107-113.
2 The whole book of Deuteronomy also follows the above-described format:
- Preamble: Deuteronomy 1.1-5
- History: Deuteronomy 1.6-12.32
- Stipulations: Deuteronomy 13-26
- Sanctions (rewards, penalties): Deuteronomy 27-30
- Succession arrangements, witnesses, etc.: Deuteronomy 30-34.