Noachide (Noachian) Law. A body of laws presumed by ancient Jews to have been given by God to mankind prior to the giving of the Torah to Israel. All mankind (Gentiles specifically) would be accountable to this seven-point code composed of prohibitions against 1) idolatry, 2) fornication, 3) murder, 4) blasphemy, 5) corrupt government, 6) stealing, and 7) cruelty to animals. The rationale for determining such a moral standard begins with the knowledge that the law of commandments (Torah) was given to Israel, all 613 of them. This means that the Torah was not given to Adam, Noah, or even Abraham. Not until God befriended Abraham and gave him the sign of circumcision does the concept of national Israel even find reality. Since the people of Israel were chosen by God to receive the law, all other peoples and nations were not (Rom 9:4; Eph 2:12). Paul expresses that national pride in the statement, “We who are Jews by nature and not sinners of the Gentiles” (Gal 2:15). Paul also states boldly that the Gentiles did not have the [Mosaic] law (Rom 2:12-14; 1 Cor 9:20). Ancient Jewish rabbis considered this matter in Midrash Bereshit Rabba—and Neusner summarizes: “What Adam could not accomplish, Moses did…what man could not do, Israel, represented by Moses, can do.”[i]
The respect and love for the Torah as a guide to life elicited questions about the righteousness of Noah (Gen 7:1), who represents all mankind. How could Noah live righteously and then successfully weather the trial of his faith without the Torah to guide him? The ancient commentators deduced that mankind in Noah’s generation was not without some law delineating God’s expectations of mankind, otherwise, God could not be just in rendering judgment. The murder of Abel, the violence in Noah’s day, and the hubris at Babel provide the backdrop for determining what sins for which mankind was held accountable. Yet, even though the Gentiles did not have this unique revelation of God and a favored status by virtue of the forthcoming Messiah, the Gentiles still had a conscience that in many ways reflected the morality of the law (Rom 2:14). A Gentile is not judged by the law [of Moses], but by his own conscience that is open and laid bare before the judgment of Jesus Christ (Rom 2:15-16). And Gentiles, like Noah, first find grace in the Lord’s eyes and through faith are declared righteous (Gen 6:8; 15:6; Heb 11:7, 8; Rom 4).
A list of laws is presented in Acts 15 during the council at Jerusalem which addressed the reception of Gentiles into the growing gospel community. The specific laws mentioned on that occasion were: 1) avoiding things polluted by idolatry, 2) eluding fornication, 3) abstaining from improperly killing animals for food, and 4) shunning blood (drinking it, shedding it?). The sign of circumcision, necessary of male converts to Judaism, was not required of male converts to Christianity. This passage does not lend credence to the theory that God gave Adam and Noah these specific laws. This topic only addresses the Jewish answer to the question about the possible salvation of non-Jews.
The judgment of Noah’s world finds significance in new testament literature, as Jesus draws a parallel between that worldly judgment and the forthcoming judgment at the world’s end (Matt 24:37-38; 1 Pet 3:20). The world’s population was and continues to be held accountable to a uniform and unchanging standard of righteousness. But noticeably absent in any narrative in which Gentiles are “weighed and found wanting” (Dan 5:27) are any failures to observe Noachide laws, let alone any ritual laws such as circumcision, sacrifices, and Sabbath-keeping. Cain did not fear God and was a murderer (Gen 4:8; Heb 11:4); Lot failed in drunkenness and incest (Gen 19:33); Belshazzar was convicted of pride and idolatry (Dan 5:22-23); Nebuchadnezzar was prideful and unmerciful in his office (Dan 4:27); the King of Tyre was given much, but full of pride, self-love, and greed (Ezek 28:2, 4, 17, 18); and the people of Sodom were full of pride, gluttonous, lazy, and indifferent to the poor and needy (Ezek 16:48-50). In none of these cases, were any of these Gentile sinners accused of violating the law of Moses or the covenant with Israel. Indeed, no Gentile was ever condemned for failing to observe the Sabbath. However, the Lord judged Israel for their failure to observe the Sabbath of the Land (2 Chr 26:21) and he even despised the manner in which the Jews regarded the Sabbath (Ezek 22:8). But no other nation was so judged. In fact, the Lord found fit to deport Israel for seventy years to a country that did not observe the Sabbath or the Sabbath of the Land.
Paul asserted that the Gentiles do by nature the things in the law—their conscience bearing witness of their internal knowledge of good and evil. They may get a twinge of caution or a spasm of reconsideration as they plan to threaten and rob someone who is weaker than them. In a moment of uncontrolled passion, they may sleep with a whore or their neighbor’s wife, and yet secretly carry regret for the remainder of their life. Even a pagan child knows it’s wrong to intentionally hurt someone. But what Gentile parents on the eighth day of their newborn son’s life struggle with an inner-knowledge that they should remove their son’s foreskin (Lev 12:3)? What pagan after touching a deceased body is driven by his conscience to purify himself by water on the third and seventh day (Num 19:11)? What nation, state, or city of Gentiles on the fifteenth day of the seventh month gather fruit, palm leaves, and willow branches, and then rejoice for seven days while they live in little huts (Lev 23:34-43)? And what non-Jew in history past, felt compelled to refrain from all manner of labor every seventh day, not even building a fire or traveling (Ex 16:23-29; 31:14-16; 35:2-3)? If Paul is correct that the conscience of Gentiles—those unfamiliar with Mosaic law—is pricked when they fail to obey moral laws, and if Sabbatarians are correct that the Sabbath—resting from all manner of work on the seventh day—is a moral law, then ancient history, sociology, and anthropology books should be replete with accounts of institutional sabbatisms among most cultures, ancient and modern. But Webster’s research could find no rational explanation for the origin of the Sabbath among the Jews and declared it a “momentous innovation… which must be attributed to the Hebrew people alone.”[ii] As Webster considered the history of Christianity, he observed that the early church fathers “made no reference to Sunday as a day of abstinence from labour.”[iii] He noted that the view that Sunday should be observed like a Sabbath occurred occasionally during the Middle Ages, but did not come to fruition until the “excesses of English and Scottish Puritanism” [in the 16th century].[iv] Apart from Judaism, the Sabbath wields no moral force. And Christians who wield the Sabbath are Judaizing the Lord’s Day.
[i] Neusner, Jacob. Confronting Creation, p. 108. The argument is spurious for sure, but the ancients observed that Adam had a mere six commandments to follow, but failed. Therefore, he was not up to task of receiving the Torah. However, Israel obtained righteousness, God finding it in Abraham, David, and Israel. It is through the merits of Israel that Noah found grace. “Noah on his own–that is, humanity–enjoyed salvation only because of Israel’s merit” (p. 124).
[ii] Webster, Hutton. Rest Days, p. 254.
[iii] Ibid., p. 270.
[iv] Ibid., p. 270-271.