The Ten Commandments in the Old Testament - Did they Exist Before Moses?
Many Christians assume that the Ten Commandments did not exist in the Old Testament before they were officially given in Exodus 20. But is this assumption Biblical? A close look at scripture reveals that breaking the Ten Commandments was sin well before the covenant at Mount Sinai. So when were the Ten Commandments first known in the Old Testament regardless of the absence of a written record such as Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21?
There are also some that wrongly assume that it was not God that gave the Ten Commandments but Moses. So let's quickly clear up this misunderstanding first. The first written record of the Bible Ten Commandments is found Exodus 20:2-17. Now note carefully that the following scripture is the very verse before the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:1 “And God spoke all these words, saying.” So who spoke and gave them? God or Moses? Clearly they were spoken by God and you will also note from the scriptures below that they were also personally written by the finger of God. So we find the Ten Commandments were both spoken and written first by God Himself.
Exodus 31:18 “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”
Exodus 32:15-16 “And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16 And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.”
Deuteronomy 4:12-13 “And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire: you heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only you heard a voice. 13 And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even Ten Commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.”
Deuteronomy 9:10 “And the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spoke with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.”
It was sometime around 1400 to 1500 B.C. when God spoke directly to the Israelites from Mount Sinai located in a desert region south and west of modern day Israel. Here God spoke the Ten Commandments from the mountain top directly to the people as they trembled below in fear. They were so frightened by the sound of His voice that they pleaded with Moses for God not to speak to them. When God spoke these Ten Commandments, did He reveal something entirely new to the Israelites and to the gentile nations of the world through them? Or did they already know the Ten Commandments even though God had not yet “codified” or officially written them down?
There was a law written by Moses (Mosaic Law) and this law (given to him by God) is never associated with the eternal moral code, the Ten Commandments, which has in fact operated from the very beginning of human history. Even though the Ten Commandments were not written down until Mount Sinai, they were understood and honoured by the earliest patriarchs. Even Cain knew that it was a sin to kill because we find in Genesis 4:7 that God told him “sin lieth at the door” when he murdered his brother Abel.
It is not possible for sin to exist where there is no law. God's Word teaches “where no law is, there is no transgression.” Romans 4:15. And again we are told in 1 John 3:4, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” We see this principle further amplified by Paul in Romans 7:7 when he says, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” These scriptures alone prove that no sin can be imputed where the Ten Commandment law is not in effect. This is absolute proof that the moral law was in effect at the very beginning of the Old Testament. And why wouldn't it be?
The statement by God to Cain about sin lying at the door is in reference to his plan to kill Abel which is a violation of one of the Commandments. The Ten Commandments though not yet codified had to exist from the very beginning of the Old Testament or Cain could not be guilty of the sin of murder and lying. (Genesis 4:8-9) This breaks the sixth and ninth Commandments. Joseph also revealed that he was aware of this same Ten Commandment law. In Genesis 39:9, he said to Potiphar's wife, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and SIN against God.” Joseph knew that adultery was a sin against God. This is breaking the seventh Commandment. And Genesis 13:13 says the “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord.” Since sin violates God's Ten Commandment law, the sinful and wicked people of Sodom could not have been punished if there was no law that condemned them for what they were doing. Therefore, God must have had already made known what is sinful.
It could even be said that Adam and Eve effectively broke every single one of the Ten Commandments in Genesis chapter 3.
- The first Commandment by choosing another god when they followed the council of Satan.
- The second Commandment by idolizing the forbidden fruit and making a god of his stomach.
- The third Commandment by not believing in God's warning and in that way taking His name in vain.
- The fourth Commandment by breaking this sinless rest in which they were placed.
- The fifth Commandment by dishonouring their Father in heaven.
- The sixth Commandment by bringing death upon themselves.
- The seventh Commandment by committing spiritual adultery in preferring the creature above the Creator.
- The eight Commandment by taking of that which they had no right.
- The ninth Commandment by accepting the serpent's false witness against God.
- The tenth Commandment by coveting that which God had not given them.
Below are a few examples of breaking the Ten Commandments found in the first Old Testament book of Genesis.
- Genesis 3:1-24 Adam and Eve
- Genesis 4:1-16 Cain
- Genesis 6:5-12 Noah
- Genesis 18:20-23 Sodom and Gomorrah
- Genesis 20:1-20 Abimelech and Abraham
- Genesis 26:5-10 Abimelech and Isaac
- Genesis 39:7-9 Joseph and Potiphar's wife
Is there any more solid evidence that these people actually knew God's Commandments and laws? We find that Abraham was applauded by God in Genesis 26:5 with these words: “Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” What Commandments and laws if the Ten Commandments had not been given in the Old Testament before Exodus 20? It is obvious that the law which Abraham faithfully kept was not the Mosaic Law, because this law was not given until 430 years later. And we have already established that the Ten Commandments existed before Abraham by the condemning of Cain by God for the sin of murder.
There is no doubt that another law was added 430 years later, and that it was in addition to the one Abraham obeyed so diligently. “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” Galatians 3:17.
It can be seen from the context of this verse that Paul is referring to the ceremonial law rather than the moral law of the Ten Commandments. In Galatians 3:10, Paul refers to the curses “which are written in the book of the law.”
We also find further confirmation that this later law was indeed the Law of Moses in Galatians 3:19, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions till the seed should come to whom the promise was made...” So here are two very significant facts concerning the law which was added. Note we are told why it was added and also how long this law would remain in effect. These two very significant pieces of information will now be carefully considered since they contain compelling evidence.
1) Why was it given? Galatians 3:19 states that it was “added because of transgressions.” Since we have already established that “where no law is, there is no transgression.” Romans 4:15. One cannot be guilty of transgressing a law which does not exist. So in this case one law obviously had to exist and this law had been “transgressed,” which made it necessary to add another law 430 years after the covenant God made with Abraham. And since Genesis 26:5 states that “Abraham obeyed ... my laws”, we have to believe that that earlier law, which Abraham observed was the Ten Commandments. Moses had not even been born yet, so it could never have been his law!
So what must be concluded from this evidence? The Ten Commandments had been transgressed making it necessary to add the ceremonial law. This makes perfect sense when you think about. If a law forbidding murder is broken, then another law would have to be enacted to prescribe the punishment or penalty for breaking that first law. In Galatians 3:10, Paul refers to the curses “which are written in the book of the law.” This law written in a book was the Mosaic Law. The Ten Commandments were written in stone. You will note from the following scriptures that the “book of the law” is the “Mosaic Law” and not the Ten Commandments and was stored on the OUTSIDE of the Ark of the Covenant.
Joshua 23:6 “Therefore be very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, lest you turn aside from it to the right hand or to the left.”
Deuteronomy 31:24-26 “And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, 25 That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, 26 Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.”
The Ten Commandments on the other hand were written on two tables of stone and were stored on the INSIDE of the Ark of the Covenant under the mercy seat.
Deuteronomy 4:13 “And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.”
Deuteronomy 10:5 “And I turned myself and came down from the mount, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they be, as the LORD commanded me.”
2) How long did this “added” law remain in effect? Galatians 3:19 says, “Till the seed should come.” There cannot be any controversy over the identity of that seed. It is Jesus Christ. Do we have any evidence that the law which was blotted out and nailed to the cross was in fact the Law of Moses? This law was designated as the “handwriting of ordinances.” Colossians 2:14. Nowhere in the entire Bible are the Ten Commandments identified as ordinances. This term is applied to local legal codes which are very narrow and limited, such as “town ordinances” which extend to the city limits. In comparison, the Ten Commandments are more like the constitution of the United States.
The Greek word for “ordinances” in Colossians 2:14 is “dogma.” The Thayer dictionary states this is the “Law of Moses.” Thayer Definition: “The rules and requirements of the Law of Moses; carrying a suggestion of severity and of threatened judgment.”
So we find that there can be no doubt whatsoever that Abraham kept the Ten Commandments of God. But some will erroneously say that this did not include the fourth Commandment the Sabbath. We should all know that the Sabbath was made at creation, but for some reason, many seem to struggle with this so let's clarify this fact further.
God said the Sabbath “is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever…” Before we continue with this scripture, note the reason why and when God made the Sabbath day from the remainder of this verse. It was because, “…in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Exodus 31:17. So the Sabbath has existed since creation and before sin and before a Jew walked on the face of the Earth!
Someone always raises the stale argument that the Sabbath is only a sign of holiness for Israel, but let me remind them of this inspired text: “if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:29. All born again Christians are the true Israel today and have been sanctified unto God. Therefore, the Sabbath is for anyone who is Christ's. Please read Daniel's 70 weeks explained or prophecy of weeks for more on who is Israel today and why.
Further to this evidence, how many know that the word translated “rested” in our English Bibles in Genesis 2:3 is actually “shabbath” in Hebrew and means Sabbath. The Seventh day had been hallowed and set aside as holy by God from the time of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:1-3).
Some will still insist that there is no evidence of the Sabbath being kept before the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Yet we find in Exodus 16 that God tested Israel (these were not Jews) if they would keep His Sabbath day. But even more specifically, God tested to see if they would keep the Seventh day and not just any day they thought was acceptable! Did they keep the Seventh day? No! They thought any day was fine just like many Christians today. So how did God respond? God accused them of breaking all His Commandments and laws. But what Commandments and laws? The Ten Commandments had not been codified by God yet! How could Israel have been breaking the Sabbath and every other Commandment if they had not been given? God clearly speaks of both His “commandments and ... laws” as being in force well before He wrote the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai as given four chapters later! Therefore, the Ten Commandments were only codified, that is, written in stone as part of a formal covenant at Mount Sinai. Scripture shows that they existed and were in force well before then. The Old Testament evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. There may have been no specific written record of them been given before Exodus 20 but the evidence is that they definitely knew the Commandments and were keeping them.
So did the Old Testament Ten Commandments exist since creation and before sin? That would have to be a resounding yes! We know the Sabbath was made at creation but was the Sabbath Commandment obeyed before the Ten Commandments were first given in Exodus 20? No one can debate that Exodus 16 comes before Exodus 20!
The Bible confirms that the Ten Commandments did not originate with Moses or in his time. Nor were they limited in any way to the Jews only. They were in effect and known long before Moses or a people known as the Jews existed. They are the foundation of God's laws that show us how to love God (defined by the first four Commandments) and how to love our fellow man (defined by the last six). See also what is the greatest Commandment and the Sabbath in the New Testament.