When I was a small boy, I loved to sit on my mother’s lap and look at photo albums of the “olden days.” All the pictures I viewed were black and white, so in my child’s mind I imagined a world that was mostly gray. Somehow, I didn’t realize that there really were red roses, blue skies, and yellow bananas.
That’s a little like people who wonder how people knew how to live moral lives before the Ten Commandments were given from Mt. Sinai to Moses and the Israelites. Did people live before this time in a world without laws to govern their relationship to God or others?
The Bible actually teaches us that God’s law is eternal. Psalm 111:7, 8 says, “The works of His hands are verity and justice; all His precepts are sure. They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness.” The Lord shared His law, which is His character, with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. They, in turn, shared it orally with their kin.
We actually can find specific references to different commandments before Sinai in the book of Genesis. For instance, the creation of the Sabbath (the fourth commandment) is described in Genesis 2:1-3. God instructed Jacob to worship Him in Genesis 35:1-4, which speaks of the first and second commandments.
Who Told Joseph?
A clear reference is made to the seventh commandment on adultery in Genesis 39:7-9 when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. Notice his final words before fleeing her, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (v. 9). Who told Joseph that committing adultery was sin?
Paul tackles this issue when he writes, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7). In other words, Joseph would not have known sin unless he knew the law, and it is obvious that he knew what sin was. Therefore he had an understanding of God’s law.
God’s eternal law was understood by many before Sinai. Joseph’s brothers were accused of “stealing” a cup (the eighth commandment) long before Moses received the Decalogue. God’s people had knowledge of God’s law. There was “color” in the world. It wasn’t all gray and without morals. Yet, much of the ways of the Lord were lost as the people lived in bondage in Egypt. In order to restore these truths, they were repeated and written down so that people would not forget them.
In the same way, we should sit down with our Bibles and read stories which bring color into our minds, clear pictures of the beautiful law of God, a law which points us to Jesus (Romans 8:3).