There is a fascinating passage in Genesis 26:2-5 that demonstrates the law-abiding nature of Abraham (and his reward for doing so in the eyes of the Eternal): “Then the Eternal appeared to him [Isaac] and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you. Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendents I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendents multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendents all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” This is high praise for anyone, and yet this passage invites as many questions as it gives answers. There are many who would like to cast aspersions on one or another of the laws of God and deny that it remains valid for Christians today. We know that Genesis is a historical work and not a law-book (unlike large sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), but there is a legitimate question to be asked: what laws, statutes, and commandments did Abraham obey? What can we learn from the behavior of those recorded in the book of Genesis about the laws of God that were in place before Sinai and that would therefore presumably exist afterward since they are not dependent on the Mosaic covenant but are reflective of the basic ethical demands that God has for all believers?
The Ten Commandments Before Sinai
Though this is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all of the laws of God before Mount Sinai that are referred to, it is intended to provide a fair representation of the presence of the ten commandments before Mount Sinai. Let us therefore seek to take the commandments in order and see how all ten commandments of God are embedded in the Bible before Mount Sinai, and can be reasonably expected to be included as the commandments, statutes, and laws that were required before Sinai and are therefore not properly limited to the “old covenant,” since their existence precedes it.
Exodus 20:2-3 reads: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” Did Abraham obey this law, based on the biblical record? The biblical record gives an affirmative answer to this question. Genesis 12:1 gives the initial part of God’s call to Abraham: “Now the Eternal had said to Abram: get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” One of the reasons for this call away from his family’s house was the fact that Abram’s family was not loyal to Yahweh, as it reads in Joshua 24:2: “And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says Yahweh God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the [Eurphrates] River in old times; and they served other gods.’ ” Here we see that Abraham’s ethical monotheism, in contrast to his family’s less devout worship, was a major factor in God’s favor of Abraham, and evidence of the importance of exclusivity of worship from the earliest times.
Exodus 20:4-6 reads: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your god, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Do we have evidence that the patriarchs obeyed this law? Yes, indeed. Genesis 35:2-4, confirming Jacob’s obedience to both of the first two commandments, reads: “And Jacob said to all of his household and all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you; purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in all the way which I have gone. So they gave Jacob all of the foreign gods which were in their hands, and the earrings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree which was by Shechem.” Here we see Jacob’s understanding of the exclusivity God demands as well as the avoidance of idolatrous representations of Yahweh, whose ways are far above our imagination.
Exodus 20:7 reads: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your god in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” In Genesis 34 we have the example of Simeon and Levi taking a covenant with the people of Shechem in vain and using the godly symbol of circumcision as a weapon in vengeance, and they were not held blameless, as Genesis 49:5-7 reads: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” For taking the name of God in vain, they were cursed with division, a curse that I ponder particularly closely as someone with known descent from the tribe of Levi (and possibly Simeon as well).
Exodus 20:8-11 reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of Yahweh your god. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Eternal made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Eternal blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Do we have evidence of the importance of the Sabbath before Mount Sinai, showing it as part of the unchanging moral law of the Eternal? Indeed we do. Genesis 2:1-3 reads: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” It is worth of note here that the word used for God in this passage is Elohim, describing God in His role as general creator (making the Sabbath part of God’s moral requirements for all nations and not merely an aspect of His personal covenant with Israel, which would be described by the personal name Yahweh). We also find this law reminded of Israel after their time in captivity in Exodus 16:23: “Then he [Moses] said to them, “This is what the Eternal has said: “Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Eternal. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.”” After many years of exploitation the Sabbath rest had been forgotten in Israel, and so God had to remind them of its preexisting importance to Him before giving it as part of the moral law of the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 20:12 reads: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Eternal your God is giving you.” Do we find respect for parents defended in Genesis? Indeed, we do. Genesis 9:20-23 reads: “And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planed a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” For their honor for their father, they were blessed, and the behavior of Ham (and Canaan) was condemned with a curse. We also see respect for children toward their father in Genesis 25:7-10: “This is the sum of the years of Abraham’s life which he lived: one hundred and seventy five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelal, which is before Mamre, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth. There Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.” Here we see the honor of children for their father both in protecting their parents from shame as well as burying their parents after they are dead. Honor for parents is an important aspect of biblical law from the beginning.
Exodus 20:13 reads: “You shall not murder.” Murder was condemned in scripture from the very beginning. See, for example, Genesis 4:10-12, which reads: “And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no loner yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”” What was the response of God to the violence of mankind in the times before the blood? Witness it in Genesis 6:13: “And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”” Here we see the condemnation of murder and its appropriate response with capital judgment. We must remember, of course, that all killing is not murder, a fact that is often forgotten by those who mistranslate this verse and consider justice as an equal evil violence with murder and hatred.
Exodus 20:14 reads: “You shall not commit adultery.” Do we have evidence in the Bible that adultery is specifically condemned before Sinai? Indeed, we do. Genesis 39:7-9 reads: “And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”” Here we see clearly that adultery was known by Joseph to be a sin before Sinai. This was true of minor wives (concubines) as well as major wives, as can be seen from Genesis 49:4: “Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch.” Messing with a father’s concubine or secondary wife was a sin in the times before Sinai just as it remains a sin for Christians today (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Exodus 20:15 reads: “You shall not steal.” Is respect for property known and honored by the people of God? Indeed it is. Let us consider a couple of examples. Genesis 14:22-24 reads: “But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the Eternal, God most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’–except only what the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me: Aner, Eschol, and Mamre, let them take their portion.” Here we see Abraham respecting the property of the wicked king of Sodom, not even a fellow believer. We also see respect for property in Jacob’s rebuke of his father-in-law Laban in Genesis 31:36-42: “Then Jacob was angry and rebuked Laban, and Jacob answered and said to Laban: “What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me? Although you have searched all my things, what part of your household things have you found? Set it here before my brethren and your brethren, that they may judge between us both! These twenty years I have been with you; your eyes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock. That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether it was stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was! In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes. Thus I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night.” Here we see as an aspect of theft that respect for property is joined both with the principle of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage, as well as an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work. Both employers and employees are commanded to deal honorably with each other even in such ancient times as these, showing them to be eternal moral principles.
Exodus 20:16 reads: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Was the importance of honesty in oaths defended in the days of Abraham. Indeed it was. Not only are Abraham and Isaac rebuked a total of three times between them for pretending that their wives were only sisters, but the importance of honest dealing in treaties is repeated over and over again in the times of the patriarchs. Let us take one example of several, in the interests of brevity, in Genesis 21:22-26: “And it came to pass at that time that Abimelech and Phichol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do. Now, therefore, swear to me by God that you will not deal falsely with me, with my offspring, or with my posterity; but that according to the kindness that I have done to you, you will do to me and to the land in which you have dwelt.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.” Then Abraham rebuked Abimelech because of a well of water which Abimelech’s servants had seized. And Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, nor had I heard of it until today.” Here we see the principle of respect for property (and the problem of theft by government bureaucrats) and also the honesty of both Abimelech (a Gentile of Aegean origin) and Abraham the Hebrew. We also see here the importance of honest dealing in personal and diplomatic affairs, as Abraham was not only a godly man, but he was also a sort of nomadic chieftain whose family was considered of sufficient standing to make parity covenants with kings of city-states, covenants which depend on the honesty and integrity of those who can be trusted to keep their promises.
Exodus 20:17 reads: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” Do we have evidence that Abraham obeyed this law? Indeed, we do. We have previously seen the Bible comment on Jacob’s lack of covetousness toward the property of Laban and Joseph’s lack of covetousness toward the wife of his master, but we have also seen Abraham’s lack of covetousness toward the property of the king of Sodom which he delivered through warfare in order to rescue his nephew from captivity. Beyond these examples, we have a specific example of Abraham’s lack of covetousness when it came to prime feeding land for his large flocks in Genesis 13:8-9: “So Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.” Abraham, of course, was blessed for his godliness, and part of that was his lack of greed and selfishness, a generosity of spirit that we should all be willing to emulate.
We can see from this brief (!) account that all ten of the commandments of God were established and recognized as part of the moral law of God before Mount Sinai. They were not “added” aspects to God’s ways at Sinai, and as all of them were part of the original obligations of mankind to God from the beginning, all of them remain so today for Christians as part of the moral law. The fact that among the many stories of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus that all of the ten commandments are listed (many of them multiple times), demonstrates that a sensitivity and awareness to the contents of Genesis and the first part of Exodus show a firm body of moral law that includes the Decalogue as part of the original requirements of the dealings of all people–this is especially worthy of note considering how many of these incidents of obedience to God’s law among the patriarchs include dealings with the heathen, showing that our godly obligations do not stop merely with our own family of blood or even the family of the faith, but are part of the example we are to show to the world as a model of godly behavior even when we are dealing with the ungodly, as a way of showing them that the kingdom of God is near to them, even if they are far from God because of their own moral corruption.
Other Laws Before Sinai
Having demonstrated the existence of the Decalogue (ten commandments) as a universal human obligation before the “old covenant” at Mount Sinai, let us now examine the existence of other related laws as being part of the universal moral law before Mount Sinai. We have already noted that the ethical laws concerning the requirement of employers and employees both to be honorable and fair in their dealings, providing honest work on the one side and honest pay on the other side, is a principle that extends before Sinai, as is the principle of fair arbitration in case of disputes between employer and employed, as a way of avoiding the abuse of power that often comes from unequal power relationships. This is an aspect of God’s unchanging moral law that has particular relevance for those of us who have to deal with the often corrupt world of business dealings in this present evil world.
But there are also other laws which clearly preexist the “old covenant” and therefore are part of God’s unchanging moral law. For example, the calendar and Holy Convocations of God were also known from before Mount Sinai. Exodus 12:40-41 reads: “Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years–on that very same day–it came to pass that all the armies of the Eternal went out from the land of Egypt.” Here we see that the precise day of the entrance of the people of Israel into Egypt was known, and that the memorial of this event corresponded to the Passover, which is itself an annual memorial festival of both the freedom of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the freedom of believers from slavery to sin through the death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. For this event to be known to the day requires a lunar calendar, since the date of the Passover is not on a constant solar day. We know from the flood diary of Genesis 7 and 8 (see, for example, Genesis 7:11, 8:4-5, 13, 14), that from the time of Noah at the very latest the lunar calendar was known (however it was determined), and from history we also know that the Israelites could not have gotten this calendar from the Egyptians, who had a 12-month solar calendar with 30 day months and five extra intercalinary days, which is a vastly different system than the lunar-solar calendar of the Bible. We may infer from history as well that the Babylonians (whose lunar-solar calendar began at the new moon of Tishri, like the Jewish civil calendar today) copied their calendar from that of Noah, and that means that the existence of the Holy Days long preceded the time of Moses, given the fact that Genesis 1:14-16 reads: “Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. Then God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day; and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also.” Obviously this account is written from the perspective of earth (in the same way that we refer to the sunrise and the sunset even knowing that it is the earth that moves relative to the sun in reality), but it reflects a concern for seasons and dates and times (and the festivals of God, which are determined by the lunar-solar calendar) from the very beginning of human history.
There are, of course, other laws that are known (and enforced) before Mount Sinai and which therefore stand as part of God’s unchanging moral law. Another example of this law is the strong biblical condemnation of homosexuality. Genesis 19:4-5 shows this sin in action: “Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.” What was the response of the angels of God to this outrage? Genesis 19:12-13 reads: “Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Son-in-law, your sons, your daughters, and whomever you have in the city–take them out of this place! For we will destroy this place, because the outcry against them has grown great before the face of the Eternal, and the Eternal has sent us out to destroy it.” Again, homosexuality was known to be a sin (as was rape, it should be noted) before Mount Sinai, making it part of the unchanging and still-existing moral law of God. It should be noted, of course, that this activity remains a sin for Christians today (see, for example, Romans 1:24-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Revelation 22:14-15, which also condemn a great many other sins for Christians, it should be noted).
Likewise, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, the law of tithing is also one that is mentioned multiple times in the course of Genesis, indicating its own part of the unchanging moral law of God, reflecting a believer’s recognition of the fact that all we have belongs to God in the first place, and that therefore we need to recognize that original ownership. Genesis 14:19-20 records Abraham tithing to the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek, of whose order is Jesus Christ and all believers as part of the royal priesthood of God: “Then Melchizedek kin of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tithe of all.” We also have evidence that Jacob was aware of his obligations to tithe even before his conversion, presumably from hearing it in the household of his father Isaac, in Genesis 28:20-22: “Then Jacob made a vow, sawing, “If God will be with me and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Eternal shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.” Interestingly enough, this reference as well shows the importance of the law of vows as a preexisting part of God’s eternal moral law as well, something that we ought to consider as believers.
Therefore, having considered the Ten Commandments as well as other aspects of God’s law, let us note that when the Bible states that Abraham obeyed God’s voice, as well as his statutes, commandments, and judgments, that these laws were far-ranging even during the time of Abraham based on what we can read from the scriptures themselves of the time before the Sinai covenant. And those statutes and judgments and laws that we know Abraham (or the patriarchs) to have kept can therefore be seen as part of the unchanging moral law that applies to all peoples as their minimal obligations to their Creator and, of course, as essential within the New Covenant for believers today. We can understand this because Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and other believers at that time were not under the Sinai covenant, since the “old covenant” was not yet in existence. Likewise, anything that was required by God before Mount Sinai clearly was not a temporary aspect of that covenant. It could be shown, of course, how all of the Ten commandments, as well as a variety of other laws that we have discussed here, are specifically affirmed in the Renewed Covenant scriptures (also known as the New Testament) as well, and that task as well may be done if time permits. Seeing how the same laws and statutes that are listed before the time of Moses are also affirmed for Christians today may help us to properly understand God’s unchanging moral standards in light of an age that would prefer to do what is right in its own eyes. Let us not be numbered among that company ourselves.