Economic and Social Justice

views updated

Economic and Social Justice


Citizenship. While there are no Mesopotamian terms for “citizen” before the law nor any known declarations of citizens’ rights, existing written texts indicate that distinctions were drawn between native-born “sons of the city” or “sons of the land” on the one hand and foreign residents on the other. In court records and ration lists, for example, the name of a foreign-born citizen appears with a notation regarding geographic origin, such as “Kassite” or “Elamite.” The king’s first obligation seems to have been to his native-born subjects. According to a didactic literary composition known as Advice to a Prince,

(If a king) denied due process to a citizen (literally “son“) of (the Babylonian city of) Sippar, but granted it to an alien, (the god) Shamash, judge of heaven and earth, will establish an alien due process in his land, and neither princes nor judges will have regard for due process. (Foster)

Nonetheless, a passage from a thirteenth century b.c.e. Babylonian entitlement monument, which commemorates the royal affirmation of a permanent transfer of land and tax exemptions, indicates clearly that persons foreign and native born had the same rights before the law, “Whensoever in the future, be he Elamite, or Subarian, or Amorite, or Akkadian, officer, magistrate, who would come forward and litigate (regarding this transaction)…” (Slanski). While foreign residents seem to have enjoyed the same economic and social standing as native-born residents, several inscriptions from the second and first millennium b.c.e. attest to special economic privileges—chiefly exemptions from taxes and labor obligations—that were accorded to the “sons” of certain ancient cities, such as Babylon, Nippur, and Sippar. The Edict of Ammisaduqa, for example, refers to the special status of the “sons of Babylon,” as does Advice to a Prince. The reasons for the granting of these privileges are not known, but they may be connected with the ancient religious importance of those cities or with the king’s desire to cultivate support from their old established families.

Debt Slavery. Written records from Mesopotamia document an active practice of private and commercial lending. Loan contracts were executed with and without interest and were regularly drawn up with a penalty to the borrower who defaulted. When a head of household was not otherwise able to meet his debts, he might sell a member of his household—including himself—into slavery. Unlike chattel slaves, who were born into slavery or taken captive in foreign lands, debt slaves were contracted to serve for a predetermined period of time. The following paragraph from the Laws of Hammurabi (LH) describes the regular term for debt slavery during the Old Babylonian period (circa 1750 b.c.e.):

If an obligation is outstanding against a man and he sells or gives into debt service his wife, his son, or his daughter, they shall perform service in the house of their buyer or the one who holds them in debt service for three years; their release shall be secured in the fourth year. (LH §117; Roth)

General Cancellation of Debts. Kings in southern Mesopotamia periodically issued decrees canceling all debts. The most complete surviving text of one of these decrees was issued by the Old Babylonian period king, Ammi-saduqa (circa 1646 - circa 1626 b.c.e.). It applied to loans executed legally and according to established lending practice. It seems that the moment such a decree was issued, a lender was no longer able to collect on his loans. In fact, stiff penalties were imposed on a lender who tried to collect after the king had issued his decree. Moreover,

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions

the decree released people who had been sold into debt slavery. It did not, however, include money that was loaned for the purpose of establishing a business partnership; such loans still had to be repaid according to the original contracts. While no such edict (called andurar in Sumerian and misharum in Akkadian) survives from Hammurabi’s reign (circa 1792 - circa 1750 b.c.e.), references in his law-stele inscription indicate that he declared at least one misharum-edict early in his reign, as did his son and successors.

Socio-Economic Justice, or Equity. Derived from an Akkadian verb meaning “to be straight,” the Akkadian term misharum may be translated in English as “justice” or “equity.” Economic and social justice was conceived, therefore, as a “straightening out” of a situation that had somehow become “crooked,” a return to a previous equilibrium that was equitable and just. In the Mesopotamian idea of social and economic justice every person was not expected to have the same access to resources and opportunities; rather the Mesopotamians believed that there existed an economic and social equilibrium in which each individual had his place. When that equilibrium was thrown off balance; that is, when its straight way was made crooked—as through extreme economic hardship—the king might act by decree to return society to its former equilibrium.

Limitations on State Power. Neither the king nor his officers had unlimited powers to claim economic resources or to conscript people into service, and both literary and archival texts bear witness to the righteous behavior of kings with respect to their subjects. According to Advice to a Prince,

If a king does not heed justice, his people will be thrown into chaos, and his land will be devastated…. If he does not heed his advisor, his land will rebel against him. … If sons of Nippur are brought to him for judgement, but he accepts a present and improperly convicts them, the god Enlil, lord of the lands, will bring a foreign army against him to slaughter his army, whose prince and chief officers will roam the streets like fighting cocks. … If he takes silver from the sons of Babylon and adds it to his own coffers, or if he hears a lawsuit involving men of Babylon but treats it frivolously, the god Marduk, lord of heaven and earth, will set his foes upon him, and will give his property and wealth to his enemy. . . . (Lambert)

An inscription preserved on a twelfth century b.c.e. Babylonian entitlement monument says that a regional governor had expropriated a strip of land traditionally belonging to a temple:

Farmland, of such-and-such an area, on the bank of the Tigris River, Gulkishar, king of the Sealand, delimited as the territory for the goddess Nanshe….
696 years had passed, when, in the fourth year that Enlilnadin-apli was king, Ekarraoiqisha, son of Ea-iddina, regional governor of Bit-Sin-magir, looked over the fields of Bit-Sin-magir of the province of the Sealand, and trimmed off and returned to the province an area of that farmland.
Nabu-shuma-iddina, sangu-priest of the gods Namma and Nanshe came with prayer and supplication before the king, his lord, Enlil-nadin-apli, and spoke to him as follows: “Our noble youth, pious prince, wise officer, one who reveres his gods—Regarding mistress Nanshe, eldest daughter of the god Ea, her border was not disturbed, her boundary marker was not removed. Now Ekarra-iqisha, regional governor of Bit-Sin-magir, has disturbed her boundary, has removed her boundary marker.” (Slanski)

After the temple officials brought the governor’s action to the attention of the king, the land was restored to the ternpie.


Benjamin R. Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1995).

Fritz R. Kraus, Konigliche Verfugungen in altbabylonischer Zeit, Studia et Documenta ad iura orientis antiqui pertinentia, volume 11 (Leiden: Brill, 1984), pp. 168–183.

W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

kathryn E. Slanski, The Babylonian Entitlement aims (kudurnxs): A Study in Form and Function, ASOR Books, volume 9 (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2003).

About this article

Economic and Social Justice

Updated About content Print Article