Social Justice in the Ancient Near East
In this chapter I will deal mainly with the sources in cuneiform from Mesopotamia, dating from the third to the first millenium B.C.E., but I will also consider the sources in cuneiform from Syria and Anatolia in the second millenium, and the Hebrew Bible as evidence of ancient Israel in the first millenium, since all these societies shared a similar social and political structure, a common legal tradition, and a common view of social justice. 1
The societies of the ancient Near East were organized hierarchically. The basic unit was the household, headed by a paterfamilias and containing wives, children, and slaves as its subordinate members. Above the households of the citizens lay those of the nobility, above them that of the king, and above the king the gods, whose pantheon itself was conceived in terms of household and hierarchical structures.
The structure of the society is illustrated by the native use of the term slave.2 While it denotes real slaves, that is, unfree persons, who were of course at the bottom of the ladder, the term was also used relatively to describe one's relationship to any hierarchical superior, Thus, a free citizen was called a slave of his king, and both were slaves of the gods.
The concept of social justice in such a society was not at all one of equality, nor was it identified with the relief of poverty as such, given that large sections of the population existed at subsistence level. Social justice was conceived rather as protecting the weaker strata of society from being unfairly deprived of their due: the legal status, property rights, and economic condition to which their position on the hierarchical ladder entitled them. The ideal was expressed by such phrases as "that the strong not oppress the weak, that justice be done to