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God's Eternal Law

25 Mar 2006, Norman Tew

(Norm is a member of Thornleigh church)

When I started this study it was merely out of academic interest.  But the more I studied the subject the more I realised how important it is.

The Ten Commandments

In the United States during the past few years there has been a lot of fuss about the public display of the Ten commandments.  Even more recently a Ten Commandment Commission has been set up to establish an annual Ten Commandment Day. 


There was a time when the Ten Commandments were boldly displayed in Seventh-day Adventist Churches

I know an Anglican Church in England that has the commandments written in large letters on the back wall.  And that has been there since before 1611 because it is in an earlier translation than the KJV.

We consider the ten commandments as the foundation of our present day law and society.  But this goes even further.  The standard text is 1 John 3:4 "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law."

Let us look at the situation before Moses; was there  sin?    Obviously there was.  Was there then law before Sinai?  Obviously there must have been.

We must remember that the various parts of the Bible were given by God for the people in the time it was given.  The Bible as we have it has existed from soon after the time of Christ and is designed to tell us how to find salvation and how to live as saved people.  The Bible does not answer all our questions about the past or the future.  It only tells us what we need.

So what do we know about the 10 commandments before God wrote a copy for Moses?

It is interesting to look at a time line of the World since Creation.   If you take the Bible chronology as complete then the call of Abraham and death of Christ can divide the history of the world into thirds.

The giving of the law at Sinai was some 500 years after the call of Abraham.  Thus more than the first third of earth=s history was before the Law was given to Moses.  (If Creation was longer ago than 6,000 years then it was even more than that)

The Seven Laws of Noah

Recently I came across something called "The Seven Laws of Noah"   Jews have suggested that from the Bible you can define seven laws that apply to all descendants of Noah, while they apply the ten commandments to the descendants of Abraham.  Though if you follow this logic half a millennium passed before the descendants of Abraham received the 10 laws!

When I heard about these seven laws I tried to find out more about them.  The first five web sites I looked all listed the laws in different orders and even with varying definitions.


The first of these  quotes the Encyclopedia Britannica as saying that the first explicit written copy of these laws dates back to about 200 AD.  The same Christian web site sets up a table to compare the 7 with the 10.  He is able to match 6 of the laws of Noah with 9 of the "Laws of God".  The one of the 7 that he does not find in the 10 is listed by some as: "Respect God's Creatures. . . Do not cause unnecessary suffering to any creature".  The one of the 10 that he does not find in the 7 is the 4th commandment.

I find this strange for the 4th commandment is the ONLY one that refers to animals, by saying that our cattle (KJV) also deserve a Sabbath rest from labour.  Incidentally the NRSV translates that as livestock and the NIV as animals.

However this writer elsewhere argues that the Sabbath is only for the Jews and he musters a range of texts from both the old and new Testaments to convince himself that Christians need a different day - hence Sunday observance.

But let us ignore these so called "7 laws of Noah" and search the scriptures for ourselves and see if there was any knowledge of the 10 commandments before Sinai.

Eden Before Sin

Let us start with Eden.  The first command God gave to man is found in Genesis 1:28 "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Actually this was a repeat of a command God had given to the birds and fishes on the previous (the fifth) day of Creation.

However this command does not tie up with any of the Ten Commandments.  At first there appears to be only one command in Eden.  Gen 2:16-17 NRSV "And the LORD God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; {17} but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.' "

But there are two more commands implied.  The first concerns the Fourth commandment of the Ten.  Gen 2:2-3 NRSV "And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. {3} So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation".   There is no explicit command here for man to keep the Sabbath, but it does say that God blessed it and hallowed it.    That must have been for man's use.

The second concerns indirectly the two of the Ten.  Gen 2:22-24 NRSV "And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. {23} Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.' {24} Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."  This text not only records the first marriage but comments that this is to be a tradition. A marriage is to be the combining of two people into "one flesh"

It seems to me that this is another way of stating aspects of  both the 7th and the 10th commandment.  Adultery is the breach in the one flesh rule, coveting the wife of another is also a breach of this rule.  Thus we have two commandments of the Ten and parts of a third implied already in Eden before the entry of sin.

We often think of the first sin as a sin of appetite.  But read the statement as to why Eve ate and there are several aspects to this sin.  Gen 3:6 NRSV "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate."

There are several aspects that attracted Eve:

1. Good for food
2. Delight to the eyes
3. Desired to make one wise.

In many ways I think the third one is the most important,  because that combines another point.  She trusted the serpent and accepted that God was not being honest.  You could say that this was a breach of the First of the Ten.   She placed the words of the serpent ahead of the words of God.  She placed another god before God.

To summarise this section.

After Sin

It is only a few verses further into the Bible before we come to another breach of the Ten.  Gen 4:8-15 NRSV "Cain said to his brother Abel, 'Let us go out to the field.' And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. {9} Then the LORD said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' He said, 'I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?' {10} And the LORD said, 'What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! {11} And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. {12} When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.' {13} Cain said to the LORD, 'My punishment is greater than I can bear! {14} Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.' {15} Then the LORD said to him, 'Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.' And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him."

It is fairly obvious from the whole story that neither Cain nor God had any questions but that murder was wrong.  The next report of a murder later in the same chapter gives the same impression.  Gen 4:23-24 NRSV "Lamech said to his wives: 'Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. {24} If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.' "

This means that this early the 6th commandment was accepted as one of the laws of God.  Yet the first clear reference I find to this command is after the flood.  Gen 9:5-6 NRSV "For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. {6} Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Let us look at other references to God's commands between this time and Sinai.

God makes an  interesting statement about Abraham to Isaac.  Gen 26:2-5 NRSV "The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, 'Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you. {3} Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. {4} I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring, {5} because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.' "

When the wife of Potiphar tried to tempt Joseph he replied. Gen 39:9b NRSV "How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"    This does not name God's law, but how else could Joseph be defining sin?

An ambiguous text comes right at the start of Moses' efforts to deliver the Israelites Pharaoh talks about the people resting.  The word used is that which is the root for the word Sabbath Exodus 5:5 "And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens."  Did Moses restore Sabbath observance as his first work on returning to Egypt?

When Moses was speaking to the people, before Sinai, he referred to the commandments.  Exodus 15:26 NRSV "He said, 'If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you.' "

The final reference concerns the gathering of the manna, which started to fall before Sinai.  Sabbath observance is spoken about as if it was completely understood.  It was also assumed the commandments of God.    Exodus 16:26-29 NRSV "Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none." {27} On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. {28} The LORD said to Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? {29} See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.' "

To summarise this section.

Other Laws before Moses

Due to lack of time I can only summarise here.  I do not want to confine this study to just the two tables of stone.  Moses delivered to the children of Israel a lot more detail of the application of the principles in the 10.


Thus we have seen that we can find examples of both the ten commandments and examples of other laws given by Moses at Sinai well before the time of Sinai.

Does this have any relevance to us?  When I started studying this, it was more of a curiosity about something that happened long ago.  But as I studied I realised that the understanding of the Law before Sinai is crucial to our concept of God's eternal law, before Sinai - after the Cross - and throughout eternity.

The Cross was a dividing point where things changed.  Was there after this no law?  Is it still possible to sin?  If so then there must still be law.

However righteousness and holiness will still continue for eternity.  They will still be defined by God's law, which after all is a transcript of God's character.

Christ died to fulfill the law because it could not be abolished.  Mat 5:17-20 NRSV  "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. {18} For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. {19} Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. {20} For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Will the law continue in the new earth?  It seems to me it will, but the Bible is for us to tell us how to believe and act now so that the Lord will be able to take us to the new earth.  Thus is does not give a lot of detail.   I am convinced the law is a transcript of the character of God.  Thus it is eternal, but I leave you to study that aspect.

I also believe that then we will be able to keep God's law for now we must rely on His Grace. (Hence the closing hymn 412 - Cover with His Life).

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