Exodus 21–24; 31–35: The Mosaic Law: A Preparatory Gospel

Old Testament Student Manual Genesis-2 Samuel, (1980), 136–44


(12-1) Introduction

We saw in chapter 11 how the Lord began the revelation of the law for Israel with the ten principles that summarized the way in which men are to deal with God, with their families, and with their fellow men. Immediately after the Ten Commandments, the Lord revealed a whole series of laws and commandments which we now call the Mosaic law.

It is unfortunate that many people, some even in the Church, think of the Mosaic law as a substitute for the higher law of the gospel. We call it a lesser law, and so it was, if the word lesser is used in the sense of progressive steps. But some people assume that lesser means of lower importance and significance, or of a lesser level of truth and righteousness. Such is not the case. Note what other scriptures teach about the law:

The law of Moses was a “preparatory gospel” that included the principles of repentance, baptism, remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments.

It was a “very strict law” of “performances and ordinances” designed to keep the Israelites “in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.”

The law of Moses was highly symbolic, being filled with types and shadows, all of which pointed toward Christ and His future Atonement.

The law of Moses was added to the gospel, not given as a substitute for it.

The law of Moses was given as a schoolmaster or tutor to bring Israel to Christ.

The law of Moses is understood through the “spirit of prophecy” or “a testimony of Jesus.”

In summary, when you study the law of Moses you can expect to find (1) a witness of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice and (2) gospel principles illustrated in the laws given. Many of the laws may no longer be required of the Saints, but the principles taught are eternal and will never be set aside. For example, the practice of blood sacrifice was fulfilled when Jesus came and the tokens of the sacrament were given in place of the old law. But the principle was as true when the tokens were animals offered on the altar as it is now when the tokens are bread and water blessed by the priesthood. The eternal principle is that only in the partaking of the Lamb’s atoning sacrifice are we able to overcome and receive a forgiveness for our sins.

Two other characteristics of the Mosaic law are important for your understanding before you begin to study the actual laws. First, much of the Mosaic code is case law. One scholar explained that the law does two things:

“In order to understand Biblical law, it is necessary to understand also certain basic characteristics of that law. First, certain broad premises or principles are declared. These are declarations of basic law. The Ten Commandments give us such declarations. The Ten Commandments are not therefore laws among laws, but are the basic laws, of which the various laws are specific examples. An example of such a basic law is Exodus 20:15 (Deut. 5:19), ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ …

“With this in mind, that the law, first, lays down broad and basic principles, let us examine a second characteristic of Biblical law, namely, that the major portion of the law is case law, i.e., the illustration of the basic principle in terms of specific cases. These specific cases are often illustrations of the extent of the application of the law; that is, by citing a minimal type of case, the necessary jurisdictions of the law are revealed. …

“The law, then, first asserts principles, second, it cites cases to develop the implications of those principles, and, third, the law has as its purpose and direction the restitution of God’s order.” (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 10–12.)

We shall see numerous examples of case law as we study the Mosaic code.

Second, the law is primarily negative. Eight of the Ten Commandments and many of the other laws deal with what ought not to be done rather than with what should be done. Many today view negative laws with distaste. They feel they are very restrictive, and they often prefer positive laws which, by assuring our rights, appear to grant freedom. The appearance, however, is false. God gave the laws to Israel not to shackle them but to guarantee the greatest individual freedom. Explaining how this is so, one scholar stated:

“A negative concept of law confers a double benefit: first, it is practical, in that a negative concept of law deals realistically with a particular evil. It states, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ or, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness.’ A negative statement thus deals with a particular evil directly and plainly: it prohibits it, makes it illegal. The law thus has a modest function; the law is limited, and therefore the state is limited. The state, as the enforcing agency, is limited to dealing with evil, not controlling all men.

Second, and directly related to this first point, a negative concept of law insures liberty: except for the prohibited areas, all of man’s life is beyond the law, and the law is of necessity indifferent to it. If the commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ it means that the law can only govern theft: it cannot govern or control honestly acquired property. When the law prohibits blasphemy and false witness, it guarantees that all other forms of speech have their liberty. The negativity of the law is the preservation of the positive life and freedom of man.” (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 101–2.)

Remember that in God’s preface to the Ten Commandments He said, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2; emphasis added). In saying this, Jehovah reminded Israel that the very purpose of the law was to make them free and keep them free.

Notes and Commentary on Exodus 21–24; 31–35

(12-2) Exodus 21:2–11. The Rights of Freedom under the Law

Here is the first example of the case law approach to the Mosaic law. The principle is “thou shalt not steal.” One of the most precious things any man has is his personal liberty. To steal one’s liberty is a serious theft. So, permanent ownership of slaves was not allowed unless the individual himself chose to be a slave for life (see vv. 5–6). As illustrated here, the slave in Israel was really more like a servant. By law he had to be freed after seven years unless he voluntarily chose to remain in servitude.

Although a father could arrange for the marriage of his daughter (that is the meaning of the phrase “to sell her as a maidservant” in verse 7, as is evident from the betrothal mentioned in verses 8 and 9), she too maintained certain rights. The prospective husband could not use her as a slave (“she shall not go out as the menservants do”). If the prospective husband was not pleased with the new bride, the law guaranteed her rights. This legal guarantee was in sharp contrast to the practice of most other people whose women were viewed as property to be bargained away at the whim of men.

(12-3) Exodus 21:6. Why Was a Slave’s Ear Pierced?

Because of the guidelines of the law, the lot of Hebrew slaves was greatly softened; in fact, they were on almost equal status with hired laborers. Under such conditions, some men were willing to forfeit freedom for security, especially if they had married while in slavery and release from slavery might force them to give up their wives and children.

“In this case the master was to take his servant … to God, i.e., … to the place where judgment was given in the name of God [see Deuteronomy 1:17; 19:17; cf. Exodus 22:7–8], in order that he might make a declaration there that he gave up his liberty. His ear was then to be bored with an awl against the door or lintel of the house, and by this sign, which was customary in many of the nations of antiquity, to be fastened as it were to the house for ever. That this was the meaning of the piercing of the ear against the door of the house, is evident from the unusual expression in [Deuteronomy 15:17], ‘and put (the awl) into his ear and into the door, that he may be thy servant for ever,’ where the ear and the door are co-ordinates.” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:2:130.)

(12-4) Exodus 21:12–36. Some Case Laws That Clarify Principles

Further clarification of the commandments, or fundamental principles, is given by these specific laws.

  1. 1.

    There is a difference between premeditated murder and accidental death, or manslaughter, as it is called today (see vv. 12–14). “God deliver him into his hand” (v. 13) is an idiom which means that the individual did not actively seek the death of the individual. This case is a further clarification of “thou shalt not kill.”

  2. 2.

    Certain crimes were so serious that they required the death penalty. This fact clearly shows, first, the seriousness of murder, and, second, that the death penalty, when carried out by legally constituted authority, is not a violation of the sixth commandment. Capital crimes listed here included:

    • Premeditated murder (see vv. 12–14).

    • Attempted murder of one’s parents (see v. 15). The verb translated as “smiteth” comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to strike deep so as to wound or kill” (Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “smite,” p. 401).

    • Kidnapping (see v. 16).

    • Cursing one’s parents (see v. 17). Here again the Hebrew word is very strong, meaning “to revile” or “to utter violent reproaches” (Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “curse,” p. 105).

    • Killing a servant (see vv. 20–21). The Joseph Smith Translation changes verse 20 to read, “If a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall surely be put to death.”

    • Blatant neglect in the use of one’s property (see v. 29).

      Other capital crimes were listed elsewhere in the law.

  3. 3.

    The seriousness of abortion is taught in the case law example given here (see vv. 22–25). If two men are fighting and strike a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, punishment is given. If “mischief follow” (a Hebrew idiom for death; see vv. 22–23), then the offending party was punished by death. One Bible scholar suggested that the case law approach illustrates the extent of the law’s application (see Reading 12-1), and this case provides an excellent example of this concept. If an abortion caused by an accident was to be punished severely, one can assume that deliberate abortion without justifiable cause was far more serious.

  4. 4.

    As an expansion on the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” several cases of just retribution are listed here and in Exodus 22. Again, the cases illustrate the breadth of the law. One can steal from another by direct theft, but one can also steal through negligence or accident. Thus, if one steals physical wholeness from another (see vv. 26–27), restitution has to be made. If one, through neglect, causes the loss of another’s property, restitution has to be made. The law of Moses is therefore not a law of retaliation, but a law of reparation.

Abinadi said that the law was “a very strict law” of “performances and of ordinances” given because Israel was a “stiffnecked people” (Mosiah 13:29–30). In the law of Christ, a general principle such as “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12) covered situations similar to those mentioned in Exodus 21. But in the higher law of the gospel specific additional commandments were not required. Under the law of Christ a person does not have to be told to guard against negligence or to make restitution for accidental loss. He will do it because he loves his neighbor. The law of Moses specified how the law was lived in daily, practical situations, but it still taught the law of Christ.

(12-5) Exodus 22:1–17. The Law Was Concerned with Making Restitution to the Offended Parties

“First, the ratio of restitution is established:

“‘If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep’ (Ex. 22:1). Multiple restitution rests on a principle of justice. Sheep are capable of a high rate of reproduction and have use, not only as meat, but also by means of their wool, for clothing, as well as other uses. To steal a sheep is to steal the present and future value of a man’s property. The ox requires a higher rate of restitution, five-fold, because the ox was trained to pull carts, and to plow, and was used for a variety of farm tasks. The ox therefore had not only the value of its meat and its usefulness, but also the value of its training, in that training an ox for work was a task requiring time and skill. It thus commanded a higher rate of restitution. Clearly, a principle of restitution is in evidence here. Restitution must calculate not only the present and future value of a thing stolen, but also the specialized skills involved in its replacement.

“Second, theft could involve problems with respect to defense against the thief: [see Exodus 22:2–3]. A housebreaker at night can be legitimately killed by householders to defend their property; it is part of their legitimate defense of themselves and their properties. There is no reason to assume that this breaking does not cover the barn or, today, a garage. In daylight, however, the killing of a thief except in self-defense is manslaughter. The thief can then be identified and apprehended, so that this in itself is a protection. If the thief cannot make restitution, he is to be sold into slavery in order to satisfy the requirement of restitution. This means today some kind of custody whereby the full income of the convicted thief is so ordered that full restitution is provided for.

“Third, the law specified the restitution required of a thief caught in the act, or caught before disposing of the stolen goods: [see Exodus 22:4]. In such cases, the thief was to restore the thing stolen, and its equivalent, i.e., the exact amount he expected to profit by in his theft. This is the minimum restitution. A man who steals $100 must restore not only the $100 but another $100 as well.

“Fourth, certain acts, whether deliberate or accidental, incur a liability which requires restitution, for to damage another man’s property is to rob him of a measure of its value: [see Exodus 22:5–6]. The restitution in all such cases depends on the nature of the act; if fruit trees or vines are damaged, then future production is damaged, and the liability is in proportion thereto. Criminal law no longer has more than survivals of the principle of restitution; civil suit must now be filed by an offended party to recover damages, and then without regard to the Biblical principle.

“Fifth, in Exodus 22:7–13, responsibility is determined for goods held in custody. …

“‘Property deposited in the hands of another for safe keeping might be so easily embezzled by the trustee, or lost through his negligence, that some special laws were needed for its protection. Conversely the trustee required to be safe-guarded against incurring loss if the property intrusted to his care suffered damage or disappeared without fault of his. The Mosaic legislation provided for both cases. On the one hand, it required the trustee to exercise proper care, and made him answerable for the loss if a thing entrusted to him was stolen and the thief not found. Embezzlement it punished by requiring the trustee guilty of it to “pay double.” On the other hand, in doubtful cases it allowed the trustee to clear himself by an oath (verse 10), and in clear cases to give proof that the loss had happened through unavoidable accident’ (verse 12).

“Sixth, in case of rental, or of loan, certain principles of liability are at work: [see Exodus 22:14–15]. If a man borrows and damages the property of another, he is liable for the damages; he has destroyed or harmed the property of another man and is thereby guilty of theft; restitution is mandatory. If the owner came to assist him voluntarily, as a good neighbor, the damage is the owner’s, because his property was damaged while under his own supervision. This is all the more true if he was working for hire, because his rental of his services, with ox, ass, tractor, or any other equipment, includes the wear and tear, the maintenance and damages, to his working equipment.

“Seventh, seduction is not only an offense against the seventh commandment, but also against the eighth, in that it involves robbing a girl of her virginity (Ex. 22:16, 17). Compensation or restitution meant that ‘he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.’ Significantly, the word translated pay is in Hebrew weigh; money was then by weight, a weight of a shekel of silver or gold. …

“In all these cases, there is not only judgment by God against the offender but also restitution to the offended. Restitution thus is closely linked to atonement, to justice, and to salvation.” (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 459–62.)

(12-6) Exodus 22:18–24. Additional Capital Crimes Are Listed by the Lord

In the midst of the laws of restitution, the Lord lists several other crimes worthy of death. In other words, some crimes were so serious that restitution had to be made with one’s own life. These crimes included—

  1. 1.

    Witchcraft (see v. 18). One commentator explained why:

    “From the severity of this law against witches, &c., we may see in what light these were viewed by Divine justice. They were seducers of the people from their allegiance to God, on whose judgment alone they should depend; and by impiously prying into futurity, assumed an attribute of God, the foretelling of future events, which implied in itself the grossest blasphemy, and tended to corrupt the minds of the people, by leading them away from God and the revelation he had made of himself. Many of the Israelites had, no doubt, learned these curious arts from their long residence with the Egyptians; and so much were the Israelites attached to them, that we find such arts in repute among them, and various practices of this kind prevailed through the whole of the Jewish history, notwithstanding the offence was capital, and in all cases punished with death.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:416.)

    In the Joseph Smith Translation, however, the word witch is replaced by the word murderer (see JST, Exodus 22:18).

  2. 2.

    Sexual perversions with animals; one of the most evil of sexual sins (see Exodus 22:19).

  3. 3.

    Idol worship (see v. 20). Worship of a false god is to the spiritual man what murder is to the physical man, direct and devastating death. Alma the Younger understood this principle when he said of his period of apostasy, “Yes, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14; emphasis added).

  4. 4.

    Neglect of widows and orphans (see Exodus 22:22–24). In this case, however, rulers were not allowed to impose the death penalty. The Lord reserved that right to Himself (see v. 24).

(12-7) Exodus 22:25–27. Why Was Keeping a Man’s Coat Overnight Prohibited?

“The real point is that in his relations with a poor man, possibly his own employee, an Israelite must be generous. If he gives him an advance payment on his wage, he must not insist on payment by the end of the day at the risk of the man’s doing without the garment he has given as pledge for the loan (v. 26). The original admonition was not so much a prohibition of interest as a demand that one be ready to ‘risk an advance’ without material security. Amos 2:6 condemns Israelites for having treated such advances in a strictly legal manner, even at the cost of making the poor destitute. As a barter economy developed into a money economy the problem of interest became increasingly acute (Deut. 23:19–20; Lev. 25:26); between Israelites interest on commercial loans was prohibited. (In Hebrew the word ‘interest’ means ‘bite’!) To take a neighbor’s garment in pledge for any time longer than the working hours of the day, when he does not wear it, is equivalent to making him pledge his life ([see] Deut. 24:6, 17). This prohibition ultimately makes enslavement for debt impossible.” (Buttrick, Interpreter’s Bible, 1:1008.)

(12-8) Exodus 22:28

The Joseph Smith Translation says, “Thou shalt not revile against God, nor curse the ruler of thy people” (JST, Exodus 22:28).

(12-9) Exodus 22:29–31

The word translated “liquors” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to weep” and denotes the juice of the vine or oil of the olive, not necessarily fermented juice. These laws were to symbolize the willing consecration of the people of Jehovah.

(12-10) Exodus 23:1–8. Laws of Righteous Living

Many people think of the law of Moses as being summarized by the requirement of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). They picture a system of fierce retaliation and brutal punishment. In Exodus 23:1–8 is an excellent example of the inaccuracy of that conception. Here are laws requiring a high degree of morality, justice, and righteousness, and requirements to do good to one’s neighbor. In an age where wickedness abounds, where gossip and slander are commonplace (see v. 1), where men follow the fads and fashions of evil and greedy men (see v. 2), where evil men (Joseph Smith corrected the word poor in v. 3 to read wicked) are often supported and even glorified, where many people refuse to get involved in the problems or misfortunes of their neighbors (see vv. 4–5), where exploitation of the poor and ignorant is widespread (see vv. 6–7), and when bribery and corruption are daily fare (see v. 8), the world would do well to turn to such laws and follow them.

(12-11) Exodus 23:8–19

For a more detailed treatment of the various holy days mentioned here, see Enrichment Section D, “Feasts and Festivals.” The purpose of the holy days was two-fold: first to help Israel remember their deliverance from bondage through the power of God; and, second, to assist them in continuing the covenant relationship with Jehovah. The heart of the practice was to promote trust in the Lord.

(12-12) Exodus 23:20–31

God promised five things to Israel for their obedience. First, an angel of the Lord would lead them into the promised land (see vv. 20–23). Second, they would be blessed with good health (see vv. 24–25). Third, they and their flocks would be greatly multiplied (see v. 26). Fourth, they would be successful in their fight against heathen nations (see vv. 27–30). Fifth, they would ultimately inherit everything from the Red Sea to the Euphrates River (see v. 31).

(12-13) Exodus 24:1–8. Before Moses Ever Went into the Mount, Israel Was Instructed in the Law and Covenanted to Obey It

“The people, in anticipation of having Moses and the seventy special witnesses go into the presence of the Lord, were instructed in the laws. They accepted them with a covenant to keep them, accepted a copy of them as binding, and their covenants were sanctified by a sacrifice. Notice the promise the people made: ‘All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.’” (Rasmussen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1:88–89.)

The instructions Israel received before Moses went up to Mount Sinai were kept in the “book of the covenant” (v. 7):

“But as no covenant was considered to be ratified and binding til a sacrifice had been offered on the occasion, hence the necessity of the sacrifices mentioned here.

“Half of the blood being sprinkled on the altar, and half of it sprinkled on the people, showed that both God and they were mutually bound by this covenant. God was bound to the people to support, defend, and save them; the people were bound to God to fear, love, and serve him.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:425.)

The instructions given to Israel ensured that she would not be forced into a relationship she did not understand or want. Once Israel expressed her willingness to receive the law and covenanted to live it, Moses was free to act for Israel in the presence of the Lord.

(12-14) Exodus 24:9–11

For a discussion of this and other visions of God, see Reading 12-23.

(12-15) Exodus 25–30

These chapters contain the Lord’s revelations on the tabernacle and its furnishings. These instructions will be discussed in the next chapter.

(12-16) Exodus 31

The Lord works through talented individuals to bring about His purposes (see vv. 1–6). For commentary on the Sabbath (see vv. 12–17), see Reading 11-8.

The nature of the tablets (see v. 18) is discussed in Reading 12-24.

(12-17) Exodus 32:1–6. Why Did the Israelites Desire to Worship a Gold Calf?

“The whole of this is a most strange and unaccountable transaction. Was it possible that the people could have so soon lost sight of the wonderful manifestations of God upon the mount? Was it possible that Aaron could have imagined that he could make any god that could help them? And yet it does not appear that he ever remonstrated with the people! Possibly he only intended to make them some symbolical representation of the Divine power and energy, that might be as evident to them as the pillar of cloud and fire had been, and to which God might attach an always present energy and influence; or in requiring them to sacrifice their ornaments, he might have supposed they would have desisted from urging their request: but all this is mere conjecture, with very little probability to support it. It must however be granted that Aaron does not appear to have even designed a worship that should supersede the worship of the Most High; hence we find him making proclamation, To-morrow is a feast to the Lord [Jehovah], and we find farther that some of the proper rites of the true worship were observed on this occasion, for they brought burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, ver. 6, 7: hence it is evident he intended that the true God should be the object of their worship, though he permitted and even encouraged them to offer this worship through an idolatrous medium, the molten calf.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:463–64.)

(12-18) Exodus 32:9–14. Was God Really Going to Destroy the Israelites, and Did He “Repent of the Evil”?

The Joseph Smith Translation corrects this verse to show that Moses said: “Turn from thy fierce wrath. Thy people will repent of this evil; therefore come thou not out against them.” Then the Prophet corrected verse 14 to clearly show the condition for the Lord’s sparing the people: “And the Lord said unto Moses, if they will repent of the evil which they have done, I will spare them, and turn away my fierce wrath; but, behold, thou shalt execute judgment upon all that will not repent of this evil this day. Therefore, see thou do this thing that I have commanded thee, or I will execute all that which I had thought to do unto my people.”

(12-19) Exodus 32:15–35. Moses, the Mediator

Moses’ role in the whole event is significant. In his great vision of the Lord, Moses was told that he was “in the similitude” of the Only Begotten Son (Moses 1:6). That similitude is shown clearly here. As the people faced destruction because of their wickedness, Moses became their mediator with God. He pleaded their cause and even offered his own life to appease the divine justice (see Exodus 32:31–32). After the constant murmuring and rebellion of the people, any usual leader would likely have said, “Yes, they are a wicked people. Go ahead and destroy them.” But Moses, like Christ whom he emulated, loved his people in spite of their hardheartedness and wickedness. He interceded in their behalf and saved them, but only on the condition of their repentance.

For an explanation of what was on the tablets Moses first received, see Reading 12-24.

(12-20) Exodus 32:25–30

“Moses sought out those who were ‘on the Lord’s side’ from those whom Aaron had made ‘naked.’ (The Hebrew word used here may mean either ‘bare, uncovered’ or ‘unruly, broken loose.’) ‘Naked’ can be understood in the same sense as when Adam was ashamed and hid himself from God because he was naked. The expression can also mean ‘exposed in guilt before God’s wrath.’ Compare the feeling of Alma as he described such exposure, in Alma 36:14–22. On the other hand, that Israel had ‘broken loose’ and become ‘unruly’ under Aaron’s lead was obviously true. Both conditions would be to the shame of a people who were supposed to be religious.” (Rasmussen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1:93.)

Some have wondered why Aaron, who played a key role in the golden calf episode, came out with no condemnation. Though it is not recorded in Exodus, Moses later indicated that Aaron also was nearly destroyed and was saved only through Moses’ intercession in his behalf (see Deuteronomy 9:20).

(12-21) Exodus 33:1–3

For a modern parallel to this rebuke, see Doctrine and Covenants 103:15–20.

(12-22) Exodus 33:4–7. What Was the Tabernacle That Moses Pitched outside the Camp?

“Moses then took a tent, and pitched it outside the camp, at some distance off, and called it ‘tent of meeting.’ The ‘tent’ is neither the sanctuary of the tabernacle described in [Exodus 25–30], which was not made till after the perfect restoration of the covenant [Exodus 35–40], nor another sanctuary that had come down from their forefathers and was used before the tabernacle was built, … but a tent belonging to Moses, which was made into a temporary sanctuary by the fact that the pillar of cloud came down upon it, and Jehovah talked with Moses there, and which was called by the same name as the tabernacle, … because Jehovah revealed Himself there, and every one who sought Him had to go to this tent outside the camp.” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:2:233–34.)

(12-23) Exodus 33:19–23. Is It Possible for Anyone to See the Face of God and Live?

There is obviously something wrong with Exodus 33:20, for verse 11 of this same chapter clearly says, “The Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (emphasis added). Also, Exodus 24:9–11 records that Moses and seventy of the elders of Israel saw God. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith commented on the problem in Exodus 33:20 and in John 1:18 in this way:

“There are too many passages which declare very definitely that God did appear, ‘face to face,’ with his ancient servants. Therefore, passages which declare that no man has seen him, must be in error. For instance, the passage in John 1:18, … is likely due to the fact that a translator in more recent years did not believe that God was a Personage and therefore could not be seen. This notion has come down to us since the introduction of the Athanasian Creed in 325 A.D. The Prophet Joseph Smith has given us a correction of this passage as follows:

“‘And no man hath seen God at any time, except he hath borne record of the Son; for except it is through him no man can be saved’ [JST, John 1:19].

“Again in 1 John 4:12, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith the following correction:

“‘No man hath seen God at any time, except them who believe. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfect in us.’

“Now let us consider other verses from John’s Gospel … :

“‘It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.

“‘Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.’ [John 6:45–46.]

“If we were not aware of the fact that mistranslations exist, it would appear that our Savior contradicted himself. The latter verse (John 6:46) does not harmonize with John 1:18.

“We read that Abraham talked with God face to face, and he also talked with Enoch and others. The modern world, however, will have none of it and have rejected the living God for one who cannot be seen or heard.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:162–63.)

Thus, it is clear that Joseph Smith was inspired when he corrected this verse to read:

“And he said unto Moses, Thou canst not see my face at this time, lest mine anger be kindled against thee also, and I destroy thee, and thy people; for there shall no man among them see me at this time, and live, for they are exceeding sinful. And no sinful man hath at any time, neither shall there be any sinful man at any time, that shall see my face and live.” (JST, Exodus 33:20.)

(12-24) Exodus 34:1–4. Did Both Sets of Tablets Contain the Same Material?

Before this question can be fully answered, one must carefully examine what was on the first plates. One Bible scholar offered this analysis:

“‘The following is a general view of this subject. In [Exodus 20] the ten commandments are given; and at the same time various political and ecclesiastical statutes, which are detailed in chapters [21–23]. To receive these, Moses had drawn near unto the thick darkness where God was, [20:21], and having received them he came again with them to the people, according to their request before expressed, ver. 19: Speak thou with us—but let not the Lord speak with us, lest we die, for they had been terrified by the manner in which God had uttered the ten commandments; see ver. 18. After this Moses, with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the seventy elders, went up to the mountain; and on his return he announced all these laws unto the people, [24:1], &c., and they promised obedience. Still there is no word of the tables of stone. Then he wrote all in a book, [24:4], which was called the book of the covenant, ver. 7. After this there was a second going up of Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders, [24:9], when that glorious discovery of God mentioned in verses 10 and 11 of the same chapter took place. After their coming down Moses is again commanded to go up; and God promises to give him tables of stone, containing a law and precepts, ver. 12. This is the first place these tables of stone are mentioned; and thus it appears that the ten commandments, and several other precepts, were given to and accepted by the people, and the covenant sacrifice offered, [24:5], before the tables of stone were either written or mentioned.’ It is very likely that the commandments, laws, &c., were first published by the Lord in the hearing of the people; repeated afterwards by Moses; and the ten words or commandments, containing the sum and substance of the whole, afterwards written on the first tables of stone, to be kept for a record in the ark.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:474.)

This analysis would answer a frequently asked question, How did the Lord put the whole law of Moses on two tablets? The tablets, it seems, contained only the divine summary called the Ten Commandments. Joseph Smith added additional information when he reworked the first two verses of this chapter:

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two other tables of stone, like unto the first, and I will write upon them also, the words of the law, according as they were written at the first on the tables which thou brakest; but it shall not be according to the first, for I will take away the priesthood out of their midst; therefore my holy order, and the ordinances thereof, shall not go before them; for my presence shall not go up in their midst, lest I destroy them.

“But I will give unto them the law as at the first, but it shall be after the law of a carnal commandment; for I have sworn in my wrath, that they shall not enter into my presence, into my rest, in the days of their pilgrimage. Therefore do as I have commanded thee, and be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me, in the top of the mount.” (JST, Exodus 34:1–2.)

At first reading, this passage may sound contradictory. The Lord says He will write on the second tablets “according as they were written at the first on the tables which thou brakest” (v. 1) but then He says, “but it shall not be according to the first” (v. 1; emphasis added). The problem lies in determining what “it” refers to: the writing on the tablets, or the new order of things introduced because of the rebellion of Israel. The information following the “it” seems to refer to the new order and not the new writings. But the Joseph Smith Translation of Deuteronomy 10:2 makes it clear that the two sets of plates contained the same thing, with one exception:

“And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables, which thou brakest, save the words of the everlasting covenant of the holy priesthood, and thou shalt put them in the ark” (JST, Deuteronomy 10:2; emphasis added).

(12-25) Exodus 34:29–35. What Is the Significance of the Radiance Moses Exhibited or the Veil He Wore?

“After such prolonged time and such experiences in God’s presence, it is no wonder that Moses’ face shone with divine glory when he returned, and the people fell back in fear of him. This phenomenon of light radiating from heavenly beings and earthly beings who are under heavenly influence is not unique here. Compare the descriptions of the Apostles on the day of pentecost, when ‘tongues of cloven fire’ radiated from them (Acts 2:3).

“The Hebrew word here rendered ‘shone’ is qaran, a denominative verb from a noun meaning ‘horn,’ denominating radial beams of light, like the ‘horns’ or rays of morning seen over the horizon before the sun rises. From this phenomenon, the Arabs call the sun at its rising a ‘gazelle.’ (A mistranslation from Hebrew to Latin caused Michelangelo to put actual horns on the head of his heroic statue of Moses!)” (Rasmussen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1:95.)

Points to Ponder

(12-26) Ancient Israel was made to understand clearly that the earth was the Lord’s. He is its Sovereign and King. As such, He not only can dictate its laws but establish peoples on its lands. The Book of Mormon joins with the Bible in witnessing this fact. Pause for a moment to consider these scriptures: 1 Nephi 17:36–39; 2 Nephi 1:7; Deuteronomy 4:20, 37–38.

From these scriptures you can see that a nation’s right to land is guaranteed only by obedience to the laws of Him whose land it is. Though man was given dominion over the earth through Adam, that dominion was under God. Therefore, man is responsible to set up God’s laws and establish His order. Since that is the case, consider these questions: Over whom do God’s laws extend? Is anyone excluded? Does violation of God’s laws between consenting adults (a popular phrase in today’s world) nullify the law? Is there such a thing as a sin that hurts only the individual? How is any sin a violation of God’s order? How are all sins sins against God even if they seem to hurt no one else? How should we answer the person who says, “It’s my life; I can live it as I choose”?

(12-27) Read again carefully Doctrine and Covenants 84:23–27; Mosiah 13:29–30; JST, Exodus 34:1–2 (see Reading 12-24); and Alma 25:15–16. Now answer the following questions:

  1. 1.

    Why were the ancient Israelites given this stricter law?

  2. 2.

    What could they have enjoyed if it had not been for their wickedness?

  3. 3.

    If they had been obedient to the law given them, what would have been the results?

  4. 4.

    Are there any members of the Church today who are in a condition similar to that of the ancient Israelites?

  5. 5.

    Of what value, then, is a study of the law of Moses to a modern Latter-day Saint?