The Ten Commandments Before Moses

Many Christians today are convinced that the Ten Commandments came in with Moses and went out with Jesus. But what if these commands formally “codified” at Sinai actually reflected God’s unchanging moral standard for all people since the beginning? Without getting into the weeds of “natural law” (things our consciences naturally know to be right and wrong, Rom 2:14, Rom 1:18), one reason I believe the Ten Commandments are still applicable for all men is that they have always been God’s expectation for mankind. They preexisted Moses and did not pass away with, for example, Israel’s sacrificial system which pointed to Christ and ended when Jesus made the once-for-all sacrifice for our sin (Heb 10:8-14).

A very brief review of biblical teaching on law and sin shows us that:

  •  “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).
  • “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
  • “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man” (Adam) “and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses…” (Romans 5:12-14a).

Just as you cannot get a speeding ticket where there is officially no speed limit, there is no sin where there is no law. Yet we clearly see sin displayed and then judged by God throughout the pages of Genesis long before Moses (think of the Tower of Babel, the “lawless” people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the world before the flood, the Amorites, etc.). If sin is the breaking of the law, what law was being broken back then? God’s moral law which demands man’s obedience is, at the very least, summarized in the Ten Commandments, which we see in pre-Mosaic hints in numerous places. Like the physical Law of Gravity, the Ten Commandments are timeless spiritual laws (Romans 7:12-14). Like breaking the physical Law of Gravity (or attempting to) may result in breaking your arm (or worse!), breaking spiritual laws has always had consequences.

Here are a few examples, either implied or explicitly stated, that the moral requirements of the Ten Commandments were in effect since the earliest days of man:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
    Not only did Adam and Eve follow their own desires and listen to the Deceiver instead of obeying the true God (Gen 3:1-6), God later said He was executing judgment against all the false gods of Egypt, concluding His promise with, “I am the Lord” (Ex 12:12). Of course, these false gods were not actual beings, so this was really a pronouncement against the Egyptians who worshiped these “gods”. We also read that Abraham’s father worshiped other gods before Abraham met the one and only true God (Josh 24:2) and forsook polytheism. All men owe their allegiance to the one true God, not just the Israelites. (See also #2.)
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
    God told Jacob in Genesis 35 to make an altar to the true God; Jacob understood that his household had to get rid of all of their idols so they could worship God rightly. Lest this seem to be nearly the same as the First Commandment, the Protestant Reformers’ view was that the First Commandment identifies whom we worship, which already excludes idols, and the Second Commandment speaks to how we worship. (As explained in a previous article, we can’t use a golden calf to worship God even if we convince ourselves we’re using it that way [Ex 32:3-6]). Men could not worship God however they wanted but only in ways that God indicated were acceptable. Job, who was not a Jew and likely lived long before Moses, knew how to appropriately offer sacrifices to God (Job 1:5). Likewise, Cain and Abel knew to make offerings to God but only Abel’s sacrifice was presented in an acceptable way (Gen 4:3-5).
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
    This regards honoring God’s name rather than blaspheming it, the latter of which is where we derive our words “cursing” and “profanity”. Again we look to Job (Job 1:5); he made a sacrifice to God in case his children had cursed God, even if only in their hearts. Also, the inhabitants of Canaan faced judgment, in part, because they had profaned God’s name since before Moses’ generation (Lev 18:21, 27).
  4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
    The Sabbath was instituted by God at creation: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation” (Gen 2:3). Remembrance of God’s completed creation work was later reiterated as the reason for the required Sabbath rest (Ex 20:12). Though we don’t know how it was initially observed (if at all), this creation ordinance was not unknown to God’s people prior to the Ten Commandments since in Exodus 16, they were told not to gather manna on the seventh day because it was a Sabbath (which clearly repeated every week, Ex 16:26). Interestingly, when the people failed to keep these pre-Sinai instructions, God chastised the people by saying, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day He gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.”  God said their Sabbath-breaking was a refusal to keep His commandments and laws, so this was one of numerous commandments they already knew prior to the Ten Commandments being written down.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
    Not only did Adam sin by disobeying God, since Adam was “the son of God” with no earthly father (Luke 3:38), but we see elsewhere the expectation that children honor their parents. There are simple examples of a child obeying obeying his father, even adults like Jacob (Gen 28:6-7), or, more strikingly, an instance like Ham dishonoring his father, Noah, and then being cursed (Gen 9:22-25).
  6. You shall not murder.
    Cain killed his brother and then was cursed by God: “Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Gen 4:11, cf 1 John 3:12). Likewise, we see that God took man’s killing a fellow image-bearer so seriously that He imposed the death penalty for murder (Gen 9:6) and we later see that the Egyptian midwives “feared God” and thus did not kill the Israelite babies (Ex 1:17).
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
    God came to King Abimelech in a dream and threatened him with death if he were to take Abraham’s wife (Gen 20:3). And when Potiphar’s wife told Joseph to lie with her, Joseph refused, saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen 39:7-9)
  8. You shall not steal.
    Jacob said that he was honest because he had not stolen any of Laban’s animals (Gen 30:33). Likewise, knowing theft was a serious offense, Joseph’s brother’s defended themselves (Gen 44:8) against a charge of stealing, which even in pagan Egypt was referred to as an “evil” act.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
    Satan’s lie directly led to man’s first sin (Gen 3:4), resulting in disastrous results for all of humanity. Cain (clearly sinfully) lied about killing his brother (Gen 4:9) and Job spoke repeatedly and negatively about lies (Job 13:4, Job 24:25, Job 27:4, etc.).
  10. You shall not covet.
    Coveting is an illicit desire for something that God has not granted you to have. Certainly this is part of the sin of Adam and Eve wanting both the forbidden fruit and the wisdom they thought it would supposedly provide (Gen 3:6). (The KJV also renders Jethro’s recommended criteria for elders to include that they hate covetousness, Ex 18:21.) Since stealing is the external act associated with the internal sin of coveting (i.e., discontentment and misplaced longing), we can also infer that a prohibition of stealing would preclude one from the desire that leads to stealing.

This, then, is why God could say long before Moses, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen 26:5) though very few of these “laws” Abraham followed are expressly recorded as being given to him. Abraham knew how to live aright. If we are are Christ’s, we are Abraham’s offspring (Gal 3:29), and should seek to live in obedience to God’s law, as well (John 8:39).

To love God is to keep His commands, which are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Paul, the former Pharisee and expert of Old Testament law, makes it even more explicit by giving examples from the “second table” (human relationship rules) of the Ten Commandments: “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10).

Even today, the law summarized in the Ten Commandments reveals our sin, reflects God’s perfect character, and shows us how to live our lives. Most importantly, it shows us our need for a Savior. Law-keeping does not save, but living in light of God’s law shows us our utter reliance on Christ’s perfect obedience on our behalf. And we are always called to grow in holiness by obeying God’s moral laws until we are in our glorified bodies. May we use God’s timeless law, as our hearts overflow with thankfulness, to grow in obedience to our God and Father and better love our neighbor.

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