Amy Thompson McCandless

Response Paper, Chapter 1

“Sections from the Code of Hammurabi Referring to Irrigation, 1750 B.C.”

25 August 2005


            In their introduction to Chapter 1, Merry E. Wiesner, Julius Ruff, and William Wheeler contend that “the first recorded laws regarding property rights…concern not rights to land but rights to water” (Wiesner et al. 3). The importance of irrigation to Mesopotamian society is clear in this excerpt from the Code of Hammurabi from 1750 B.C., one of the earliest extant collections of laws from the Ancient World. Neglecting to care for your dikes and canals was a serious offense. Because the punishments were based on “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (quoted in Perry 11), any damage your negligence caused had to be repaid in kind. Thus, in Section 53, it states that if a neighbor’s farmland is ruined, “the man in whose dike the break has been made shall replace the grain which has been damaged” (11). If you could not repay the damage in kind, Section 54 mandated that the guilty person be sold into slavery and his/her possessions also sold.  The proceeds would then be used to compensate “the farmers whose grain the water ha[d] carried away…” (11). If the damage to another’s field was partial, the offender “shall pay out ten gur of grain per bur [of damaged land]” (11). Section 66 dealt with the theft of watering machines, various devices that were used to move water from the canals to the fields. The thief was required to pay “five shekels of silver to the owner” (11).

            Using laws as evidence of what actually happened in the past can be problematic, however, since laws are prescriptive rather than descriptive. The existence of a law certainly implies that something – in this case, the irrigation system – is perceived as in need of regulation. But without additional evidence the reader of these five sections does not know whether people obeyed the laws or whether the enumerated punishments were carried out. It is also unclear who is enforcing the laws. Who is the “they” of the “they shall sell him and his goods” (11) in Section 54? Who apprehended the person who stole the watering machine and made him/her pay the five shekels? Perhaps the existence of numerous references to offenders meant that the government was unable to regulate the populace as carefully as they would have liked.

  The Code of Hammurabi gives the modern reader an insight into the culture and values of Mesopotamia. These five excerpts from the Code all reflect the importance of irrigation to Mesopotamian society. The complicated systems of delivering water to the fields required considerable maintenance of the myriad of canals and dikes and necessitated harsh measures against individuals who did not cooperate. Survival depended on a successful crop, and thus those who ruined other’s crops in turn lost their own. Selling someone into slavery for damaging another person’s field seems rather a severe punishment to a contemporary American, but in the Ancient World, such negligence was a matter of life and death, and the penalty reflected the severity of the crime. The regulations in the Code support Wiesner’s contention in Chapter 1, that “the need for a steady supply of water shape[d] civilization” (4).


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