Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Enduring Law, Sin Before the Law of Moses

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Answering Hebrew Roots
Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Christian Ethic – Part 2: From Adam to Moses – Section 1: Enduring Law, Sin Before the Law of Moses

From the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, Jewish people have had a clear place to go in order to find answers to the questions of right and wrong. God wrote on tablets, Moses wrote what God told him in ink and prophets reminded them of the law. It is easy forget that the history of God’s people did not begin with Moses. There was a time before that, when sin was judged and righteousness rewarded. In this article, we will be surveying this period of time, from Adam up to Moses, to discuss the nature of God’s law at this time before Mount Sinai.

In this article, I will focus mainly on those things that were sins then and continued to be after. In other words, things that would be part of the Law of Moses, but considered sin before the Law of Moses. In the next article, I will look at some items that changed when God gave Moses the Law at Sinai.

Before we dig into the specifics, I want to point out one other thing that a lot of people don’t appear to realize as they approach these texts. Regardless of your view on the authorship of Genesis, virtually everyone believes that, at the very least, the text was written long after the events. Conservative scholars attribute authorship to Moses, while others who disagree generally give later dates. Either way, the point I’m getting at is that we should keep in mind that the author of genesis is familiar with the Law of Moses, even though the people the author is writing about are not. This will become even more important to understand in the next article, but here, we just point it out to say that the author is not forgetting about the Law, and so if there are differences, we can assume they are intentional.

First, I will highlight a few important examples of sin that show us how there was Law before Moses. Then, since the list is actually quite long, I will simply give a larger list of the sins and stories we find those sins, showing what sins defined in the Law of Moses were recognized before that law was given.

The First Family

We all know Adam and Eve’s sin, right? They disobeyed the command not to eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And we’ve read and heard that passage dissected to find all the sins in it. Usually the one doing the dissecting has found out that the sin or error that he is opposing was actually the “real” sin in the passage. But I digress.

Who is the next person to sin? After Adam and Eve, we come to Cain, who, after his offering is not looked on with favor by God, kills his brother Abel. Just before this happens, after the offering was rejected, we read God saying to Cain, “If you do well will I not accept you? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. And its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:7) Before Cain sins by murdering Abel, God tells him that He will accept him if he does well, implying a standard of behavior. Then God warns of sin crouching at the door. Of course, Cain does not listen, and that sin overcomes him and he kills Abel.

In the stories of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, we have, back to back, two examples of sin that each represent a different type of sin. Both represent the breaking of the Law of God, but in different ways. There are two basic kinds of law found in God’s law that we see at play. On the one hand, there are laws that are based on the righteous nature of God, and the fact that we are made in His image puts us under that law. On the other hand, there are commands God gives that play a role in His plan and purpose, but are not simply reflective of His nature. Adam and Eve broke this second kind of law. There was a tree that God created. It was made with a fruit that was edible. It isn’t always wrong to eat fruit from trees, in fact, God says that He has given all plants to people for food (Gen. 1:29). There are not certain types of plants that are unlawful to eat. There was just this one tree. Could God have picked a different tree? A different plant? Could God have made this first prohibition against something other than eating? It is difficult to see how He couldn’t have done things differently if He had desired. This command, while just as binding as any other on Adam and Eve, was instrumental in God’s plan, not one that flowed from who He is.

Cain, however, murdered his brother, Abel. Before he did so, God warned him that “sin is crouching at the door”. So murder was understood by God and Cain to be sin. But when was Cain told murder is wrong? We are not told how it was specifically communicated to Cain that it would be wrong to kill his brother over jealousy. It is certainly possible that God spoke to him or his parents, laying out what is right and wrong, so that they could have taught Cain. While this is possible, we have some information from the New Testament that sheds light on this situation.

Romans 2:12-15

12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be declared righteous. 14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things of the law, these, although they do not have the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written on their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts one after another accusing or even defending them.

Here we see that God has put in the hearts of all people, whether or not they have heard anything He says, a conscience that gives them some kind of moral standard within themselves. All are condemned before God when judged by their own works, but notice that those who have God’s Law are judged by that, while those who don’t have it are judged by the law within them, and they still fall short.

So, even if God didn’t specify all the things that are right and wrong by telling the people before Moses, they knew. This is why God can refer to Cain’s forthcoming murder as sin, before ever giving a command against it within the text.

While it is possible God gave such commands, it is important to realize that God didn’t have to do so for these things to be wrong. This fact alone refutes the common claim by those in the Hebrew Roots movement that God must have given the Law, as in, the Law of Moses, to these first people, so that they would know right and wrong, as they obviously do. The reason they make this argument is that it is often inconsistent with their other arguments to allow that there ever existed a law other than the Law of Moses. They want the Torah to be eternal. They don’t like the idea that God’s requirements could change over time. We will be looking at those changes that occurred between the time before Sinai and the Law given at Sinai in the next article, but my main point just now is that they are insisting on something that is first unbiblical; no text anywhere in Scripture says God gave “the Law” to the people before He gave it to Moses. This is pure speculation on their part. Second, as we can see from Romans 2, there was no need for any such law, as the conscience was given to serve this purpose.

When your theory is completely unsupported by Scripture, and Scripture answers, in a different way, the question your theory is supposed to answer, anyone can feel perfectly safe rejecting your made-up theory outright.

A Brief Survey of Other Sins Before Moses

Having established that sin could break the law of God without it having to be identical to the Law of Moses, let us briefly consider some other things that are considered sins in this time from Adam to Moses.

  • Murder: Cain (Genesis 4:6-12)
  • Violence (Murders): Noah (Genesis 6:5, 11-12)
  • Adultery: Pharaoh (Genesis 12:17-20) and Abimelech (Genesis 20:3-7)
  • Lying: Abram (Genesis 12:11-13, 20:2)
  • Homosexuality/Rape: Sodom (Genesis 19:4-7)
  • Drunkenness: Lot (Genesis 19:30-38)
  • Incest: Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:30-38)
  • Theft: Jacob and Esau (Genesis 27)
  • Unequal Measures: Laban (Genesis 29:18-23)
  • Rape: Dinah (Genesis 34)
  • Worship God alone: Jacob (Genesis 35:2)
  • Kidnapping: Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:12-29)
  • Adultery: Joseph (Genesis 39:7-9)
  • Bearing False Witness: Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:17-20)
  • Murder: Moses (Exodus 2:11-15)
  • It seems one could establish, on the basis of the book of Genesis alone, a very robust system of individual morality. We get examples of many of the ways in which a person might sin against his neighbor. What it is important for our purposes to note here is that not one of these people, except for Moses himself at the end, ever heard of Moses, or ten commandments, or the Torah, or the nation of Israel. Some heard promises that would be fulfilled in these things, but none had ever heard the Law of Moses.

    Hebrew Roots apologists often ask the question, either rhetorically or actually of anyone challenging them, “How do you know that you are obeying God?” I would simply say, the same way that Adam, Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Abimelech, Potiphar, Joseph, or Reuben knew they were obeying God. As Paul teaches, all people have the law of their own conscience, which, corrupted though it may be by the fall, still tells people when they are doing good and bad, and the examples are numerous that morality was well-known before Moses ever was born.

    This law is truly enduring. We find the exact things that were sins in Genesis are still sins today. We find that the Law of Moses is not the foundation of the Law of God. It comes later. Again, the fact that there was sin before the Law of Moses refutes the oft-repeated claim from those in the Hebrew Roots movement, that because “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), we must keep the Law of Moses. The connection cannot be made, Scripturally, since there was sin in Genesis, as we have seen, and the Law of Moses did not yet exist. Sin is indeed lawlessness, but there is a more basic, more enduring law than the Law of Moses, and so it is not required that the Law of Moses be the law that is transgressed in order for something to be sin.

    We have examined the enduring law of God; next time we will look at some of the specific commandments and instructions of God that were given during this same period before Moses to show that, while there is an enduring Law, God is also free to give instructions for a specific time and place that do not apply to every time and place.

    Series Navigation<< Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Laying Out the Biblical Christian EthicAnswering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Changes in God’s Commands Before Sinai >>