The Ten Commandments contain little that was new to the ancient world and reflect a morality common to the ancient Middle East. In 1901 archeologists uncovered fragments of a copy of the Law Code of King Hammurabi, considered one of the most significant legal documents from antiquity. (Hammurabi was the sixth king of the first dynasty of Babylon, whose dating is controversial but commonly given as 1792-1750 BCE).
There are undeniable parallels between Hammurabi’s statutes and those of the Book of the Covenant. For example, in citing the law for personal injury, Hammurabi’s statute 206 states:
“If a man wound another accidentally in a quarrel with a stone or his
fist, and oblige him to take his bed, he shall pay for the loss of his
time and for the doctors.”
The law of Moses, for the same offense, is remarkably similar (Exodus 21:18-19). Given the chronology of the OT, Most of the so-called Ten Commandments are based on earlier Mesopotamian laws and Egyptian ethics.
Bruce Wells, Professor, Saint Joseph's University, describes the origin of the commanments stemming from pre-existing Mesopotamian treaty format like this:
Most of the written records from the ancient Near East are contained
on small clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing.
The vast majority of these come from Mesopotamia, inhabited by Assyria
in the north and Babylonia in the south. Everywhere that the Ten
Commandments are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, they are associated
with the idea of a covenant. The word “covenant” is merely a fancy
word for “agreement” or, better yet, “contract” or “treaty.”
Both marriage contracts and adoption contracts use language that is
nearly identical to that of the Sinai covenant. In some Aramaic
marriage contracts from the biblical period, the groom states, “She is
my wife, and I am her husband,” and the bride responds in kind.
Babylonian adoption contracts often record the father’s oath, “You are
my son.” These statements are performative—they actualize the
relationship that is stated. Thus, the biblical authors portray Yahweh
saying, “you are my people,” using the same kind of language that
these other contracts use to enact the covenant with the Israelite
people. In fact, we can say that the statement ascribed to Yahweh at
Sinai is contractual language.
Long lists of rules were not common in contracts between individuals,
but they were in treaties (contracts between states). Ancient Near
Eastern treaties tended to follow a general format consisting of at
least four parts:
- a description of events leading up to the treaty;
- the essence of the treaty (typically a commitment of loyalty on the part of the weaker party to the stronger);
- a list of provisions and stipulations describing adherence to the treaty;
- a list of curses resulting from breaking the treaty.
Within the Sinai covenant, the Ten Commandments form part of the
“provisions and stipulations” section. They show what the biblical
authors believed loyalty to Yahweh was supposed to look like. Together
with longer lists of rules that are also associated with the Sinai
covenant in the Bible, they specify the Israelites’ contractual—or, as
some might prefer, covenantal—obligations.