“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions”

We know the above verse from Galations 3:19 so well! Yet when we ask: “To what was the law added?” the answer does not spring so readily to mind. What were the transgressions that provoked the adding of the law and to what was it added? Was it to the existing laws under which Israel functioned as indicated in Exodus 18? And if so, what were the transgressions? Was the first transgression the failure of the people to enter into covenant at Sinai in the prescribed manner, or were there more specific transgressions which were more serious violations of divine law?

In analysing the laws laid down in the Book of Moses they seem to be broken up into groups and are in fact punctuated by some very serious transgressions. It needs to be said, however, that there are repetitions of various laws throughout the book. Nevertheless, there still appears to be clear divisions and as the laws progress, they cover more and more sins, some of which seem so unseemly that one hesitates to mention them. However, they exist because the sins were obviously practised.

The Book of the Covenant

The question that can’t be answered with any certainty is: “What would have happened if the people had ascended into the mount?” Is it possible for example that the 10 commandments and the altar of unhewn stone of Exodus 20 would have sufficed? Paul makes it very clear that the covenant with Abraham based on faith transcended the law (Gal 3:17), so maybe Exodus 20, plus the laws already in existence, and the tabernacle would have been all that was necessary for a mature spiritual relationship with God!

We are given a clue to the “added” laws in the following: “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exod 24:7).

What was the Book of the Covenant? Well, clearly it was the record of the laws from Exodus 20–24. In addition to the ten commandments there are 48 extra laws covering idolatry, the altar, laws regarding male and female servants, murder and manslaughter, smiting parents, kidnapping, cursing parents, assault, protection of pregnant women, releasing bondservants and laws concerning oxen from Exodus 21; theft of animals, punishment of thieves, laws concerning damage to crops, fire, trustees, borrowing, fornication, witchcraft, bestiality, idolatry, strangers, widows and orphans, lending, blasphemy, firstborn and firstfruit, eating of flesh, slander and false witness from Exodus 22; and laws concerning judgement, charitableness, bribery, strangers, the year of rest, Sabbath, idolatry, three feasts, laws of sacrifice, finally an angel is promised, boundaries established for the nations and God’s part is declared in Exodus 23. These laws comprised the Covenant at the point of their presentation to Israel. This group of laws, including the ten commandments, was all that was deemed necessary for the nation to function in a spiritual relationship with Yahweh and even then the suggestion is that had Israel gone up into the mountain in faith, the ten commandments may have been all that was necessary; but the laws mentioned above were the first addition because of unbelief and disobedience. That there is a clear end point to the Covenant Code is seen in the amazing meeting of men and Elohim when Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 elders are called to approach the mountain. The sequence is as follows: on his return, Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people and they agreed to obey the laws contained therein. Moses then sprinkled the “blood of the covenant” on the people. In Exodus 24:9, Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the 70 elders returned to the mount where “they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness” (Exod 24:10).There was a fellowship meal including Moses, the elders and God (or the angel of God’s presence) and the narrative notes that they didn’t die! (v11). God then tells Moses to come up into the mountain and He will give Moses the law including the commandments on tablets of stone. However, clearly the change in the relations from Exodus 19 is seen—only Moses is too ascend to Yahweh. We are very specifically told in 24:2 that the elders were not to “come nigh; neither shall the people” come up. So where it was intended from the days of Abraham for a spiritual people, responding in faith and trust to the God of Abraham—a kingdom of priests—there was now a mediator for what had become a kingdom with a priest.

Chapter 24 sounds like the end of the presentation of the laws of God. You will note in passing that burnt offerings and peace offerings were made to God, reinforcing the existence of laws regarding offerings long before they were specified in Leviticus. So the details of the Book of the Covenant started with Moses receiving the ten commandments, finished with the additional laws from chapters 21–23 and concluded with a fellowship meal. And we see that within the Book of Moses is the Book of the Covenant. Some scholars, as a way of distinguishing the Book of the Covenant from the whole law, refer to it as the ‘Covenant Code’ within the larger context of The Law of Moses.

The Priestly Code

Exodus 24 concludes with a demonstration of God’s power and glory for six days, at the end of which on the seventh day God called Moses up into the mount. We are told that he was there for forty days and forty nights (v18). The most natural reading of the text suggests that during this forty day period he received the details for the building of the tabernacle. Some suggest that these details could have been placed in this order by Moses when he put the book together, more to fit the smooth flow of the record rather than to reveal the actual time that the details were provided. Consider the following:

“And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (Exod 32:15-16).

“And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount” (Exod 32:19). So what was on the tables? Exodus 24:12 says, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them”, implying that Yahweh, wrote a law and commandments on the stone while Exodus 34:28 states plainly that the tables of stone only contained the ten commandments. What we know is that Moses came down from the mountain with what is described as the Book of the Covenant.The point we are trying to establish is not so much how the Covenant Code was transmitted but the fact of the Code, to which other laws would soon be added.

The golden calf was a transgression of the priests so we find that there was added to the Covenant Code all the laws from Exodus 32Leviticus 16. These laws included: the instructions to build the tabernacle, the new altar made by man, all the furniture, curtains and other details of the sanctuary in Exodus 25–27; and the setting apart of Aaron and his sons, the clothing of the priest, Urim and Thummim, and sacrifices related to the cleansing of the priests from sin in Exodus 28–29. We note as we go through the following chapters that the laws deal chiefly with the priests and their work. In Exodus 34:10, God reiterates the covenant again, reinforcing the promises and inspiring the people to reconnect with their calling. God warns them against idolatry and the temptation to make covenant with the Canaanites. Then additional laws are introduced or repeated: redemption of the firstborn, Sabbath, three feasts and there follows approximately 56 individual laws all designed to reinforce God’s holiness and man’s uncleanness. To the faithful observer of the law, these laws were particularly crushing. Each law brought home to the Israelite the truth of the one poem in the book of Leviticus, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified”. We marvel at the beauty of the laws of Yahweh and delight to see their fulfilment in Christ, but how would you like to live under the law? Yet Abraham had a richer and more fulfilling relationship with Yahweh without the “added” laws of sacrifice and purification and Abraham’s ‘code’ of righteousness by faith endured beyond the law to this day. So to the Covenant Code, was added the Priestly Code—the catalyst being the golden calf.

The Holiness Code

The final code “added because of transgression” begins in Leviticus 17, where once again idolatry appears to be the provocation for additional laws. In verse 7 we read: “And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. This shall be a statue for ever unto them throughout their generations”. So it appears that while the tabernacle worship was being established, the people were slipping off into the desert to worship goat idols (devils)! So again the issue is idolatry! The golden calf had really been the work of the priest, while the goat (we are not told what it was made of) was a rallying point for the people to worship in exactly the way that they were told not to!

From Leviticus 17, repetition and new laws were added. These include: eating of blood, copying Egyptians and Canaanites, unlawful marriages, unlawful lusts, fear of parents and keeping Sabbaths, forbidden idols, peace offerings, harvesting, stealing, false dealing and lying, swearing falsely, payment of wages, treatment of deaf and blind, tale-bearing, hatred and criticism, love of neighbour, cross breeding, mixed garments, linen and wool, sex with slaves, eating fruit, prostituting daughters, witches and wizards, honouring old age, and treatment of strangers from Leviticus 17–19; offering children to Molech, penalty for going to wizards, sanctification, penalty for cursing parents, penalty for unlawful lusts, adultery, sex with father’s wife or daughter-in-law, homosexuality, marriage to both a mother and a daughter, bestiality, sex during menstruation, incest, clean and unclean animals, witch and wizard put to death, mourning for priests, wives of priests, daughters of priests, things forbidden to priests, marriage of priests, priests with blemishes, Feast of Tabernacles, oil for lamps, shewbread, blasphemy, penalty for murder, Sabbath of seven years, the jubilee, feast of seventh years, redemption of land, redemption of possessions and houses, compassion for the poor, treatment of servants, redemption of servants, law of idolatry, religiousness, blessing for obedience, curse for disobedience, laws concerning vows and sanctified possessions from Leviticus 20–27. There are remarkable patterns in the forgoing laws, particularly patterns involving the number seven. However, they also contain some extremely detailed and gross sins.

We can see, therefore, that the Law of Yahweh contained three distinct sections: the Book of the Covenant, the Priestly Code and finally the Holiness Code, so named because of the close detail.

The Covenant Code was preceded by the failure of the people to go onto the mountain, the Priestly Code by the incident of the golden calf and the Holiness Code by the offering of sacrifices to goats! It puts a whole new meaning on “the law was added because of transgressions,” does it not?

Lack of faith in Yahweh, idolatry, general disobedience and a blatant disregard for God’s law, underline Israel’s failure to enter the Abrahamic covenant that God intended. The Apostle Paul tells us that the events recorded in the Book of Moses are preserved for our admonition that we should not follow in their steps (1 Cor 10). Paul sums up the sins of Israel, warning us not to “lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (v6), “neither be ye idolaters” (v7), “neither let us commit fornication” (v8), “neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted and were destroyed of serpents” (v9), “neither murmur ye” (v10).

Surely we owe it to ourselves to examine ourselves considering the “evil things” in our lives: the objects of idolatry, the impact of an over sexualised and immoral world on our relationships, right down to our murmuring and begrudging service to the ecclesia and, before justifying our own behaviour, recognise the final admonitions of Paul when he said, “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (v12). Paul assures us that whatever temptation we face can be overcome (v13).


Whilst a number of commentators have been consulted regarding these articles my primary source is the work of John Sailhamer and his book The Meaning of the Pentateuch. Published by IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois USA.