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The Law (Known and Practiced) Before Sinai

* The following is re-printed from The Law of the Covenant, by James Jordan (Institute for Christian Economics, 1984). It may be found on the web at Freebooks. Emphases are mine.

Paul tells us that the law was in operation before Sinai, when he says “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” (Romans 5:13, 14a). Before the law “came ,“ the law was already in operation, for it was already dealing death to sinners. (Similarly, before the New Covenant “came, ” it was already in operation, for it was already granting resurrection life to repentant men. ) At Sinai, the law was given a definitive publication, but it was already operating in the world, and was already known to men.(1)

Indeed, Paul says “just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). In other words, the same law which came at Sinai was operating in the Garden. This is the connection between the Old (Adamic) Covenant and the Old (Sinaitic) Covenant.’(2)

It is often thought that at Sinai God set up something new, a new administration of law, which had not been in force previously. We have seen from Paul that this was not the case, for the law was in operation in the Garden, and in the period between the Fall and Sinai. We can also turn to passages in Genesis and in Exodus before Sinai and see that people knew the law before it was written down by Moses.

First of all, we have demonstrated that the laws of slavery were known and functioned in the life of Jacob and in the interaction between Moses and Pharaoh. Second, the law of evidence concerning torn beasts (Exodus 22:13) is referred to by Jacob in Genesis 31:39. Third, Exodus 21:1 and 24:3 call these laws mishpatim, and Abraham is said to know the mishpatim in Genesis 18:19. Also, in Genesis 26:5, Abraham is said to have “kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws .“ This is surely more than the Ten Commandments !

Fourth, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 does not order capital punishment n the case where a young man forcibly seduces a young girl, but commands him to marry her. This law was clearly being followed to the letter in Genesis 34, which concerns the relations between Shechem and Dinah. Because Simeon and Levi broke the not-yet-written law, Jacob condemned their actions (Genesis 49:5 -7).(3)

Fifth, the laws of sacrifice were known, including the distinctions among various kinds of sacrifices (Ex. 20:24, which comes before Leviticus 1-7). Sixth, Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:2), yet the rules for these distinctions were not given in written form until Leviticus 11. Seventh, even though we do not read of God’s commanding the people to have a tent of meeting until He ordered the building of the Tabernacle, from Exodus 33:7-11 it is clear that there already was one. It was the place of religious meeting and worship, and God talked with Moses there, before the Tabernacle was built.

Eighth and last, although other examples can be found, the law of the Levirate, requiring a brother to raise up seed for his childless dead brother (Deuteronomy 25:5, 6), was clearly known and operative in the history of Tamar (Gen. 38).

Of course, unbelieving scholars use passages such as these to argue that somebody rewrote the “original myths” of Genesis to make them conform to the “later Mosaic legislation.” The fact is, rather, that God had been telling his people all along what He wanted them to do. The law was given many times before Sinai; but it was definitively written down by Moses, in connection with the preeminent redemptive event of the Old Covenant period (Deuteronomy 4:2).(4)

Footnotes

1) In other words, in one sense the pre-Sinaitic period was one of “no law,” for law had not yet “come ,“ In another sense, however, the law clearly was in the world, because sin is not imputed apart from law, and sin was clearly being imputed, as the fact of death demonstrates. Before Sinai, the law had already but not yet come, This is parallel to the gospel, which had already but not yet come during the Old Covenant; and parallel to the consummation, which has already but not yet come in the New Covenant era.

2) On how I am using the terms ‘Old Covenant’ and ‘New Covenant,’ see Appendix A.

3) Why did not Jacob have them put to death for blasphemy (misusing the covenant sign) and murder? Probably because he was not a magistrate, and as a father did not have the power to pass civil judgments. Jacob obviously feared reprisal from the near kinsmen of the Shechemites, who could properly act as avengers of blood. Perhaps we should see Jacob as functioning as a sanctuary for his sons, just as Abram had functioned as a sanctuary for Lot in Genesis 14.

4) "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2).


 

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