(also spelled Hammurabi, a less correct form). Sixth in a dynasty that settled in Babylon about 1894 BCE and continued until 1595 BCE, Hammurapi ruled ca. 1792–1750 BCE. His ancestors were seminomads from the Syrian steppe who poured into Babylonia from about 2000 BCE onward and overwhelmed the local rulers. The Babylonians knew the tribes as Amorites or “westerners” and gave that name also to Hammurapi's line (often called the First Dynasty of Babylon). Hammurapi's father, Sin‐muballit, had begun to strengthen the city's position within a network of shifting alliances, dominated by Larsa in the south. Hammurapi continued this policy, gaining control of towns farther down the Euphrates early in his reign. For many years he held this position, raising his kingdom's prosperity by improving irrigation systems and building temples and fortifications. In his thirtieth year he took an opportunity to use his strength and his shrewd alliances to overthrow the dominant king, Rim‐Sin of Larsa, thereby obtaining the rule of all southern Babylonia. To the north were other rival states, Eshnunna and Assyria. They fell to Hammurapi two years later; then, in his thirty‐third year, Mari on the mid Euphrates became his last major conquest. Hammurapi was now master of Mesopotamia. He enjoyed his success for a few years, but at his death the conquered states reasserted themselves, and his son, Samsu‐iluna, held only the region of Babylon. In the past, Hammurapi has been identified with Amraphel, king of Shinar (Gen. 14), but current knowledge does not support this.
Babylonians remembered Hammurapi for more than a thousand years. He was first to raise Babylon to great power and so to exalt her god Marduk (biblical Merodach). He was also famous as a lawgiver. Babylonian kings customarily issued a list of new or revised laws when they came to the throne, and Hammurapi did so as well. During his long reign, local governors referred awkward problems to him, and so a considerable body of royal decisions accumulated. Toward the end of his reign, Hammurapi promulgated his famous laws. They were written on clay tablets and engraved on stone stelae, one of which survives almost complete. There is no evidence that Hammurapi's laws ever came into force, perhaps because Samsu‐iluna issued his own edict soon afterward. Nevertheless, scribes continued to copy them until at least the sixth century BCE.
Hammurapi's laws are a series of regulations for various circumstances, not a comprehensive code. They are set out in casuistic form, “If a man does …, then …,” with penalties graded according to the social status of the injured party. While there is a strong emphasis on property rights, the king's claim to decree justice “in order to do away with wicked and perverse men, so that the strong might not oppress the weak,” and “to give justice to the orphan and widow,” is evident in laws providing for members of society who lost the protection of father or husband.
Comparing Hammurapi's laws with biblical laws shows striking similarities and strong contrasts. Kidnaping, for example, carried the death penalty, and a man who wounded another in a fight had to carry the cost of his care (Hammurapi nos. 14, 206; Exod. 21.16, 18, 19). There are cases of the law of talion, “If a man has put out another man's eye, they shall put out his eye” (nos. 196, 197, 200; see Exod. 21.24). Since in many respects Israelite society was like Hammurapi's a millennium earlier, similarities are not surprising. There are also distinctions. Babylonian law can prescribe physical penalties including execution in a variety of cases involving property (e.g., forms of theft), whereas biblical laws reserve such punishment for offenses against the person, and then with careful restrictions (Exod. 22.2–3; Deut. 25.1–3), placing a special value on human life. Hammurapi did not pretend to give a complete code of laws, so there are no general apodictic commands like “You shall not kill.” Although the sun god Shamash was the source of justice, Hammurapi gave no cultic rules like those in the Mosaic code. (See also Law, article on Israelite Law.)
Within Babylonian culture, Hammurapi's laws remain the most extensive surviving statement of the principles for a just and orderly society, and of the king's role in it as shepherd of his people.