Leviticus 24:10-23 and the Code of Hammurabi

At the church where I pastor, we are working our way through the book of Leviticus.  It's no easy task, I assure you.  Most of the time, the book shocks our sense of reality, justice, and feelings about God.  Yet as we look, it's usually what we think we see that's the problem.  But as we dig in, reason through the text, and work at it, we find what's actually there are we are amazed.

Take  Leviticus 24:10-23 for example. 

It would seem that two men got into a fight and one of them "blasphemed the Name and cursed" (verse 11).  The people brought the man to Moses and they wanted to see what the will of the Lord should be for his man.  

God said, "Bring out of the came the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let the congregation stone him" (verse 14).  This is serious business.  However, God dictated, "whoever curses his God shall bear his sin.  Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.  All the congregation shall stone him.  The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death" (Leviticus 24:16).    

Oh man, this seems really harsh.  Is God an unfair, harsh God?  Does this punishment fit the crime?  

God goes on to talk about a fairness code.  He sets a maximum amount of punishment allowed for the crime and it should fit.  Scholars call this principle lex talionis.  We often call it an "eye for an eye" which God mentions too.  I don't think and eye for an eye was specifically about eyes but about this principle.  

And most law students and historians will quickly notice a similarity between Leviticus 24:17-23 and the Code of Hammurabi.  

Hammurabi was the 6th King of Babylon.  And while he wasn't the first king to set out laws for the people, he is one of the most famous early law-makers because his code was inscribed on stone (which means we can still read it today).  His goal was to set some level of fairness in criminal matters, issues of divorce, contracts, and other legal matters.  He wrote 282 laws called the Code of Hammurabi.  

What does the Code of Hammurabi have to do with Leviticus 24:17-23?  

The 196th code mentions matters of an eye for and eye.  Code 200 is a tooth for a tooth. And 197 is a broken bone for a broken bone.  (You can read all 282 codes here.)  A good argument can be made that Leviticus was written before the Code of Hammurabi, but that's not the point.  The two agree.

The point is that God is a fair God.  God's code and man's code have much in common on this one. 

The point is that the punishment should fit the crime.  God has set the lex talionis and it's the same one set by a king of the same time period.  

The point is blaspheming God, that is, using God's name as a curse word is very serious.  Deadly serious.  This kind of disrespect is so serious that the punishment is death.  

Now, it's not the act of using someone's name as a curse word that's the problem.  If you were to use my name as a curse word, not only would you not die, you might get a laugh or two.  The reason this is so serious is because of the magnitude of the name being cursed.  That is why the punishment fits the crime here.  That is why God is fair.  That is why this is not as harsh as we might initially think.  Because God is that magnificent.  God is that powerful.  God is such that he demands that much fear, reverence, and respect.