Christianity 201

September 12, 2021

What Was “The Law” Prior to “The Ten Commandments?”

The forum site Reddit has a number of Christianity-related interest areas or what are called “sub-Reddits.” One of these is Ask a Christian. That’s where this question appeared.

Before Moses acquired the 10 commandments and the other specific laws from God, how did people know what God’s “laws and statutes” were?

The above is also a link to read the discussion for yourself. I thought we’d highlight the scripture passages here. Since I have no idea what translations were being quoted, I’m offering everything here in NIV.

The first quoted was Exodus 15:26:

He said, “If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

That was the basis for the original question:

I noticed Moses hasn’t even received the stone tablets or anything like that yet for the people to know gods laws to begin with.

Were there some pre-existing commands and decrees that I might have missed that the Israelites would have already known about? Were the commandments already existent in some form before this and the Moses tablets were simply a ceremonial “commemorative” edition of what already existed?

The first respondent quoted Genesis 26:5

because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”

noting that,

It seems that even before the laws and commandments were written down by Moses, God had given them to others (Abraham and Isaac, and therefore their posterity) orally (up to 700 years earlier), and they were known and kept until Moses wrote them down.

The original questioner (whose Reddit user name I won’t repeat here) said,

Thanks that makes more sense. It’s still strange to me if he expected all mankind to obey and worship him that he didn’t give these instructions and commands to all mankind and not just Abraham.

That brought another response from (…okay another stranger user name):

It’s potentially implied in Genesis that God did exactly that. The extent is uncertain because it’s not specifically recorded, but it’s at least clear that there was some kind of awareness of the God of the Bible outside of what’s recorded in scripture. The most significant example is Melchizedek, who is evidently a priest of the most high God operating in Salem, completely separate from and prior to Abraham.

Less concretely, if the Biblical narrative is broadly correct and all humanity came from Eden, then humanity would all have started from a point of awareness of God. The extent to which he laid out his commands following Eden is not clear, but the text seems to imply that at some point they were known before people fell away. For instance, Cain and Abel go to make sacrifices to the Lord – but the sacrificial law hasn’t been recorded at this point. So evidently it was already known in some capacity even before the sacrificial laws were given to the nation of Israel…

The original question (which I only quoted in part) had also mentioned Melchizedek. Is he key to this question? Maybe.

Another person commented,

The first law God ever gave was “Thou shall not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” All through Genesis He establishes laws and practices.

The original poster seemed to be looking for a more complete set of instructions, replying

Where in Genesis? Did I miss it? So far I’ve not seen anything indicative of god giving commandments and laws to mankind as a whole until Exodus (which even then it’s clear its laws are exclusive to Hebrews, no Canaanites. Ammonites, Jebusites etc etc allowed). Prior to that God simply directs individual Hebrew people in specific activities, like Noah building an ark. Or announcements regarding the future as in God telling Abraham he will be the forefather of a large nation which will experience slavery and eventual conquest etc. God telling Jacob not to be afraid to move his family into Egypt. And so on. Again if I missed something in Genesis akin to a Moses like declaration of the law for all people, please kindly direct me to the passage.

He/she seems to be looking for a specific example of a codified set of laws.

But if not, I guess my confusion is, how did god expect mankind to obey him before he provided a clear set of commands to be followed as he did with Moses? And further, how could he therefore see it fit to destroy people for disobeying laws they know nothing about? Instances like Sodom/Gomorrah, the tower of Babel, the “wickedness” prior to the flood. How did any of those people know anything about this god or his expectations if prior to Moses god didn’t yet make himself and his expectations clear?

So someone else provides an example:

Here is one — Genesis 17:10 — This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised;

At that point the discussion got a bit unruly. Social media tends to that, doesn’t it? At no point was anyone suggesting that the circumcision commandment was the only commandment.

But then it got back on track:

Moses is also not the first fella to write stuff down. There’s Enoch way before him, pre-Flood, that was considered a ‘scribe’ of sort, and walked with God. I’m sure he wrote down interesting stuff too..

In the end some Laws are just simply hardwired in our being with conscience, thus written ‘inside’ of us.

That last sentence would foreshadow the answer that would follow:

Paul tells us the law of God is written on our hearts in Romans 2. [Ed. note: See below for full citation] While the Israelites didn’t have a formalized legal system, there was still a knowledge of right and wrong. That knowledge was something they failed to live up to, just as we did, and their faith was counted as righteousness just like our faith is. The formalized legal system was not meant to be the means by which they obeyed God. It was only meant to be the means by which God more directly exposed their failures.

At that point the debate continued mostly over the above comment’s suggestion that, “The formalized legal system was not meant to be the means by which they obeyed God;” a statement which, while I would agree with it, only becomes clear after New Testament revelation; in other words, after we transition from acceptance from God through obedience to acceptance from God through grace.


The context of Romans 2 concerns those [Gentiles] who did not have the law, but I can also see why it was quoted in the above discussion. Here is the full text of vs. 12-16:

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.


The original question (2nd paragraph of this article) is also the link to the discussion.

If you’re interested in the “Ask a Christian” sub-Reddit more generally, go to this link. If you’re using a PC or laptop, you don’t need to sign up or get the app to read, but you do need to join in order to leave comments. I observed for about a year before joining, but then one day, there was a question I simply had to jump in and ask. There are also other Christianity-related sub-Reddits.

One last verse from the discussion; Genesis 4:7:

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

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