Dear Mores,

I was perusing the Code of Hammurabi in the original Akkadian cuneiform last night, as any thrill-seeker such as myself is wont to do after the rush of Chugach heli-skiing, ritualistic gatka combat, and bareback bachanalian orgies has begun to fade, and even a walk-in closet full of crack pipes fails to shake off the old ennui. Yes, I've always maintained that when your hedonistic pursuits have become so far-reaching, jaded, and well-worn that even late-stage Dorian Gray looks like a wide-eyed pleasure virgin by comparison, then it's time to blow the dust off of a copy of archaic Mesopotamian text.

As my well-trained eyes followed the lines of ancient Babylonian script, one thing became abundantly clear almost immediately.

I can't read cuneiform. So I found an English translation and started over.

The Code of Hammurabi is nearly 3800 years old and chock full of reparations denominated in archaic units of measurement. If you thought cubits and shekels were tedious back in Sunday school, just wait until you get to squint your eyes and imagine in vain what gurs, gans, and minas could possibly be. It's like the first time I went to England and someone told me they weighed 15 stone. I was like, "Ok. But how heavy a stone are we talking about here?" 

And yet for all its dry, numeric bits and oddly specific references to what even at that time must surely have been obscure situations which I can in no way relate to, it's pretty obvious that the people living 3800 years ago had a lot of the same concerns and priorities as we do today. The rules were a little bit different back then, of course. Many of the usual suspects were present which invariably shock modern sensibilities. The death penalty was liberally prescribed.

But despite its occasional draconian touches, I was actually quite surprised by how nuanced and sensible the Code of Hammurabi can be for a 3800-year-old document, and I think it compares favorably with the Old Testament in nearly every respect, at least in the eyes of most modern, non-payot-wearing readers.

Compare these two very similar passages for example-

"If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death." - Exodus 21:28-29

First off, why are we stoning the bull? Bulls are dangerous animals; you know that going in. Getting gored or not getting gored depends almost entirely upon the actions of the humans who interact with the bull. If you get gored, it's because you or another human fucked up. Don't blame the bull. If you're going to kill every bull that tries to gore someone, then maybe being a cowboy isn't for you. I hear sheep are quite docile.

Secondly, even if we are somehow seeking retribution on this mindless goring machine called a bull, why is stoning the preferred method of execution? I see the obvious advantage that stoning can be carried out from afar, which is good because bulls with a proven track record of goring people to death are even scarier than normal bulls, but these animals are also big as hell. Stoning a bull to death would probably take a week. And let's say you do get all the angry Israelites loaded up with rocks and lined up along the fence, and you give the order to start throwing; what's going to stop the bull from casually wandering off in the middle of the stoning? And then what? You send your group of riled-up stoners into the pasture to pursue the man-killer?  Hahaha. Now you've fallen into his trap. This is exactly what the bull had planned from the very beginning. Now the tables have turned and he's in gore heaven, rampaging through the scattering mob, reaping sweet sweet revenge on his tormentors.

Thirdly, even if we do somehow succeed in stoning this bull to death, why can't we eat the meat? We've just spent a week pre-tenderizing steaks. We're exhausted. Some of us have torn rotator cuffs and tennis elbows. Now we're going to waste 500 lbs of prime grade beef?

Finally, putting the owner of the bull to death as well seems a bit harsh.

Now compare the Biblical bull goring law to the Code of Hammurabi version.

"If a bull, when passing through the street, gore a man and bring about his death, this case has no penalty. If a man's bull have been wont to gore and they have made known to him his habit of goring, and he have not protected his horns or have not tied him up, and that bull gore the son of a man and bring about his death, he shall pay one-half mana of silver." - Code of Hammurabi, 250-251

I get the impression that a mana of silver was a lot of money at the time, but still, some might actually consider a simple fine too lenient in this case of criminal negligence. When's the last time you saw an ancient penal code that was arguably too soft on crime? If the authors of the Bible had known about cars they would have made double parking punishable by death, probably death by stoning. At any rate, Hammurabi's ideas are certainly more in line with modern notions of justice than the Bible, which insists on stoning everyone and everything. You'll notice that the Code of Hammurabi never tries to hang the blame on the bull, or calls for the bull to be (surprise) stoned, or commands a frequently malnourished population to forgo 500 lbs of valuable protein. The Code of Hammurabi version of the bull goring law even gives us a handy tip for responsible bull ownership- putting something on the horns. I assume they're talking about a couple of corks or big rubber plugs. I also like to imagine bulls wearing bicycle helmets for some reason. All told, the Code of Hammurabi's take on bulls and their propensity for goring just seems more reasonable and better thought out than the Bible's addressment of the issue. We typically think of humanity becoming more enlightened over the course of history, but the Code of Hammurabi was written about a thousand years before the book of Exodus. That means that the authors of the Bible had the Code of Hammurabi, and then decided to make a dumber, more regressive version of it for their own use.

Of course there are some points where the values of ancient Babylon obviously diverged radically from our own. One of the (relatively) few capital punishments in the Code of Hammurabi is reserved for those caught harboring runaway slaves, for example.

And then I began to think about how strange it is that some moral sentiments seem to have remained unchanged across all cultures since the beginning of human civilization, while other norms seem to mutate radically across time and place. And furthermore, it almost seems as if these highly variable taboos, the ones humanity is obviously least certain of over time, frequently attract the greatest disgust and harshest retribution. Murder is always a bad thing to do, but it's kind of boring. Societies often reserve the top of their totem pole of sins for a rotating suite of unspeakable acts that later generations won't really care about.

Some of the stuff ancient peoples found to be the most abhorrent imaginable and subsequently punished with the cruelest methods available to them aren't even crimes today. Conversely, many of the thoughts and actions which are the fastest and surest way to become a social pariah in the year 2018 were either actively encouraged or simply the unexamined status quo not long ago.

As recently as 300 years ago most people believed that witches walked among us, maintaining secret communication with Satan and casting evil spells that killed crops and made children sick. I don't know how many people actually thought of themselves as witches back then, but I'm willing to bet that it was a lot closer to zero than it was to the roughly 50,000 "witches" who were crushed, hung, drowned, or burned alive during the 300 years of peak witch hunting.

Ironically there are a lot more people today who consider themselves to be witches than there likely ever were back then. These modern descendants of those earlier poison apple peddlers often belong to a loose confederation of broom riders known as Wiccans. These are people who looked at the empty, superstitious rituals of organized religion and thought to themselves, "This is great. But it could use some Dungeons and Dragons flair." We don't burn them today, of course, and that's because we now know that the most dangerous magick a witch can weave is the dark art of trapping people at dinner parties into long conversations about how the amulet they're wearing can "ward off negative energy."

But it's not just witches. Atheists, apostates, heretics, homosexuals, and people who charged interest on loans were all abominations in the eyes of earlier societies. Four of those five activities would hardly raise an eyebrow in most of today's Western world, and some people are even accepting of bankers. Dante assigned blasphemers, sodomites, fortunetellers, and userers a worse position in hell than murders... and somehow he considered counterfeiting worse than all of them. Morality has been a strange, arbitrary thing over the years.

But perhaps even more fascinating are all of the activities we despise today which were perfectly fine in the past. I'm sure the first thing that comes to mind for most readers is bigotry in all its myriad forms and correlates- racism, slavery, sexism, xenophobia, xenotheophobia, homophobia, and all the other tribal -isms and -phobias you can imagine. But those are all simply reflections of much tighter circles of empathy, and it's not hard to imagine why people who literally lived in tribes would be tribalistic.

Much harder to understand is why people thought it was good to fuck their cousins. It wasn't just normal, but actually preferred in many societies. I know they had no understanding of genetics, but come on... it's your cousin. If someone has the same snorting laugh as your mom and your uncle's facial structure, that has got to be a red flag, not to mention a total turnoff.

Torture has frequently been used throughout history to elicit confessions. Even if you have no problem with the sadism, it's beyond me how more magistrates didn't realize that people will tell you anything you want to hear when you torture them. Instead confessions extracted under torture were often taken as rock-solid, incontrovertible evidence. It meant that virtually everyone who was accused was also "guilty," and it made the whole justice system extremely vulnerable to witch hunts, both literal and figurative. They'd torture someone and demand to know who else was in on the conspiracy, then they'd torture those people and extract more names, and the net would extend out like a chain reaction as each person spat out a couple names to stop their own suffering. That's how zero actual witches results in the execution of 50,000 witches.

And isn't it weird that old men having sex with pubescent boys is generally frowned upon, except for the occasional society throughout history that decides to think outside the box and says, "This is awesome. Let's do a lot more of this. Boys 4 Life."

They say looking at history is like travelling to a foreign country, and I don't like to judge... but it's hard to understand where societies like those of the ancient Greeks were coming from. Not that I necessarily understand everything that goes on in my own society. For example, I don't understand why they always tell us how many pornographic images were found on the pedophile's hard drive. The reports are typically something like, "Police found over 70,000 pornographic images of children on the man's computer." What am I supposed to do with this information? They give you this number like it's a spectrum of some sort. Is 70,000 a lot? Am I supposed to be extra appalled because he broke the 50k barrier? Is that when this guy crossed the Rubicon? Because for me, when it comes to the amount of child porn on your computer, there are really only two numbers- zero... and then any number other than zero. The reports should just tell us, "Police found not zero pornographic images of children on the man's computer." That's all I need to know. Images two through seventy thousand do not change my opinion of the perpetrator in any way. Now the Greeks on the other hand, they would have looked at images two through seventy thousand and said, "Let's paint some of these on a vase."

In summary, I'm always amazed at how mutable history reveals morality to be. A lot of us living today would have been burned at the stake a few hundred years ago. And there have been many times and places where you could call someone a racist, misogynous, cousin-fucking pedophile... and they wouldn't even realize you were trying to insult them.

If nothing else, that should at least make us take a second look at the dead certainty most of us have when it comes to the objective correctness of our respective societies' mores. And if your mores come from the book of Exodus, you might even want to take a third look.

Sebastian Braff


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