The Commandments Before Israel

What came first the law or Moses' hike up Mount Sinai? Many people would have you believe the law only applies to the Israelites and was first instantiated on Mount Sinai. However, there are examples of the law being enforced well before Moses' and the Israelites embarked on the Exodus. Let's look at some of these examples and discus what it means for us today.


Photocredit: Anderson
People point to the law of Moses and the 10 Commandments as "Jewish law". When I explain that I keep the Biblical Sabbath, people continue the conversation by referring to it as the "Jewish Sabbath." We'll skip the distinction between Israelites and Jews, in favor of moving on to a more interesting topic: commandments that appear before Moses climbed Mount Sinai.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Before I go into specific examples of specific laws, I want to talk about the obvious. In the beginning the only law given to Adam and Eve was not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Once Adam and Eve broke that law, they were expelled from the garden and not only lost access to the Tree of Life, but the Tree of Knowledge too. Since they were barred from entry from the garden, it was impossible for them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge again. Yet, by the time of Noah's generation sin was so rampant, God decided to destroy practically everyone and everything with a flood.

Romans 3:20 tells us that knowledge of sin comes from the law, while Romans 5:13 tells us that sin can't be imputed (or represented) without the law. Basically we are being told in Romans that sin has existed in the world from the moment Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, but we only know we have sinned when there is a law to define sin. We see this more explicitly in 1 John 3:4 where sin is defined as transgression of the law.

That begs the question, how was there sin in Noah's day if there was no law until Moses? We could say that by barring them from entry to the garden specifically to protect the Tree of Life, God was implicitly creating the laws not to enter the garden and not to eat from the Tree of Life. However, we know that these people weren't all sneaking into the Garden of Eden—which was fortified with an Angel carrying a flaming sword—to steal fruit from either trees. God didn't need to create a law about the treasures of the garden because He made it impossible for them to get to it. That would be like our government writing a law that makes it illegal to live on Mars.

The chain of events tells us God must have given the first people some sort of law to live by. This law may not have ever been written down and was likely just passed down from parent to child through upbringing and verbal affirmation (or condemnation). When examining what was considered wrong and sinful pre-Mosaic law, we can see how God's law has not changed.

Sacrifice and Offerings

3And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. 4And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: 5But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.Genesis 4:3-5 KJV
One of the first glimpses we see of life after the garden is the giving of offerings to God. Cain's anger grew as a result of God's favor toward Abel's offering over his on. Abel not only gives God a firstling of his flock, but the fat of the animal as well.

Doesn't this sound familiar? Leviticus goes into thorough detail about how animals are to be offered to God. In these passages God instructs that the fat is not to be eaten, but given to Him. Now, isn't it telling that Abel was shepherding a flock, sacrificed the offspring of his flock, and reserved the fat for God when he didn't even eat meat? Livestock would have been handy for many of the tasks they had to carry out, so it makes sense that he had a flock. However, why would he think to kill and sacrifice the animal? These sacrifices were a gruesome reminder that it was supposed to be us who died because of sin.

There were no pagan cultures around to influence Abel and Cain and the devil isn't mentioned in the narrative, which means Cain and Abel were inspired (or told) to bring sacrifices to God. At some point between the creation of Adam and Eve and Genesis 4, God instructed them to bring offerings to Him. This proves that sacrifices were a thing well before Moses began writing the law down.

Genesis continues to show us examples of the patriarchs building altars and sacrificing to God. Clearly some protocol had been established for this type of behavior well before Moses.
Examples of Sacrifices in Pre-Mosiac Law
Bible Verses
Genesis 4:3-5 Cain and Abel offerings to God. Cain's was an offering of the field (grain), while Abel's was of the flock (burnt)
Genesis 8:20 Noah offers burnt offerings for every clean animal to God after the flood.
Genesis 22:1-18 Abraham almost offers Isaac, but God sends a ram to be offered instead.
Genesis 35 Jacob builds an altar, then pours a drink offering on the altar.
Exodus 10:24-25 Moses' argument to the Pharaoh about letting the Israelites go includes the need to give God sacrifices and burnt offerings.
Exodus 18:12 Moses' father-in-law gives a burnt offering to God in honor of what God has done for Israel. This is just before the Israelites reach mount Sinai.

Thou Shalt Not Kill

The first crime to be committed after Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden is murder when Cain kills Abel. God condemns Cain for this action and He is punished. If Cain was unaware that it was wrong to kill Abel, why did he lie about it and why did God punish him? When Cain is angry/jealous of Abel, God warns Cain that "sin lieth at the door" (Genesis 4:7), which is a big clue to what Cain did and did not know. Also, this mirrors Jesus' statement that we are in sin just for being angry at our brother without cause (Matthew 5:22).

Since God is telling Cain that he is about to sin and Cain clearly hides the fact that he killed Abel as though he knows it is wrong, based on the Bible's definition of sin and our own knowledge of human nature, we must assume Cain knew that it was wrong to kill. Thus there must have been a law of some sort stating the murder was wrong, even in the days when only the original family was on the earth.

Noah Knew Clean and Unclean

People are quick to say clean and unclean, particularly when it comes to animals/diet, was only for the Israelites. Moses defines clean and unclean in Leviticus 11, but Noah knew the difference back in Genesis 7:2. God instructs Noah to bring more of the clean animals than the unclean ones. Once Noah and his family are back on dry land, God tells Noah he may eat meat and Noah makes a sacrifice when the clean animals. When God tells Noah he can eat the flesh of the animals, he doesn't specify clean or unclean, though he does bring up the issue of blood, which is repeated by Moses. Despite God not telling Noah specifically not to eat blood, we have to remember that the act of eating flesh usually followed sacrifice—they ate the meat they burned on the alter (i.e. cooked). Leviticus covers many of the laws about who could eat the sacrifices and when they could be eaten. Noah would have eaten the clean animals he sacrificed. This also explains why more of them were brought on the ark.

Sodom & Gomorrah

When we think about sin, it's impossible not to think of Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities were eradicated, never to be built again, due to the sins being committed within their borders. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is given in Genesis 19. Let's put this in perspective of time. Just before destroying the city, God reveals His plan to Abraham who bargains with God to spare the city. Abraham's son Isaac is the father of Jacob who is the father of the 12 men the Tribes of Israel are named for. Therefore Abraham is the great-grandfather of the progenitors of the nation of Israel. Moses isn't even born until the descendants of those 12 men had been in captivity in Israel for roughly 400 years. Needless to say, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were not Israelites and were quite far removed from the law being written down by Moses.

So what sins were committed in Sodom and Gomorrah? The one that probably comes to mind first is homosexuality; this one is the most obvious in Genesis 19. However, Ezekiel 16:49 provides a more extensive list of sins committed. Ezekiel tells us that Sodom was prideful, idle, ignoring the poor, haughtiness, and committing the abomination. Moses writes several laws about how to treat the poor when he and the Israelites are in the wilderness, but none of these had been written yet. Each of the things God despises in Sodom are the same things Jesus warns us about in the New Testament! We are told not to be proud in James 4:6 and Philippians 2:3 (to name a few). We are told of the dangers of idleness in 1 Timothy 5:12-13. Jesus tells us to be mindful of the poor in Luke 14:12-14; it is them that we should strive to feed! Haughtiness is spoken against throughout the Bible. The abomination is probably sexual immorality. All of these were considered sins before Moses and in the New Testament.

Levirate Marriage

The Levirate Marriage is outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. The idea was that if a man died before his wife bore him children, she was to marry his brother, who was to provide an heir to the deceased brother's lineage. We see an example of this with Judah and Tamar. Judah was one of the 12 sons of Jacob; his descendants make up the tribe of Judah and most of the people we call Jews today are descended from him. Judah's eldest son married a woman named Tamar, but died before Tamar conceived. Tamar then married Judah's middle son, who tried to avoid producing an heir and was struck down by God. Judah refused to allow her to marry his youngest son, but in a strange twist of fate, ended up fathering Tamar's twins anyway (Genesis 38). The Israelite nation was only just forming at this time and Tamar was actually a Canaanite. While it's likely that she converted to worshiping the God of Abraham and abiding by His laws, for her to be so persistent that her child's father come from Judah's line implies that this was a common tradition on the region. God is clearly not saying that it's a new thing in Deuteronomy, rather He's confirming it as an actually party of His law.


When God writes out the 4th commandment, did you ever wonder why He said "remember" before introducing the Sabbath? I've never said "remember" before bringing up something the other person or people didn't already know about. If I'm introducing something I want them to remember, I might say "Don't forget..." but it's not likely that I'm going to say "Remember to go to the grocery store next week". Just think about it; the command to remember something is literally asking you to think about something that has already happened. When did it already happen? During creation. God created the Sabbath from the very beginning. He didn't make that day holy while the Israelites were waiting at the foot of the mountain; it was holy from the first Sabbath ever created. It's never not been holy! In fact, before the Israelites get to Sinai, when God explains the food situation to the Israelites, He reminds them to collect double on the sixth day because none will fall on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:23-30).

Something to Think About

There are two reasons I think it's important to think about this. One, to realize that God's law is absolute and just. Two, to have a more solid foundation when the world brings up similarities between the law Moses wrote and "older" laws found in civilization.

Just Laws

People use the idea that the law was written for the Jews to justify not giving up habits that are condemned by the law. We see this logic fall apart when we poke harder. No one who argues that that they don't have to keep the Sabbath or that they can eat whatever they choose will agree that they can commit murder. The habit of picking and choosing which laws we choose to abide by severely hampers the message broadcast by the church. There's a lot more to the topic of understanding God's law than simply what is covered here. Obviously some rules did change; we don't sacrifice any more and people can't marry their relatives (Adam and Eve's children all married their sisters/brothers, remember). I discus the law a little more in the post entitled The Law, but eventually I plan do something a little most organized and coherent. Nonetheless, I think this is part of that idea. God didn't just make up laws for one group because He thought it would be fun to watch them struggle to keep them. Those laws are meant to protect the health, spirit, and well-being of His people, and since there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28), these laws are for the good of all mankind.

Stolen Laws?

Many of my non-believing friends and acquaintances have accused Moses of plagiarism based on the fact that the 10 Commandments are similar to laws that had been in existence long before the Israelites reached Sinai. I don't think it's the least bit odd that other cultures came to the conclusion it was wrong to kill, steal, lie, or cheat on your spouse. Even atheists will agree on that. The Bible talks about deception being the biggest reason for sin, especially in the end times. Even in the beginning, Eve was deceived into eating the fruit. Mankind's instinct identifies obvious evil behavior with no problem. Therefore it isn't shocking to find similarities across these laws.

What's more, these tribes and nations all funnel back to the same point. The Egyptians, for instance, descended from Mizraim who was the son of Ham. The Israelites from Shem who was Ham's brother. Shem and Ham would have been raised with similar morals and I imagine those morals would have been passed on to their children much like a game of telephone. Each of us is raised to believe certain things and behave a certain way, but we also have the free will to choose other paths. In my childhood church, we were all given the same lessons but life gave us different experiences. We each turned out different. Someone of us believe exactly what that church taught, some believe something a little different, some might not believe at all anymore. Yet we retain a lot of similarities in our behaviors and moral standards, regardless of where we ended up. The same can be said of how laws and beliefs spread after the flood. God's reason for telling Moses to write it down was to preserve the real information since so many versions were popping up around the world. This was God giving His one-on-one interview after the tabloids had leaked faulty information.



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