Was Hammurabi Pro-Temperance? The Importance of Critical Reading and Historical Context

This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Did you know that Hammurabi supported temperance? According to an article in the August 28, 1912, edition of The Presbyterian of the South, “The attempts at regulation [of alcohol] failed and the civilization of Babylon was snuffed out in an orgy of drink.” An article like this presents an opportunity to teach students how to read content critically and to place it in historical context.

“Temperance” The Presbyterian of the South, August 28, 1912

To a student without prior contextual knowledge, this assertion, supported by four consecutive laws in the Code of Hammurabi regulating alcohol and its sale, might sound true. The student might see an article arguing that alcohol caused the downfall of several great civilizations, read about a great ruler who made laws against alcohol, and think about current laws controlling who can drink alcohol; some students might accept the article as factual.

Some students might label the article as “fake news,” but this dismisses content outright without trying to understand the context around the article. Consider:

  • the Code of Hammurabi had only recently been discovered (1901);
  • the four laws cited in the article are fairly accurate (depending on the translation used);
  • the article argues correctly that Hammurabi cared for his subjects and created these laws to address inequalities and issues within their civilization.

What students may not know or even think to question is that the weekly publication strongly  favored temperance and that it ignored the other 278 laws in the Code covering everything from the duties of workers to how courts should handle divorce because they didn’t suit the needs of the argument. Laws from the Code were cherry-picked to fit the needs of the author.

It is essential that students understand content and context when asked to work with it on their own. To develop deep understanding,  students must read the material critically to understand the perspective and bias. One way I teach students to read more critically uses the acronym SOAPS:

  • Subject- What is the author writing about?
  • Occasion- What is the time and place this was written?
  • Audience- Who is this being written for?
  • Purpose- Why is the author writing this?
  • Speaker- Who is the author and what might they want/gain from this?

When first supporting students in using this approach, I allow time for pre-reading research of the material they will be studying in order to give some context and background. I sometimes create a guide sheet with a section for each of the SOAPS letters for students to make notes as they read. As students become more accustomed to analyzing material through this framework, they should be able to identify areas that deserve closer investigation and will look at all material with a much more critical mindset. Teaching students to read content critically will help them to gain a fuller understanding of material and build a natural inquiry.

What approaches do you use when teaching students how to read critically?

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