by Doug Ward

In Genesis 26:4-5, God affirmed to the patriarch Isaac the promise that he had originally made to Isaac's father Abraham:


"And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (KJV).


The statement in verse 5 about Abraham's obedience has intrigued many readers over the centuries. The language used here for the laws that Abraham obeyed ("my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws") is very similar to that employed elsewhere in the Pentateuch for the Torah that God later gave to the children of Israel.1 This language raises the question of what laws are in view in Genesis 26:5.


In proposing answers to this question, some interpreters have examined Gen 26:5 for clues (see for example [7, pp. 250-251]). The Kabbalah uses numerological clues, including the fact that there are ten Hebrew words in the verse, to conclude that it refers primarily to the Ten Commandments [7, p. 250]. One rabbinic tradition goes much further, extrapolating from the fact that the word for "laws" in Gen. 26:5 is plural to assert that Abraham kept two "Torahs"-the written Torah preserved in the Pentateuch and the "oral Torah" of Jewish traditions that spell out how to apply the written Torah ([6, p. 706], [5, chapter 9]). This tradition seems to be reflected in the Mishnah, where R. Nehorai is quoted as saying, "We find that the patriarch Abraham kept the entire Torah even before it was revealed, since it says, `Since Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws' " (m. Qiddushin 4:14; see also b. Yoma 28b).


These traditions give what might be called a "maximalist" reading of Gen 26:5. There are other interpreters who adopt more of a "minimalist" stance-e.g., those from Christian traditions that uphold a strict law vs. gospel dichotomy. One way for a modern minimalist to deal with Gen 26:5 is to claim that it was added to the text of Genesis by an editor writing much later in Israel's history.2


The broad range of interpretation of Gen 26:5 is noted by Christian scholar James K. Bruckner in his doctoral dissertation [2]. Bruckner observes a tendency for interpreters to see this verse through the lenses of their theological presuppositions. He suggests that a more fruitful approach would begin with a study of the bigger picture of what the book of Genesis has to say about the laws of God, and he goes on to explore this bigger picture. The present article is based on his findings.


Paying Attention to Genre

At first glance, it might appear that the book of Genesis contains little information on the subject of law, since it includes few explicit statements of the "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" varieties. Indeed, in the traditional list compiled by Maimonides of the 613 commandments of the Torah (see for example [8]), only two are referenced to passages in the section of scripture from Genesis 1 through Exodus 11. Those two are the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" in Gen 1:28 and the circumcision commandment in Gen 17:10.


One reason that there are relatively few direct commands in the book of Genesis is that this part of the Bible is a narrative rather than, say, a covenant document like the book of Deuteronomy. In the course of telling its story, this beginning portion of the Bible actually has quite a lot to say about legal matters. However, it often addresses these matters indirectly rather than in the form of explicit commandments.


It is instructive to go through the book of Genesis, keeping track of the different ways in which the text implies that certain actions are right and others are wrong. I will next present the results of such a survey. My list is not exhaustive, but it is extensive enough to give an idea of the wealth of moral teaching contained in Genesis. Subsequent examination of the list will suggest a unified rationale for much of this teaching.


Right and Wrong in Genesis

I have grouped my compilation of the legal and ethical information conveyed in the book of Genesis into five main categories. Since God is the ultimate authority in these matters and the main character in the Genesis narrative, we first examine God's words and actions.

1. Divine Commands

Some divine commands in Genesis are intended strictly for particular individuals-e.g., the command that Noah build an ark (Gen 6:14-16), or the directives that Abram leave his homeland (12:1) and later sacrifice his son Isaac (22:2). Other instructions from God are intended to apply more broadly. Two examples mentioned already are the commandment to be fruitful and multiply (1:28; 9:1,7), given to the first humans and repeated to Noah; and the circumcision commandment (17:10-14) that is the sign of a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Additional instructions that may belong to this category include the following:

The fact that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden "to dress it and to keep it" (2:15) would seem to imply a more general responsibility of stewardship over creation.

The instruction that "a man ... cleave unto his wife" (2:24) is clearly directed toward men in general, not just to Adam.

The "cursing of the ground" in Gen 3:17-19 carries with it an implicit commandment that people work in order to earn a living.

The command in Gen 7:2 that seven pairs of each clean animal and one pair of each unclean animal be put on the ark was, of course, only applicable to Noah. However, this command also communicates the more general fact that God has deemed some animals to be ceremonially clean and others to be unclean.

The prohibition against eating meat from which the blood has not been drained (Gen 9:4) is meant for Noah's descendants as well as Noah himself. So is the stipulation of capital punishment for murder (9:5-6).

2. Divine Judgment

At various junctures in the Genesis narrative, God intervenes to judge the actions of individuals or groups. These incidents supply further information about the content of divine law in Genesis:

Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden of Eden when they yield to the serpent's temptation and disobey God's direct order (Gen 3).

God deems Abel's offering to be acceptable and Cain's unacceptable (4:4-5).

When Cain kills Abel, God punishes Cain (4:8-15).

When wickedness, corruption and violence fill the earth, God sends a flood (6:5-17).

After the flood, God intervenes at Babel to scatter the people and "confound their language"(11:1-9).

God sends plagues upon Pharaoh (12:17) when Pharaoh attempts to take Sarai as a wife. Later, God closes the wombs of the women of Gerar and sentences Abimelech to death when that ruler undertakes a similar action (20:3-7,18).

God destroys the cities of the plain after failing to find as many as ten righteous men there and turns Lot's wife into a pillar of salt (Gen 18-19).

God puts wicked Er to death (38:7). Then Onan, who disobeys his father and fails to carry out the responsibility of levirate marriage on behalf of his deceased brother, receives the same penalty (38:8-10).

3. Divine Example

One concise summary of God's commandments, repeated in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament, is given in Lev 19:2: "Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy" (cf. Lev 11:44-45; 20:26; I Peter 1:15-16). This simple statement implies that the people of God are to emulate him. God's example, then, carries a great deal of weight.


In Gen 2:1-3, God follows six days of creation with a day of rest, setting a precedent for human Sabbath-keeping. To those who deny the importance of this example, Seventh-day Adventist scholar Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi asks a series of questions:


"What is it that makes any divine precept moral and universal? Do we not regard a law moral when it reflects God's nature? Could God have given any stronger revelation of the moral nature of the Sabbath than by making it a rule of His divine conduct? Is a principle established by divine example less binding than one enunciated by a divine command? Do not actions speak louder than words?" [1, p. 78]


4. Actions Acknowledged as Right or Wrong

In a number of places in the book of Genesis, people state either directly or indirectly that certain actions are right and others are wrong:

Lot characterizes the desire of the men of Sodom to sexually assault his guests as "wicked" (19:7).

Abraham's insistence that his servant take an oath "by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth" (24:3) implies both men agreed that it would be wrong to "take God's name in vain."

Abimelech of Gerar describes adultery as "a great sin" and Abraham's deception as something that "ought not be done" (20:9). A later Abimelech makes a similar statement to Isaac (26:10).

Jacob denounces Laban's deception (31:7). After Laban accuses Jacob of theft, Jacob agrees that theft is wrong, stating that the perpetrator should die (31:30-32).

Jacob's sons are outraged at the behavior of Shechem toward their sister Dinah (34:2,7,31). Jacob, in turn, condemns Simeon and Levi for their cruel retaliation (34:30; 49:5-7).

Jacob tells the members of his household to discard their idols in preparation for his reunion with Esau (35:2).

Judah orders Tamar to be burned for harlotry (38:24). When he learns that he was Tamar's "customer," he acknowledges his own guilt in not providing a husband for his widowed daughter-in-law (38:26).

Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar's wife, describing adultery as "great wickedness" and a sin against God (39:9).

When Joseph tells his brothers that one of them will be held prisoner until they bring their youngest brother to Egypt, the brothers believe they are being punished for selling Joseph into slavery (42:21-22).

Joseph's scheme involving his silver cup is founded on a common understanding that theft is wrong (44:1-17).

Jacob predicts that the descendants of Reuben will "not excel" because Reuben had slept with Jacob's wife Bilhah (49:4; 35:22).

5. Human Actions and their Consequences

In many cases the narrator of Genesis does not pass judgment explicitly upon the actions of the human characters in the book.3 However, there are often implicit connections between actions of the characters and subsequent events in the narrative. For instance, the harm done by the false testimony of Potiphar's wife against Joseph is easy to see, since it results in Joseph's undeserved incarceration.


Some of these connections are less straightforward but probably still intended by the text. It is fairly standard, for instance, to see the deceptions suffered by Jacob at the hands of his father-in-law Laban as a fitting recompense for Jacob's earlier trickery involving Esau's birthright and Isaac's blessing. Similarly, the strife among the sons of Jacob is often seen as a warning against the consequences of polygamy. Such implicit judgments carry less weight than those mentioned explicitly, but they are still worth considering.


The biblical data on Abraham's life are especially relevant, since it is Abraham who is said to be law-abiding in Gen 26:5. Here are some examples of Abraham's virtuous actions:

Abraham seeks peace in his dealings with Lot (13:8-9) and with the inhabitants of Canaan (14:21-24; chapter 23).

In his rescue of the kidnapped Lot (Gen 14), Abraham follows the divine guidelines for conducting warfare later spelled out in Deut 20.4

After Lot's rescue, Abraham gives thanks for the successful outcome by presenting a tithe to Melchizedek, "priest of the most high God" (14:17-20).

Abraham shows hospitality to the strangers who visit him (Gen 18).5 He subsequently intercedes on behalf of the cities of the plain (18:23-33).

Abraham passes the ultimate test of faith in his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22).


The Decalogue and More

An examination of our list indicates that all of the Ten Commandments are included in one way or another in the Genesis narrative, as demonstrated in the following summary (cf. [3], p. 82):

The judgments at Eden (Gen 3) and Babel (Gen 11) and the punishment of Lot's wife involved situations where people were placing something else above the true God. On the other hand, Abraham's faith was anchored in God.

Jacob's order that the members of his household get rid of their idols (35:2) implies that one cannot be blameless before God while in possession of these objects.

As mentioned previously, Abraham's servant must have believed that one should not "take God's name in vain." Otherwise his oath would have given Abraham no comfort.

God's creation week example establishes Sabbath observance as an ideal.

The sins for which Onan received judgment included a failure to honor his father.

The judgment on Cain, the Flood, and God's instruction in Gen 9:6 all condemn murder.

Adultery is characterized as "great wickedness" in Gen 39:9. Rape and prostitution are also condemned.

Theft is understood to be a crime (31:30-32; 44:1-17).

False witness (39:17-20) and deception in general (20:9) are shown to be wrong.

Covetousness results in judgment from God in Gen 12:17; 20:3-7,18.

In addition to the principles of the Decalogue, we also find in Genesis the practices of levirate marriage, circumcision, and tithing, along with the distinction between clean and unclean meats. The example of Cain and Abel gives instruction in how and how not to prepare an offering. The account of Abraham's life includes lessons about peacemaking, hospitality, and faith and even an example of how to conduct a military operation. Our data give strong support to Bruckner's conclusion that in the book of Genesis, we observe "a full range of law implied and functioning from the beginning of God's creating, sustaining, and providential work" [2, p. 205].


A Creational Ethic

Bruckner sees the ethical standards of the book of Genesis as rooted in creation. This is, of course, not a new idea in Christian thought. According to the Reformed tradition of Christian theology, God set down standards at creation that are required of every person who is in covenant with God. These "creation ordinances" include dominion over creation, marriage and replenishment of the earth with children, work and Sabbath observance.


The rest of the Bible lends support to the principle of looking to creation for ideal standards. The book of Exodus points back to creation as the rationale for the Sabbath commandment (Exod 20:8-11), enjoining Israelites to follow God's example set at the beginning. Later, Jesus appealed to the creational ideal of Gen 2:24-25 in his condemnation of divorce (Matt 19:3-9).


Evidence for a creational standard goes beyond the first three chapters of Genesis. In explaining why murder is an offense worthy of capital punishment (Gen 9:5-6), God reminds Noah's family that people are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).6 More broadly, in the world of the book of Genesis certain laws seem to be hard-wired into creation, so that when those laws are violated, creation itself is violently damaged. The catastrophe of the Flood, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the closing of the wombs of Abimelech's house (20:18) are examples of the upheaval in creation produced by sin. The characters in Genesis apparently are aware of this principle. In Gen 18:23, Abraham understands that the whole region of Sodom and Gomorrah is in jeopardy because of the sins committed there, even though God has not explicitly mentioned it. Similarly, Abimelech understands that his coveting another man's wife could have consequences for all of his people (20:4).


The moral standards of Genesis seem to be understood by everyone, not just Abraham's family, giving further evidence that a basic law is imbedded in the structure of creation. Both Pharaoh and Abimelech are well aware that one should not covet the wife of another, so they are outraged when Abraham does not explain that Sarah is his wife. Abimelech gives Abraham a mini-lecture on morality: "What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done" (Gen 20:9).7


The existence of a universal moral standard is upheld by the rest of the Bible. In Exodus 16:4, the existence of divine law is mentioned before the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Then in Exodus 18, Moses settles disputes among the Israelites, which presupposes a standard of judgment. Moreover, Moses takes advice on how to carry out this responsibility from Jethro, his Midianite father-in-law. Later, prophets like Jonah and Amos announce God's impending judgment on Gentile nations, which implies that they are accountable to God according to some moral requirements. And in the New Testament, the apostle Paul upholds this universal accountability in the second chapter of his epistle to the Romans.



Our study of the book of Genesis supports a "maximalist" reading of Gen 26:5. Although there is no proof that Abraham knew the rabbinic oral law in advance, as some of the Talmudic sages contended, there is strong evidence for the existence of a universal moral law that is in some sense built into creation.


Since the book of Genesis is a narrative rather than a formal legal code, it does not spell out all the details of the creational law. Questions about how God's laws should be lived out in our modern world by today's communities of faith still have to be worked out by those communities, as guided by the Holy Spirit (see Matt 16:19; 18:18-20). However, I believe our data suggest the following conclusions:

The universal, creational law includes the principles of the Decalogue.

Christian theologies that posit a sharp law vs. gospel dichotomy are seriously flawed. Abraham, singled out in the New Testament as an example of faith, was also an example of obedience. The two are not in conflict (James 2:14-26).

In deciding how to apply the law of God, faith communities should not take lightly any principle of the Torah, which rightly can be described as spelling out the details of what was already implicit in Genesis.

As Walter Kaiser declares,


"So endemic is the moral law to the whole of the Mosaic law that evidences for its abiding nature can be found in the fact that even before it was given on Sinai it was held to be normative and binding on all who aspired to living by faith. In fact every one of the Ten Commandments is already implicitly found in the Genesis record even before their publication on Sinai. Moses did not invent the moral law; God did, and he had already been holding men and women responsible for heeding it millennia before he finally wrote it on tablets of stone" [4, pp. 299-300].


Finally, it will be we wise to remember one of the major lessons of Genesis: Prolonged disregard for God's commandments can lead to catastrophe. In light of this lesson, I hope in particular that as a society, we will soon repent of our collective failure to protect the lives of the unborn.


1.      Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Sabbath under Crossfire: A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments, Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1998.

2.      James K. Bruckner, Implied Law in the Abraham Narrative: A Literary and Theological Analysis, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 335, Sheffield Academic Press, London, 2001.

3.      Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1983.

4.      Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "God's Promise Plan and His Gracious Law," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990), 289-302.

5.      David Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God : Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, Doubleday, New York, 2003.

6.      James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible : A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998.

7.      John H. Sailhamer, "The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch," Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 241-261.

8.      John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1992.


1See for example Deut 4:40; 5:31; 6:1-2, 17; 7:11; 8:11; 10:13; 11:1; 26:17; 27:10; 28:15, 45; 30:10, 16.


2Walter Kaiser [4, p. 299] notes that even Franz Delitizsch, a conservative Lutheran scholar of the late nineteenth century, took this approach.


3For example, the circumstances surrounding the conception of Lot's sons Moab and Benammi (19:30-38) are simply reported without additional comment.


4This is observed by Sailhamer in [8]. Specifically, Abraham does not hesitate despite being outnumbered (Deut 20:1). He leads a select group of "trained" men, in accordance with the spirit of Deut 20:5-9. He allows his men a portion of the spoils of victory over their distant foe but refuses to become entangled with his wicked neighbors in Sodom (cf. Deut 20:14-18).


5According to Jewish tradition, he is still recovering from his circumcision when the strangers arrive [5].


6Walter Kaiser elaborates on this reasoning in [3, p. 167]: "The person who destroys another person, who bears the image of God, does violence to God himself-as if he had killed God in effigy."


7Ironically, it is Abraham who does not exhibit the fear of God in this instance, even though Abraham had worried that there was no fear of God in Gerar (v.11).

Issue 25



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