What is the Law of Moses, and what are its commands?

Definitions: At the outset of our consideration of the Law of Moses, we have to define three terms: Law of Moses, the Law, and Torah.

  • “Law of Moses”: This phrase in Scripture refers to two things: the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant and the entire Pentateuch (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Of course, the Mosaic covenant is contained within the Pentateuch, specifically, from Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy 33.
  • “The Law”: This phrase has the same flexibility of the “Law of Moses”: sometimes it refers to the Mosaic Covenant, and sometimes to the entire Pentateuch. In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “law” (nomos) can also mean principle, as in “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ,” or “the perfect law of liberty” (Romans 8:2 and James 1:25), or simply “law” (Romans 7:21). You have to determine from the context which meaning “law” has.
  • “Torah”: This is the Hebrew word translated “law,” but is actually means “instruction.” Its meaning varies according to the context.


Points of controversy: When we discuss the Mosaic Covenant, disagreement immediately arises concerning the origin of the Pentateuch, the written record of the Law. Some hold to what we could call a naive viewpoint, that we should take the books of the Pentateuch at face value as having been produced by Moses during the period of the wilderness wanderings after the Exodus from Egypt. Others believe that these books were not composed until hundreds of years later, as late as the Persian period (536 to 333 BCE). A more likely view is one that lies between these two alternatives: the five Books of Moses do go back to the prophet whose name they bear, though they have undergone minor editing in later generations. This, I believe, is the most likely explanation, addressing both the objections to the naive view and the observations regarding stylistic differences within the documents. This view also takes seriously the weighty evidence of the validation of the Books of Moses by both Jesus and Paul.


Characteristics of the Law of Moses:

  1. The stipulations of the Law are bound up in the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. – Beginning with the Ten Commandments themselves (see Exodus 20), the laws and ordinances of Torah are interspersed with the historical narrative of the events of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and their wanderings in the desert of Sinai before entering Canaan to conquer and take possession of it. This means that the laws are not recorded in any kind of systematic order though sometimes similar laws appear together.
  2. The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) is foundational to the rest of the Law. – The Ten Commandments cover in a general way the relationship the people of the covenant have with their God, with other members of their own families, and with the other members of the covenant community and the world at large. God gave these Ten Commandments to Israel near the beginning of the 40 years of wandering. Also at its end, Moses reminded the people of these same Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5). They were written on tablets of stone and placed within the ark of the covenant as a reminder of the covenant the people had with their God (Deuteronomy 31:26).
  3. Many of the ordinances are casuistic. – That is, they seem to be the results of judgments involving particular cases. For example, immediately after God struck dead Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons, for disobeying His commands regarding the kind of fire proper for sacrifices (Numbers 10:1-7), God delivers a command prohibiting on-duty priests from getting drunk (Numbers 10:8-11). A lengthy cluster of such laws occurs at Exodus 21:18 through 22:17, each paragraph having the form of “If x happens, then do y.”
  4. It is difficult if not impossible to separate the ethical portion from the ritual parts of the Law. – The Bible in neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament makes a distinction between the ethical or moral parts of the Law (e.g., Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t give false testimony, etc.) and the ritual parts of the Law (e.g., the priest should wear this garment, manufacture incense with this formula, offer this kind of sacrifice for that kind of offense, etc.). To make such a distinction is not only arbitrary and unjustified, but subjective.
  5. The essence of the Law of Moses is described by Jesus – According to Jesus, the entire Law of Moses can be summed up in two of the commands, Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, which he calls the greatest and second greatest commands, to love God with everything you are and to love others as you love yourself (Mark 12:28-34 and parallels). Another key verse is Leviticus 19:2: in which God says, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” In other words, God told his people that in order for them to have a relationship with Him, they had to have a lifestyle in keeping with His character. The sacrificial system helped them to maintain the holiness so important to the human-divine relationship. Under the New Covenant, God arranged for the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus’ willing death of the cross, the take away sins once and for all (Hebrews 10:1-10).

Topics in the Law of Moses

Here is a quick topical summary. For all of the details, including book, chapter, and verse for each, see my Multi-Index to the Law of Moses.

  1. Preamble: The Ten Commands
  2. Laws of worship
    1. Idolatry & paganism
      1. No idols
      2. No sacrificing to other gods
      3. No consorting with other peoples
      4. No sorcery or augery
      5. No human sacrifices
      6. No pagan superstitions
      7. No cult prostitution
    2. Sacrifices, offerings, tithes, and vows
      1. Sacrifices
      2. Burnt offerings
      3. Grain offerings
      4. Fellowship offerings
      5. Sin offerings
      6. Guilt offerings
      7. Acceptable & unacceptable offerings
      8. Giving of produce
      9. Giving of firstborn
      10. Tithes
      11. Vows
      12. Nazirite vow
    3. Priestly duties & privileges
      1. Consecration of priesthood
      2. Purity of priesthood
      3. Priest’s duties in sacrificing
      4. Rules for killing sacrifices
      5. The eating of holy things by priests
      6. Duties of Levites
      7. Levitical cities
    4. Special religious occasions
      1. Jubilee year
      2. Sabbath year
      3. Feast days
      4. Day of Atonement
      5. Sabbath day
    5. Special, religious articles
      1. Tabernacle and furnishings
      2. Revering the sanctuary
      3. Place for the altar
      4. Kind of altar
      5. Altar on Mt. Ebal
      6. Tassels of remembrance
    6. Other religious duties
      1. Consecration of the people
      2. Loving God and teaching Him to children
      3. True and false prophets
      4. Putting God to the test
      5. Reviling God
      6. Punishment for blasphemy
      7. No mixing of breeds, grain, cloth
      8. Those excluded from the LORD’s assembly
      9. Acceptance of Egyptians and Edomites
      10. Confirm the Law by doing it
      11. Blessings of obedience
      12. Curses of disobedience
      13. Keeping the covenant
      14. Promise of restoration
      15. Choice: life or death
  3. Laws of physical purity
    1. Foods
      1. Clean and unclean animals
      2. No eating of blood
      3. Eating sacrifices on the same day
      4. No eating of meat torn by beasts
    2. Diseases
      1. Leprosy
      2. Isolation of unclean
      3. Camp sanitation
    3. Normal human processes
      1. Secretions of man
      2. Secretions of woman
      3. No sexual relations during menstrual period
      4. Purification of woman after childbirth
  4. Laws concerning buisness dealings & politics
    1. Land ownership
      1. Division of the land
      2. No removing of landmarks
      3. Safety requirement for buildings
      4. Inheritance rights
      5. Levirate marriage
      6. Redemption of property
    2. Slaves & hired servants
      1. Concerning slaves
      2. Redemption of slaves
      3. Oppressing a hired servant
    3. Ecology
      1. Preserving the fruit trees
      2. Preserving the wildlife
      3. Preserving the domesticated animals
    4. Lending laws
      1. Things taken in pledge
      2. No charging of interest
    5. Business practices
      1. Using just weights & measures
      2. Restitution
    6. Civil justice
      1. No perverting of justice
      2. Oppressing the widow, orphan, or poor
      3. Oppressing the stranger
      4. Oppressing one’s neighbor
      5. Oppressing the physically disabled
      6. Judicial system
    7. Laws protecting the poor
      1. Oppressing the widow, orphan, or poor
      2. Gleanings for the poor
      3. Rights to eat of anyone’s crops
    8. Cruelty
    9. Military laws
      1. Choosing a king
      2. Military service
      3. Besieging hostile cities
      4. Command to exterminate Amalek
    10. Liability for accidents
  5. Laws of morality
    1. Sex crimes
      1. Incest
      2. Adultery
      3. Homosexual practice
      4. Cross-dressing
      5. Fornication with a slave
      6. Bestiality
      7. Seduction of a virgin
      8. Rape laws
      9. Making one’s daughter into a prostitute
      10. Seizing a man’s sex organs to prevent a beating
    2. Marriage, divorce, & remarriage
      1. Marriage of free to slave
      2. Marriage of free to captive
      3. No remarrying of original spouse after intervening marriage
      4. Trial of the suspected adulteress
      5. Trial of the bride suspected of pre-marital promiscuity
    3. Violent crimes & their punishments
      1. Murder & other violent acts
      2. Atoning for the unknown murderer’s guilt
      3. Cities of refuge
      4. Kidnapping a man to enslave him
      5. Punishment of forty stripes
      6. Burial of an executed criminal
      7. No hatred for one’s brother
      8. No personal vengeance
    4. Other offenses
      1. Testimony in trials
      2. Reviling a ruler
      3. Stoning of a rebellious son
      4. Treatment of enemies
    5. Crimes that carried the death penalty
      1. Striking or reviling a parent
      2. Blasphemy
      3. Sabbath breaking
      4. Witchcraft
      5. Adultery
      6. Rape
      7. Incestuous & homosexual relations
      8. Kidnapping
      9. Idolatry
      10. Touching Mount Sinai
      11. Murder

Want to go deeper? The following are useful resources for pursuing your study of the Law of Moses. Including these resources in my list does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of everything they teach. Do your own thinking and evaluate whether a teaching is in harmony with the revealed Word of God or not!

Recommended for purchase:

Steve Singleton. Multi-Index to the Law of Moses (2007).

William Barclay. The Ten Commandments (This edition, 1999). Contains a wealth of background material – Jewish, Greek, & Roman – for the commandments that constitute the basis for ethics in the Western world.

Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel (1996). Appoaches the relationship between Law and Gospel as a colloquium: each scholar presents his view, to which the other scholars response, then adds a rejoinder. This is an excellent way to study any controversial biblical subject.

Online resources:

The 613 Commandments of the Torah, with book, chapter, verse, and quotation of each.

List of essays on Law & Gospel (Reformed viewpoint)

Law & Gospel (Lutheran viewpoint)