Old code

Four days into our adventure, we were running through the Louvre with half an hour before closing. We know, though, that the full half hour is not actually ours to use; when 15 minutes remain we will be asked to begin to make our way to the exits. The guards, in fact, have begun to step away from their posts, where they’ve been leaning against doorways or corners of rooms. Now they’re circling, paying more attention, eager for their workday to wrap up.

I can sense the guards’ annoyance that the five of us are clearly going against the flow, away from any exits, toward the room we’ve come to see. We arrive and stand before The Code of Hammurabi, a seven-and-a-half foot stone stele, one of the earliest written laws in history. All of us are in awe, standing there, staring at this ancient rock, and then we realize we’re the only ones left besides the guards, so we sit down on the cool floor, now empty of other tourists.

The Code of Hammurabi was written in 1745 BC, by king of Babylon, Hammurabi. It is a code of law of ancient Mesopotamia, with 282 specific laws with scaled punishments – in other words, graded depending on social status, of slave versus free man or woman.

When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, and actually all of Mesopotamia in the 6th century, he commissioned copies of the law on clay tablets, and sent all throughout his empire, so that all people would have access to it. But the stele we’re looking at now is one of the originals.

There is a frieze at the top of the pillar, showing Hammurabi sitting on a throne, speaking with another man. The other man, a priest, is covering his mouth with his hand, leaning in toward Hammurabi in conversation. We ask the boys what they see.

Asa sees “a cupcake on someone’s head.” He’s pointing to Hammurabi’s headdress, and as soon as Asa mentions his observation, we can’t see it any other way: on Hammurabi’s head is definitely a fluffy spiral of icing.

Cyrus sees “someone telling that guy a secret.” It’s true, the priest has his hand over his mouth, but it is not to tell a secret. This used to be done so as not to pollute the king, Reza explains.

Cyrus: “Because he has really bad breath?”

Jaspar: “No, pollute, like pollution! Like when people throw garbage in the sea.” Then, considering, “That’s way worse that bad breath.”

In ancient Mesopotamia, when anyone spoke before the king they would have to cover their mouths, so as not to befoul the purity of the king. Everyone had a position; the king was the highest, and everyone else fell in below him. He was as close to a divinity as any person.

In fact, Reza continued, the code before us was unique because it gave different punishments depending on social status. Depending on where you stood in the hierarchy, even if you committed the same crime, your punishment would be different.

We paraphrased the following section from the great book of Wikipedia at that point, using different, more kid-friendly examples to illustrate the message to the boys: “Punishments for someone assaulting someone from a lower class were far lighter than if they had assaulted someone of equal or higher status. For example, if a doctor killed a rich patient, he would have his hands cut off, but if he killed a slave, only financial restitution was required. Women could also receive punishments that their male counterparts would not, as men were permitted to have affairs with their servants and slaves, whereas married women would be harshly punished for committing adultery.” In essence, it is a reformed version of Lex Talionis: the old notion of an eye for an eye.

We skipped the murder example above, and the adultery example too, and instead talked about a person sealing a lollipop from another person, one who was rich and had lots of lollipops, and one who was poor and had only one, and how the punishment would be different depending on who had their lollipop stolen.

The boys had been listening intently. Fairness is extremely important to the twins. In fact, since they were babies, they’ve been obsessed with making sure they have the same of everything, whenever sameness is possible. The same toy, or equal turns with the same toy. The same kind of clothing (but, I insist, at least different colors). The same number of Cheerios (no kidding). In fact this trait was so strong in both kids, and I worried that maybe I had caused this by asking them to share too much or too early, so I did some research when they were very small; it turns out babies can develop a sense of justice, of what is fair and what is not, as early as 15 months. I’m pretty sure my two were debating fairness in the womb.

We asked them, there in the Louvre, the guards looming ever closer, What do you think? Do these laws seem fair to you?

Jaspar answered instantly, and loudly, his voice bouncing off the museum walls, “NO!” Why not? “That is so not fair! You should get a badder punishment if you stole something from a poor person, not a good punishment. The poor person might not have anything else so it’s really worse for him, they might not even have toys, or a couch, and no food or anything. They might not have even ever had a lollipop before, and that’s their first one, so they should really get to try it! That is really no fair, really.”

Also, Cyrus pointed out, it mattered if the person stealing something was rich or poor, not just the person getting stolen from. “If you already had a pile of lollipops, but you stole another one, that is much meaner to take one more. And if you’re poor, and you really needed a lollipop, then someone should just give you one.”

We hadn’t anticipated this. We expected the boys to disagree with the law, but we had expected them to make a case for equity – that rules and punishments should be the same for everyone. They took it beyond that. They came up with a position that, quite honestly, reflects more of what we both believe, and what Jesus stood for. A complete reversal of the social structure of the time – for the rich to be made poor, for the last to be first. This is what they argued was the best way for the world to work.

The boys could tell we were moved by their responses. Among the many things we hope for our children, the idea that they could grow up to be people who speak for those without a voice, who stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves… I mean come on. We were basically in tears.

The guards asked us to leave then, as it was a quarter till the hour. And, we were all still sprawled on the floor. We reluctantly pulled ourselves up and shuffled our way to the exits. In the early evening sunshine we started to make our way toward the Metro. Reza and I were still sort of floating, in the sweetness of the moment. We passed a newsstand, which had some candy and snacks displayed, in addition to newspapers and magazines.

The boys, seeing an opportunity, asked for lollipops.


jessicajackley View All →

author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.

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