What are the Moral Laws of God in the Old Testament?

Moral laws in the Old Testament were not given only to the theocracy of Israel but these were laws based on God’s character and his design for his creation in this world.  Many of these laws were known orally for thousands of years before Moses ever wrote them into the laws of the Mosaic Covenant.

Before continuing reading this article I would suggest you read my article “What is the distinction between the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil laws of the Old Testament?”.  In that article, I show how the Mosaic Law is broken down into three categories – Moral, Ceremonial and Civil. I demonstrated from writings of the Apostles that while we as Christians are no longer under the Ceremonial or Civil law of the Old Covenant we as Christians are still required to obey the Moral law of the Old Covenant.

Two ways moral laws are presented in the Old Testament

Moral laws in the Old Testament are presented in one of two ways.  They are either a positive or negative command that stands alone like “do this” or “don’t do that” or they are sometimes found inside civil laws like “if you do this then the punishment or restitution for doing that is this.”

Now we will look at several moral laws that stand on their own and also some moral laws which are contained in civil laws to illustrate how we can search out and find the moral law of God in the Old Testament.

The 10 commandments – Moral law that stands on its own

Nine of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) are recognized as the unchanging moral law of God in the New Testament.  Only the Sabbath law of the ten commandments is rescinded under the New Covenant. But as I pointed out in my article “What is the distinction between the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil laws of the Old Testament?” the New Testament tells us there is more to God’s moral law than just nine of the ten commandments.

Israel’s Civil laws also reveal the Moral law of God

Murder (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17,21)

Striking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17)

Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)

Failure to lock up a dangerous animal that results in someone’s death (Exodus 21:28-29)

Sorcery and Witchcraft (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5, 1 Samuel 28:9)

Bestiality (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)

Working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14, 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36)

Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)

Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5)

Adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)

Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)

Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)

False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20)

Refusal to obey a decision of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12)

Perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)

A woman falsely claiming to be a virgin before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

Sexual relations between a woman pledged to be married and a man other than her husband to be (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Rebellion against parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

What we learn from these Civil laws of Israel

The first thing we notice about all these civil laws mentioned above is that each one is actually a violation of God’s moral law. This shows the principle that many civil laws that God gave to Israel also contained his moral law.

As Christians we can without shame look to the moral parts of the civil law of Israel as part of our basis for understanding God’s moral law.  Obviously, we need to look at the entire revelation of God’s moral law as also found in the New Testament to get a complete understanding of God’s moral law. But we should not do as many Christian Churches and teachers do today and simply dismiss the Old Testament as any basis for moral law.

But if we follow the moral law don’t we have to follow the punishments?

In many cases the punishments prescribed for these violations of moral law fell to the civil government of Israel as a theocracy (which was made up of Israel’s town elders, judges, prophets, Kings and Priests).  The theocracy of Israel is now gone.  We live under our various governments in the nations of the world today and the Church is now a group called out from every tribe and nation of the world.  If our various governments wanted to adopt some of Israel’s punishments for laws that would be within their God given power to do so.  As individual Christians, or even as families and churches we do not have the right to execute these punishments – but that does not mean we cannot uphold the moral law found in these civil laws.

What do we do with moral laws regarding priests?

“And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.”

Deuteronomy 17:12 (KJV)

One of the civil laws that I mentioned in the list above had to do with disobeying the orders of priests and judges. Obviously, judges would directly correlate to governments we may be under in whatever form they take. The New Testament confirms this principle of obey our governing authorities:

“13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”

1 Peter 2:13-14 (KJV)

But what about the Old Testament priesthood? In the New Testament, we as believers are all priests before God according to I Peter 2:9.  So how can we translate God’s moral law to obey the judgment of priests to the New Covenant era? Well the priests were more than just those who made sacrifices for the people.  They were also called to be the moral and spiritual authorities of the people and that is why we see sometimes God saying the elders of the town would decide on certain things and on other things the priests would decide.  In a theocracy like Israel there is always some overlap between the civil government and church government.

But to answer the larger question is that while the priesthood of the Old Testament is not an exact correlation to Pastors in the church (despite our Catholic friends who try to say otherwise) they are the closest equivalent.  So, in this case New Covenant believers would see the moral law of Deuteronomy 17:12 regarding the judgment of priests to correspond to Hebrews 13:7:

“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

Hebrews 13:7 (KJV)

Speaking of judgements.  The New Testament actually says that Christians should not go against each other in civil courts but should judge issues between themselves

What about family laws in the Mosaic law?

There are a great number of laws concerning marriage and the role of a husband and father in the life of his wives and children.

God does not allow close relatives to marry

“And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people: he hath uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity.”

Leviticus 20:17 (KJV)

While in the beginning of God’s creation there was no restriction on brothers and sisters marrying (and it was actually required in the case of Adam and Eve’s children), later God would remove this allowance and make sibling marriage along with all other close relative marriages a sin.  As we can see this applied even to siblings that were not blood related.  His mother could have brought a daughter in from a previous marriage if she were a widow and even though he was not blood related to her was forbidden from marrying her.

Our modern incest laws only apply to close blood relatives like a mother or father trying to marry their child or blood brothers and sisters marrying. But as we can see in the Scriptures – God’s incest laws are much wider than just blood relatives marrying.

“11 And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.12 And if a man lie with his daughter in law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them.”

Leviticus 20:11-12 (KJV)

So, in this case this is talking about a man having sex with his father’s wife (not just his mother – but any wife of his father) and it also forbids a man from having sex with his daughter-in-law (not a blood relative).

The Apostle Paul confirms for us that the incest laws of the Mosaic law are lasting moral law when he condemned a man for having his father’s wife:

 “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.”

1 Corinthians 5:1 (KJV)

What this means practically speaking is this.  Let’s say a man’s wife dies and he marries a younger woman. Perhaps she is the same age as his son.  Later that man dies leaving his wife a young widow.  Even though she is not a blood relative – his son may not marry his father’s wife even after his death. American law would allow this – God’s law does not.

Divorce and Remarriage

This is a huge topic and the Old Testament as a lot to say about it. See my post “For what reasons does God allow divorce” to look at divorce from Moses, to Christ and then to the Apostle Paul.

A man can override his wife and daughter’s decisions

“3 If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father’s house in her youth; 4 And her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her; then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand.  5 But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her.

6 And if she had at all an husband, when she vowed, or uttered ought out of her lips, wherewith she bound her soul; 7 And her husband heard it, and held his peace at her in the day that he heard it: then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. 8 But if her husband disallowed her on the day that he heard it; then he shall make her vow which she vowed, and that which she uttered with her lips, wherewith she bound her soul, of none effect: and the Lord shall forgive her.”

Numbers 30:3-8 (KJV)

Here we see that a daughter’s decisions can be overridden by her father and a wife’s decisions can be overridden by her husband.

Some have tried to point to the phrase “being in her father’s house in her youth” as saying this only applies to minor women living in their father’s home.  So, they maintain that if a woman were to become and adult or just decide to leave her father’s home he can no longer override her decisions. But this passage tells us the only women who could make their own decisions without the ability to be overridden by their father or their husband:

“But every vow of a widow, and of her that is divorced, wherewith they have bound their souls, shall stand against her.”

Numbers 30:9 (KJV)

A widow or a woman was divorced would have her decisions stand. Also, a woman whose parents were dead and had no male relatives to inherit her father’s estate would inherit his estate waiting for a kinsman redeemer to take on the property.  She could choose the man she married and make her own decisions until she was married (Numbers 36).

This principle of a father overriding his daughter’s decision of marriage or having his daughter to marry a man is seen here:

“16 And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.”

Exodus 22:16-17 (KJV)

So here we have a daughter being romanced and seduced by a man.  He may even truly love her and ask for her to marry him and gives herself to him in marriage.  The fact that she has willingly given herself to him and they have sex does not make this marriage valid if she was still under her father’s authority and ownership.

Now only could her father invalidate such a marriage made without his consent – but he could demand reparations as his property – his daughter, had been wrongly taken without his consent.  Now the father could decide not to refuse to give his daughter to this man and if he did not refuse, her vow of marriage to this man would then stand and the marriage would now be valid.

A man has more than authority over his women, he has ownership over them

There are many types of authorities in the Bible. There are priests, prophets, pastors, governors, masters, parents and husbands among others.

But there are some people that are more than just authorities over others.  Some authorities actually own those under their authorities.

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

Exodus 20:17 (KJV)

The 10th commandment is full of God’s moral truths.

It teaches us about the fact that God has given man a right to pursue owning private property (as opposed to right to have it just given to him as we see today).

It teaches us that men should not desire to unlawfully possess another’s man’s property (and the 8th commandment tells us he should not allow this desire for unlawful possession to turn into theft).

It also gives us examples of private property.  A man’s house, his wife, his male and female slaves, his ox, his ass(donkey).

Some have tried to say this does not show a man’s ownership over his wife.  Yet all the other things mentioned in this list are clearly property.  Contrary to American ideals – God gave men the right to pursue ownership of other people.

“45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.

46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.”

Leviticus 25:45-46 (KJV)

God also gave men the right to sell their children as property to others:

“And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.”

Exodus 21:7 (KJV)

For Israelite men that were sold by their parents – it was more of a rental than a permanent sale.  It was indentured servitude.  But when a woman was sold by her father to another man – she literally became his property. He could continue to use her as just a servant or he could later take her and make her his wife or give her to one of his sons as a wife.

This is also why men gave their daughters in marriage (Exodus 22:17) and why men set their wives free in divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1 & Exodus 21:10-11).

The point is that the 10th commandment as well as the language of men’s rights over their women proves that God gave men not only authority over their wives and daughters – but also ownership over them as well.

Was ownership of men over their wives and children only cultural a part of God’s moral law?

In a previous post “What is the distinction between the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil laws of the Old Testament?” after expounding upon the Scriptures regarding the Mosaic law I said this:

“Well if we remove the Ceremonial laws and the Civil laws of the Old Covenant what are we left with? The Moral law of God. This law existed before Moses wrote it down as part of God’s law for Israel as a theocracy and this law is still in effect for Christians under the New Covenant.”

The New Testament makes it clear that the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel are rescinded in the New Covenant.  However, as I shown through multiple New Testament passages – the moral law of God is upheld and carried over in the New Covenant.

So here are questions we can ask to determine if a father’s ownership over his wife and daughter were temporary ceremonial or civil laws pertaining to Israel that have been done away with in the New Covenant:

  1. Do these laws pertain to ceremonial washings, sacrifices, festivals, or priestly issues? The answer to this question is NO.
  2. Do these laws pertain to the civil government of Israel? Do we see mentions of priests, judges or town elders being involved in marriage, divorce or decisions of fathers with their children or with their wives? The answer is NO. The only mention of anything civil related in these family laws is the bride price or execution for a man who violates another man’s wife or his betrothed. So, while the penalties and reparations in these laws related to the family – the violations of these laws were part of God’s moral law.
  3. Is there anything in the New Testament that would seem to change the relationship presented here between men and women and more specifically between fathers and their daughters or husbands and their wives? The answer is NO.

So, there is no evidence that we can dismiss the ownership of men over their women as simply a cultural aspect of Israel.  The New Testament only strengthens the idea that women are to be under the headship of men in all aspects of God’s creation.

“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”

I Corinthians 11:3 (KJV)

The concept of men’s ownership over their wives and children was an accepted truth in just about every culture both before the Mosaic law and for thousands of years after the fall of the Israelite theocracy.  It was only in the 19th century that the concept of men owning their wives and children first began to be questioned.  When feminism fully took root in western culture in the 20th century the ownership of men over their wives and children was rejected by both American culture and eventually American law.

Today it is common in Christian circles to dismiss the concept of men owning their wives and daughters as the cultural byproduct of a backward age of humanity.  There are two reasons for this.  One is the moral opposition to one human owning another as this brings us back to the horrible treatment of slaves in America.  The other is that the feminist ideals of our culture make it completely incompatible for a man to own his wife or daughter.

See two these posts for more on the subject of human property and slavery from a Biblical perspective:

Does the Bible teach the concept of “Human Property?

Why Christians shouldn’t be ashamed of Slavery in the Bible

Men and women are now considered social equals in spite of Scriptural assertions to the contrary. In fact, in the Bible women are called to wear a badge of inequality to show that women are under men in the order of God’s design:

“7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. 9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”

1 Corinthians 11:7-10 (KJV)

The Bible is clear from the Old Testament to the New that God never intended for men and women to be social equals or for women to have equal rights with men.


There are literally hundreds of Old Testament laws and it would be impossible to discuss them all in detail without writing a large book on the subject.  I have tried to cover some concepts here though that should help us as Christians to understand how to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).

The Old Testament is a treasure trove of information on the topic of God’s design of gender roles and marriage amongst many other things.  We just need to understand how to divide the ceremonial aspects, the civil punishments and reparations from the moral laws.

But taking a smug and condescending attitude toward the Old Testament will deny a Christian the full counsel of God.  We should view our culture through the lenses of the Scriptures, not the Scriptures through the lenses of our culture as so many Christians do today.

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