Law of Moses

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The Law of Moses (Hebrew: תֹּורַת מֹשֶׁהTorat Moshe), also called the Mosaic Law, primarily refers to the Torah or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally believed to have been written by Moses, most academics now believe they had many authors.[1]


The Law of Moses or Torah of Moses (Hebrew: תֹּורַת מֹשֶׁה‎, Torat Moshe, Septuagint Ancient Greek: νόμος Μωυσῆ, nómos Mōusē, or in some translations the "Teachings of Moses"[2]) is a biblical term first found in the Book of Joshua 8:31–32, where Joshua writes the Hebrew words of "Torat Moshe תֹּורַת מֹשֶׁה‎" on an altar of stones at Mount Ebal. The text continues:

And afterward he read all the words of the teachings, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah (Joshua 8:34).[3]

The term occurs 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, a further 7 times in the New Testament, and repeatedly in Second Temple period, intertestamental, rabbinical and patristic literature.

The Hebrew word for the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, Torah (which means "law" and was translated into Greek as "nomos" or "Law") refers to the same five books termed in English "Pentateuch" (from Latinised Greek "five books," implying the five books of Moses). According to some scholars, use of the name "Torah" to designate the "Five Books of Moses" of the Hebrew Bible is clearly documented only from the 2nd century BCE.[4]

In modern usage, Torah can refer to the first five books of the Tanakh, as the Hebrew Bible is commonly called, to the instructions and commandments found in the 2nd to 5th books of the Hebrew Bible, and also to the entire Tanakh and even all of the Oral Law as well. Among English-speaking Christians the term "The Law" can refer to the whole Pentateuch including Genesis, but this is generally in relation to the New Testament where nomos "the Law" sometimes refers to all five books, including Genesis. This use of the Hebrew term "Torah" (law), for the first five books is considered misleading by 21st-century Christian bible scholar John Van Seters, because the Pentateuch "consists of about one half law and the other half narrative."[5]

Law in the Ancient Near East[edit]

The "Law of Moses" in ancient Israel was different from other legal codes in the ancient Near East because transgressions were seen as offenses against God rather than solely as offenses against society (civil law).[6] This contrasts with the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100-2050 BCE), and the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BCE, of which almost half concerns contract law). However the influence of the ancient Near Eastern legal tradition on the Law of ancient Israel is recognised and well documented.[7] For example, the Israelite Sabbatical Year has antecedents in the Akkadian mesharum edicts granting periodic relief to the poor.[8] Another important distinction is that in ancient Near East legal codes, as in more recently unearthed Ugaritic texts, an important, and ultimate, role in the legal process was assigned to the king. Ancient Israel, before the monarchical period beginning with David, was set up as a theocracy, rather than a monarchy, although God is most commonly portrayed like a king.[9]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

Moses and authorship of the Law[edit]

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses was the leader of early Israel out of Egypt; and traditionally the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are attributed to him, though most modern scholars believe there were multiple authors. The law attributed to Moses, specifically the laws set out in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as a consequence came to be considered supreme over all other sources of authority (any king and/or his officials), and the Levites were the guardians and interpreters of the law.[10]

The Book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:24–26) records Moses saying, "Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD." Similar passages referring to the Law include, for example, Exodus 17:14, "And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven;" Exodus 24:4, "And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel;" Exodus 34:27, "And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel;" and Leviticus 26:46 "These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the LORD established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses."

Later references to the Law in the Hebrew Bible[edit]

The Book of Kings relates how a "law of Moses" was discovered in the Temple during the reign of king Josiah (r. 641–609 BCE). This book is mostly identified as an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy, perhaps chapters 5–26 and chapter 28 of the extant text.[citation needed]

Another mention of the "Book of the Law of Moses" is found in Joshua 8:30-31.


The content of the Law is spread among the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and then reiterated and added to in Deuteronomy. This includes:

Rabbinical interpretation[edit]

The content of the instructions and its interpretations, the Oral Torah, was passed down orally, excerpted and codified in Rabbinical Judaism, and in the Talmud were numbered as the 613 commandments. The Law given to Moses at Sinai (Hebrew Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai הלכה למשה מסיני) is a halakhic distinction.

Rabbinic Judaism[11] asserts that Moses presented the laws to the Jewish people, and that the laws do not apply to Gentiles (including Christians), with the exception of the Seven Laws of Noah, which (it teaches) apply to all people.

Christian interpretation[edit]

Most Christians believe that only parts dealing with the moral law (as opposed to ceremonial law) are still applicable, others believe that none apply, dual-covenant theologians believe that the Old Covenant remains valid only for Jews, and a minority have the view that all parts still apply to believers in Jesus and in the New Covenant.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Marc Z. Brettler. “Introduction to the Pentateuch.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed., pp. 5-6: “Additionally, most scholars no longer see each source [of the Torah] as the work of a single author writing at one particular time but recognize that each is the product of a single group or ‘school’ over a long time…. Most scholars posit an editor or series of editors or redactors, conventionally called R, who combined the various sources, perhaps in several stages, over a long time.”
  2. ^ e.g. New Century Version, Joshua 8:32
  3. ^ Kristin De Troyer, Armin Lange Reading the present in the Qumran library 2005 p158: "Both at the beginning and at the ending of the Gibeonites' story there is now a reference to the law of Moses and to the fact that ... The building of the altar happens on Mount Ebal, not in Gilgal — Joshua gets to Gilgal only in 9:6."
  4. ^ Frank Crüsemann, Allan W. Mahnke The Torah: theology and social history of Old Testament law p331 1996 " there is only clear evidence for the use of the term Torah to describe the Pentateuch as a ..."
  5. ^ John Van Seters The Pentateuch: a social-science commentary 2004 p16 "Furthermore, the Hebrew term Torah, 'Law', is a little misleading as a description of the content of the Pentateuch, since it consists of about one half law and the other half narrative."
  6. ^ John H. Walton Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context 1994 p233 "The ancient Near Eastern collections do not include cultic law; rather, their focus is on civil law. As a generalization, in the ancient Near East violation of law is an offense against society. In Israel a violation of law is an ..."
  7. ^ A survey of the Old Testament p52 Andrew E. Hill, John H. Walton - 2000 "The influence of the ancient Near Eastern legal tradition on the form and function of Hebrew law is undeniable and widely documented.2 Along with this contemporary cultural influence, the Old Testament affirms the divine origin of "
  8. ^ The Bible and the ancient Near East: collected essays Jimmy Jack McBee Roberts 2002 p46 "The Israelite Sabbatical Year, which seems to have the same purpose and recurs at about the same interval, appears to be an Israelite adaptation of this mesharum-edict tradition."
  9. ^ Adrian Curtis in Law and religion: essays on the place of the law in Israel ed. Barnabas Lindars - 1988 p3 Chapter 1 GOD AS 'JUDGE' IN UGARITIC AND HEBREW THOUGHT "The many legal texts discovered at Ugarit make it clear that the king played an important legal role; although legal transactions could be carried out before witnesses, "
  10. ^ McKenzie, Steven L.; Graham, Matt Patrick (January 1998). The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. p. 19ff. ISBN 9780664256524.
  11. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Gentiles: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah

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