The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 27: The Law Given to Israel
Why did God speak the law with His own voice
and then write it in stone with His own finger—
if it was later to be cancelled at the cross?
Review and Herald Publ. Assoc.
Soon after the encampment at Sinai, Moses was called up
into the mountain to meet with God. Alone he climbed the
steep and rugged path, and drew near to the cloud that marked
the place of Jehovah's presence. Israel was now to be taken into
a close and peculiar relation to the Most High—to be incorporated
as a church and a nation under the government of God. The
message to Moses for the people was:
"Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I
bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself. Now
therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant,
then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for
all the earth is Mine: and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of
priests, and an holy nation."
Moses returned to the camp, and having summoned the elders
of Israel, he repeated to them the divine message. Their answer
was, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Thus they
entered into a solemn covenant with God, pledging themselves
to accept Him as their ruler, by which they became, in a special
sense, the subjects of His authority.
Again their leader ascended the mountain, and the Lord said
unto him, "Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people
may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee forever."
When they met with difficulties in the way, they were disposed
to murmur against Moses and Aaron, and accuse them of leading
the hosts of Israel from Egypt to destroy them. The Lord would
honor Moses before them, that they might be led to confide in
God purposed to make the occasion of speaking His law a
scene of awful grandeur, in keeping with its exalted character.
The people were to be impressed that everything connected with
the service of God must be regarded with the greatest reverence. [p. 304] The Lord said to Moses, "Go unto the people, and sanctify them
today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes, and be
ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will
come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai."
During these intervening days all were to occupy the time in
solemn preparation to appear before God. Their person and
their clothing must be freed from impurity. And as Moses
should point out their sins, they were to devote themselves to
humiliation, fasting, and prayer, that their hearts might be
cleansed from iniquity.
The preparations were made, according to the command; and
in obedience to a further injunction, Moses directed that a barrier
be placed about the mount, that neither man nor beast might
intrude upon the sacred precinct. If any ventured so much as
to touch it, the penalty was instant death.
On the morning of the third day, as the eyes of all the
people were turned toward the mount, its summit was covered
with a thick cloud, which grew more black and dense, sweeping
downward until the entire mountain was wrapped in darkness
and awful mystery. Then a sound as of a trumpet was
heard, summoning the people to meet with God; and Moses
led them forth to the base of the mountain. From the thick
darkness flashed vivid lightnings, while peals of thunder echoed
and re-echoed among the surrounding heights. "And Mount
Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended
upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of
a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly." "The glory
of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount"
in the sight of the assembled multitude. And "the voice of the
trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder." So
terrible were the tokens of Jehovah's presence that the hosts of
Israel shook with fear, and fell upon their faces before the
Lord. Even Moses exclaimed, "I exceedingly fear and quake."
And now the thunders ceased; the trumpet was no longer
heard; the earth was still. There was a period of solemn silence,
and then the voice of God was heard. Speaking out of the
thick darkness that enshrouded Him, as He stood upon the
mount, surrounded by a retinue of angels, the Lord made
known His law. Moses, describing the scene, says: "The Lord [p. 305] came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; He shined
forth from Mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of
saints: from His right hand went a fiery law for them. Yea, He
loved the people; all His saints are in Thy hand: and they
sat down at Thy feet; every one shall receive of Thy words."
Deuteronomy 33:2, 3.
Jehovah revealed Himself, not alone in the awful majesty of
the judge and lawgiver, but as the compassionate guardian of His
people: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out
of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." He whom
they had already known as their Guide and Deliverer, who had
brought them forth from Egypt, making a way for them through
the sea, and overthrowing Pharaoh and his hosts, who had thus
shown Himself to be above all the gods of Egypt—He it was
who now spoke His law.
The law was not spoken at this time exclusively for the
benefit of the Hebrews. God honored them by making them
the guardians and keepers of His law, but it was to be held as
a sacred trust for the whole world. The precepts of the Decalogue
are adapted to all mankind, and they were given for the
instruction and government of all. Ten precepts, brief,
comprehensive, and authoritative, cover the duty of man to God
and to his fellow man; and all based upon the great fundamental
principle of love. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all
thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and
with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself." Luke 10:27.
See also Deuteronomy 6:4, 5; Leviticus 19:18. In the Ten
Commandments these principles are carried out in detail, and made
applicable to the condition and circumstances of man.
"Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."
Jehovah, the eternal, self-existent, uncreated One, Himself the
Source and Sustainer of all, is alone entitled to supreme reverence
and worship. Man is forbidden to give to any other object the
first place in his affections or his service. Whatever we cherish
that tends to lessen our love for God or to interfere with the
service due Him, of that do we make a god.
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any
likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the
earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt
not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." [p. 306]
The second commandment forbids the worship of the true
God by images or similitudes. Many heathen nations claimed
that their images were mere figures or symbols by which the
Deity was worshiped, but God has declared such worship to
be sin. The attempt to represent the Eternal One by material
objects would lower man's conception of God. The mind,
turned away from the infinite perfection of Jehovah, would be
attracted to the creature rather than to the Creator. And as his
conceptions of God were lowered, so would man become
"I the Lord thy God am a jealous God." The close and sacred
relation of God to His people is represented under the figure of
marriage. Idolatry being spiritual adultery, the displeasure of
God against it is fitly called jealousy.
"Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto
the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me." It is
inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of
parental wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parents'
guilt, except as they participate in their sins. It is usually the
case, however, that children walk in the steps of their parents.
By inheritance and example the sons become partakers of the
father's sin. Wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and debased
morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy, are transmitted
as a legacy from father to son, to the third and fourth
generation. This fearful truth should have a solemn power to
restrain men from following a course of sin.
"Showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and
keep My commandments." In prohibiting the worship of false
gods, the second commandment by implication enjoins the worship
of the true God. And to those who are faithful in His
service, mercy is promised, not merely to the third and fourth
generation as is the wrath threatened against those who hate
Him, but to thousands of generations.
"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain:
for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name
This commandment not only prohibits false oaths and common
swearing, but it forbids us to use the name of God in a light
or careless manner, without regard to its awful significance. By
the thoughtless mention of God in common conversation, by
appeals to Him in trivial matters, and by the frequent and [p. 307] thoughtless repetition of His name, we dishonor Him. "Holy and
reverend is His name." Psalm 111:9. All should meditate upon
His majesty, His purity and holiness, that the heart may be
impressed with a sense of His exalted character; and His holy
name should be uttered with reverence and solemnity.
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt
thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the
Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work,
thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy
maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy
gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea,
and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore
the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it."
The Sabbath is not introduced as a new institution but as
having been founded at creation. It is to be remembered and
observed as the memorial of the Creator's work. Pointing to
God as the Maker of the heavens and the earth, it distinguishes
the true God from all false gods. All who keep the seventh day
signify by this act that they are worshipers of Jehovah. Thus
the Sabbath is the sign of man's allegiance to God as long as
there are any upon the earth to serve Him. The fourth
commandment is the only one of all the ten in which are found
both the name and the title of the Lawgiver. It is the only one
that shows by whose authority the law is given. Thus it contains
the seal of God, affixed to His law as evidence of its authenticity
and binding force.
God has given me six days wherein to labor, and He requires
that their own work be done in the six working days. Acts of
necessity and mercy are permitted on the Sabbath, the sick and
suffering are at all times to be cared for; but unnecessary
labor is to be strictly avoided. "Turn away thy foot from the
Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day; and call
the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and . . .
honor Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own
pleasure." Isaiah 58:13. Nor does the prohibition end here. "Nor
speaking thine own words," says the prophet. Those who discuss
business matters or lay plans on the Sabbath are regarded by
God as though engaged in the actual transaction of business.
To keep the Sabbath holy, we should not even allow our minds
to dwell upon things of a worldly character. And the
commandment includes all within our gates. The inmates of the [p. 308] house are to lay aside their worldly business during the sacred
hours. All should unite to honor God by willing service upon
His holy day.
"Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long
upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."
Parents are entitled to a degree of love and respect which is
due to no other person. God Himself, who has placed upon them
a responsibility for the souls committed to their charge, has
ordained that during the earlier years of life, parents shall stand
in the place of God to their children. And he who rejects the
rightful authority of his parents is rejecting the authority of
God. The fifth commandment requires children not only to yield
respect, submission, and obedience to their parents, but also to
give them love and tenderness, to lighten their cares, to guard
their reputation, and to succor and comfort them in old age. It
also enjoins respect for ministers and rulers and for all others
to whom God has delegated authority.
This, says the apostle, "is the first commandment with promise."
Ephesians 6:2. To Israel, expecting soon to enter Canaan,
it was a pledge to the obedient, of long life in that good, land;
but it has a wider meaning, including all the Israel of God, and
promising eternal life upon the earth when it shall be freed from
the curse of sin.
"Thou shalt not kill."
All acts of injustice that tend to shorten life; the spirit of hatred
and revenge, or the indulgence of any passion that leads to
injurious acts toward others, or causes us even to wish them harm
(for "whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer"); a selfish
neglect of caring for the needy or suffering; all self-indulgence
or unnecessary deprivation or excessive labor that tends to injure
health—all these are, to a greater or less degree, violations of
the sixth commandment.
"Thou shalt not commit adultery."
This commandment forbids not only acts of impurity, but
sensual thoughts and desires, or any practice that tends to excite
them. Purity is demanded not only in the outward life but
in the secret intents and emotions of the heart. Christ, who
taught the far-reaching obligation of the law of God, declared
the evil thought or look to be as truly sin as is the unlawful
"Thou shalt not steal." [p. 309]
Both public and private sins are included in this prohibition.
The eighth commandment condemns manstealing and slave
dealing, and forbids wars of conquest. It condemns theft and
robbery. It demands strict integrity in the minutest details of
the affairs of life. It forbids overreaching in trade, and requires
the payment of just debts or wages. It declares that every attempt
to advantage oneself by the ignorance, weakness, or misfortune
of another is registered as fraud in the books of heaven.
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
False speaking in any matter, every attempt or purpose to
deceive our neighbor, is here included. An intention to deceive
is what constitutes falsehood. By a glance of the eye, a motion
of the hand, an expression of the countenance, a falsehood may
be told as effectually as by words. All intentional overstatement,
every hint or insinuation calculated to convey an erroneous or
exaggerated impression, even the statement of facts in such a
manner as to mislead, is falsehood. This precept forbids every
effort to injure our neighbor's reputation by misrepresentation or
evil surmising, by slander or tale bearing. Even the intentional
suppression of truth, by which injury may result to others, is a
violation of the ninth commandment.
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not
covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant,
nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy
The tenth commandment strikes at the very root of all sins,
prohibiting the selfish desire, from which springs the sinful act.
He who in obedience to God's law refrains from indulging even
a sinful desire for that which belongs to another will not be guilty
of an act of wrong toward his fellow creatures.
Such were the sacred precepts of the Decalogue, spoken amid
thunder and flame, and with a wonderful display of the power
and majesty of the great Lawgiver. God accompanied the proclamation
of His law with exhibitions of His power and glory,
that His people might never forget the scene, and that they might
be impressed with profound veneration for the Author of the
law, the Creator of heaven and earth. He would also show to
all men the sacredness, the importance, and the permanence of
The people of Israel were overwhelmed with terror. The
awful power of God's utterances seemed more than their trembling
hearts could bear. For as God's great rule of right was [p. 310] presented before them, they realized as never before the offensive
character of sin, and their own guilt in the sight of a holy
God. They shrank away from the mountain in fear and awe.
The multitude cried out to Moses, "Speak thou with us, and
we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die." The
leader answered, "Fear not: for God is come to prove you,
and that His fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not."
The people, however, remained at a distance, gazing in terror
upon the scene, while Moses "drew near unto the thick darkness
where God was."
The minds of the people, blinded and debased by slavery
and heathenism, were not prepared to appreciate fully the
far-reaching principles of God's ten precepts. That the obligations
of the Decalogue might be more fully understood and enforced,
additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the
principles of the Ten Commandments. These laws were called
judgments, both because they were framed in infinite wisdom and
equity and because the magistrates were to give judgment according
to them. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they were delivered
privately to Moses, who was to communicate them to the people.
The first of these laws related to servants. In ancient times
criminals were sometimes sold into slavery by the judges; in
some cases, debtors were sold by their creditors; and poverty
even led persons to sell themselves or their children. But a
Hebrew could not be sold as a slave for life. His term of service
was limited to six years; on the seventh he was to be set at
liberty. Manstealing, deliberate murder, and rebellion against
parental authority were to be punished with death. The holding
of slaves not of Israelitish birth was permitted, but their life
and person were strictly guarded. The murderer of a slave was to
be punished; an injury inflicted upon one by his master, though
no more than the loss of a tooth, entitled him to his freedom.
The Israelites had lately been servants themselves, and now
that they were to have servants under them, they were to
beware of indulging the spirit of cruelty and exaction from
which they had suffered under their Egyptian taskmasters. The
memory of their own bitter servitude should enable them to
put themselves in the servant's place, leading them to be kind
and compassionate, to deal with others as they would wish to be
The rights of widows and orphans were especially guarded,
and a tender regard for their helpless condition was enjoined. [p. 311] "If thou afflict them in any wise," the Lord declared, "and
they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My
wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and
your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless." Aliens
who united themselves with Israel were to be protected from
wrong or oppression. "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for
ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the
land of Egypt."
The taking of usury from the poor was forbidden. A poor
man's raiment or blanket taken as a pledge, must be restored
to him at nightfall. He who was guilty of theft was required
to restore double. Respect for magistrates and rulers was enjoined,
and judges were warned against perverting judgment,
aiding a false cause, or receiving bribes. Calumny and slander
were prohibited, and acts of kindness enjoined, even toward
Again the people were reminded of the sacred obligation of
the Sabbath. Yearly feasts were appointed, at which all the
men of the nation were to assemble before the Lord, bringing
to Him their offerings of gratitude and the first fruits of His
bounties. The object of all these regulations was stated: they
proceeded from no exercise of mere arbitrary sovereignty; all
were given for the good of Israel. The Lord said, "Ye shall be
holy men unto Me"—worthy to be acknowledged by a holy God.
These laws were to be recorded by Moses, and carefully
treasured as the foundation of the national law, and, with the
ten precepts which they were given to illustrate, the condition
of the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel.
The message was now given them from Jehovah: "Behold,
I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to
bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of
Him, and obey His voice, provoke Him not; for He will not
pardon your transgressions: for My name is in Him. But if
thou shalt indeed obey His voice, and do all that I speak; then
I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto
thine adversaries." During all the wanderings of Israel, Christ,
in the pillar of cloud and of fire, was their Leader. While there
were types pointing to a Saviour to come, there was also a present
Saviour, who gave commands to Moses for the people, and who
was set forth before them as the only channel of blessing.
Upon descending from the mountain, "Moses came and told
the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments: [p. 312] and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the
words which the Lord hath said will we do." This pledge, together
with the words of the Lord which it bound them to obey,
was written by Moses in a book.
Then followed the ratification of the covenant. An altar was
built at the foot of the mountain, and beside it twelve pillars
were set up, "according to the twelve tribes of Israel," as a testimony
to their acceptance of the covenant. Sacrifices were then
presented by young men chosen for the service.
Having sprinkled the altar with the blood of the offerings,
Moses "took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience
of the people." Thus the conditions of the covenant were solemnly
repeated, and all were at liberty to choose whether or not they
would comply with them. They had at the first promised to obey
the voice of God; but they had since heard His law proclaimed;
and its principles had been particularized, that they might know
how much this covenant involved. Again the people answered
with one accord, "All that the Lord hath said will we do, and
be obedient." "When Moses had spoken every precept to all
the people according to the law, he took the blood, . . . and
sprinkled both the book and all the people, saying, This is the
blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you."
Hebrews 9:19, 20.
Arrangements were now to be made for the full establishment
of the chosen nation under Jehovah as their king. Moses
had received the command, "Come up unto the Lord, thou,
and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of
Israel; and worship ye afar off. And Moses alone shall come
near the Lord." While the people worshiped at its foot, these
chosen men were called up into the mount. The seventy elders
were to assist Moses in the government of Israel, and God put
upon them His Spirit, and honored them with a view of His
power and greatness. "And they saw the God of Israel: and
there was under His feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire
stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness." They
did not behold the Deity, but they saw the glory of His presence.
Before this they could not have endured such a scene; but the
exhibition of God's power had awed them to repentance; they
had been contemplating His glory, purity, and mercy, until
they could approach nearer to Him who was the subject of
their meditations. [p. 313]
Moses and "his minister Joshua" were now summoned to
meet with God. And as they were to be some time absent, the
leader appointed Aaron and Hur, assisted by the elders, to act
in his stead. "And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud
covered the mount. And the glory of the Lord abode upon
Mount Sinai." For six days the cloud covered the mountain
as a token of God's special presence; yet there was no revelation
of Himself or communication of His will. During this time
Moses remained in waiting for a summons to the presence
chamber of the Most High. He had been directed, "Come up
to Me into the mount, and be there," and though his patience
and obedience were tested, he did not grow weary of watching,
or forsake his post. This period of waiting was to him a time
of preparation, of close self-examination. Even this favored
servant of God could not at once approach into His presence and
endure the exhibitions of His glory. Six days must be employed
in devoting himself to God by searching of heart, meditation,
and prayer before he could be prepared for direct communication
with his Maker.
Upon the seventh day, which was the Sabbath, Moses was
called up into the cloud. The thick cloud opened in the sight of
all Israel, and the glory of the Lord broke forth like devouring
fire. "And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat
him up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days
and forty nights." The forty days' tarry in the mount did not
include the six days of preparation. During the six days Joshua
was with Moses, and together they ate of the manna and drank
of "the brook that descended out of the mount." But Joshua
did not enter with Moses into the cloud. He remained without,
and continued to eat and drink daily while awaiting the return
of Moses, but Moses fasted during the entire forty days.
During his stay in the mount, Moses received directions for
the building of a sanctuary in which the divine presence would
be specially manifested. "Let them make Me a sanctuary; that
I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8), was the command
of God. For the third time the observance of the Sabbath was
enjoined. "It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel
forever," the Lord declared, "that ye may know that I am Jehovah
that doth sanctify you. Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore;
for it is holy unto you. . . . Whosoever doeth any work therein,
that soul shall be cut off from among his people." Exodus 31:17, [p. 314] 13, 14. Directions had just been given for the immediate erection
of the tabernacle for the service of God; and now the people
might conclude, because the object had in view was the glory
of God, and also because of their great need of a place of
worship, that they would be justified in working at the building
upon the Sabbath. To guard them from this error, the warning
was given. Even the sacredness and urgency of that special
work for God must not lead them to infringe upon His holy
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Henceforth the people were to be honored with the abiding
presence of their King. "I will dwell among the children
of Israel, and will be their God," "and the tabernacle shall be
sanctified by My glory" (Exodus 29:45, 43), was the assurance
given to Moses. As the symbol of God's authority and the
embodiment of His will, there was delivered to Moses a copy of
the Decalogue engraved by the finger of God Himself upon two
tables of stone (Deuteronomy 9:10; Exodus 32:15, 16), to be
sacredly enshrined in the sanctuary, which, when made, was to
be the visible center of the nation's worship.
From a race of slaves the Israelites had been exalted above all
peoples to be the peculiar treasure of the King of kings. God
had separated them from the world, that He might commit to
them a sacred trust. He had made them the depositaries of His
law, and He purposed, through them, to preserve among men
the knowledge of Himself. Thus the light of heaven was to
shine out to a world enshrouded in darkness, and a voice was
to be heard appealing to all peoples to turn from their idolatry
to serve the living God. If the Israelites would be true to their
trust, they would become a power in the world. God would be
their defense, and He would exalt them above all other nations.
His light and truth would be revealed through them, and they
would stand forth under His wise and holy rule as an example
of the superiority of His worship over every form of idolatry.
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"Idolatry at Sinai"