Erich Lessing

Enlightened self-interest. The Babylonian monarch Hammurabi (1792–1750 B.C.E.), in his famous law code, prohibited foreclosures on people who lived on royal or publicly owned lands or who owed him military service. Inscribed on a 7-foot-tall basalt stela from Susa, the code is adorned with a relief depicting Hammurabi raising his hand to his lips in supplication to the enthroned god Shamash. With this code, Hammurabi protected both his fighting force and a portion of the crops necessary for feeding them. Similar concerns lay behind clean slate proclamations, as warfare was widespread in the ancient Near East.

Hammurabi proclaimed clean slates four times during his reign, and in the 166 years following his reign, six of his successors also proclaimed clean slates. Mesopotamian clean slate proclamations were issued idiosyncratically, at the whim of the ruler. Israel’s Jubilee law codified the clean slate principle into sacred law so that it occurred periodically and predictably, as a moral obligation required every 50 years. The Israelite Jubilee law was also distinct because it was attributed to the Lord, the true owner of the land.