Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Moral Law

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Answering Hebrew Roots
Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Christian Ethic – Part 3: The Law of Moses – Section 3: The Moral Law

What is God’s law? As we have seen, the answer to this question, Biblically, is multifaceted. Those in the Torah Observant and Hebrew Roots movement would usually answer something like “the Torah”, by which they mean, specifically, to flatten out all references to God’s law to just the 613 commands in the Law of Moses.

However, as we have seen, there is a sense in which God’s law was in effect long before Sinai, in all the stories of sin found before that event. Also, we have seen that those who have lived in other nations and did not have the Law that God gave to Moses nevertheless are under God’s law, by means of their conscience. This is, quite obviously, a different set of rules for each person in this situation, none of which is identical to the Law given to Moses. Still, they are judged by that law and they are guilty by that law, since none of us is perfect, even by the standards we think hold based on our own reasoning.

As we have seen, because of the distinctions made between different kinds of laws, there is often the discussion of real obedience being something deeper than mere performance of certain religious duties. When the prophets talk about obedience, the context usually has to do with justice and mercy, not whether they are keeping the feasts the right way. In fact, when they are neglecting the more important aspects of the Law, God even says He “hates” these religious observances (Isaiah 1).

In this article, we will examine what is called the “moral” law of God. I will try to be as careful in defining what I mean as I can, and hopefully will define it as Scripture does, in such a way as to leave little to no room for objection by those in the Hebrew Roots movement. Many in this movement are fond of saying that all distinctions between moral, ceremonial and civil laws are just man-made. I hope that I’ve begun to knock down that ignorant statement in the previous article. However, if we were to grant it for a moment, then how would we describe the Law of God? If there aren’t distinctions, then truly, it’s all moral. And this is what is born out in their argumentation. They believe we should (morally) be keeping all the commandments.

So, as I define what I mean by “moral” law, it should likely be a definition they don’t really object to. It seems their argument wouldn’t be with this area of the Law, since, it’s likely to be the area about which we agree.

Pulling the Scriptural Data Together

So, to get things started, let’s start with a working definition that is very broad. Something like this:

God’s Moral Law is just those commands and prohibitions that God expects people to obey.

This is very general, and this is on purpose. Did God expect the people of Israel to keep the Ten Commandments? Yes, of course. Did God expect the nation of Israel to keep all the laws given in the Mosaic Covenant? Yes, of course. If we assume all the Laws of Moses are in effect, then there is a sense in which they are all moral laws. Everyone agrees that the people of Israel were expected to keep all the laws, and so on this broad definition, all the laws fit into the moral category. So far, I don’t think the Hebrew Roots person would object.

That, however, would only be because of a lack of thought concerning all of the things that God expects. As I will show, the Law of Moses, while a perfect foundation for the nation of Israel to be established and ruled by God, does not work as a straight-across equivalence for the moral law on this definition. This is for two reasons.

  1. There are Moral Laws in effect when the Law of Moses was not in effect.
  2. There are Moral Laws not found in the Law of Moses.

Moral Laws In Effect When Law of Moses Not In Effect

Let’s start with the first item. If we go ahead with this broad definition of Moral Law, then, as we search the Scriptures for things God expects us to do, we find that some of those things, while contained in the Law of Moses, were actually already in effect before that Law was in effect. We’ve looked in depth at these already, but I reproduce the short list I made before, as a reminder.

  • 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)

So, we see that some of the laws found in the Law of Moses are not dependent on the Law of Moses. This is a problem for those in the Hebrew Roots Movement who want to make the Law of Moses into an ultimate, eternal law. They do this because it is then easier to argue that God “never changes” and therefore never changes His law. Not only is this idea never taught in Scripture, but we have the opposite taught in the New Testament by Paul:

Romans 5:12-14,20

12 Because of this, just as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death spread to all people because all sinned. 13 For until the law, sin was in the world, but sin is not charged to one’s account when there is no law. 14 But death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who is to come.

20 Now the law came in as a side issue, in order that the trespass could increase, but where sin increased, grace was present in greater abundance

Paul is clear that sin existed before “the law”, and in this passage, he makes it clear that he is talking about the Law of Moses, by talking about death reigning “from Adam to Moses”. He speaks of that time as a time with “no law”.

Now, in another sense, there was a law in place, as Paul already talked about in Romans 2, in the conscience of men, but he is making a different point here in chapter 5. The point for us is that there was definitely something God expected in terms of human behavior, long before God gave any law to Moses. This makes moral law something more basic than the Law of Moses, so that the Law of Moses is an expression of it, but not ultimately where it comes from.

Moral Laws Not Found In Law of Moses

In addition to laws that predate Sinai, we also find references to things God expects from people that are not specifically commanded between Exodus 20 and the end of Deuteronomy, the actual Law of Moses.

Call on the name of Yahweh

Calling upon the name of Yahweh is something we have examples of from before the Law was given.

Genesis 4:26

And as for Seth, he also fathered a son, and he called his name Enosh. At that time he began to call on the name of Yahweh.

Genesis 12:8

And he moved on from there to the hill country, east of Bethel. And he pitched his tent at Bethel on the west, and at Ai on the east. And he built an altar there to Yahweh. And he called on the name of Yahweh.

Also, many times throughout the prophets we read of people calling upon the name of Yahweh, typically in relation to salvation from some physical threat.

1 Samuel 22:4

I call upon Yahweh who is praiseworthy, and I am saved from those who hate me.

Psalm 18:3

I called upon Yahweh, who is worthy to be praised, and I was saved from my enemies.

Isaiah 12:4

And you will say on that day, “Give thanks to Yahweh; call on his name. Make his deeds known among the peoples; bring to remembrance that his name is exalted.

Indeed, calling upon Yahweh is related directly to salvation, as Joel’s statement is used by Paul to speak of how we are saved from God’s wrath.

Joel 2:32

And it will happen—everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be rescued, because on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as Yahweh said, and among the survivors whom Yahweh is calling.

Romans 10:9, 13

9 that if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

13 For “was everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

And this isn’t just considered some extra thing you can do above keeping the Law. Those who are evil are described as those who do not call on Yahweh.

Psalm 14:4

All who do evil—do they not know, they who eat my people as though they were eating bread? They do not call on Yahweh.

Head Covering

Head covering for women is a common practice that shows up in many Christian groups and denominations. Those in the Hebrew Roots movement are one of several where the practice is almost universal. Of course, not everyone considers this a command to be obeyed, but many do. Where does it come from? Paul talks about his belief that women should do this.

1 Corinthians 11:6

or if a woman does not cover herself, let her hair be shorn off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her head shorn or shaved, let her cover her head.

If you think this is an optional practice, then this one won’t count for you as a command outside the Torah, but if you think it is expected that godly women will practice head covering, then you are in a predicament if you are Torah observant, because this practice is not found anywhere in the Torah.

Prophecy of Christ

On several occasions, Jesus makes it clear that He considers unbelief in Him to be a damnable sin. He condemns His unbelieving listeners when they do not believe, and bases this condemnation on what is found in the Scriptures.

John 5:38-40

38 And you do not have his word residing in yourselves, because the one whom that one sent, in this one you do not believe. 39 You search the scriptures because you think that you have eternal life in them, and it is these that testify about me. 40 And you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.

So, Jesus, God in the flesh, expects them to understand the Scriptures well enough that it will be obvious to them that Jesus is the Messiah they are waiting for. We can kind of understand this when we think of common prophecies concerning Jesus, especially all of those that Matthew alludes to with his many times he says, “this happened to fulfill the Scripture that says…”

On one occasion, Jesus makes a curious statement about an Old Testament passage that we kind of don’t know what to do with when talking about the normal idea of prophecy.

Matthew 12:38-41

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you!” 39 But he answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation desires a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah! 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here!

Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees is to point them to Jonah, and even gives them the interpretation. Now, this is before His resurrection, but after it happens, Jesus expects them to remember what He said about Jonah.

The reason I bring this up is to point out that the story of Jonah doesn’t have any internal indications that it is going to be a typological foreshadowing of Jesus death and resurrection. With Jesus’ words, it became that.

There are two things we can do with this expectation of God. Either Jesus was pointing to something they should have already known, to look at the stories of the Old Testament and look for a person who parallels a huge number of them as the Messiah. If so, this is something God expected at all times that was not specifically commanded in the Torah.

The other possibility is that no one was expected to see that until Jesus makes this prediction, and when Jesus is actually resurrected, they are now obligated to believe the connection Jesus just made. This doesn’t help the Torah observer, though, because it’s still a moral expectation God never commanded in the Torah. So whatever Jesus meant to obligate people to, it’s an obligation outside the Law of Moses.

Our Definition Reconsidered

So, if we consider “Moral Law” to be something all-encompassing, just defined as things God expects of people, we find that it cannot be crammed into the Law of Moses in order to be the same thing as the whole Law of Moses. Now, I tend to like this definition, as I understand, as we have already seen, that God expects different things at different times. While He expected the Israelites to believe in a coming Messiah, there is no way, from the text of the Old Testament, to attach the messianic prophecies to a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, before the birth of Jesus happened. So there was something, belief specifically in Jesus, that was not expected at one time that became expected later. Or, if you prefer, the nature of the belief that was expected changed from belief in a future messiah to belief that Jesus is the messiah. There really is no escaping this.

However, when it comes to understanding what God expected of His people in times past, and today, this definition has its drawbacks. Really, it doesn’t tell us much. It’s just whatever God expects. It doesn’t pick out any laws that have any unique character. Since we already know that God makes distinctions between laws, how might we begin to see the nature of those distinctions?

This is where the concept of moral law comes into play. Or, we might say “purely moral” law. What makes justice and mercy more important than sacrifice? It is the fact that these laws are purely moral. Laws concerning justice and mercy are always true and binding for all people everywhere, and this is by their very nature.

We’ve seen reference to these laws in several ways, but one is, once again, what we find in Romans 2, that the laws of the conscience that is common to all people are just those laws that actually apply to all people. So some laws are of a different kind than others, and one of the attributes of these laws is that they are universal in time and place.

It is these laws that are expressed in Scripture in the list above, starting with Cain, where it is clear that people are sinning in breaking them, even though no written law has been given by God (Romans 5). We know Yahweh is righteous (2 Chron. 12:6, Ezra 9:15), but how? Is He righteous because He keeps the Law? Certainly not. As Jesus points out in John 5 when discussing the Sabbath, the Father is always working on the Sabbath. God doesn’t stop running the universe for one day out of seven. Jesus, being God, uses this reasoning to explain why He is working on the Sabbath (John 5:17). So the Law God gives is not the law God keeps to be able to be called “righteous”.

Rather, what is clear is that God’s righteousness is an essential part of His nature, and this is what is reflected in His Moral Law. This is why it is a feature of creation that some things are sins from the very beginning, while other things are not sins until they are later commanded. And this gives us a much better perspective to define a “moral law”. Consider this as a more useful definition.

God’s moral laws are those statements that eternally define right and wrong based on God’s own nature. They never change and could never be different, as they are not based on the working out of God’s plan at different times, but based on God’s eternal nature.

Some laws, like that against murder, against bearing false witness against someone, or stealing, we can recognize could never be different. Because they concern justice, our conscience automatically recognizes them as laws without needing to have a divine voice tell us so. Now, they cannot concern actual justice without being connected to God. If there is no God, then concepts like justice cannot have any reality. But, as we are operating now on the assumption that there is a God and He has spoken, we can recognize that some of His expectations of us are so basic that we know them, based simply on how we are created.

Not all of God’s commands have this character. Could God have commanded to rest on the sixth or eighth day, instead of the seventh? He certainly could have created the world in a different number of days if He had so chosen, and He was not, as far as we can see, under any obligation to even make a Sabbath command in the first place, let alone have it be the seventh day.

Could God have chosen different animals as clean and unclean, or created a completely different set of animals in the first place, or not bothered with clean or unclean animals, or not created animals, or not made them edible? The answer to all these is yes, of course He could have done it however He wanted.

But, could God have made kidnapping and rape to be acceptable activities for us? It seems not. We might be able to imagine some kind of other creature that has no sense of justice that wouldn’t care about any number of terrible things being done to it. And indeed, such creatures do exist. They are among the simplest and smallest, perhaps many single-celled creatures wouldn’t care about these things happening to them, but that is just my point. For creatures like us, made in God’s own image, the sense of justice is inescapable.

As we look at other kinds of laws, we will be able to make these distinctions even clearer, but as we consider what makes something a moral law, this is what we find. God’s Moral Law is a feature of creation by virtue of the nature of God. As it pertains to people, it is as old as we are, and will persist as long as we do. And when we consider the many calls in Old and New Testament to obey the commands of God, we know for sure that these laws always fall within that call.

The Law of Moses certainly overlaps largely with these laws, containing many of them. But, as we have seen, the Law of Moses cannot be said to contain only these kinds of law, since there are other places we find moral requirements outside the Torah. Nor can it be said the the Torah is the only source of moral law, since we have seen that God already expected moral law obedience before Sinai. As we will see, there are other kinds of Law in Scripture as well. We will turn there next time.

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