Exodus, Deuteronomy, and the Code of Hammurabi

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Chris Corwin at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on the Pentateuch.


Why are there two Law-codes that are similar though different in the Pentateuch? Why does it seem that the Pentateuch closely parallels other texts from the Ancient Near East, like the Code of Hammurabi? These questions are tough questions. It is certainly something that is beginning to take notice by college students who are first introduced to such parallelisms, and several other readers on the world wide web.1 It is causing such readers to really put into question the inerrancy and the infallibility of Scripture. The question is should Ancient Near Eastern parallels between the Code of Hammurabi and the Pentateuch, which is the present focus, affect our interpretation of the Decalogue much less the rest of Scripture? The Pentateuch does share similarities with other law-codes of the Ancient Near East, but such similarities do not do anything more than to demonstrate God’s ability to meet the people in their own cultural context. Perhaps by looking at the similarities and differences between the two Law-codes of the Pentateuch, which is first given in Exodus 20 and second in Deuteronomy 5, we can determine why there are two similar though different accounts. When we have accomplished that, then we may be able to determine why there are similarities between the Pentateuch and the Code of Hammurabi. Finally, after having completed all aforementioned tasks, then we will be able to determine how the similarities between the Pentateuch and Ancient Near Eastern texts might affect our interpretations of the Bible and the Decalogue. We should begin by first examining the immediate contexts of the Law-codes found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

Exodus 20 is spoken by the Lord. God speaks the Law to Moses, who is to deliver the Law to God’s people. The people have just recently been delivered from the land of Egypt and have escaped death by the army of Pharaoh. Now the Lord is giving them the Law and the decrees that they are to follow as his people.

Deuteronomy 5 is not spoken by God. Rather, Moses is retelling the Law from God’s perspective. At the time that he speaks the Law to the people of Israel, he is talking to the next generation of Hebrews, not the old and rebellious generation who had all died with the exception of Joshua, Caleb and Moses. The people were on the verge of entering the Promised Land when Moses retold the Law to the people.

These immediate contexts have some huge differences. The former giving of the Law came straight from the mouth of the Lord. However, the latter one came indirectly from the Lord through Moses’ mouth. Additionally, the former Law-code was given after leaving the land of Egypt, whereas the latter one was given right before entering the Promised Land. Understanding these differences in context may help us understand why the two Law-codes have differences themselves.

With the exception of a few major differences, for the most part the two Law-codes are the same. Yet, each has subtle–minor–differences. We should take a look at the major differences of both, starting with the first giving of the Law found in Exodus, and we will do so using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the text.

The first verse of Exodus 20 is entirely different from the first verse of Deuteronomy 5. This verse sets the immediate context–the Lord is speaking. In English, there are only a few notable differences. In verse 5 there is the addition of the article preceding “fourth generation” that the Deuteronomy Law-code does not have. In verse eight, the verb is “Remember” rather than “Observe,” which the Deuteronomy Law-code contains. The list of things not to do and who is not to do it on the Sabbath in the Exodus Law-code is much shorter than the one in Deuteronomy. The reason for this Sabbath Law is entirely different in the Exodus account than the one in Deuteronomy. Finally, the order of which the objects of coveting are given in the Exodus account are switched in the Deuteronomy account.

In Deuteronomy’s Law-code, which Moses is speaking, not the Lord as opposed to the Exodus Law-code, we do not see any differences, with the exception of the missing article that the Exodus account has, until verse 12 where we have the verb “Observe” rather than “Remember.” Verses 12-16 are vastly different than what we see in the Law-code in Exodus; they are longer than the same section in Exodus. Verse 12 adds “as the Lord your God commanded you” to the third commandment. It adds the conjunction, “or,” several times in verse 14 in identifying who is to not do any work. In the same verse it adds extra livestock language–ox and donkey. Also in verse 14 we see that the order of “resident alien” is switched from that in the Exodus account. Finally at the end of 14 these words are added that are not in the Law-code in Exodus: “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” In verse 15, the reason for the sabbath day is entirely different than the one given in Exodus. In verse 16, the text adds the phrase, “as the Lord your God commanded you,” to the fourth commandment. It also adds an extra blessing for keeping this commandment, which are in quotations as follows: “and that it may go well with you” in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments are all linked together with the conjunction in Hebrew, but in the NRSV it is simply connected by “Neither.” Finally, in verse 21, the text has the objects of coveting switched from what is given in Exodus, and it adds that a field may not be coveted either.

The most significant differences between the texts are the verb choice and the reason for the third commandment, and the additional phrases contained in Deuteronomy that do not exist in Exodus. The third commandment as a whole is much shorter in the Law-code found in Exodus 20 than what we see in Deuteronomy 5. Deuteronomy 5 adds two additional phrases and gives a longer reason for the third commandment than does the Exodus 20 account. We should look at these phrases and key differences in light of the immediate contexts.

It would seem that because Moses is retelling what the Lord spoke to him that he would end up lengthening what was told to him. Typically the original source is shorter than other versions that follow, though this is not always true. It seems logically fair to say that because the Lord spoke the Law into existence it makes sense that it is shorter than when Moses retells it to the people, because there is a natural tendency to lengthen things when retold. This also would account for the differences too. It still has all the essential parts, but since there are two different authors here–the Lord in the first and Moses in the second, although Moses is still using the original–it accounts for the differences between the two texts, particularly the extra phrases. It also seems logically fair that given the times that these were written–after the exodus and before entering the Promised Land–we can determine why the reasons given for the third commandment are different.

The reason given for the third commandment in Exodus 20 stems from creation. The Lord says, “[F]or in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” (v. 11). The Lord is identifying that he has created everything, including the sabbath day, and he has consecrated it. For this reason, the Lord says, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The Hebrews are to remember what God did in creation–he created all things and then rested on the seventh day.

The reason given for the third commandment in Deuteronomy 5 stems from the exodus. Moses says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (v. 15). Moses is using the exodus event to exhort the Hebrews to observe the sabbath day, for the Lord commanded them to keep it–the same Lord who saved them from the hand of Pharaoh and delivered them from Egypt.

It seems that the reason for the third commandment in the latter account is feeding off of the allegiance of the Hebrews to the Lord as the obedient people of God, whereas the former one really seems to be feeding off the nature of God as the One who rests. It seems that the Lord was drawing on the creation act following the exodus to identify this truth: the God who saved the Hebrews from the land of Egypt is also the God who created all things. It also seems that Moses was drawing on the exodus act prior to entering the Promised Land to identify this truth: the God who brought them out of the land where they did not belong is going to bring them into the land where they do. Therefore, both reasons are being used strategically, and since they are extra details to further drive home the command, it is fair to say that it was totally acceptable for Moses to change it so long as the essential backbone of the text was not changed–keep the sabbath holy. Combine this logic with the aforementioned fact that Moses was restating to the Hebrews what the Lord had spoke to him, it is no wonder that the two Law-codes are similar though different. All the essential material is present in both, but the only differences are there for strategy or for more detail. What are we to do with this information?

It is possible that the people of the Ancient Near East–the Hebrews included–could have had no problem having an original text and then retelling the story or re-giving the text in a different way for a different purpose. We see that in the two Law-codes in the Pentateuch, where Moses retold the giving of the Law of the Lord, but made his own changes and interpolations. This could have been a common practice. If so, then it is also possible that Moses or whoever wrote the Pentateuch had an original source for which much of the Pentateuch parallels, i.e., an original that the Pentateuch is modeled after–much like how Moses’ retelling of the Law was modeled on the Lord’s giving of the Law, though it did not follow it directly. What this means is that the Pentateuch is not fully 100% original. It also means that Moses or whoever wrote the Pentateuch could have copied from another source or other sources, but since there was no sense of plagiarism at that time, it was probably a perfectly acceptable practice. In this case, the Code of Hammurabi parallels portions of the Pentateuch, and it seems that some of the law-codes given in Exodus 22 are intimately connected with laws 241-55 of the Code of Hammurabi. Before we get into the close connections between the two, we should gain a quick and simple background to the Code of Hammurabi.

The Code of Hammurabi was created ca. 1780 BCE.2 The Code gives rules and the punishments that will be given for those who break the rules.3 It covers topics such as theft, agriculture, women’s rights, marital rights, slave rights, murder, death and injury.4 Excuses or explanations for breaking the laws were not accepted, because the laws were posted all over the land for all the people to see and therefore they could not plead ignorance.5 This law-code was written by King Hammurabi, who lived between 1728 BCE-1686 BCE.6 In an effort to please his gods, Hammurabi wrote the law-code, but he apparently did not consider himself related to any god, but he did claim himself to be “the favorite of the gods.”7 It is quite possible that Moses or the author of the Pentateuch had access to this law-code, especially since it was written at least 500 years prior to the earliest and traditionally proposed date for the Pentateuch–approximately 1200 BCE–which also accounts for why the two sound similar in description.8

The Code of Hammurabi shares parallels with the Pentateuch. Laws 241 through 255 of the Code seem to have close ties with Exodus 22. Exodus 22 has similar concepts and vocabulary to nine of the 15 laws in the Code. Exodus 22:10-15 seems to be right out of the Code.

Note law 244 in the Code of Hammurabi. It deals with a hired ox or ass being killed by a lion in a field.9 The owner incurs the loss, not the one who rented the animal.10 This is parallel to the last sentence–verse 13 of Exodus 22: “If it was mangled by beasts, let it be brought as evidence; restitution shall not be made for the mangled remains” (NRSV; note the context of this passage is also of a hired animal for labor).

The 245th law of the Code of Hammurabi is paralleled here as well. It says that if anyone hire oxen and strike them or treat them badly, then they shall have to compensate the owner with the law of retribution, “oxen for oxen.”11 In Exodus 22, if a borrowed animal is injured while the owner is not present, then full restitution shall be made, but if the owner is present, then no restitution will be made, yet if it was hired, then the hiring fee must be paid (vv. 14-15, NRSV). We see the law of retribution in this text too .

In fact, verses 14 and 15 parallel laws 245, 246, 247, 248 and 250 of the Code of Hammurabi. Laws 246-48 and 250 deal with other injuries to the hired animals and the retribution that will be made for the respective losses and who will incur the loss.12 However, law 249 in the Code deals with God striking the hired animal.13

Law 249 in the Code of Hammurabi parallels Exodus 22:11, which reads, “an oath before the Lord shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner shall accept the oath, and no restitution shall be made” (NRSV). Law 249 reads, “If any one hire an ox, and God strike it that it die, the man who hired it shall swear by God and be considered guiltless.”14 Note the parallel oath language between the two.

Laws 251 and 252 in the Code of Hammurabi parallel Exodus 21 and not 22. Exodus 21:28-30 identifies what happens when an ox kills someone and what is to happen to that ox, especially if it has had a past of doing so, and if the owner has been warned, for he could be put to death for not gaining control of the ox (v. 29, NRSV). This directly parallels law 251,which reads, “If an ox be a goring ox, and it shown that he is a gorer, and he do not bind his horns, or fasten the ox up, and the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money.”15

Law 252 specifies that if the ox gore and kill a slave, the owner will have to pay one-third of a mina.16 This parallels verse 32 of the 21st chapter of Exodus, which reads, “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned” (NRSV). Ezekiel 45:12 identifies that a mina is 60 shekels. Therefore, assuming that this mina identified in Ezekiel is the same measurement as referenced in the Code of Hammurabi, then the Code requires only approximately 20 shekels for payment, whereas the Pentateuch requires 30. However, the weight measurements might be different among the two systems even though they share the same vocabulary, and so no substantial weight should be given to this observation unless further research could substantiate it. However, in ancient Sumeria, a m’na was 60 shekels, and if a m’na is the same as the mina mentioned in Ezekiel, then it could be a helpful observation, because it would reveal that there was some sort of connection, whether directly or indirectly, of the Pentateuch on the Code of Hammurabi.17

So how exactly do all these facts and all this information regarding the relationship between the two Law-codes of the Pentateuch and the Code of Hammurabi with the Pentateuch affect our interpretation of the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible for that matter? Well, if there is a dependency on the Code of Hammurabi by the Pentateuch, and there definitely appears that there is, this can mean several things: one, the Pentateuch utilized writing methods of its time, and therefore God inspired the author in using such methods; two, the Pentateuch did not utilize writing methods of its time, and therefore God inspired Moses or whoever wrote the Pentateuch to plagiarize as we know plagiarism; finally, the Pentateuch relies on extra sources, and therefore it cannot be inspired by God.

Given the method employed by Moses in retelling the Law-code to the Hebrews, it would seem that he was accustomed to taking a story and revamping it to fit his own needs. If this is the case, then it would come as to no surprise that he would use other sources like the Code of Hammurabi to put his book together. Therefore, there really is no problem here, and there is also no need to question God’s inspiration on the text. God can choose to inspire as he deems necessary, whether through plagiarism or by inspiring the other sources to write their texts, so that Moses or whoever wrote it could utilize them to make the Pentateuch or through Ancient Near Eastern practices and methods of writing. Despite this question of the involvement of the inspiration of God in the Pentateuch, seeing the connection between the Pentateuch and other Ancient Near Eastern texts proves to be invaluable.

It seems clear that God was able to meet the Hebrews where they were at. He approached them, instructed them and commanded them in terms that they were familiar with in the cultural setting that they lived in. God is not so far removed from us that he is entirely unable to speak to us in a meaningful way. Rather, he has shown that he can meet a people in the culture that they know, save them, guide them and love them.

How do the Ancient Near Eastern parallels affect my interpretation of the text? Hardly at all, except to show that God seeks to relate and communicate with us in the culture that we know. Seeing how Moses or the author of the Pentateuch uses inter-textual sources, i.e., Exodus 20 for Deuteronomy 5, it seems like it would not have been questioned if other outside sources were employed. The similarities of the Ancient Near Eastern parallels with the Pentateuch affect my interpretation of the Decalogue in a good way in that it reveals God’s ability to meet his people where they are at in how they think and operate. God does not force anyone to approach him in terms and thoughts that he considers, rather, he comes to us and uses how we think, operate and communicate, in order to teach, instruct, guide and lead us in love.

Reference List


McKnight, Scot. “Scripture and Incarnation.” Jesus Creed. November 3, 2006.

<http://www.jesuscreed.org&gt;. Accessed on November 9, 2006.


“The Code of Hammurabi.” Washington State University. Edited by Richard Hooker.

Translated by L. W. King. 1910. Last updated June 6, 1999.

<http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/CODE.HTM&gt;. Accessed October 19, 2006.


Wikipedia contributors. “Code of Hammurabi.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


Accessed October 2, 2006.


_______________. “Mina.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mina_%28unit%29&gt;. Accessed November 10, 2006.

1 Cf. Scot McKnight, “Scripture and Incarnation,” Jesus Creed, November 3, 2006, <http://www.jesuscreed.org&gt;, accessed on November 9, 2006.

2 Wikipedia contributors, “Code of Hammurabi,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Code_of_Hammurabi&oldid=78983610&gt;, accessed October 2, 2006.

3 Wikipedia contributors, “Code of Hammurabi,” Wikipedia, The FreeEncyclopedia.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 “The Code of Hammurabi,” Washington State University, edited by Richard Hooker, translated by L.W. King (1910), last updated June 6, 1999, <http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/CODE.HTM&gt;, accessed October 19, 2006. This translation from L.W. King appears to be standard as it is the most easily accessible one on the world wide web. His translation appears also at <http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/hammurabi.htm&gt;, <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/medieval/hamframe.htm&gt; and <http://www.leb.net/~farras/history/hammurabi.htm&gt; to list a few.

10 “The Code of Hammurabi,” Washington State University, edited by Richard Hooker.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Wikipedia contributors, “Mina (unit),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mina_%28unit%29&gt;, accessed on November 10, 2006.