The Law Before Sinai


This is an excerpt from a lengthier article. See here.


Many critics of the threefold division of the law—and thus opponents of the idea that God’s law serves as a rule for the lives of God’s New Covenant people—start their theologizing in Exodus with the initial codification of the law. However, if the law is found to exist before the institution of the Mosaic Covenant, they have made an exegetical mistake. Remember, as seen above, Rosner appears to exclusively identify the law of God with the Old Covenant. From what I can tell, he never explores the possibility of a protological Decalogue. It is assumed, by Rosner, that the Ten Commandments are first introduced in Exodus 20 rather than being naturally revealed in creation from the very beginning.

A question, therefore, that must be answered is: Does the law appear in Scripture before Sinai? William Dyrness writes that the law, “is not so much a new law as an authoritative formulation of already existing instruction (Themes in Old Testament Theology, 147).” Likewise, the Reformers and the framers of the Reformed Confessions seem to agree that the law existed before its formal introduction upon Horeb. The Second London Confession says:

God gave Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it (LBCF, 19.1).

Moreover, past theologians seem to agree upon distinctions within the law of God, as well as the existence of divine law before the Mosaic Covenant. It cannot be denied that there was a standard of righteousness according to which God exacted justice before the scene at Sinai. For example, Cain was cursed for spilling the blood of his brother (Gen. 4:9-13). Another instance would be the Noahic Flood, where God destroyed all human life aside from Noah and his family, because, “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).”

All of the wickedness which God judges prior to Sinai leads one to think there was an active standard of righteousness embedded in the created order before the institution of the Mosaic Covenant. Below is a list of every Decalogue commandment represented either by obedience or punishment before Sinai:

  • You shall have no other gods before me: Genesis 3:5 gets at the very heart of the fall of man. Man wanted to be like God, and thus put himself in God’s place. This was a violation of the first commandment, if not the third also.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol: God tells Jacob to rid his household of foreign gods (Gen. 35:2).
  • You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God: Swearing by God’s name is the ultimate oath, even for Himself (Gen. 24:3).
  • Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy: God’s people are to rest on the seventh day(Ex. 16:23).
  • Honor your father and your mother: Ham was cursed for disrespecting his father, Noah(Gen. 9:20).
  • You shall not kill: Cain was cursed for murdering his brother (Gen. 4:9-12).
  • You shall not commit adultery: Adam and Eve were one flesh (Gen. 2:20-25). Abimelech abstains from adultery (Gen. 20:3-7).
  • You shall not steal: Rachel steals from her father (Gen. 31:19). The situation with Joseph in Genesis 44 also points to the immorality of theft.
  • You shall not bear false witness: Lies are not hidden from the LORD (Gen. 18:15).
  • You shall not covet: Adam and Even coveted the fruit of the tree (Gen. 3:6), and they were punished for doing so.

It appears as if God administered punishment and as if God’s people lived according to the Decalogue prior to their formal introduction on Sinai. This means that Rosner cannot logically identify (without qualification) the Decalogue with the giving of the Mosaic Covenant. Doing this ignores the relationship between God and His creatures before the Old Covenant was revealed.

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