1. GOD'S LAW IN GENESIS
The intent of this paper is to discuss the extent to which God's Law
was known and obeyed in Genesis.
In Genesis 26:5, we read this about Abraham - "… Abraham obeyed My
voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws"
(Genesis 26:5 KJ21).
God here refers to the fact that the patriarch "Abraham obeyed… My
laws." The question most careful readers of this verse would have is,
what laws? Wasn't the Law given at Mount Sinai in the covenant
that God made there with the children of Israel? Isn't that where we
first see the Ten Commandments? Wasn't Moses the lawgiver? Doesn't John's
Gospel tell us "the law was given by Moses" (John 1:17)? Although all
of this is true, there must have been some law known before the time
2. GOD'S COMMAND TO OBEY AS THE BASIS OF LAW EVEN BEFORE THE LAW
GIVEN TO MOSES
In Genesis, we see that almost immediately after the creation of Adam
and Eve, God gave them something to obey -
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, "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" (Genesis 1:28 KJ21).
So we see that even at the very beginning, there was law in the form
of a spoken command from God for the first man and woman to obey. There
are five verbs in the command form in this verse-"Be fruitful… multiply…
replenish… subdue… have dominion."
3. ASSIGNMENTS GIVEN TO ADAM AND EVE
Victor P. Hamilton notes that here "God gives two assignments to the
male and to the female: procreation and dominion."1
In the next chapter, God gives Adam more things to do -
And the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden
of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man,
saying, "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.
For in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die" (Genesis
Adam was expected to "dress" ("work"-NIV) and "keep" ("take care of"-NIV)
the Garden of Eden. Hamilton enlarges on this -
There is no magic in Eden. Gardens cannot look after themselves;
they are not self-perpetuating. Man is placed there to dress it and
keep it. The word we have translated dress is abad, the normal Hebrew
meaning 'to serve.' So again the note is sounded that man is laced in
the garden as a servant. He is there not to be served but to serve.
The second verb-keep or 'tend' (Heb. Samar)-carries a slightly different
nuance. The basic meaning of this root is 'to exercise great care over,'
to the point, if necessary, of guarding.2
He was also given a very specific command about not eating from "the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil," which we all know he disobeyed.
Calvin comments on this passage-"A law is imposed upon him [Adam] in
token of his subjection."3 So we see that even before the
Fall, from the very beginning, some form of law was given to Adam and
Eve, something they were obligated to obey.
4. ABEL AND CAIN, AND THE EXISTENCE OF LAW
If we move on to chapter 4, there is something we should note. When
Cain killed his brother, Abel, he knew he had done something that he
shouldn't have done. We see this in the dialogue between Cain and God.
And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass,
when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother
and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?"
And he said, "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:8-9
The question Cain asks God, "Am I my brother's keeper?", indicates
that he was trying to escape the responsibility for the murder of his
brother. There is no record up to this time in Genesis of God forbidding
murder, although it appears to come very shortly after this, when God
forbids the killing of Cain (Gen. 4:15). Yet it certainly appears that
Cain knew the wrongness of what he had done.
5. THE MORAL CONDITION OF THE WORLD BEFORE THE FLOOD,
AND THE EXISTERNCE OF LAW
The moral condition of the world before the time of the flood is described
for us in the following verses in Genesis 6.
And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,
and that every imagining of the thoughts of his heart was only evil
continually (Genesis 6:5 KJ21).The earth also was corrupt before God,
and the earth was filled with violence (Genesis 6:11 KJ21).
The words used here certainly indicate the violation of some form of
known law - "wickedness… evil… corrupt… violence."
Commenting on these verses, Hamilton says,
God is moved to anger by man's deliberate violations of the
code by which God wills his world to live.4
Walter Brueggemann makes an insightful observation about 6:5 -
The conjuring, day dreams, and self-perceptions of the world
are all tilted against God's purpose.5
God's law is a reflection of His purpose for man. The very fact that
God made such a distinction between Noah and the rest of the population
indicates that Noah was obedient to God's law in a way that the rest
of the world was not.
"These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a just man and
perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:9 KJ21).
The word for "perfect" here is rendered "blameless" in the NIV. The
question that comes to mind is, blameless of what? Obviously he was
blameless of the evil that the rest of the population was guilty of.
6. NOACHIAN COVENANT SPEAKS OF LAW
The Noachian Covenant contains some specific laws. Let's look at them
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, "Be fruitful
and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you
shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air,
upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea;
into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall
be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For
your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will
require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life
of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed;
for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply,
bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it" (Genesis 9:1-7
There are numerous commands here that God gives to Noah and to his
descendants-"Be fruitful… multiply… fill the earth… you shall not eat
flesh with… its blood… Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall
his blood be shed." Here we see the institution of numerous laws that
we did not see before. God institutes capital punishment as the penalty
for murder, and thus establishes the sanctity of human life. This appears
to be the first formal code of law given to man by God. Calvin calls
it "the old law."6
According to John Skinner -
"The Rabbinical theologians were true to the spirit of the
passage when they formulated the idea of the 'Noachian commandments'
binding on men generally."7
So there are specific commandments here, laws, which many believe are
still binding. Gordon Talbot believes that this passage provides the
foundation for the establishment of human government -
"This brief passage [Gen. 9:5-7] is very significant for at
least two basic reasons. First, it provides the foundation for the practice
of capital punishment. Any man or beast guilty of murdering a person
was to be executed. Obviously, this law had reference to deliberate
killing, not to accidental killing. It did not prohibit legal executions
or the slayings required in defensive warfare or personal self-defense.Second,
it provides the foundation for human government. It was 'at the hand
of every man's brother [fellow-man]' that God would require the life
of a murderer. The reason for execution of murderers was that their
victims were made in the image or likeness of God himself. Even unbelieving
government officials are given power by God to execute murderers and
to exercise other necessary functions of government (Rom. 13:1-4). Government
according to Scripture was instituted by God for the welfare of man."8
Arthur Pink makes some similar comments in his book, Gleanings
in Genesis --
"Here [9:6] we have instituted the principle of all human government.
The sword of magisterial authority is, for the first time, committed
into the hands of man. Before the flood, there does not seem to have
been any recognized form of human government designed for the suppression
of crime and the punishment of evil doers. Cain murdered his brother,
but his own life was spared. Lamech also slew a man, but there is no
hint that he had to defend himself before any tribunal that had been
ordained by God. But now, after the flood, capital punishment as the
penalty for murder is ordained, ordained by God Himself, ordained centuries
before the giving of the Mosaic law, and therefore, universally binding
until the end of time."9
7. ENOCH AND LAW
The man who was the great-grandfather of Noah must have known something
about keeping God's Law. His name was Enoch.
"And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begot Methuselah.
And Enoch walked with God after he begot Methuselah three hundred years,
and begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Enoch were three hundred
sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for
God took him" (Genesis 5:21-24 KJ21)."By faith Enoch was translated,
that he should not see death, 'and was not found because God had translated
him.' For before his translation he had this testimony: that he pleased
God" (Hebrews 11:5 KJ21).
Although we're not told a lot about Enoch, we know that he "walked
with God" and that "he pleased God." Hamilton's comments on Enoch are
"Twice we are told (vv. 22, 24) that Enoch walked with God
(yithallek et-ha elohim), a description applied also to Noah in 6:9.
This expression may be compared to halak (or yithallek) lipne, which
indicates the service of a loyal servant, who goes before his master
(sometimes human but mostly divine), paving the way, or who stands before
his mater ready to serve. Thus Hezekiah walked before God (2 K. 20:3
par. Isa. 38:3), as did the patriarchs (Gen. 17:1; 24:40; 48:15). A
bit more intimacy seems to be suggested by 'walking with' as over against
'walking before.' Walking with' captures an emphasis on communion and
fellowship. In a number of passages, all addressed to a king or his
dynasty, 'to walk before God' strongly suggests obedience and subordination
(1 K. 2:4; 3:6; 8:23, 25; 9:4), rather than worship and communion."10
8. LAW AND THE TOWER OF BABEL
The confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel seems to have come about,
at least partly, as a result of an attempt to violate one of the commands
given above in the Noachian Covenant-to "fill the earth" (Gen. 9:1).
This is what we read of the intent of the builders of the Tower of Babel
in Gen. 11 -
And they said, "Come, let us build us a city and a tower whose
top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered
abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4 KJ21).
There was a deliberate attempt to keep themselves from being "scattered
abroad upon the face of the earth," which the very thing God had commanded
the sons of Noah to do. They were, therefore, guilty of a violating
a law that they should have known.
9. ABRAHAM, SODOM AND GOMORRAH, AND LAW
Many years later, when God was about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for
their wickedness, He said something about Abraham that coincides with
what we read at the beginning of this paper when we looked at Gen. 26:5.
And the LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do,
seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and
all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him,
that he will command his children and his household after him, and they
shall keep the way of the LORD to do justice and judgment, that the
LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him" (Genesis
There are several indications here of a known law-"command… keep the
way of the Lord to do justice and judgment." All of this indicates that,
as we already have seen, Abraham was obedient to some from of known
law. The phrase "I know him" that God makes about Abraham at the beginning
of 18:19 means "entered into personal relations with,"11
indicating intimate, personal knowledge. This would make sense, since
Abraham is the only man in Scripture who is identified as "the friend
of God" (James 2:23). Yet, Hamilton brings out another aspect of this
Hebrew word -
"One obvious thrust in Yahweh having 'known' Abraham is that
Abraham is intimate with God and vice versa. But the choice of this
verb may have further implications. For one thing, there is a growing
consensus among OT scholars that yada is, in places, a technical term
for a treaty or covenant terminology that refers to mutual legal recognition
on the part of the suzerain and the vassal. Of particular interest here
are those passages where the subject of the verb is Yahweh himself.
For Yahweh to 'know' someone may mean not 'take notice of, be aware
of, look after,' but 'recognize as a legitimate servant, grant recognition'
... With Abraham's position as a covenant vassal of Yahweh comes certain
responsibilities. He is to instruct his family ... to observe
the way of Yahweh by practicing righteousness and justice."12
10. ABRAHAM AND GOD'S LAW
This puts a new perspective of the thought that God "knew" Abraham.
We could paraphrase this idea, "God recognized Abraham as His legitimate
servant in covenant agreement with Him." In other words, Abraham was
obedient to God's Law.
Now, let's look more closely now at Gen. 26:5 -
"... Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments,
My statutes, and My laws" (Genesis 26:5 KJ21).
The Anchor Bible renders this verse-"… Abraham heeded
my call and kept my mandate: my commandments, my laws, and my teachings."
And notes that the three nouns that follow the word "mandate"-"commandments…
laws, and ... teachings"-spell out the contents of "mandate."13
Hamilton's analysis of this verse agrees with this interpretation -
Yahweh concludes the revelational content of this theophany
by talking to Isaac about Abraham (v. 5). Yahweh's evaluation of Abraham's
life is that the patriarch obeyed me, keeping my mandate (wayyismor
mismarti), which is broken down into three constituent parts:
my commandments, my laws, my instructions. Both the verb
and the nouns following the verb are close to the sequence one finds
in passages like Deut. 11:1 and the Deuteronomistic 1 K. 2:3. In living
by Torah, Abraham models the quality of response to God that should
characterize the people of Israel.14
11. THE LORD HONORS HIS LAW - GENESIS 26:5
Calvin comments on this verse are enlightening -
Although laws, statutes, rites, precepts, and ceremonies,
had not yet been written, Moses used these terms, that he might the
more clearly show how sedulously Abraham regulated his life according
to the will of God alone - how carefully he abstained from all the impurities
of the heathen - and how exactly he pursued the straight course of holiness,
without turning aside to the right hand or to the left: for the Lord
often honours his own law with these titles for the sake of restraining
our excesses; as if he should say that it wanted nothing to constitute
it a prefect rule, but embraced everything pertaining to absolute holiness.
The meaning therefore is, that Abraham, having formed his life in entire
accordance with the will of God, walked in his pure service.15
Gordon Talbot comments on Gen. 26:5 as well.
Verse 5 indicates that some collection of divine principles
of conduct existed before the Mosaic code was revealed. The revelation
of truth was progressive in Old Testament times. From Adam on the known
truth was transmitted either in written form or by word of mouth.16
Deuteronomy 11:1 can be compared to Gen. 26:5, as Hamilton suggests.
Therefore thou shalt love the LORD thy God, and keep His charge,
and His statutes, and His judgments, and His commandments, always (Deuteronomy
11:1 KJ21)."... Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments,
My statutes, and My laws" (Genesis 26:5 KJ21).
In these two verses, three of the four nouns describing God's ordinances,
to use a general term, are exactly the same-"charge" (mishmereth)17
, "commandments" (mitzvah)18 , and "statutes"
(chuqqah)19. The word contained in Gen. 26:5,
which is not found in Deut. 11:1 is "laws" (torah)20.
And this is the first time that this word-torah-appears in the Hebrew
Scriptures. So the two verses are nearly identical, and yet, Genesis
26:5 was written about Abraham before the Law (the torah) of God was
given by Moses.
In Genesis 17:1, God gives this command to Abraham -
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared
to Abram and said unto him, "'I am the Almighty God. Walk before Me,
and be thou perfect'" (Genesis 17:1 KJ21).
God instructed Abraham to be "perfect" or "blameless" (NIV). This is
the same word used to describe Noah in Gen. 6:9. This word is tamiym21,
and the meaning of this word is "upright and undefiled." Abraham was
a man who, like Noah, knew God's law and obeyed it from the heart.
As Hamilton suggests earlier, this expression "walk before," "indicates
the service of a loyal servant, who goes before his master… or who stands
before his master ready to serve."22 All of this indicates
that Abraham was obeying God's laws.
12. REFERENCES TO THE LAW OUTSIDE THE BOOK OF GENESIS
One reference to the Law outside the book of Genesis that may date
back to the time of the early patriarchs is found in Job. Eliphaz the
Temanite, one of Job's friends, is talking to Job, and he councils him
Receive, I pray thee, the law from His mouth, and lay up His
words in thine heart (Job 22:22 KJ21).
Job, in the following chapter, answers him and says --
Neither have I gone back from the commandment of His lips; I have
esteemed the words of His mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12
The interesting thing about both of these references in the book of
Job is that they seem to emphasize the oral law-"the law from His mouth…
the commandment of His lips… the words of His mouth." The book of Job
is believed to be very old. Many evangelical scholars believe that the
story recorded in Job probably took place about the time of Abraham,
since Job is said to have lived 140 years after the time of his trial
(Job 42:16). That means that he probably lived to be between 190 to
210 years of age, which would put him into the time period of the early
patriarchs. So the "law" that is referred to in the book of Job appears
to be what is commonly called the "Oral Law."
The word in Job 22:22 for "law" is torah, and John E.
Hartley, author of The New International Commentary on the Old
Testament: The Book of Job, comments that here the word "torah"
means the precepts passed down through the wise… to whom God has
given insight into his ways. [Job] listens to God's words with eagerness
and internalizes them in order that he may obey God spontaneously.23
Hartley also gives some insight to the word "commandment" in Job's
response in Job 23:12 -
[Job] has not departed from God's commandment.
The commandment is identified as the teaching that comes
directly from God's lips or mouth.24
13. THE REALITY OF THE EXISTENCE OF LAW BEFORE THE TIME OF MOSES
The reality of the existence of the Law before the time of Moses, the
lawgiver, is underscored by Henry M. Morris in his comments about the
book of Job -
The Book of Job may ... be the oldest book in the Bible, with the
possible exception of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. There
can, at least, be no question about its setting in the patriarchal
period, certainly before Moses and possibly even before Abraham.
The events described in Job obviously took place before the establishment
of Israel as God's covenant nation. There is no hint in the book
of the nation of Israel-no mention of Moses, or Abraham, or any
of the judges, kings, or prophets of Israel. Yet the Book of Job
has always been accepted by the children of Israel as one of the
canonical books of Scripture.
Even more significant is the fact that there is no mention of the
Ten Commandments or any of the Mosaic laws. Many of the discourses
in the book center on the question of right and wrong, sin and judgment,
reward and punishment, but they never are placed in the context
of God's Mount Sinai revelations.
Divine laws were given to men and women long before Moses. Abraham
was guided by such laws: 'Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge,
my commandments, my statutes, and my laws' (Gen. 26:5).
Exactly how these primeval laws were given, and in what form, we
do not know, for they have not been preserved… They were known by
Abraham, however, and no doubt by his ancestors. They were also
known by Job, for he testified: 'Neither have I gone back from the
commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth
more than my necessary food' (Job 23:12). Job's friends were also
aware of them. Their chief spokesman, Eliphaz, urged Job as follows:
'Receive, I pray thee, the law from his mouth, and lay up his words
in thine heart' (Job 22:22) ...
Job lived 140 years after the events described in the book (Job
42:16). By figuring in the approximate number of years he lived
prior to those events (the exact number is unknown, but at least
enough to have ten grown children), we can place him in the time
of the early patriarchs, perhaps around 2000 B.C."25
An extra-biblical record of the existence of an established code
of law known in the ancient Near East before the time of Moses would
be the "Code of Hammurabi.""The most important Mesopotamian law
codes are the following: the laws of the Sumerian king Urnammu (hereafter
called LU, 2111-2094 BCE); the laws of King Lipit-Ishtar (LL, 1943-1924
BCE); the code of the city Eshnunna (CE, eighteenth century BCE);
the code of the Akkadian king Hammurabi (CH, 1793-1750 BCE); the
Hittite laws (HL, c. 1600 BCE); the Assyrian laws (AL, eleventh
century BCE). (These texts are collected by Borger, 1982).The most
famous code is of course the code of Hammurabi. It was written on
a diorite stela, topped by a bas-relief showing Hammurabi receiving
from Shamash, the sun god and god of justice, the commission to
write the law book. The stela was carried off as a trophy of war
to the Elamite capital Susa. The code of Hammurabi is particularly
valuable because it reveals something of how such a code was intended
to function. The epilogue speaks about the motives of the kind and
the function of the stela. The kind set up the stela with the aim
of protecting the weak against the strong, procuring justice for
the orphan and the widow, and establishing equity in the land (CN
47)… A citizen who has been injured shall read the stela, recognize
his legal claims, and thank Hammurabi. If a subsequent king disregards
the words of the stela, kingship shall be taken away from him (CH
The author of this article goes on to say that the code of Hammurabi
forbids such things as "killing a free man or woman… theft of cattle…
stealing from someone's house… adultery, rape, and sexual offenses."27
Infractions that are "punishable by death" include "murder, false testimony,
theft of property, kidnapping, hiding a slave, burglary, robbery, sorcery."28
Was there a law before the time of Moses? There was some form of law
that would have been known and understood before the time of Moses both
within the community of worshippers of Yahweh -- as the lives of such
people as Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Job attest -- and also outside of that
community of the worshippers of Yahweh-as we see in the code of Hammurabi.
We also see in the biblical record of Genesis, that people often did
not obey the Law of God, and suffered dire consequences for their disobedience.
The Fall, the Flood, the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel,
and the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah are all episodes of God's judgment
for violation of His Law.
1. Victor P. Hamilton, The New International Commentary on the Old
Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
2. Hamilton, 171.
3. John Calvin, Genesis (Carlisle,
PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984) vol. 1, 125.
4. Hamilton, 273.
Brueggemann, Genesis Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching
and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 77.
6. Calvin, vol. 1,
7. John Skinner, The International Critical Commentary on the
Holy Scriptures Old and New Testaments: Genesis (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1910) 169.
8. Gordon Talbot, A Study of the Book
of Genesis: An Introductory Commentary on All Fifty Chapters of Genesis
(Harrisburg: Christian Pub., 1981) 69-70.
9. Arthur Pink, Gleanings
in Genesis (Chicago: Moody, 1922) vol. 1, 115.
10. Hamilton, 258.
11. Skinner, 304.
12. Victor P. Hamilton, The New International
Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters
18-50 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 18, 19.
13. E.A. Speiser, The
Anchor Bible: Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1962) 198, 201.
Hamilton, vol. 2, 194.
15. Calvin, vol. 2, 60.
16. Talbot, 164.
Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible; With
Their Renderings in the Authorized English Version (MacLean: MacDonald,
18. Strong, 71.
19. Strong, 42.
20. Strong, 123.
22. Hamilton, 258.
23. John E. Hartley, The New International
Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Job (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1988) 333.
24. Hartley, 340.
25. Henry M. Morris, The
Remarkable Record of Job (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988) 12, 13, 14.
26. Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol.
3 (New York: Macmillan, 1987) 554.
27. Eliade, 554. 28. Eliade, 555.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis Interpretation: A Bible Commentary
for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982.
Calvin, John. Genesis. 2 vols. Carlisle, PA: Banner of
Truth Trust, 1984.
Eliade, Mircea. ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. New York:
Hamilton, Victor P. The New International Commentary on the Old
Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. Grand Rapids:
---. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The
Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Hartley, John E. The New International Commentary on the Old
Testament: The Book of Job. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Morris, Henry M. The Remarkable Record of Job. Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1988.
Pink, Arthur. Gleanings in Genesis. Chicago: Moody, 1922.
Skinner, John. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy
Scriptures Old and New Testaments: Genesis. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1910.
Speiser, E.A. The Anchor Bible: Genesis. New York: Doubleday,
Strong, James. A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew
Bible; With Their Renderings in the Authorized English Version.
MacLean: MacDonald, 1980.
Talbot, Gordon. A Study of the Book of Genesis: An Introductory
Commentary on All Fifty Chapters of Genesis. Harrisburg: Christian