Many professing Christian leaders and preachers insist that the core of God’s law – the Ten Commandments – has been done away with. They call it the “law of Moses” and claim that it was abolished by Jesus Christ when He offered Himself as the sacrifice on the cross. They assume that the Ten Commandments started with Moses and that they didn’t exist before they were officially given in Exod. 20.
Such people do not know the difference between the law of God, and the law given through Moses which contained the Levitical sacrificial rituals associated with it. A combination of ignorance, wilful denial, and an attempt to minimise the Ten Commandments as “dispensational” (valid for a limited period of time), has caused many to believe that the Ten Commandments did not exist before Moses’ receiving them on Mount Sinai. Is this true? What does the Bible teach? When were the Ten Commandments first known in the Old Testament regardless of the absence of a written record such as Exod. 20:2-17 and Deut. 5:6-21?
Law of Moses or Law of God?
The first written record of the Ten Commandments is found in Exod. 20:2-17. Just before this, Exod. 20:1 says, “And God spoke all these words, saying:” And Exod. 31:18 says, “And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” Clearly it is seen that the Ten Commandments were both spoken and written first by God Himself. (See also Exod. 32:16; Deut. 4:12-13; Deut. 9:10.)
Around 1400 to 1500 B.C. God spoke directly to the Israelites from Mount Sinai located in the desert southwest of modern day Israel. God spoke the Ten Commandments from the mountain top directly to the people as they trembled in fear. They were so frightened by the sound of His voice that they pleaded with Moses for God not to speak to them. When God spoke these Ten Commandments, did He reveal something completely new to the Israelites and to the Gentile nations through them? Or did they already know the Ten Commandments even though God had not officially “codified” them?
All the laws which God gave at Mount Sinai were written by Moses (Mosaic law) and this law contained ceremonial laws, civil laws, and moral laws. Ceremonial laws consisted of religious observances, sacrificial rituals, and temple worship. Civil laws consisted of those laws given to Israel by which they are to be governed as a nation including issues of debt, divorce, inheritance, etc. Moral laws are associated with the Ten Commandments and is based on the character of God. The Ten Commandments were never called the law of Moses, but rather the law of God. They were already in force long before they were officially given to Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. In fact, they have existed since the creation of man and can never be seen as part of the Levitical sacrificial system alone. It can be said that the Ten Commandments precede and transcend any and every law or practice based upon them.
The Ten Commandments are God’s spiritual laws or moral laws. Rom. 7:12-14 says, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.” They are just as active and binding as the physical laws of gravity and inertia. Just as breaking physical laws results in physical consequences, breaking the spiritual laws of God results in spiritual consequences.
What is Sin?
1 John 3:4 says, “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” The word used for ‘lawlessness’ in the Greek is ‘anomia’. The Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains defines ‘anomia’ as ‘to behave with complete disregard for the laws or regulations of a society’, ‘to live as though there were no laws’, ‘to refuse completely to obey the laws’, ‘to live as one who despises all laws’. So according to the Bible, any breaking of the law, or refusal to obey the law, or living as if there is no law are all classified as sin against God.
The end result of sin is aptly defined in Rom. 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Notice that in Rom. 5:12-14, Paul says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned – For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.” In other words, Adam sinned. Sin is not imputed, i.e., credited where there is no law. And in Rom. 4:15, it says, “because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.” The Louw-Nida Lexicon defines ‘transgression’ as ‘acting contrary to established custom or law with the intent to disobey and break the law’. So it is not possible for sin to exist where there is no law. Death reigned from Adam to Moses (Remember that death is the penalty for sin, which is defined as the transgression of the law). The only way Adam and his descendants could sin, i.e., break God’s moral law, is if God’s law already existed.
Instead of rejecting sin, the false preachers reject the law itself. Such people are called antinomians. They view the law as a burden, and they want to be free from keeping it. But notice what Paul says in Rom. 7:7, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”” So it is not the law that is at fault, but sin. God reveals to us what sin is and He does this through His perfect law. On his own, man cannot discover God’s perfect law. God has to reveal and teach it to us.
Humanity’s First Sin
In the Garden of Eden, God gave clear and comprehensible instructions to Adam which Adam needed. Even though Adam was an adult with a mature mind, God had to reveal to him the spiritual boundaries and limits of his freedom so that he may not break God’s laws. Gen. 2:15 says, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 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 surely die.”” Regarding sin and death, Romans 6:23a says, “For the wages of sin is death.” Adam was given instructions regarding the maintenance of the garden. He was explicitly commanded not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God didn’t leave Adam with the choice of deciding for himself what was right and wrong. God told Adam plainly what the penalty would be for disobeying His commandment. God revealed to Adam and Eve the right knowledge and instructions regarding how to live. He also gave them the full freedom to decide whether or not they would choose to obey God’s commandment. This is freedom of choice or freewill, which God has given to every human being.
Satan, in the form of a serpent, told Eve that if she took the fruit of the forbidden tree, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). Satan cunningly deceived Eve and she took the fruit and ate it, and she gave it to Adam and he also ate it.
Adam sinned by disobeying God’s commandment. He broke the law of God. He therefore became the servant of the one whom he obeyed – Satan. This principle is explained in Rom. 6:16, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” Whoever or whatever someone obeys and serves is his god. It could be said that Adam and Eve broke every single one of the Ten Commandments in Genesis 3.
- In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve broke the FIRST COMMANDMENT by putting another person, Satan, before the Creator God.
- They broke the SECOND COMMANDMENT by idolizing the forbidden fruit and making a god of their stomach.
- They broke the THIRD COMMANDMENT by not believing in God’s instruction and warning and in that way taking His name in vain.
- They broke the FOURTH COMMANDMENT by breaking the sinless rest in which they were placed.
- They broke the FIFTH COMMANDMENT by dishonouring their parent, the Father God (according to Luke 3:38, Adam was the created son of God).
- They broke the SIXTH COMMANDMENT by bringing death upon themselves.
- They broke the SEVENTH COMMANDMENT by committing spiritual adultery in preferring the created being above the Creator.
- They committed stealing and broke the EIGHTH COMMANDMENT in that they took something that was not theirs.
- They broke the NINTH COMMANDMENT by accepting the serpent’s (Satan’s) false witness against God.
- Eve lusted for the forbidden fruit. Lusting is coveting, thereby breaking the TENTH COMMANDMENT.
Breaking one commandment leads to breaking all the commandments of God. This is exactly what James 2:10 says, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” God’s laws are interrelated and intricately woven together in a way that if you break one, you eventually break all of them.
In Gen. 4, Adam’s first son, Cain, became very angry against his brother Abel, because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, and not Cain’s. In Gen. 4:6-7, God reprimands Cain, “So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”” Cain murdered Abel and thereby broke the SIXTH COMMANDMENT. When someone is in the wrong frame of mind, sin is lying at the door, waiting to happen, because sinful thoughts will lead to sinful actions. God commands us to rule over sin – to control the alluring pulls and impulses to commit sin. 2 Cor. 10:4-5 clearly says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Cain murdered Abel and lied to God about it, which is in fact a breaking of the NINTH COMMANDMENT, which forbids “bearing false witness against your neighbour.” Cain knew that he had sinned. This happened some years after Adam had first sinned. The children of Adam and Eve knew that sin was the breaking of God’s law, or else God would not have held them accountable.
Other Examples of Ten Commandments in Force Before Sinai
The Bible gives examples of each of the Ten Commandments being kept before the time of Moses. When God called Jacob to return to Bethel, where God had appeared to him around 21 years before, Jacob said to 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 the way which I have gone” (Gen. 35:2-3). In fact it was a warning. Jacob knew that God forbade idolatry – which was breaking the SECOND COMMANDMENT. Telling his household to put away their idols fulfilled the principle in Prov. 16:6, “In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the Lord one departs from evil.”
When Abraham told King Abimelech that Sarah, his half-sister and wife, was merely his sister, he lied – breaking of the NINTH COMMANDMENT. Believing Abraham’s word, Abimelech sent for Sarah. But notice Gen. 20:3-6, “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.” And God said to him in a dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”” If God had not intervened and stopped Abimelech, he would have committed adultery, which is a sin, and thereby he would have broken the SEVENTH COMMANDMENT.
When Joseph was tempted by the advances of Potiphar’s wife, 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?”” (Gen. 39:8-9) Joseph was well aware that adultery was sin. This event occurred almost 250 years before the law was officially given by God to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai!
During the Israelites’ travel to the Promised Land, God told them to gather their daily amount of manna each morning. On the morning before the weekly Sabbath, there would be enough for both days. This was because there will be no manna on the Sabbath, since it was the day of rest. God intended that the people rest on the Sabbath, rather than spend time gathering manna. When some people deliberately broke the Sabbath by attempting to gather manna on the Sabbath, God said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?” (Ex. 16:28) The account continues in Ex. 16:29-30, “See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.” This shows that the FOURTH COMMANDMENT was in effect before the law was given at Mt. Sinai.
When the time came for Israel to enter the land of Canaan, the nations had surpassed the threshold of moral downfall. God knew that this would happen and had told Abraham about it, around 400 years earlier – “Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:15-16). The word ‘iniquity’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘avon’ which means ‘perversion, crooked behaviour, or sin.’ The description of the iniquity and abominations committed by the Canaanites are described in Lev. 18:3-30. They included sacrificing their children in the fire to Molech, which was murder, every form of adultery and sexual perversion, and profaning the name of God. If there had been no law in force, there would not have been any iniquity or sin for the Amorites or any nation to commit.
With regard to the pre-Flood world, Gen. 6:5 says, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The word for ‘wickedness’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘ra’ which means ‘evil.’ Humanity was so wicked that Gen. 6:6 says, “And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” The wickedness of humanity brought every conceivable type of sin and deliberate disregard for the sanctity of life. These sins were imputed only because the moral laws of God – the Ten Commandments existed from the creation of mankind.
From these, it is evident that the Ten Commandments were in force long before Moses. It is seen that Abraham was commended by God in Gen. 26:5 with these words, “because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” What commandments and laws did Abraham obey if there were no Ten Commandments before Exodus 20? It is obvious that the law which Abraham kept was not the Mosaic law, because that was given by God after 430 years. It is the Ten Commandments that Abraham obeyed, about which we have seen that they were in force right from the time of creation. The Ten Commandments were not in any way limited to the Jews only. It was applicable to the entire human race. They were already in effect long before Moses or Israel’s existence. They are the foundation of God’s laws which show us how to love God (defined by the first four Commandments) and how to love our neighbour (defined by the last six).