In her beautiful book, Sara Robbins writes:
"The ancient Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar unwittingly gives us a peek into some real problems Sumerians faced about 2000 years before the birth of Christ....
"The Code's specificity throws the ancient world into stark relief."
The Code of Lipit-Ishtar pre-dates the better-known Law Code of Hammurabi, circa 1780 BC.
Lipit-Ishtar was the fifth King of Isin, a dynasty which celebrated its 100 year anniversary during his reign. The Isin dynasty ended about 150 years after Lipit-Ishtar's death. Lipit-Ishtar, as other Sumerian and Babylonian kings of his era, presented himself as a son of a god (the son of Enhil, aka Nunamir)
His Code of law was discovered by a University of Pennsylvania archaeological team in 1899, at first a single fragment but then in total, four fragments (see image below, of three of the four tablets together) of a once intact tablet upon which the entire Code had been inscribed - it took cuneiformists (scholars who study and translate cuneiform texts written on clay tablets with an engraving stylus using a wedge-shaped script) thirty years to determine what exactly they had found.
The location of the find was the site of the ancient city of Nippur (situated in modern day Iraq). One of the most exciting elements of the fragments was that archaeologists were able to decipher the name of the codifier: Lipit-Ishtar.
From the four fragments, archaeologists have concluded that the original tablet was 11 inches in height. Unfortunately, the four fragments do not present the entire original tablet.
Just as with the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar begins with a long preamble glorifying the exploits of Lipit-Ishtar, and of his reign in the Sumerian city of Isin (just South of Nippur). Apparently, Lipit-Ishtar was chosen by the gods to "establish justice in the land" and "bring well-being to the Sumerians and Akkadians" and that the Code caused "righteousness and truth to shine forth". The code concludes with an epilogue, and what appears to be a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like warning: curses on any person who disregards or disrespects the code, including the requisite list of gods to back the curses up (including Anu and Enhil).
This is similar to the Babylonian code of Hammurabi, although Hammurabi (1810-1750 BC) extolled the virtues of a god called Marduk (Isin worshipped different gods called Anu and Enlil). Hammurabi's preamble and epilogue were much longer than Lipit-Ishtar's.
The first half of the Lipit-Ishtar Code has never been found and remains a mystery but the rest presents a fascinating legal code, a looking-glass, riveting glimpse into the daily life of early human societies and civilization, governing the use of boats, real estate transactions (especially orchards), a system of slavery, peerage, inheritance, marriage and the regulation of cattle (oxen).
Here is what has been translated from the fragments as they are available in 2011 AD. It is hoped that one day further fragments will be found which may clarify or confirm some of the translations and fill-in all the blanks.
The following text is based on the translation offered by Francis Steele in his 1948 paper with lost text noted with "..."
ANU AND ENHIL HAD CALLED LIPIT-ISHTAR - LIPIT-ISHTAR THE WISE SHEPHERD WHOSE NAME HAD BEEN PRONOUNCED BY NUNAMNIR - TO THE PRINCE-SHIP OF THE LAND, TO BANISH COMPLAINTS, TO TURN BACK ENMITY AND REBELLION BY FORCE OF ARMS, AND TO BRING WELL-BEING TO THE SUMERIANS AND AKKADIANS....
I MADE THE FATHER SUPPORT HIS CHILDREN AND I MADE THE CHILDREN SUPPORT THEIR FATHER. I MADE THE FATHER STAND BY HIS CHILDREN AND I MADE THE CHILDREN STAND BY THEIR FATHER....
8. If a man gave bare ground to another man to set out as an orchard and the latter did not complete setting out that bare ground as an orchard, he shall give to the man who set out the orchard the bare ground which he neglected as part of his share.
9. If a man entered the orchard of another man and was seized there for stealing, he shall pay ten shekels of silver (Ed. note: 1 shekel = about 1/3 of an ounce or 11.5 grams).
10. If a man cut down a tree in the garden of another man, he shall pay one half mina of silver (Ed. note: about 1.2 pounds).
11. If adjacent to the house of a man, the bare ground of another man has been neglected and the owner of the house had sent to the owner of the bare ground, "because your ground has been neglected someone may break into my house: strengthen your house," and this agreement has been confirmed by him, the owner of the bare ground shall restore to the owner of the house any of his property that is lost.
12. If a slave girl or slave of a man has fled into the heart of the city and it has been confirmed that he or she dwelt in the house of another man for one month, he shall give slave for slave.
13. If he has no slave, he shall pay 15 shekels of silver.
14. If a man's slave has compensated his slave ship to his master and it is confirmed that he has compensated his master two-fold, that slave shall be freed.
15. If a miqtum (servant) is a grant of the King, he shall not be taken away.
16. If a miqtum went to a man of his own free will, that man shall not hold him. He (the miqtum) may go where he desires.
17. If a man without authorization binds another man to a matter of which he had no knowledge, that man is not affirmed (i.e. legally obligated); the first man shall bear the penalty in regards to the matter to which he had bound him.
18. If the master of an estate or the mistress of an estate has defaulted on the tax of the estate and a stranger has borne it for three years, he (the stranger) may not be evicted. Afterwards, the man who bore the tax of the estate shall possess that estate and the former owner of the estate shall not raise any claim....
22. If the father is living, his daughter, whether she be a high priestess, a priestess, or a hierodule, shall dwell in his house like an heir....
24. If this second wife whom he had married bore him children, the dowry which she brought from her father's house belongs to her children but the children of his first wife and the children of his second wife shall divide equally the property of their father.
25. If a man married a wife and she bore him children and those children are living, and a slave also bore children for her master but the father granted freedom to the slave and her children, the children of the slave shall not divide the estate with the children of their former master....
26. If his first wife died and after her death, he takes his claim as a wife, the children of his first wife are his heirs....
27. If the man's wife has not borne him children but a harlot from the public square has borne him children, he shall provide grain, oil and clothing for that harlot. The children which the harlot has borne him shall be his heirs, and as long as his wife lives the harlot shall not live in the house with the wife.
28. If a man has turned his face away from his first wife (...) but she has not gone out of the house, his wife which he married as his favorite is a second wife. He shall continue to support his first wife.
29. If a son-in-law has entered the house of his prospective father-in-law and he made his betrothal and afterwards they made him go out of the house and get his wife to his companion, they shall present to him the betrothal gifts which he brought and that life may not marry his companion....
34. If a man rented an ox and injured the flesh at the nose ring, he shall pay one third of its price.
35. If a man rented an ox and damaged its eye, he shall pay one half of its price.
36. If a man rented an ox and broke its horn, he shall pay one fourth of its price.
37. If a man rented an ox and damaged its tail, he shall pay one fourth of its price.
IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE TRUE WORD OF UTU, I CAUSED SUMER AND AKKAD TO HOLD TO TRUE JUSTICE.
IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PRONOUNCEMENT OF ENLIL, I, LIPIT-ISHTAR, THE SON OF ENLIL, ABOLISHED ENMITY AND REBELLION, MADE WEEPING, LAMENTATIONS AND ... TABU, CAUSED RIGHTEOUSNESS AND TRUTH TO SHINE FORTH (AND) BROUGHT WELL-BEING TO THE SUMERIANS AND AKKADIANS. (...)
WHEN I HAD ESTABLISHED THE WEALTH OF SUMER AND AKKAD, I ERECTED THIS STELE (i.e. tablet).
MAY HE WHO WILL COMMIT AN EVIL DEED WITH REGARDS TO (this stele), WHO WILL NOT DAMAGE MY WORK, WHO WILL NOT ERASE ITS INSCRIPTION, WHO WILL NOT WRITE HIS OWN NAME UPON IT - BE PRESENTED WITH LIFE AND BREATH OF LONG DAYS - MAY HE RISE HIGH IN THE EKUR; MAY ENLIL'S RIGHT FOREHEAD LOOKED DOWN UPON HIM.
HE YOU WILL COMMIT SOME EVIL DEED WITH REGARDS TO (this stele), WHO WILL DAMAGE MY WORK, WHO WILL ENTER THE STOREROOM AND CHANGE ITS PEDESTAL, WHO WILL ERASE ITS INSCRIPTION, WHO WILL WRITE HIS OWN NAME UPON IT OR BECAUSE OF THIS CURSE, SUBSTITUTES SOMEONE ELSE FOR HIMSELF - THAT MAN (....)