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The ten commandments, given to the ancient Israelites by God in the desert, were known and practiced by servants of God long before the Sinai Covenant was ever established. Abraham, referred to in Scripture as a “friend of God” (II Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23), set an example of obedience to these timeless laws.
But in drawing that conclusion, most of them overlook the full significance of what God said about Abraham's obedience in Genesis 26:5, hundreds of years before God spoke to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai: "Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws" (NIV).
The Hebrew words God uses here are especially important. As The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains regarding this verse: "The Lord then added a remarkable note: Abraham 'kept my requirements [mismarti], my commands [miswotay], my decrees [huqqotay] and my laws [wetorotay]' (v. 5).
It is remarkable that this is precisely the way in which obedience to the Sinai Covenant is expressed in Deuteronomy 11:1: 'Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements [mismarto], his decrees [huqqotayw], his laws [mispatayw] and his commands [miswotayw]'...
Thus Abraham is an example of one who shows the law written on his heart (Jeremiah 31:33). He is the writer's ultimate example of true obedience to the law, the one about whom the Lord could say, 'Abraham obeyed me' (v. 5). Thus, by showing Abraham to be an example of 'keeping the law,' the writer has shown the nature of the relationship between the law and faith. Abraham, a man who lived in faith, could be described as one who kept the law" (Vol. 2, 1990, pp. 186-187, emphasis added).
Abraham obeyed the same foundational spiritual laws that were given later to Israel. However, the symbolic tabernacle or temple ceremonies and rituals and Israel's national administrative laws were not applicable in Abraham's day. Nor are they necessary for individual Christians today, because a physical temple is no longer the center of our worship as it was in the ancient nation of Israel (John 4:19-21; Hebrews 9:9-10).
Thus, Abraham knew a lot more about God's requirements for and definitions of righteous behavior than most religious teachers give him credit for today. It also means that the laws defining righteous attitudes and behavior that were given to Israel were known and practiced by servants of God long before the Sinai Covenant was ever established.