by Al Maxey

Issue #286 ------- January 30, 2007
Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can
be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change
the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.

Martin Luther King, Jr. {1929-1968}

The Seven Noahide Laws
A Universal Moral Code
Given Through Adam & Noah

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. [1841-1935], in a speech delivered in Boston on January 8, 1897, uttered these very insightful words: "The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race." The apostle Paul penned the following thoughts to the disciples of Christ Jesus in the city of Rome: "Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through law" [Rom. 7:7]. Earlier he wrote, "Through law comes the knowledge of sin" [Rom. 3:20]. Each of these great men, in their own way, have shown the inherent value of law to the moral development of mankind. Not only does it serve as an objective witness to man's morality, or lack thereof, but it further serves as a guide for our forward progress, placing visible boundaries and barriers along the way to prevent us from plummeting off the side of this upward pathway into the depths of moral depravity.

Every society, whether primitive or modern, has developed some system of law to govern its people. Although the specifics of these various moral codes may vary greatly from place to place, people to people, and culture to culture, nevertheless most are clearly based on some inner awareness of a higher standard by which men are to order their attitudes and actions. James Anthony Froude [1818-1894] observed, in his classic work Short Studies on Great Subjects, "Our human laws are but the copies, more or less imperfect, of the eternal laws, so far as we can read them." On the other hand, there is an inherent danger in the laws formed by men: they may well be contrary to the eternal will of our Creator. Abraham Lincoln [1809-1865] correctly cautioned, "You must remember that some things that are legally right are not morally right." When faced with a choice between the two, our obligation is to the latter. Pope John XXIII [1881-1963] declared, "If civil authorities pass laws or command anything opposed to the moral order, and consequently contrary to the will of God, neither the laws made nor the authorization granted can be binding on the consciences of the citizen since God has more right to be obeyed than men." Of course, this principle was around long before it was uttered by the Pope. When commanded by the Jewish Council to cease preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus Christ, "Peter and the apostles answered and said, 'We must obey God rather than men'" [Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19]. The great writer Leo Tolstoy [1828-1910] summed it up nicely -- "Let a man but realize that the purpose of his life is to fulfill the law of God, and that law will dominate him and supplant all other laws, and by its supreme dominion will in his eyes deprive all human laws of their right to command and restrict him."

If indeed there is such a universal, eternal moral code from which all other human law is ultimately derived, as most now believe, might we expect to find, perhaps in our distant past, some evidence of the existence of these basic governing principles? Some scholars have not only strongly suggested that "there is a universal moral code which is the legacy of all the peoples of the earth," but that it is clearly discernible. In other words, underlying all moral codes is the moral code: precepts and principles that were made known to mankind by their Creator from the very dawn of human history. What is this universal moral code? Most scholars feel it is a very basic list of seven moral imperatives known collectively as the Noahide Laws, or the Seven Laws of Noah. These laws, in turn, were predated by the Six Laws of Adam. Indeed, the former are based upon the latter, with a seventh law added. These two moral codes, which are basically identical, may be perceived, it is believed, in a careful examination of the Old Testament writings, in particular: the book of Genesis. In recent years, as we all become increasingly a genuine global community, tied together by technology, there is a growing interest in this universal moral code. A few weeks ago a minister in California wrote asking, "Have you ever heard of the Noahide Laws? These were supposedly laws that predated the Ten Commandments given to Moses, and comprised the basis of what Noah preached. I would appreciate it if you would tackle this topic at some time in the future."

One might wonder why the interest in these ancient moral imperatives (which many believe were reaffirmed with Moses and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, being expanded into the Ten Commandments). In part, it is to affirm that God has always, even from the very beginning, had a "code of conduct" for mankind, and that man was never left to speculate as to the will of his Creator. Also, since much of what we know about the will of God is contained within the writings and history of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, one is naturally led to wonder if God has a moral code in place for those outside these parameters. In other words, how may the rest of humanity live uprightly before their Creator? How may they be saved? I have previously dealt with this question in some depth in Reflections #158 -- Grace and the Caveman: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light, to which I would refer the reader for further study of this very challenging question. Concern for those outside the Judaeo-Christian heritage has always been on the hearts and minds of those disciples with an outward focus. Has our merciful God made provision for them, and, if so, what might it be? The Noahide Laws seem to be the answer, at least in part, for many people. According to the tenets of Judaism, for example, any non-Jew who lives according to these ancient, universal moral imperatives is to be regarded by the Jews as "a righteous Gentile" and worthy of salvation from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. According to the Jewish Talmud, these ancient Noahide Laws are applicable to all of humanity, and are the basis whereby "righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come" [Sanhedrin 105a]. In fact, a goyim ("non-Jew") who purposefully and faithfully keeps the Noahide Law is believed to be on the same moral and spiritual level as the Jewish priests [Talmud, Bava Kamma 38a].

In Genesis 9:9 God said to Noah, "Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you." It is believed that at this time God imparted to Noah the moral imperatives that He had previously imparted to Adam, but which mankind had largely rejected (which ultimately brought about their destruction in the flood). Then God said to Noah, "This the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth" [Gen. 9:12-13]. Sir Isaac Newton [1642-1727], as he conducted numerous experiments in physics, came to the conclusion that the colors of the rainbow were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Seven colors representing the Seven laws given to Noah, or so the theory goes. Throughout the centuries, in fact, those groups embracing these laws as the foundation of their relationship with deity have invariably adopted the rainbow as their symbol of this covenant. Thus, the association between the two is a very common one, as well as an ancient one. These seven universal moral imperatives (six negative, one positive) are:

  1. Prohibition against Idolatry. God has always desired mankind to believe in, worship, and serve Him alone. The deification or worship of any other object of creation or living being (whether man or animal) is forbidden. Noah apparently understood this restriction, for when he emerged from the ark "he built an altar to the Lord" [Gen. 8:20]. God's subsequent declaration to Noah [Gen. 9:1-17] is filled with clear statements evidencing that God, and God alone, is sovereign. This became the first and second of the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20:1-6]. In the Talmud [Sanhedrin 56b] it is maintained that these laws were first given to Adam and Eve, and that they can be perceived in Gen. 2:16-17. "The Lord commanded the man ..." [vs. 16]. It is maintained this denotes the giving of a moral code, and that it originates with THE Lord, and none other!

  2. Prohibition against Blasphemy. Since He is "The Lord" there must be no speaking evil against Him. To curse the Creator is to invite His wrath. Noah had personally witnessed the fate of those who had arrayed themselves against the Lord. Man had been made in the very image of God [Gen. 9:6], and yet they had denied Him by their lives. Men may "blaspheme" by their works as well as their words, for all of life is a testimony seen and heard by others. "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain" [Exodus 20:7]. This is the third of ten commands given by God to Moses. Adam and Eve perhaps also knew they had been made in His likeness [Gen. 1:26-27]. They were forbidden, however, to try and elevate themselves above their affixed place -- should they eat of the forbidden fruit they would become "like God" [Gen. 3:5]. To seek to elevate oneself to His level, or above, is indeed blasphemous.

  3. Prohibition against Murder. Since man is created in the very image of God, to murder such a one is not only an offense against the man, but also against his Creator who formed him in His likeness. Jesus makes it very clear that whatever we do unto His people, we also do unto Him [Matt. 25:40, 45]. That is why Jesus said to Saul of Tarsus, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" [Acts 9:4]. The sixth commandment is: "Thou shalt not murder" [Exodus 20:13]. Unto Noah, God said, "Whoever sheds man's blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image" [Gen. 9:6]. Adam and Eve experienced the horrors of murder firsthand when Cain killed Abel. From the very beginning such actions were known to be wrong, which points to an implied awareness of this set of moral imperatives.

  4. Prohibition against Illicit Sexual Relations. This would certainly include a great many immoral actions. We know from Gen. 2:20, for example, that bestiality is forbidden, for there was no suitable mate found for Adam among these other species. God gave a woman to this man, and he was to "cleave to his wife," and they would "become one flesh" [Gen. 2:24]. Obviously, this would exclude any male-male sexual unions (or female-female). Such was not the Lord's intent. Moses instructed the people: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" [Exodus 20:14]. He further charged them: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" [vs. 17]. When God saved Noah and his family, He saved them in couples: "But I will establish My covenant with you -- you and your sons and your wife, and your sons wives with you" [Gen. 6:18]. Throughout Scripture God's Ideal for the covenant of marriage is upheld, and abuses are dealt with firmly. God has always expected purity in our relationships with one another. "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge" [Heb. 13:4].

  5. Prohibition against Theft. "Thou shalt not steal" [Exodus 20:15]. Adam and Eve were told they could not take and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil [Gen. 2:17]. They did so anyway, which constituted the taking of that which was not theirs to take, and that is theft. Taking another's mate; taking another's life; taking another's possessions ... all constitute theft. This has been forbidden by God from the very beginning.

  6. Prohibition against Eating Living Flesh. It was to be understood that the life was in the blood [Gen. 9:4; cf. Lev. 7:26-27; 17:10-16; Deut. 12:23]. It was apparently not until God's covenant with Noah that "every living thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant" [Gen. 9:3]. It appears mankind, from the days of Adam, was restricted to fruits, grains and vegetables, which also implies this restriction was conveyed to Adam and Eve and their descendants in some manner. This restriction is now lifted, but God forbids eating the life blood. Some believe this includes removing limbs from living animals and consuming them while the animal remains alive and maimed. Apparently in later years some actually practiced this, since preserving meat was so difficult in those days. Therefore, they would eat the animal piece by piece. God refused to condone such cruelty to a living being. This law was not part of the six associated with Adam, since eating flesh was not an issue at that time.

  7. Establish Courts of Justice. This simply suggests a need to establish some human authority to administer and enforce these divine directives. It does not necessarily suggest a court system as we might envisage today, but some judicial authority (which might simply have been Adam, and later Noah, as heads of their family). Such was often the case in a patriarchal society. As mankind increased upon the face of the earth, following both Adam and Noah, there would become greater need for greater organization of such judicial authority.

Some Christians perceive in the decrees of the Jerusalem Council (50 A.D.) a fundamental knowledge of these Noahide Laws -- "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well" [Acts 15:28-29]. These were directives specifically for the Gentiles, and they do indeed sound quite similar to the ancient, universal moral imperatives of Adam and Noah. The Gentiles would also be familiar with them, and would recognize them as something more than just the peculiarities of Judaism. They constituted a moral code quite common to mankind. Thus, we find in the Noahide Laws an ancient ancestor to our current Judaeo-Christian moral code, as well as a unifying link to the rest of humanity. There is indeed but One True God, whose will for mankind is unchanged. Love for God, love for our fellowman, and love for His creation is the unifying force behind all law, primitive or modern, a fact perhaps perceived more clearly in these simple codes of the past than in our complex systems of today.

Maybe Jesus and Paul summed it all up best when they both narrowed down LAW to this single, simple divine principle. When a lawyer asked the Lord what the greatest commandment was, He immediately replied: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets" [Matt. 22:37-40]. "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" [John 13:35]. To the Roman brethren, Paul the apostle wrote, "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled law. For this: 'You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of law" [Rom. 13:8-10]. Yes, "when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts" [Rom. 2:14-15]. In reality, mankind has never been left without direction from above. Whether written on stone or hearts, God has revealed His will to His creation. Those who hear and heed that available light from above shall be blessed.

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From a Minister in Mississippi:

Thanks for all you do, brother! I continue to be amazed at the many problems created by our "patternism-gone-to-seed" brethren. What is even more amazing is the realization that I myself was there 30 years or more ago. I still don't think of myself as a "wild-eyed liberal," but I'm certainly not where I was. Keep our feet to the fire, brother!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, You always do such an excellent job in writing and providing such great material. I've used your material on different subjects several times in my Wednesday night class and in the small group class. In fact, I have printed out your article on baptism for the dead [Issue #154] to pass out to my Wednesday evening class tonight, and also for our small group Bible study tomorrow evening. Keep up the good work.

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Brother Al, "I Bring A Sword" was another excellent article! Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, Thank you for a powerful study today! Blessings and love to you.

From a D.Min./Author in Alabama:

Dear Brother Al, I intend to order your latest issue of Reflections on CD within the week. As I peruse your essays, I never cease to be amazed at your ability to capture the very heart of the subject in a very clear and lucid style. As I have expressed before, you are contributing greatly toward unity and a greater understanding of how to interpret the Word of God. In your writings, you continuously call attention to the context. If Christians could only learn the following three basic rules of interpretation, many problems could be resolved within the community of resurrection: Context, Context, Context. There is no doubt that you are impacting the community of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is clear from your writings that the word "church" has no plural. The church is not a human organization, but a community of which Jesus Christ is Lord. One cannot read your writings without a consciousness that the church is a place where support and forgiveness and encouragement are given. Also, you call attention to the familiarity of traditions, which traditions have dulled our minds to the startling and revolutionary teachings of the Scriptures concerning the Gospel of God. In conclusion, your writings reveal a desire to encourage Christians to listen to the Word in order to open up their hearts and minds to the message of the Grace and Truth that came by Jesus Christ.

From a Minister in Louisiana:

Al, I surely do enjoy your articles! Such good stuff to think upon and to help us make changes in our understanding. Thanks for your work! Take care, my brother. Your courage is a great example to us all.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Al, I have been a police officer for 28 years and counting, and have to constantly remain in prayer and meditation while "watching my hide" in those streets that I work. So, I grab opportunities to read the Word and glean understanding from the teachings of Christ wherever and whenever I can get them. Pray for me as I strive to be just a small image of Jesus Christ on these streets. Also, I just wanted to say that I highly appreciate your gift of teaching ... actually, HIS gift He has bestowed within you. The workload of a major metropolitan cop is very heavy, as you can imagine, but your teachings have helped me! Keep on sharing, my dear brother!

From a Minister in Oregon:

Bro. Al, It is interesting that you brought up "swords" in your most recent Reflections. There is a passage I have been having a hard time with, and have asked several people about it, but don't feel I've received a clear enough or good enough answer yet. It is Luke 22:35-38, in which Jesus says to His disciples, "Let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one." Then, just a few verses later [vs. 49-51], when a sword is actually used, He tells them not to. If Jesus didn't want the disciples to use the swords, then why have them buy them? Perhaps you could provide some insight.

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Dear Bro. Al, One of the things I am running across here in Kentucky is the subject of a woman's dress and appearance. In particular, I am trying to come to an understanding of 1 Tim. 2:9 and a similar passage in 1 Pet. 3:3-5. Do these passages forbid a woman to wear jewelry? Do they teach that a woman must not wear makeup? I don't know if you have written about this, but if you haven't, would you maybe devote a Reflections article to it? Thanks so much!

From a Reader in [Withheld by Request]:

Al, I can attest to what you wrote in Reflections #276 --- Trim Not Thy Tresses. I grew up in a One Cup church in Texas. My mom had to quit cutting her hair when she married my dad because he went to the One Cup Church of Christ. She was criticized for letting my sister and me get our bangs cut or our LONG hair trimmed just a little to get rid of the split ends. I left the church in 1986 and didn't dare cut my hair for three years because I knew it would break my parents' heart. Growing up I had always heard, "Those girls who leave the church, that's the very first thing they all do -- cut their hair!" My mom and sister still have very long hair, although my sister did finally leave the One Cup Church of Christ two years ago for a "liberal" one. I have to tell you, because of my experiences as a child, I could never attend any Church of Christ again! Thanks for your Reflections articles, however. I'm so glad that you are trying to make things better in the Churches of Christ.

From a Minister/Elder in Missouri:

Bro. Al, I am preparing a series of lessons on the Lord's Supper so am rereading all your Reflections articles on this topic, and also John Mark Hicks' book "Come To The Table." I even have your Lord's Supper handouts that you made for us when you did a class on this topic in Santa Fe, NM back in the late 1980's. I don't throw anything away!! In any event, I hope all is well with you and Shelly. I have pointed a number of people to your articles. Even my church secretary has started reading your Reflections, and has taken a great interest in what you state in your writings. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, My husband and I have been studying your Reflections articles for several months. I want to tell you how much you have helped us to heal through the issues we have experienced, and to get us where we can now go forward in our lives. We have lived in Georgia for several years and have been very active in the churches in our area. Unfortunately, the experiences have not all been happy ones. I hate to say it, but we have never experienced as difficult an area to worship and serve. We have lived in other states so we know things could be different. Because of this, we are beginning to actively look "outside the box." This is painful for us. My husband comes from a long line of family who have been members of the Churches of Christ. I was baptized as a young wife when my husband was serving in Vietnam. We truly are "wounded ducks." Our concern is where do we go from here? Do you ever talk to someone person-to-person on your subscriber list?

From a Reader in Missouri:

Dear Brother Maxey, First, thanks so much for your weekly Reflections. They are so helpful. Also, I am enclosing a book by Dr. Benny Tabalujan -- God on Monday: Reflections on Christians at Work -- who is a professor at the University of Melbourne. I hope you enjoy this gift. I find it striking that God has used a professor of law in Australia and a preacher in New Mexico to guide me out of legalism!! I have heard countless lessons from numerous preachers locally, but God chose to enlighten me with the writings of two guys far away! Thank you.

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[A Cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy]

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