Did we get Hammurabi backwards?
April 07, 2010, 04:20 PM
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Awhile ago, I was waiting at a government office and finally got up to the window at 4:25 pm, which was lucky because the agency's website had said the cutoff time for what I wanted to do was 4:30 pm. But the clerk refused. When I protested, he pointed to a sign on the wall that said the cutoff was 4:00 pm.

I couldn't win that argument. The man had a $5 plastic sign that said the cutoff was 4:00 pm.

So it is written, so it shall be done, as Yul Brynner used to say.

That got me thinking about King Hammurabi of Babylon (ruled 1792 BC to 1750 BC), who has been popular at least since the Code of Hammurabi stele was dug up in 1901 showing that he was one of the earlier kings to have the laws carved on a hunk of rock and set up in a public place.

This is usually praised as a step forward in the struggle against tyranny: Writing laws down mean that even the king is bound by laws, that laws that are spelled out beforehand mean that the king can't rule by whim, that he must spell out laws that seem fair in the abstract.

No doubt there is some truth to that, but I suspect that carving laws into stone made the king more powerful in some ways.

Before written laws, everything was kind of vague. The king would thunder from memory, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," and, I would bet, immediately a kibitzer would interject, "I always heard it was 'An eye for two teeth,'" and then some other senile codger would say, "No, it's 'An eyetooth for an ear,'" and so forth and so on.

But once the king had the laws carved in stone, then, just like the bureaucrat with the plastic sign, he had powerful juju on his side. You can't argue with a sign.