Crime and Punishment in the Ancient World of the Bible
Egyptian. Little is known about the punishments imposed by the Egyptians. They administered beatings (Ex 5:14, 16), drowning (Ex 1:22), beheading and afterward hanging on a stake (Ge 40:19, 22), and execution by the sword, as well as imprisonment.-Ge 39:20.
Assyrian. Punishments under the Assyrian Empire were very severe. They included death, mutilation (as by cutting off ears, nose, lips, or by castration), impalement upon a stake, deprivation of burial, strokes of the rod, payment of a certain weight of lead, and royal corvée (forced labor). Under Assyrian law a murderer was handed over to the next of kin of the one murdered, and according to his choice, he could put the murderer to death or take his property. This could lead to blood feuds, for there was little control of the matter, and no cities of refuge were provided, as in Israel. The punishment for adultery was left to the husband. He could put his wife to death, mutilate her, punish her as he saw fit, or let her go free. As he did to the wife, he was required to do also to the adulterous man. Many prisoners of war were flayed (skinned) alive, blinded, or had their tongues torn out; they were impaled, burned, and put to death in other ways.
Babylonian. Hammurabi's code (so called, but not a code as defined by lawyers today), admittedly based on earlier legislation, is a collection of decisions or "casebooks" on clay tablets, copied later (perhaps in a different style of writing) on a stele placed in the temple of Marduk in Babylon. Copies were probably placed in other cities. This stele, carried later to Susa by a conqueror, was discovered there in 1902.
Was Hammurabi's code an "ancestor" of the Mosaic Law?
Unlike the Mosaic Law, it does not seek to establish principles. Rather, its object appears to be to help the judges to decide certain cases by giving them precedents or altering previous decisions to show what ought to be done in future cases. For example, it does not set forth a sanction for murder, because there was already a recognized punishment for that, and doubtless for other common crimes. Hammurabi was not attempting to cover the whole scope of law. Each of the rules of the "code" starts off with the formula: 'If a man does thus and so.' Because it relates to specific instances, rather than laying down principles, it merely tells what judgment must be given to fit a certain simple set of facts. It is based mainly on laws already in existence, merely particularizing to fit certain difficult situations current in Babylonian civilization at the time.
In no way does Hammurabi's code prove to be an ancestor of the Mosaic Law. For example, there existed in Hammurabi's code a "sympathetic" punishment. One of the rules states: "If [a builder] has caused the son of the owner of the house to die [because the house is faulty and collapses], one shall put to death the son of that builder." God's law through Moses, to the contrary, stated: "Fathers should not be put to death on account of children, and children should not be put to death on account of fathers." (De 24:16) The penalty for theft of valuables was generally not restitution, as in the Mosaic Law, but death. In certain cases of theft, restitution up to 30-fold was required. If the man was unable to pay, he was to be put to death. Nebuchadnezzar employed dismemberment, also he used punishment by fire, as in the case of the three young Hebrew men whom he threw alive into a superheated furnace**.-(see footnote at bottom of page)-Da 2:5; 3:19, 21, 29; Jer 29:22.
Persian. Under Darius the Mede, Daniel was sentenced to the lions' pit, and his false accusers suffered retribution when they, their sons, and their wives died by this means. (Da 6:24) Later on, King Artaxerxes of Persia instructed Ezra that he could execute judgment upon everyone not a doer of the law of Ezra's God or of the king, "whether for death or for banishment, or for money fine or for imprisonment." (Ezr 7:26) Ahasuerus used a stake 50 cubits (22 m; 73 ft) high to hang Haman. Ahasuerus also hanged the two doorkeepers who had conspired against his life.-Es 7:9, 10; 2:21-23.
A few tablets have been found that contain the laws laid down by Darius I of Persia. In them the punishment prescribed for the man who attacked another with a weapon and injured or killed him was lashing with a whip, from 5 up to 200 stripes. Impalement was the punishment sometimes administered. According to Greek writers on Persian laws, offenses against the state, the king, his family, or his property usually carried the death penalty. These punishments were often horrible. For ordinary crimes there is not much information, but mutilation of the hands or feet or blinding appears to have been common punishment.
Other Nations in the Palestine Area. Aside from Israel, the other nations in and around the Promised Land used imprisonment and bonds, mutilation, blinding, killing captives of war by the sword, ripping up pregnant women, and dashing their little ones to death against a wall or a stone.-Jg 1:7; 16:21; 1Sa 11:1, 2; 2Ki 8:12.
Roman. Besides execution by the sword, which included beheading (Mt 14:10), among the more common punishments were: beating; scourging with a whip that was sometimes knotted with bones or heavy pieces of metal, or that had hooks at the ends; hanging; throwing one off of a high rock; drowning; exposure to wild beasts in the arena; forcing one into gladiatorial contests; and burning. Prisoners were often confined in stocks (Ac 16:24) or chained to a soldier guard. (Ac 12:6; 28:20) The Lex Valeria and the Lex Porcia exempted Roman citizens from scourging-the Lex Valeria, when the citizen appealed to the people; the Lex Porcia, without such appeal.
Greek. Greek punishments were in many cases the same as those imposed by the Romans. Precipitation off a cliff or into a deep cavern, beating to death, drowning, poisoning, and death by the sword were inflicted on criminals.
For example, under Babylonian law Daniel's three companions were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to obey the king's command. Decades later, Daniel was thrown into a pit of lions for refusing to obey a Persian law that violated his conscience.(Daniel 3:6; 6:7-9) Some have tried to dismiss the fiery furnace account as legend, but archaeologists have found an actual letter from ancient Babylon that specifically mentions this form of punishment. To the Medes and the Persians, however, fire was sacred. So they turned to other vicious forms of punishment. Hence, the pit of lions comes as no surprise.