This year my oldest son began middle school. It’s going well, for the most part. He’s thriving in the world of increased social opportunities, having found a group of buddies that all seem to get one another pretty well. And despite the increase in workload, he’s enjoying the academic challenges middle school is bringing. He’s even almost a little more organized and responsible than he used to be. Well, he’s working on it anyway.
We’ve had a few hurdles to jump, but it’s more or less off to a good start. Or at least I thought it was until he came home the other day and as he ran down his list of homework and other tiny scraps of information he occasionally lets slip out, he casually mentioned that his classmates had sentenced him to death.
As you can imagine, a number of follow-up questions flashed though my mind. The answers to some of them were that he stole a pig, his accuser was a landowner, much wealthier and more important than he was, and that she tried to shoot him as he fled the scene, but the law didn’t seem to care about the attempted murder. Just the pig thief, even though he requested leniency and so did a number of character witnesses who swore he would never do such a thing unless he were starving. And, you know, he’s a middle school boy, so he might feel like he’s starving most of the time.
Finally, after enjoying my mystified expression for a moment, he went on to explain that his social studies class had been studying Hammurabi’s Code. Just in case it’s been as long since your middle school social studies days as it has since mine, I’ll explain.
In 1901, while working on a site in the ancient city of Susa (in modern day Iran), Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier discovered a stone stele, over seven feet tall, covered in cuneiform script. When translated, the 44 columns and 28 paragraphs were shown to contain a total of 282 laws, which, dating to somewhere around 1754 BC, form one of the oldest written codes of law known.
Established under the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the laws cover a wide range of issues, including contract terms, liability, fraud, divorce, and the theft of a pig by a starving sixth grader in social studies class.
The code is also the first good example history has thus far offered up of a system of presumed innocence, with court proceedings that allow for both prosecutor and defendant to present evidence. Of course it’s not all rosy, because the code also spells out a hierarchical application of the laws. For instance, a doctor successfully treating the injuries of a high-ranking man will make more money than if he successfully treats a slave, but he will also face a much stiffer penalty for unsuccessful treatment of a wealthy man, and if it’s say, your run of the mill freed man, well, it officially just doesn’t matter.
And if a landowner steals livestock from another landowner, he is required to pay ten times the value of the stolen property to rightful owner. If, on the other hand, a starving middle school boy steals a pig from the rich girl who owns the desk next door, the punishment is unquestionably death.
As his mother, I might complain about this sad injustice, perhaps start a tablet writing campaign to the Babylonian elders, or petition the king for a pardon. But, I suppose the law is the law, and I’m completely thrilled that my kid has such a great social studies teacher. At least for the few days he has left.