hammurabi and the forgiveness of debt -- 1/26/21

Today's selection -- from Ancient Legal Thought by Larry May. Far from being barter-based societies, most notable ancient civilizations, including Babylon and Egypt, saw extensive use of debt among the people. In fact, that debt was so pervasive that it often involved debt-bondage and could accumulate to levels “so crushing as to need periodic forgiveness – a ‘clean slate’ act.” Hammurabi likely enacted debt relief measures four times in his 40-year reign:

"This is about debt relief and forgiveness [in] ancient legal thought. …

"In Hammurabi's Code of Laws, there are many examples of merciful treatment of his people, but there are also sometimes very harsh penalties as well -- somewhat in keeping with the idea of lex talionis. Ammisaduqa, the great-great-grandson of Hammurabi, was a later king of Babylonia who issued an edict on debt forgiveness that is the most complete document of its kind to have come down to us. In this first section I will provide a few examples of the legal writing of these kings in ancient Mesopotamia to give a sense of the form of these very early written legal pronouncements. …

"At the end of the prologue to his laws Hammurabi says this about what motivates him:

When the god Marduk commanded me to provide just ways for the people of the land (in order to attain) appropriate behavior, I established truth and justice (Babylonian-misarum) as the declaration of the land. I enhanced the well being of the people.

"The term ‘misarum’ is what many scholars translate as righteousness or as that form of justice called equity. …

"There are several provisions in Hammurabi's Code that aim at debt relief, but are primarily addressed to illegal acts of unscrupulous lenders. Here are three examples that are in Hammurabi's Code:

LH# 117. If an obligation is outstanding against a man and he sells his wife, his son, or his daughter, they shall perform service in the house of their buyer of the one who holds them in debt service for three years; their release shall be secured in the fourth year.

"This example is of a permanent release of people from debt slavery after the fourth year, but says nothing about debt enslavement for less than four years:

LH #w. If a merchant ... should take ... interest and ... then does not deduct the payments of either grain [or silver] as much as [he received, or] does not write a new tablet, or adds the interest payments to the capital sum, that merchant shall return two-fold as much as he received.

"Here is a law that penalizes what is effectively fraud on the part of merchants, where the penalty seems intended to deter such activity without interfering with legitimate creditors.

LH #124 If a man gives silver or gold, or anything else before witnesses to another man for safekeeping and he denies it, they shall charge and convict that man, and he shall give twofold that which he denied.

"Here again there is a kind of fraud that is the subject of the law. In each case, Hammurabi, who calls himself a shepherd, seeks to protect the weakest of his flock from oppression at the hands of those who are powerful. And the laws that are propounded seek to curtail fraud as well as sharp dealing -- and to do so permanently.

"Hammurabi's legal protections are motivated by equity in one sense, as we see from the prologue, but there is also another set of problems that operate more subtly and also oppress the people, calling for equity in a different sense. Here issuing a general prohibitory law would not be wise since the practices in question, mainly related to charging interest on loans, are not in themselves things that it would make sense to outlaw. Yet, Hammurabi, recognized, as was also true of his successors, that debt, especially debt enslavement, could be so crushing as to need periodic forgiveness – a ‘clean slate’ act. We do not have the full test of the debt relief edicts that Hammurabi issued, but there is good evidence that at least four times during his 40-year reign such temporary debt relief measures were proclaimed, and issued at least eight more times by Hammurabi’s immediate successors.

"We do have a complete text of such an edict of debt forgiveness from the reign of Ammisaduqa,  Hammurabi’s relative and also subsequently king. And while there are some provisions that call for permanent ending of certain practices by unscrupu­lous lenders, there are also provisions that provide periodic debt relief even though the debts were incurred through legal processes.' Here are two of the provisions of the edict:

Section 1. The arrears of the farmers, shepherds, knackers, and people working in the summer pastures, and [other] tributaries to the palace, in order to strengthen them and treat them equitably, are cancelled: the collector must not take any legal action against a tributary's house ...

Section 4. Whoever has given barley or silver to an Akkadian or Amorite as an interest bearing loan or as fees, and had a document drawn up -- because the king has established equity (misarum) in the land, his document is voided; he may not collect the barley or silver on the basis of his document.

"Here past debts incurred through loans extended by certain public sector creditors, and perhaps also some 'private' individuals, are cancelled."

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Larry May


Ancient Legal Thought


Cambridge University Press


Copyright 2019 Larry May


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