Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Case Law Sentences: maximum or mandated?

Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary

The Sumerian Dictionary project was begun in 1974 by Åke Sjöberg and Erle Leichty. Using thousands of note cards containing a single, hand-copied Sumerian sign Sjoberg and Leichty began reconstructing its uses and meanings. 

Initially the Sumerian Dictionary was to be hardcopy volumes like the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary at the University of Chicago. It took until 1998 to produce four volumes, covering only a small portion of the Sumerian signs catalogue.

Today the dictionary is primarily digital and published on-line.  Steve Tinney is now the director of a seven-member team responsible for the project. This electronic dictionary is an updatable collection of signs with their definitions. Each entry is linked by a search engine to scanned images of the tablets where the sign appears.

Sumerian does not belong to either the Semitic or Indo-European language families common in the ancient Near East. It is unique. Therefore, the Sumerian Dictionary is more than just a translation tool. To understand each word requires a detailed encyclopedia-style entry explaining how each word was used and its shades of meaning.

The Sumerians settled and farmed in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as early as 3200 B.C.E.  This talented people invented the cuneiform writing system. Sumerian cuneiform or wedge writing is a way of carving wedge-shapes (Latin cuneus) into clay, wax, stone or metal tablets (Kramer 1956).

Some 30,000 Sumerian cuneiform tablets and fragments are now at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They were not copied for the royal library at Nippur (Iraq) as excavators first thought, but for use as home school texts for the children of Nippur’s elite. It is surprising that these tablets survived.  Typically school texts were recycled at the end of each class.  The soft clay tablets were collected, rolled into a ball and then left soaking in water until the next class.

 There are tablets as small as 2x4 inches and as large as 8x12 inches. Initially Sumerian merchants recorded transactions by using soft clay tablets impressed with symbols representing the goods they were selling or transporting.  Eventually the contents of tablets dealt with every aspect of Sumerian life -- finance, medicine, herding, childbearing, mathematics, astronomy, and politics. Merchants, teachers, priests and politicians throughout the world of the Bible would eventually use cuneiform and thousands of their clay tablets would survive. Most surviving Sumerian tablets were written between 3000-2000 B.C.E.

Sumerian culture was preserved by the Semitic peoples of Babylon and Assyria who followed the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. Because Sumerian is an isolate language -- without language relatives, living or dead -- scholars translate Sumerian using tablets written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, a better known Semitic language. Like hieroglyphics, cuneiform writing remained in use for almost four thousand years.

Hieroglyphics is a writing system developed for a single language: Egyptian.  Cuneiform is a writing system developed for the Sumerian language (Glassner 2003).  Subsequently, however, cuneiform was used to write a whole range of different languages:  Akkadian (Iraq), Babylonian (Iraq), Assyrian (Iraq), Hurrian (Iraq), Eblaite (Syria), Ugaritic (Syria), Hittite (Turkey), Luwian (Turkey), Palaic (Turkey), Urartian (Armenia), Elamite (Iran) and Persian (Iran).  Ugaritic (Syria) was written in a cuneiform writing system that developed independently from the cuneiform writing system developed by the Sumerians.


Teaching on Slander and Pre-Marital Promiscuity (Deut 22:13-27)


On-going work on cuneiform languages like the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary and the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary continues to enrich the understanding of the world of the Bible in many ways. Some ways are quite simple, others are more complicated.

There are some 130,000 cuneiform tablets in the British Museum.  In 2007 Michael Jursa was studying a group of tablets containing receipts for business transactions.  Among them was a receipt for a deposit of gold on a tablet just over two inches wide.

Nebu-sharrusu-ukin Tablet

(British Museum)

Nabu-sharrusu-ukin, the prime minister, gave twenty-six ounces of gold to Arad-Banitu, the minister of finance, to deposit at the Temple of Esagila -- dedicated to Marduk, the divine patron of Babylon.

In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, a royal bodyguard, and in the presence of Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni, Arad-Banitu deposited the gold at the Temple of Esagila on Month Eleven, Day Eighteen, Year Ten of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Great King of Babylon (595 B.C.E.)

In the book of Jeremiah (Jer 39:3) the same Nebuchadnezzar II appoints Nebu-shazban to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem with Zedekiah, king of Judah in 587 B.C.E. In cuneiform on the tablet the official’s name is spelled: Nabu-sharrusu-ukin; in Hebrew in the Bible his name is spelled: Nebu-shazban. The differences in spelling are somewhat parallel to Guillermo in Spanish being spelled William in English.  For Biblical Archaeologists, who are maximalists, the parallel is one small part in their larger argument that the Bible reliably reflects real people and real events.  Teachers composing stories to help Jews preserve their identity in a Hellenistic world would probably not have known the name of the Babylonian official who negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem some 300 years earlier. This is a example of a simple contributions that archaeologists of language make to the understanding of the world of the Bible.    

Work on cuneiform languages has had a more profound impact on understanding the subtlety and complexities of the legal systems in the Near East. These legal systems had a marked influence on the legal traditions in the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, the Qur’an and Shari’a (Westbrook 1985).

Shari’a is a way of life that developed during the first two-hundred years of Islam (600-800), but is common only in a minority of Muslim cultures today – Nigeria, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia. Rooted in the Qur’an, Shari’a has also been influenced by legal traditions in the Bible; from Bedouin traditions; from commercial regulations from Mecca and Medina which were early Islamic communities, from Roman law which governed the Byzantine Empire to which Arabia belonged, and from legal systems in the countries conquered by Muslims. Although Shari’a covers many aspects of Muslim private and public life, it has become notorious for the use of stoning as a punishment for women who commit adultery. The sentence of stoning cannot be imposed unless either the defendant confesses, or four men -- or eight women -- testify that they witnessed the adultery (Qur’an 24:13). The large number of witnesses required makes enforcing the sentence of stoning almost impossible.

The Right Way (Arabic: Shari’a)

Quran 45: 18-20 (Ali 1993: 428)

We have put you on the right way (Arabic: Shari’a) in the matter of divine law. So follow it, and do not follow the wishes of those who are ignorant. They will not avail you in the least against God.  Surely the wicked are each other’s friends, but God befriends those who fear and follow the right path.  These are precepts of wisdom for men, and guidance and grace for people who believe with certainty.


After a woman named Suriya confessed to committing adultery with Abdul Jabbar, Taliban leaders stoned her to death on May 1, 2000. The stoning was carried out at Mazar-e-Sharif sports stadium in Kabul (Afghanistan) before several thousand spectators. Abdul Jabbar was not punished.

Shari’a was also enforced in March, 2002 when Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery and having a child with her partner. On September 23, 2003, however, an Islamic Court of five judges in Katsina (Nigeria) overturned the sentence. The right of appeal varies from place to place throughout the Islamic world, but is not uncommon.

Reading the Bible or the Qur’an without archaeology can create serious misunderstandings of their legal traditions that lead to the imposing cruel, unusual or excessive punishments. Before the work of archaeologists of language it was generally assumed that legal teachings in the Bible described the only possible punishment for the crime in the indictment.  Therefore the teaching: If the father of a household is conicted of adultery with the mother of another household, both of them shall be put to death (Deut 22:22) was assumed to mean that the only sentence that an assembly could impose for adultery was death. The archaeology of language is now beginning to show that these legal teachings stipulate the maximum sentence for a crime, not the only sentence.

During the spring of 1737 B.C.E. in Nippur (Iraq) a marriage covenant was negotiated between the woman Enlil-issu and the man Ama-sukkal.  The covenant stipulated that the household of Ama-sukkal would pay Enlil-issu a dowry of nine ounces of silver upon signing the covenant, but that Ama-sukkal would continue to live with the household of her father until they consummated their marriage.  The covenant also stipulated that either Enlil-issu or Ama-sukkal had the right to abrogate the covenant. After ten years their marriage had still not been ratified, so the couple appeared in court seeking a divorce. As the Code of Hammurabi (CH #130) indicates lengthy delays between contracting a marriage and consummating a marriage were not unusual. 

Enlil-issu accused Ama-sukkal of sexual promiscuity and misrepresenting her eligibility for marriage; Ama-sukkal accused Enlil-issu of slandering her. If Enlil-issu prevailed he would not have to return the dowry to the household of Ama-sukkal, and he would not have to pay a cancellation penalty of eleven ounces of silver to divorce her. If he did not prevail Enlil-issu would have to ratify his marriage to Ama-sukkal and pay a fine for the false accusation.

 A cuneiform tablet preserves the transcript of the trial (Hilprecht 1893-1914: 6/2:58; Gadd, Legrain et al. 1928: 5:256; Hallo and Younger 2003: 3.199). The trial is significant for the understanding of both Near Eastern legal systems in general and legal systems in Bible in particular (Hallo 1964:95-105).

Village (Akkadian: babtum) assemblies in the world of the Bible were typically composed of fathers of households.  Here, however, Enlil-issu and Ama-sukkal appear before an assembly composed of mothers of households (Akkadian: sibatum). The village assembly was the court of first resort. Here citizens were judged by their neighbors.  So, there must have been good grounds for them to argue their cases before an assembly of mothers, rather than fathers. Since Enlil-issu is alleging that Ama-sukkal lied to him about her virginity, women, rather than men, were more appropriate jurors to physically determine whether his accusation was true or false.


The Trial of a Slandered Bride

(UET 5)

To call the court to order the bronze Sharur scepter of Ninurta -- the divine patron who feeds and protects Nippur -- was placed in its stand; and the mothers of the households in the neighborhood took their places.

The mothers did not find Ama-sukkal guilty of slander against Enlil-issu; they did, however, find Enlil-issu guilty of slander against Ama-sukkal.

When he heard the verdict, Enlil-issu addressed the court. You may convict me of slander, but I will not ratify my marriage covenant with her.  I would rather go to jail and pay a fine.

There is also a teaching on a slandered bride in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 22: 13-21). In Babylon the woman is physically examined by the mothers of households before the marriage is consummated. In the Bible the fathers of household examine the blood stained sheets after the marriage is consummated.

In the Bible a husband convicted of falsely accusing his wife of adultery is flogged, pays a fine of thirty-six ounces of silver, and cannot divorce his wife.  In Babylon, a husband convicted of falsely accusing his wife of lying about her virginity must return his wife’s dowry, pay a fine for false accusation and consummate their marriage. 

There is a teaching on false witness in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 19:16-21): …you shall punish the witness just as the witness intended to punish the defendant.  If the teaching were applied it would be expected that any husband bearing false witness against a wife for adultery would be sentenced to death. 

Nonetheless, the trial of a slandered bride from Nippur demonstrates that men and women convicted of false witness are subject to a variety of sentences. For example, the village assembly sentences Enlil-issu to ratify his marriage covenant with Ama-sukkal.  They can also be sentenced to pay a fine or to go to jail.  For example, Enlil-issu does not appeal his conviction, but he does appeal his sentence.  He wants to pay a fine or go to jail. He does not want to consummate his marriage with Ama-sukkal.

In the teaching on slander and pre-marital promiscuity in the book of Deuteronomy the sentence imposed on the husband may also demonstrate that death sentence is the maximum sentence, not the only sentence. The husband is convicted of slander and sentenced to be shamed – to lose his social status -- by flogging, by paying a fine and by losing his right to divorce his wife (Wells 2005).  He could have been sentenced to death, but was not.  Therefore, if the wife was guilty of adultery, she could have been sentenced to death, but, like her husband, could also receive a lesser sentence.  

The ability of archaeologists to read cuneiform tablets from the world of the Bible enriches the understanding of the legal system in ancient Israel. So there is now less evidence that the legal system lacked gender equality, or that it required mandatory sentencing. Parallels like the tablet from Nippur demonstrate that the intention of these legal teachings may not have been to instruct village assemblies to punish women more severely than men or to always impose the death penalty for capital offenses. The teachings may simply instruct village assemblies to punish men and women appropriately, and to choose among sentences, not mechanically impose a single sentence.


The archaeology of languages begun by European emperors and continued today by museum schools is an important partner in any reliable interpretation of the Bible.  Using archaeology and the Bible together, for example, makes it clear that legal systems in Judaism, Christianity and Islam which impose cruel and unusual punishments on women for their sexual behavior cannot appeal to the Bible or to the world of the Bible to justify their legal practice. The archaeology of language is intensive.  Biblical exegesis is complex. The results, however, could ultimately separate religion from violence.


Benjamin, Don C. Stones & Stories: An Introduction to Archaeology & the Bible. Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2010.

[1] Don C. Benjamin, Stones & Stories: an introduction to archaeology & the Bible, (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2010) 40-42