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What is the Law of Moses?

Law of Moses

Generally speaking, the Law of Moses is the first five books of the Bible, or the Torah (Hebrew for “law”), also called the Pentateuch (Greek for “five books”). More strictly speaking, the Law of Moses refers only to the 600-plus commandments and regulations in the second through fifth books of the Torah. We often refer to the commandments as “the Law of Moses”; of course, they are actually the Law of God. Moses was the one through whom God gave Israel the law.

The foundation of the Law of Moses is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2–17), as dictated to Moses by God Himself on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 31:18). Yet the “greatest commandment” from the Law of Moses, as Jesus declared, is Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus said the second greatest commandment was like the first; it is found in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These two are the greatest because “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40; see also Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8).

The Bible’s first use of the phrase Law of Moses appears after the death of Moses. Joshua, who was with Moses throughout Israel’s forty years in the desert, had just led the nation of Israel into the Promised Land. In obedience to one of Moses’ final commands, he had the Law of Moses written on plastered stones (Deuteronomy 27:4–8) and read in its entirety to all the people, both Israelite and alien (Deuteronomy 31:9–13). Bible scholars differ on how much of the law was inscribed and read by Joshua, but most agree it was not every word of all five books of the Torah. Still, a great deal could be written easily enough on plastered stone, as shown by the use of similar techniques in ancient Egyptian temples and tombs.

The Law of Moses is often divided into three broad categories: moral laws, civil (or judicial) laws, and ceremonial laws:

Moral laws reflected God’s holy, unchanging character. The moral laws included the Ten Commandments.

Civil laws were regulations on the day-to-day life of the Hebrew people. These laws governed such things as marriage and divorce, sexual conduct, and property rights and set the penalties for various crimes ranging from theft to kidnapping to slander.

Ceremonial laws related to the manner that the Israelites were to worship God. The ceremonial laws instructed on the proper way to offer sacrifices, perform rituals, and celebrate festivals. The laws governing what was “clean” and “unclean” were in this category.

The Law of Moses was an earthly copy of an eternal, heavenly, unchanging standard of holiness. “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). Jesus taught the unbending character of the Law of Moses: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17). God’s law is unchanging because God is unchanging (Psalm 55:19; James 1:17). Jesus Himself kept the law and often referred people to it (see Matthew 5:27–28; 22:37–39; Mark 3:4; Luke 10:25–28; 22:7–8).

The perfection of the Law of Moses is expressed all through Scripture, with the whole of Psalm 119 focusing exclusively on the law. And we see this description of the law in Psalm 19:7–11:
The Law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
bringing joy to the heart;
the commandments of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever;
the judgments of the Lord are true,
being altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
By them indeed Your servant is warned;
in keeping them is great reward (BSB).

Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses in every respect (Matthew 5:17). With the coming of Christ, the Law of Moses had achieved its purpose (Galatians 3:23–25), and now that Old Covenant of animal sacrifices is replaced by the New Covenant of faith in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:14). “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Praise the Lord, “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4).

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This page last updated: November 14, 2022