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Ancient legal code uncovered

A fragment of a cuneiform tablet, found amid excavations at Hazor in northern Israel, appears to record legal pronouncements.
A fragment of a cuneiform tablet, found amid excavations at Hazor in northern Israel, appears to record legal pronouncements.Yoav Becher / Hebrew University via AFP - Getty Images

Israeli archaeologists say they have found two 3,700-year-old clay tablets that appear to contain legal pronouncements similar to the Code of Hammurabi and the biblical "tooth for a tooth" rule. The clay fragments, bearing Akkadian cuneiform script, were unearthed this summer during the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's excavations at Hazor National Park in northern Israel. They date to roughly the same time frame as the Babylonian Hammurabi Code, which is considered the world's oldest surviving written collection of laws. And the fact that the tablets were found in Israel suggests they might have had an influence on Old Testament writers. Wayne Horowitz, a professor at Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, told the Jerusalem Post that a team of experts is preparing the Hazor code for publication as part of a book. He said the discovery could open up interesting new connections between the Hammurabi Code and biblical law. Horowitz said it wasn't yet clear whether the document was written at Hazor, where a school for scribes existed in ancient times, or was brought in from elsewhere. The tablets and stone monument that first brought the Hammurabi Code to light were discovered in present-day Iran in 1901. The latest find marks the first time an ancient legal document resembling the code has been found in Israel. So far, the team has translated only parts of the Hazor text, but those parts are enough to suggest that the tablets address the same sorts of topics covered by the Hammurabi Code. Horowitz told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that the first word he deciphered was a legalistic Akkadian term meaning "if and when." There are references to "master" and "slave," as well as a word referring to a body part, most likely a tooth. The Babylonian legal code laid out a range of punishments that were graduated according to the status of the offended party: Injuries done to slaves, for example, were judged to be less serious offenses than injuries to their masters. Hammurabi's idea of reciprocity in offense and punishment has parallels in the biblical law of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," which appears in Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy (and which gets an different twist in the Gospel of Matthew). The Hazor archaeological team is continuing its work, under the direction of Hebrew University's Amnon Ben-Tor and Sharon Zuckerman - and it sounds as if there's much more to come. Device Magazine reports that the archaeologists are about to uncover a monumental Bronze Age building where they expect to recover additional tablets. An honest-to-goodness "Bible Code" may be lying right under their feet. More ancient mysteries:

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