• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Hammurabi, Moses, And Smollett

March 2019


Among the endless enjoinders with which modern man is saddled (living, as he does, in the always officious presence of an edict-loving God) is one that’s often overlooked. I ask though, always with a sympathetic eye on his behalf, if really we can fault him for his lack of adherence to the law? His, he’ll counter and I’ll agree, is a merely venial oversight, the type of which we’re occasionally guilty. It’s the result, he persuades even the most punctilious among us, of a life with too many rules and regulations with which one man should be expected to be concerned. Yet perhaps that’s being a bit too lenient on our modern man. At best, he has simply forgotten this enjoinder. At worst, he’s blithely ignored it.


And what, rightly you might ask, is this abused, trampled, and forgotten enjoinder of which I speak? I call to mind, of course, the proscription against the bearing of false witness. This particular rule is, in both a biblical as well as a traditional sense, a most fundamental idea. Its importance was always of the greatest moment, yet it seems recently to have lost something of its ancient punch. Throughout every chapter of history, every epoch and every page, its infringement has made for a highly repulsive sin. Indeed, from the scattered Hebraic peoples of the Levant to the frightened descendants of Hammurabi, it’s been designated as an offense that’s offensive to the extreme. But even that might be putting its intended severity in a bit too light and understated a way.


Surely, if one’s to adhere to the hallowed Jewish scripture or the eponymous Babylonian code, one can’t avoid seeing that the bearing of false witness is very nearly inexcusable. More than likely, though, so egregious a crime would be downright fatal. The punitive measure reserved for so sinful a person—a person who would deliberately mislead a court of opinion, of peers, or of selected and wise elders in an attempt brazenly to incriminate an innocent other—would be incomparably severe. In most cases, the punishment would be death. Indeed, lex talionis, or the law of equivalent retribution, would seem in comparison lax.


If we’re to take as our foundation of justice and legal decorum the Hebrew Bible (a practice, I should think, we’ve already done well to adopt), the punishment for bearing false witness is rather explicit. In that piece of Palestinian literature par excellence, the consequences to be meted out to the person guilty of lying under oath continue to chill us through all these years. The religious elders, probably a group of whiskered and hoary conservative Sadducees, would delve into the claimant and the claim. However, one witness alone wouldn’t suffice; the corroborating testament of at least two others was needed for the claim to be taken in earnest. If the trio was regarded veracious and the story proved compelling, the Sanhedrin—that sacrosanct ancient court—would hold session. If any tincture of falsity was suspected of having corrupted the testimony, the elders would bring to a premature end the case. They’d comb the court minutes, belabor its finer points, and arrive at an agreed-upon truth. If the accusing party’s claim were to be found untrue, he’d be liable to the punishment he’d wished upon his opponent. Typically, this would be corporeal. More often, though, it would be capital. This undoubtedly was the crudest form of penology ventured by man. Yet it wasn’t, at least in its Mosaic form, the first.


The Code of Hammurabi, so imposing with its lapidary force, was even older and more unforgiving than that of the liberator of the Jews. Dated, to our archaeologist’s best estimate, to the literal morning of the Bronze Age in the eighteenth-century BC, this Mesopotamian monument to ancient law has stood erect for nearly four millennia. It’s truly an incredible and, even after all this time, a captivating work that everyone with a fleeting interest in civilization ought to study and see.


Aside from its contents, which intimidate us still, its very shape is worthy of inspection and of note. An obelisk whose entirety hasn’t yet been excavated in full, the fragments that belong to us stand at over seven feet tall. So erect and visibly virile a figure draws obvious conclusions to what might’ve been the inspiration for its carefully constructed shape. Some think it was phalangeal, as if the statue were a peremptory finger pointing out to its illiterate masses its hardened decree. Others think it was more phallic than anything else, as if to display the generative potency of the royal majesty after whom it was named. We’ll have to amuse ourselves in imagining whether or not there were certain “shortcomings” for which old Hammurabi was attempting to compensate with this eponymous, penile-looking stone. A man, after all, is only as good as his member—so much can be said of a modern American president or an ancient Iranian king.


Tumescent but timeless—a literally seminal figure for all civilizations to come—the statue contains no fewer than two hundred and eighty-five laws (contrast this with the six hundred and thirteen found in the more familiar Torah). Like the contemporaneous Jews, however, the clan of Hammurabi who was beholden to his code had a harsh word to say against bearing false witness. With the kind of fiery terseness that’s an excusable result of the oppressive Persian heat, Hammurabi bluntly states that the witness who testifies falsely shall be slain forthwith. To this declaration, very few conditions are attached. It’s as if he were anticipating the later Greek statesman Draco (whose own flavor of severity provided us with an adjective whose derivation is easily guessed. Execution, in Draco’s infamous opinion, was the only punishment commensurate with the crime—be that crime petty or heinous, small or big).


As evidenced above, gruesomely retributive though they may seem, the codes of Moses and Hammurabi are similar in many ways. Similar, or perhaps outright consanguineous, as it’s highly likely that the two actually spawned from an earlier, shared source. This probable parentage, however, can’t conclusively be known—as distressingly few things garnered from antiquity can be.


So deeply buried in the archives of sand and earth would this putative “original source” be that its discovery would be celebrated as the greatest ever achieved by man. In our acknowledgement of the improbability that we’ll ever win such a glorious victory, we find no consolation; we resign ourselves to the fact that it’s forever escaped history and the keenest of archaeologists’ eyes. But we must guess that—based on the contiguous nature of their states (Mesopotamia being but a stone’s throw away from Semitic lands)—the two shared not only cultures, women, and ideas, but laws as well. This case for their shared-heredity is made all the stronger when one considers that both set down as their legal foundation the idea of lex talionis, many of their other laws (including those related to payments and brides) are similar, and by the fact that both claim authorship of their respective laws by a divine hand. For the Babylonians, this supernatural sponsor came in the form of Shamash—a god who has succeeded in manifesting himself in the imaginations of men since the earliest dawning of time. A deity of the most enlightened type, Shamash was a somewhat crude sun-god to whom the Babylonians devotedly prayed. While derision is a tempting treatment of so unsophisticated a theology as this, we ought to refrain from laughing with too much delight. So discourteous a response would be unbecoming of a people animated by Yahweh’s breath and molded by his dirt.


While the Sumerian and the Semite clearly shared the view that the bearing of false witness was a terrible crime, we modern secularists seem to have lost this idea somewhere along the way. The infamous case of Jussie Smollett is but one example or our neglect, but it’s by far the most illustrative. The story hardly deserves repeating here, but we can’t forget that Smollett was prepared—had his hoax stumbled toward its intended conclusion—to bear false witness against two innocent white men. Undoubtedly, this would’ve branded them—indelibly but falsely—racists of the most odious type. More than mere social stigmatization, though, they would’ve been sent to jail for a very long time—at the very least a decade though perhaps longer. And while these “MAGA”-touting men wouldn’t have received the death penalty nor the assault imaginatively levied against Smollett (a “modern-day lynching”, as it hastily came to be called) they would’ve been made to suffer greatly for their spectacular sin.


Yes—we can all agree as a jealously liberal society that the adherence to rules and laws can be downright laborious. Some days, in fact, we’d rather disregard them altogether and live our unencumbered lives. But the Smollett affair reminds us that maybe our most ancient enjoinders ought not to be so thoughtlessly cast aside. However harsh, Hammurabi and Moses had a wise thing to say: the bearing of false witness is an inexcusable crime. Perpetrators should be punished and liars made to think.

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