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Amoral Commandments

By Hugo McCord

religion, articles, christianity

The source of all wisdom, "the only wise God" (Rom. 16:27), put two kinds of laws in his Bible, "for our good always" (Deut.. 6:24). Laws relating to that which is "good or right in conduct or character are called "moral" (Webster). Laws that have no connection with moral standards, being neither "moral nor immoral" are called "amoral" (Webster).

Adam and Eve

Good morals are not enough to open heaven's door. Morally, nothing was wrong in our first parents eating from all he trees of the garden of Eden:

From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die (Gen. 2:16­17).

The only wrong in our parents eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was because God had prohibited it. The effects of the amoral sin of our first parents are still with us, and will be to the end of the world: extra pain in child birth, thorns and thistles, and death (Gen. 2:16­17; 3:16­19; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:26).

Cain and Abel

As the commandment to Adam and Eve was amoral, neither moral nor immoral, so Cain and Abel received an amoral commandment: they were to offer an animal sacrifice (Gen. 4:4). By faith Abel offered to God what he had specified, but Cain substituted "the fruit of the ground" (Gen. 4:3).

Since it is sinful for a human to change any of God's commands, either moral or amoral, Cain and his offerings were rejected (Gen. 4:5). Cain had not done what was right, and so his worship was evil (Gen. 4:7; 1 John 3:12).

Had God not given a command to Cain and Abel what was required in worship? If he had given no command, it is impossible that a fair and loving God would accept what Abel decided to offer and to reject Cain for what he decided to offer.

On the other hand, if God only told Abel what to offer, not Cain, and yet he expected Cain to offer the same thing, it is impossible to say that God was fair and loving to Cain.

It follows, therefore, if God is love, a God of truth and without iniquity, that he gave one and the same command for an animal offering both to Cain and to Abel. Cain did not have enough faith to obey God, to take God at his word, to do what God said simply because God said it. On the other hand, Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than did Cain, God bearing witness about his gifts, and through it he yet speaks, though he is dead (Heb. 11:4).

Very likely Abel did not know why God asked for a bloody animal offering, but he asked no questions. No morality was involved. An offering from a "flock" or from "the fruit of the ground" were both amoral.

Later on, God required of the Israelites that the "first of the first­fruits" be given to him (Ex. 23:19), which shows that nothing in itself was sinful in Cain's offering. The sin was that he was making his own rules.

Even though Cain willfully sinned, God still loved him, and tried to get him to repent and do what was right (Gen. 4:7). Divine love brought God to a one on one meeting with the sinful backslider, with a loving exhortation: "Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7).

God thought that Cain could repent, and begged him to do so. Sadly, Cain's disposition turned from bad to worse, even murdering Abel (Gen. 4:8).

The Sprinkling of the Blood

On a certain night God gave an amoral command to the Israelites in Egypt to sprinkle lamb's blood on the top and on both sides of the door­frame of each house, and he promised that "when I see the blood, I will pass over the house," with the result that the first born child would not die (Ex. 12:13, 22).

"By faith" Moses instituted the Passover, and the sprinkling of the blood, so that "the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them" (Heb. 11:28). There was "not a house without someone dead" except those houses with blood on their door­frames (Ex. 12:30).

Lamb's blood has no power to prevent death, and no one thought that it would. But heaven's wisdom often calls for people to demonstrate their faith in God by their obedience to an amoral command.

Nadab and Abihu

If God failed to instruct Nadab and Abihu about the fire that he wanted them to put in their censers, leaving them on their own, and then burned them alive for their selection, he is not a fair and loving God (Lev. 10:1­2). Since, however, "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and without iniquity (Deut.32:4), we know that God told Nadab and Abihu what particular fire he wanted them to use, and that, on their own, they decided to make a substitute.

Very likely the instruction that God gave to Nadab and Abihu, about the fire he wanted them to put in their censers, was the same instruction that he gave to their father Aaron about the ever­burning "fire on the altar: take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar" (Lev. 6:12; 16:12).

Consequently, "fire" not "from the altar" was unauthorized. Moses called it "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1), which was "unlawful or profane fire, as opposed to the holy fire" (Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, 242).

Nadab and Abihu. like Cain. on their own, had dared to change God's command. Like Cain, they had violated one of God's amoral commandments. Both the "fruit of the ground" on Cain's altar, and the "strange fire" in the censers of Nadab and Abihu, were non­moral, but sinful. We need to learn, even from the Old Testament (Rom. 15:4), that not only must God's moral commands be respected and obeyed (1 Cor. 10:8), but also his amoral laws.

The Sabbath Breaker

The word Sabbath comes from a Hebrew word meaning "rest." After the first six days of God's creative work, "He rested on the seventh day," blessing and sanctifying that day (Gen. 2:2­3).

The first human beings commanded to abstain from Saturday work, in observance of a "holy sabbath" were the Israelites, after they left Egypt (Ex. 16:23). The Lord "came down on Mt. Sinai" and "made known to" the Israelites his "holy sabbath" (Neh. 9;13­14). This was done in remembrance of God's resting on the first seventh day, and in remembrance of God's delivering the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 20:11; Deut. 5:15).

The only reason why the Israelites were to abstain from Saturday work was because God had so commanded them. The command was a positive, an arbitrary, an amoral law. No morality was involved, but respect and reverence for God demanded obedience.

When a person sinned "unintentionally," a "sin offering" would "make atonement for him" and he would "be forgiven" (Num. 15:27­28). But for "the person who" did anything "presumptuously" (beyad ramah, "with a high hand"), there was no forgiveness (Num. 15:30).

The high­handed sin, whether moral or amoral, was the "great transgression" (Psa. 19:13). David prayed that God would keep him back "from presumptuous" sins (zedim, insolent, proud, haughty [Psa. 19:13]).

But an Israelite man, instead of resting, went out and gathered wood on a sabbath day (Num. 15:32). No morality was involved in what day of the week he was to abstain from work, just as no morality was involved in what place Nadab and Abihu obtained fire for their censers.

But the man's death penalty, like that of Nadab and Abihu, shows that God demands respect for his amoral laws (Num. 15:36; Lev. 10:1­2). Indeed, God has preserved a written record of the transgressions of these three men so that New Testament people might be warned (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4).


God revealed himself to Old Testament prophets "in visions" and spoke to them "in dreams" (Num. 12:6). On the other hand, to Moses, the mediator, God spoke face to face, and Moses saw the "form of the LORD" (Num. 12:8).

However, whether a man was the leader of the people or a follower, he was expected "to do what the LORD your God" commanded with no deviation: "do not turn aside to the right or to the left" (Deut. 5:32). The mandate requiring exact obedience applied both to the laws governing moral conduct and to the laws governing amoral statutes ("all these decrees," Deut. 5:16­21,24).

Alas! Moses and his brother Aaron were guilty of an amoral violation. On one occasion, to produce water miraculously from a dry rock, God commanded Moses and Aaron "to speak to that rock," and aft will pour out its water" (Num. 20:8). This would be a dramatic demonstration of something that only God could do, and would inspire the people with deeper faith in the Lord.

However, Moses injected himself and Aaron in a situation where only God was to be honored. Moses spoke to The assembly gathered together in front of the rock, saying, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" (Num. 20:10).

Moses failed to "speak to that rock," but on his own he "raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff" (Num. 20:11). God did not withhold the needed water from the people (the "water gushed out," Num. 20:11), but, as Moses later wrote, "the LORD became angry with me" (Deut. 1:37).

Apparently, while the water was still flowing, God announced both the penalty on Moses and the reason for it:

Because you have not trusted in me, to sanctify me before the eyes of the sons of Israel, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land which I have given to them (Num. 20:12).

What a blow! For forty years, from age 80 to 120 (Acts 7:23,30; Deut. 34:7), Moses had carried millions of complaining people in his "bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child" (Num. 11:12), and now he himself had fallen short!

He would be allowed to climb a mountain and "see the land," but only to see it! (Num. 27:12). "When you have seen it," said the angry Lord, "You shall be gathered to your people, because you rebelled against my word" (Num. 27:13­14; Deut. 1:37).

Moses begged the Lord to change his mind: "Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon" (Deut. 3:25). But the Lord would not listen, saying:

Enough from you! Never speak to me of this matter again! Go up to the top of Pisgah and look around you to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east. Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan (Deut. 3 :26­27).

In itself, nothing was wrong in Moses striking the rock. On a previous occasion God commanded him, "strike the rock, and water will come out" (Ex. 17:6), and Moses did so. Why was what was right once sinful later? God had given a different command, and a human being is presumptuous, "highhanded" (Num. 15:30), who dares to do his own thing when God has spoken.

Neither striking the rock nor speaking to it was an immoral act. Both commands were amoral, and were tests of faith. The Lord has kept the Old Testament in existence that we might not be guilty both of moral and non­moral sins (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6­12).

A Cure for Snake Bite

In the wilderness wandering, the Israelites complained against Moses and against God, causing the Lord to send "fiery serpents" (Num. 21:6), "so called from" their "inflamed bite" (Gesenius), "venomous" from the "burning effect of poison." The deaths of many Israelites caused those alive to beg Moses to pray to the Lord to "take away the serpents from us" (Num. 21:6­7).

In response to Moses' prayer, the Lord told Moses to make a "brass snake," put it on a pole, and announce that anyone who had been bitten, if he looked at the brass snake, he would live (Num. 21:8­9).

Some thought the brass snake was a god, and for about 700 years they burned incense to it (2 Kings 18:4). Finally, Hezekiah, a sensible king, called it a nehushtan, "a piece of brass," and had it broken in pieces (2 Kings 18:4).

No healing power was in looking at a piece of brass. The healing power was in God, but he decided to require an amoral "looking" at the brass snake before he healed the people.

The brass snake on a pole was a type of Christ on his cross:

As Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, in order that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him John 3:14­15).

Both the looking at the snake and the believing in Christ are amoral commands of God, with no power in either the looking or the believing. In parallel, death resulted without the looking, and eternal life is forfeited without the believing (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Biblical believing includes obedience, for Jesus is "the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb. 5:9).

The Walls of Jericho

Thirteen trips around the walls of Jericho, accompanied with trumpet blasts and a shout, did not make the walls fall. But God's power to make them fall was not displayed until the Israelites had obeyed God's amoral commands (Josh. 6:12­20).


God gave a negative amoral command to Adam: "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Gen. 2:17). He may even have prohibited touching that tree (Gen. 3:3). Similarly, God gave a negative amoral command in regard to "all the vessels of the sanctuary that they were untouchable" (Num. 4:15).

One of those vessels was a wooden chest called "the ark of testimony" (Num. 4:15). One day, when the oxen shook that holy ark, being carried by a cart, Uzzah, a driver of the cart, "reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it" (2 Sam. 6:6). Since the chest was not to be touched, God had to kill Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:7), for God demands that all of his laws be respected, even his amoral ones.


Naaman's immersing himself seven times in the Jordan River did not cure his leprosy. But God's power to heal was not displayed until he obeyed God's amoral command (2 Kings 5:14).

A Blind Man

A blind man's washing mud from his eyes did not give him sight. But God's power to give sight was not displayed until the man had obeyed Jesus' amoral command (John 9:7).


The water in which Paul was baptized did not wash away his sins. But God's power to wash sins away was not displayed until he had obeyed the amoral command "to be baptized and wash away your sins" (Acts 22:16).

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