Old Testament Laws Before Moses

Although the laws of Moses are the focus of this series, the story doesn’t begin with Moses. It begins in the Garden of Eden. We will start by looking at laws that existed before Moses.

1. Did sin exist before the law was given through Moses? Romans 5:13. Since sin implies the existence of a law, does the existence of sin before Moses imply there was a law before Moses? Same verse.

In verses 12-14, Paul is discussing the time period between Adam and Moses. Sin entered the world through one man — Adam. The penalty of sin is death, and Paul tells us that death entered humanity through Adam. All humans, except for Jesus Christ, have sinned (Romans 3:23), and death, therefore, has power over everyone.

In verse 13, Paul uses the word law in two different senses. One law was given through Moses, but before that law code was given, a more fundamental law existed.

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Between the time of Adam and Moses, everyone sinned. They were ignoring God, going their own ways, doing things God did not want them to do. God’s law existed, even though it had not been written down, and everyone was transgressing it. Therefore, death ruled over them all, even if they did not break a specific command in the way that Adam did.

2. What specific command did God give Adam and Eve? Genesis 2:16-17. What other commands did he give them? Genesis 1:26-30.

As Creator, God had the right to tell Adam and Eve what to do. He also had the wisdom to know what they needed. Adam and Eve should have obeyed, but they acted selfishly, and they sinned. They wanted wisdom, but they tried to take it for themselves instead of receiving it legitimately. The result was death for them and all their descendants. All human beings have a selfishness that predisposes them to sin. Everyone sins, and everyone needs the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as Paul explains in Romans 5.

3. How did God warn Cain about the temptation to sin? Genesis 4:6-7. What sin did Cain commit? Verses 8-11.

Cain had a built-in sense of right and wrong. He knew that his attitude toward his brother was wrong. God told Cain to resist the sinful nature, but instead Cain allowed it to rule over him, and he murdered his brother. This was a sin, even though no written law said it was.

All normal humans have a conscience, a natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong. This is what Paul refers to in Romans 2:14-15. By nature, God has written a moral sense, a law, into human hearts. Their understanding of right and wrong is not perfect, but every sane person has at least a basic concept of right and wrong, of love and selfishness. Although everyone falls short, some people have better behavior as compared to others. By nature, they do things that are required in God’s law — not the rituals of Moses, but the more general requirements of the law that existed before Moses.

Although many people try to do what they think to be right, none is perfect. Many others choose to live selfishly, violating the standards of their societies. The biblical story tells us that people became more and more violent, and God destroyed them with a flood (Genesis 6:11-13). After the flood, he gave an additional warning about murder (Genesis 9:5-6). He also established a covenant or agreement with Noah, promising that he would not destroy the earth with a flood (verses 8-11).

4. Before the time of Moses, was adultery a sin? Genesis 20:1-7; 39:9. Was it also wrong for Abraham to deceive Abimelech? Genesis 20:9. Did people consider honesty good and stealing evil? Genesis 30:33.

5. What additional commands did God give to Abraham? Genesis 12:1. What blessings did God promise if Abraham obeyed? Verses 2-3. Did Abraham obey? Verse 4. Later, what additional promises did God make to Abraham? Genesis 15:5. What was Abraham’s response to these promises? Verse 6. What was the result of Abraham’s faith? Same verse.

Abraham believed God, and he was therefore judged to be in a right relationship with God even though he was not perfect. If Abraham believed God’s astounding promise, then he also had enough faith to do whatever God asked. Even when God’s command seemed to threaten God’s promise to him, Abraham was willing to obey God. But it was the faith, not the obedience, that was counted for righteousness. The attitude of heart was more important than the result.

We see this in the story of Abimelech, too — Abimelech appealed to his conscience (Genesis 20:5). He was innocent not so much because his action was innocent, but because his motives were. He had acted in good faith, according to his conscience, and God honored that attitude (verse 6).

In Genesis 15, after Abraham’s faith was counted for righteousness, God made a special covenant with Abraham emphasizing the certainty of his promise to bless him with many descendants (verses 8-20). No conditions were put on this covenant. It was simply given to Abraham as a promise. God already knew that Abraham would be faithful.

6. Several years later, God reaffirmed his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8). From then on, what custom was to serve as a sign of the covenant? Verses 9-14. Was Abraham obedient? Verse 23.

7. After many more years, God again gave a special commandment to Abraham. What was it? Genesis 22:1-2. Did Abraham obey? Verses 3-10. Did Abraham continue to obey God throughout his life? Genesis 26:5.

Abraham obeyed all of God’s commands. But he wasn’t perfect. He laughed at God’s promise (Genesis 17:17). He deceived Abimelech, putting his wife at risk. Abraham wasn’t sexually faithful to his wife, because at her urging he had sex with Hagar, her servant girl (Genesis 16:1-4), which soon led to jealousy and other family strife. Abraham was sometimes weak in faith, but he did believe God, and his belief was imputed or counted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

Abraham’s faithfulness was dramatically illustrated when God told him to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed, even though it looked like the sacrifice would prevent God’s promise from being fulfilled. He had faith that God would work it out in some way — and God did. The sacrifice that God told Abraham to perform would not have been allowed under the law of Moses. Abraham was counted as righteous through faith, not through what is now called the law of Moses.

God’s specific commandments for one person or people at one particular time are not always exactly the same as for others. We are not required to obey the commands God gave Adam. The commandment God gave Noah, to build an ark, also does not apply. The commandment he gave Abraham, to kill his son as a human sacrifice, is expressly forbidden today. Specific commandments may change from time to time, even though the underlying, fundamental principle behind them, allegiance to God, remains the same. Everyone should obey God according to the commandments God gives them. Abraham kept all the laws, requirements, decrees and commands God gave him.

If Abraham obeyed the law of Moses, he would have been unfaithful, because he would have refused to sacrifice his son. And on the other hand, if Moses had tried to obey the command given to Abraham, then he would have also been unfaithful. The specific forms of obedience change, but the thing that remains constant is that God requires a heart of faith and a willingness to obey.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by in 1997 and updated in 2014. Copyright by the author. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.

This can be illustrated in a modern setting: If a person thinks it’s a sin to dance, then he or she should not dance. Why? Not because the law says so, but because the person’s faith says so. Whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). If people danced while believing that God did not want then to, then they would be disloyal and rebellious — not falling short in the letter of the law, but in a more fundamental law: allegiance to God. Everyone has to act according to their understanding of God’s commands and according to their conscience. This is the law of faith.

But faith does not mean foolishness. It does not mean we have to obey rules God gave to someone else. It does not mean we have to avoid dancing when the Bible makes no such restriction. Rather, faith means we obey the rules God has given us. That’s why it is important for us to discern which rules apply to us and which do not. That is the topic of this series of studies.

As we will soon see, many biblical laws were given only to ancient Israel, and do not apply to us today. If we want to be faithful, we need to understand why these laws do not apply, and we need to understand which laws do apply to Christians today.

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