Hammurabi

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Four thousand years ago, the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys were home to a thriving population of farmers, fishermen, artisans, and merchants. The principal cities that sound familiar to us were Sumer and Akkad to the south, bordering the delta region, and Nineva to the north, but there were many towns along the rivers. Hammurabi was the man who unified the geopolitical region into the state we know in history as Babylonia.

Historians date the reign of Hammurabi from 1792 to 1750 BC. That is about a thousand years before the Babylonian Captivity recorded in the Bible, and two-thousand years before Islam arrived. Distant neighbors and trading partners at the time included the Indus Valley civilization to the southeast (in decline), the Nile civilization to the west (Third Dynasty), and the city-states around the Mediterranean. This was the Bronze Age.

Little is known about the man himself, though much may be inferred. At a time when people were old and dying by the age of thirty-five, Hammurabi may have lived sixty or seventy years. This speaks of good luck, and good nutrition, so he must have grown up in a wealthy family, perhaps of international merchants. He had to have been versed in stories of foreign lands, for his unification effort rings of a pharaoh’s adventures. I doubt the claim that he was an accomplished military leader, however, because he did not brag about it, as a pharaoh would.

The eight-foot stone stele dubbed The Code of Hammurabi begins with a prologue that tells us a fanciful story of his divine destiny to rule, of his tolerance to diverse cities, of his kindness and fatherly caring, but it does not mention military conquest. My guess is that he was a master of diplomatic persuasion, along with suitable pomp and a mild show of force. Perhaps the bickering and jealousies between rival cities was costing everybody so much money that they welcomed a single leader, and a central government.

Whatever the truth might be, by all accounts Hammurabi was as good as his word. The region was secured, people prospered, and justice was served. His Code consists of two-hundred and eighty-two laws, and the punishments for breaking them. Even a cursory review of these laws reveals much about human nature in these "ancient" times: lying, cheating, and stealing were given a great deal of attention. Punishment was "eye for an eye," and was quick and final. If it really worked like that, those who harbored criminal intent would certainly hesitate to carry out their intentions, and honest folks could live without fear. The coherent geopolitical state created by Hammurabi lasted for a thousand years, finally conquered and looted by the Persian army of Cyrus; Hammurabi’s capital city of Babylon burned to the ground.

Personally I would not choose to allow any man to rule over me, and I would prefer to buy insurance against the risk of coercion from a proprietary company, if any could be found, rather than trust the "laws" of political government to protect me. If Hammurabi came knocking on my door, I’d tell him to get lost. But people like me were not heard then any more than they are now, so the political state arose as it always does, had its day, and died, as it always does. I suppose one could say that Babylonia enjoyed its Thousand Year Reich, though its life after Hammurabi wasn’t always pleasant, and it didn’t commit suicide by turning on its own people, which is remarkable, but it was nonetheless pulverized in the end by hostile neighbors. Therein lies a curious question. Why did Cyrus want to destroy this civilization?

I either missed something important in my education, or I am missing a critical gene, but I cannot understand what motivates people like Cyrus, Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, or Bush. Military domination of people doesn’t produce anything except grief, an obvious truism, and it’s a tremendous waste of time, money, and energy. If somebody has something you want, why not trade for it? No, these guys want to pulverize them, even if that means destroying whatever it is they want. Where’s the point?

Of course, there is no point, aside from the exercise of destruction itself. It’s the dragon eating its tail, otherwise known as psychopathic behavior. These people are insane.

At least Hammurabi meant well.

Robert Klassen [send him mail] retired from a forty-year career in critical-care respiratory therapy. He is the author of five books, including Atlantis: A Novel about Economic Government, and Economic Government, which describe a solution to the problem of political government. Here’s his web site.

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