The Difference Between "Laws" and "The Law"

I understand that "law" in the Old Testament designates God's revealed will in general. How can we distinguish between the Ten Commandments and the other Old Testament legislations?

September 12, 1996

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

I understand that “law” in the Old Testament designates God’s revealed will in general. How can we distinguish between the Ten Commandments and the other Old Testament legislations?

The Hebrew term torah, usually translated “law,” designates the entirety of God’s instructions to His people: laws related to civil matters, moral instructions and requirements, and cultic regulations. In Israel there was not a moral Torah versus a cultic Torah. There was only one Torah, which included regulations dealing with all that we would call moral, religious, and cultic matters.

However, the Old Testament does assign a special role to the Decalogue within its legal system, which is indicated in several ways.

1. It is located in a prominent place in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). When the covenant is instituted, the first legal demands for the people are contained in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20). This is not an accident. We find the same phenomenon in Deuteronomy, when the legal material is introduced with the first legislation in the Decalogue (Deut. 5). It stands in both cases at the very head of God’s instructions to His people.

2. It was spoken by God. This is the only instance in the Pentateuch in which God directly proclaims a law to His people without the mediation of Moses. The Israelites heard His voice speaking from Sinai, and it made an indelible impression on them (Ex. 20:18-20). This points to the uniqueness of this law and to its primacy within Israel’s legal codes.

3. It was addressed to every Israelite. When proclaiming the commandments, God spoke to every Israelite as an individual, using the pronoun “you” in the singular. Each one was made personally responsible for upholding and obeying the commandments, thus bringing the covenant relationship to a personal level. Through Moses the other legal codes were given to “the people of Israel” (Ex. 20:22; 21:1).

4. It was engraved on stone tablets by Yahweh. Yahweh Himself wrote it with His finger on tables of stone (Ex. 31:18; 32:16; 34:1). This is never stated concerning any other law and serves to stress the uniqueness of these commandments. What God spoke and wrote was a self-contained unit, complete in itself (Deut. 5:22).

5. It is general in nature. The commandments are basically imperatives to be obeyed under any circumstance, not limited to any specific historical period or by external circumstances in the life of the Israelites. Over against laws regulating the sacrificial system, which required that under certain conditions an Israelite had to bring a particular sacrifice, the Decalogue was always valid, and its claim to obedience knew no appropriate or inappropriate time.

6. It forms the foundation for other law codes. The Decalogue could be considered the foundation of the other law codes. In Exodus 20 the introduction to the Decalogue (verse 2) summarizes the previous chapters of the book, and the Decalogue itself appears to function as an interpretative guide to the other legal material. The same is also true with respect to Deuteronomy 5. That chapter does not summarize what was said before, but is indeed a summary of what follows.

7. It has a specific name. Among the body of legal materials only the Ten Commandments have a particular name. According to Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4, they are called the “ten words.” By giving a name to the commandments, the biblical writer is stressing the uniqueness of this particular law.

8. It was placed inside the ark of the covenant. According to Deuteronomy 31:26, the laws written down by Moses were placed in the tabernacle “by the side of the covenant of the Lord.” Only the Decalogue was placed inside the ark of the covenant (Deut. 10:5).

It is clear that the Old Testament makes a distinction between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the legal materials found there, assigning to the Decalogue a purpose or importance that is unique. It is the Decalogue that in the new covenant is written on the heart of the believer (Heb. 8:10).