The Seven Laws of Noah
Gentiles in a Jewish Religion
by Jeffrey J. Harrison
I once attended a concert in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, one of the main divisions of the city within the old city walls. At the beginning of the concert, an Armenian bishop, dressed in his dark robes and distinctive pointed cap, greeted the audience as
my fellow Armenians. This was odd, since most of those attending the concert were not Armenian. But then the bishop explained what he meant: since Mt. Ararat,* where Noah’s ark landed, is in ancient Armenia, we are all originally Armenians!**
* Today, Mt. Ararat is commonly identified with Agri Dagi in Turkey, near the border with modern Armenia. The distinctive pointed headpiece of the Armenian monks rises up above their heads like a tiny mountain, said to represent Mt. Ararat.
** Don’t confuse the Armenian nation with the Arminian theological position of 17th century Europe. Armenia is one of the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus mountain region. They hold a unique place in world history as the first nation to become a Christian nation, in about 300 AD. Soon after, Armenians started trickling into Jerusalem, where a sizeable community remains today.
The Armenians say it used to be the custom among them that when a boy turned thirteen, his father would take him up Mt. Ararat to show him the remains of the ark.* This must have been quite an adventure. Mt. Ararat is 16,854 feet in height (5,137 m), one of the twenty-five tallest mountains in the world. Its upper slopes are covered with snow all year long. Many believe that Noah’s ark is buried in the snow or under the glacier on the north side near the summit.**
* Reports claiming that the remains of the ark could still be seen date back to ancient times. Josephus, who wrote in the time of Jesus, is one of many ancient writers to make this claim (Antiquities 20.2.2 ).
**The Bible says only that Noah’s ark landed in the
mountains of Ararat, the area identified by historians as Urartu (Gen. 8:4). Aramaic and Syriac translations of Genesis place the ark in the mountains of Kurdistan, southwest of the modern Mt. Ararat (on Mt. Cudi, also known as Qardu). The rabbis placed it in the same region (identified as the Cordyene mountains in Gen. Rab. 33:4), as did the Samaritan version of Genesis. But in the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, the hero, Gilgamesh, journeys to
the source of the rivers, to search for Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah. This puts Utnapishtim at the source of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, up in the area of modern Mt. Ararat (Tablet 11:190-200). Gilgamesh seeks from Utnapishtim the secret of eternal life, since he is remembered, as is the Biblical Noah, to have lived long after the Flood.
On their climb to the ark, they would have had a fantastic view over the surrounding mountainous region, much like the view Noah himself had when he looked out at a world made new. Noah saw a landscape washed clean: the people and the animals were gone. There were hardly any plants, except those just starting to grow from seed. Early Jewish and Christian writers describe what Noah experienced as a new beginning: a pali-genesia or literally
another genesis, the world starting over again.* It’s no accident that Jesus uses this same word to describe the coming resurrection: it will be a fresh, new start,
another genesis, with everything new and clean again (Mat. 19:28).** It will be
as in the days of Noah (Mat. 24:37, Luke 17:27).
* Often translated as
regeneration. Philo, Mos. 2.65; 1 Clement 9:4.
** This is quite different than the currently popular dispensational teaching of a Millennium peopled with unbelievers. Jesus taught instead that the fate of unbelievers would be as in the flood of Noah, which
destroyed them all (Luke 17:27). Only the righteous—
those who are considered worthy—will enter that glorious age (Luke 20:35). See our teaching, Neglected Issues in the Debate about the Millennium.
One of the first things Noah did after coming out of the ark was to offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the miracle of their deliverance (Gen. 8:20). In response, God blessed Noah and made a covenant with him (Gen. 9:9). But this covenant was not just for Noah himself. It was an eternal covenant that would extend to his descendants
for all generations to come (Gen. 9:9,12).
This covenant has often been neglected by Christian theology because of its supersessionist view of the Biblical covenants. But that this and every other Biblical covenant is still in force is clearly affirmed in Galatians, when Paul, speaking of the covenants of Moses and of Abraham, says that a later covenant
does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God (Gal. 3:17). This principle applies to all the covenants of the Bible, including the covenant of Noah.
The covenant of Noah places three divine commands on mankind:
The Laws of Noah
According to Genesis 9
Be fruitful and multiply. This was also the first command given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 9:1; 1:28).
Every moving thing will be food to you. This gives permission to eat meat, which was forbidden before the Flood (Gen. 9:2-3; 1:29). But it comes with a qualification attached:
Surely flesh with its life, its blood, you will not eat (Gen. 9:4). This prohibits the eating of blood and meat from which the blood has not been properly drained.
I will require your lifeblood from every animal...and from every man. This establishes a system of retributive justice with the death penalty for murder. This penalty is to be enforced by mankind itself:
whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood will be shed (Gen. 9:5-6). In Israel’s early history, this duty was carried out by a kinsman redeemer (the go’el), a near relative on whom this and other important duties devolved. But first a public trial determined whether it was a case of intentional or unintentional manslaughter (Num. 35:12,24).*
* Only intentional manslaughter brought the death penalty (Num. 35:25).
In New Testament times, this covenant with Noah was seen to be the key to God’s will for the Gentiles—the
sons of Noah as the rabbis called them. This was distinct from God’s will for the Jewish people, the
sons of Abraham, who had the additional obligation of obeying the Law of Moses.
The exact contents of God’s covenant with Noah were disputed. Many included commands not mentioned in Genesis 9. The Book of Jubilees, for example, an apocryphal writing once influential among the Jewish people as well as the early Christians, lists seven Laws of Noah:
The Laws of Noah
According to the Book of Jubilees
(1) to wear clothes (as in Gen. 3:21),
(2) to bless your Creator,
(3) to honor your father and mother,
(4) to love your neighbor,
(5) to avoid sexual immorality (one of the reasons given for the Flood in Gen. 6:1-5),
(6) to avoid uncleanness (probably referring to ritual uncleanness, like that caused by contact with the dead), and
(7) to avoid
all sin (Jubilees 7:20).*
* Jubilees, first written in Hebrew and dated to about 100 BC, was preserved as Scripture only by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Fragmentary copies also exist in Latin, Syriac, and in Hebrew among the Dead Sea scrolls.
The final list accepted by the rabbis at the end of the first century is closer to Genesis 9:
The Laws of Noah
According to the Rabbis
(1) no idolatry,
(2) no sexual immorality,
(3) no bloodshed (Gen. 9:6),
(4) no robbery,
(5) no eating the flesh cut from a living animal (that is, with the blood still in it; Gen. 9:4),
(6) no blasphemy, and
(7) the duty to establish courts of law (derived from the requirement to punish murderers in Gen. 9:6).*
But here, too, there are laws not mentioned in Genesis 9.
* The two final laws (#6 and #7) were disputed by the rabbinical School of Manasseh, which attempted to more closely derive the Laws of Noah from Genesis 9 and surrounding chapters (Sanh. 56b). They proposed replacing them with a prohibition of emasculation (related to the commandment to be fruitful and multiply in Gen. 9:1,7) and a prohibition against crossbreeding different kinds of plants and animals. But this and different attempts to connect the seven laws of Noah with Genesis 2 were introduced after the final list had already been established (Sanh. 56b).
So where did the rabbis get the additional four laws not mentioned in Genesis 9 (#1, 2, 4, and 6 in the list above)? Many believe they originated in sections of the Law of Moses concerning the gerim ha-gar (resident aliens)—laws concerning Gentiles living among the Jews found mostly in the book of Leviticus. This body of law closely matches the rabbis’ version of the Seven Laws of Noah: the prohibition of sexual immorality (Lev. 18:26), the prohibition of eating blood (Lev. 17:10,13,15), the prohibition of idolatry (Lev. 20:2), the prohibition of blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), and the prohibition of murder (Lev. 24:22).*
* These laws also include commandments that Gentiles cleanse themselves from the ritual impurity of contact with the dead (Num. 19:10, as in the list in Jubilees), observe the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29) and the Days of Unleavened Bread (Exo. 12:19; although not the Passover meal itself, Exo. 12:48-49), and observe certain regulations when offering burnt offerings to God (Lev. 17:8, 22:18; Num. 15:14). Additional regulations for Gentiles applied to those actually living in Jewish cities (gerim ha-shaar). These had the additional obligation to rest on the Sabbath (Exo. 20:10, Deut. 5:14) and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16:11,14). But these additional laws were interpreted by the rabbis to apply only to proselytes (converts to Judaism), and not to Gentiles in general.
The Seven Laws of Noah are still taught today in modern Judaism as God’s requirements for Gentiles. They are for Gentiles what the Law of Moses is for the Jewish people. The rabbis consider any Gentile who commits himself to obeying these seven laws a righteous Gentile (a ger toshav), and say he will have a place in the world to come (Lev. Rab. 3:2).*
*Though this commitment must be made before a Jewish religious court to be valid. The related idea that Israel, because they are
children of Abraham, would be spared from the coming wrath of God was rejected by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9). Instead, he taught, God is looking for personal repentance and changed lives (Matt. 3:8). See our teaching The Baptism of Jesus.
In the time of Jesus, the Laws of Noah were controversial. Some felt it was better for Gentiles to become proselytes (converts to Judaism). In the time of the Maccabees (2nd-1st cent. BC), Gentiles had even been converted to Judaism by force.* These different points of view can be seen in the case of Izates, the king of Adiabene (in what is today Iraq). He was convinced of the truth of the Jewish religion in about 40 AD. One Jewish teacher discouraged him from being circumcised (that is, converting to Judaism), another pressed him to do so.**
* The Edomites (Idumeans), for example, were forcibly converted by the Maccabean king John Hyrcanus. Later, after Christianity came to power, the number of proselytes declined. Conversion to Judaism eventually came to be discouraged by the rabbis for fear of insincere converts.
** Josephus, Antiquities 20.2.3-4 (34-48).
A similar division fueled the debate in the early Church over Gentile believers in Jesus. This disagreement, which led to sharp words between Peter and Paul in Antioch (Gal. 2), was the reason for the Council of Acts 15. Pharisees that had accepted Jesus argued that Gentile believers must be circumcised (that is, converted to Judaism) with the obligation of observing the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5). Against them, Peter, Paul, and Barnabbas argued that the
yoke of the Law should not be put on Gentile believers, whom God had accepted independent of the Law of Moses (Acts 15:10-13).* In the end, the Council anticipated the position soon after adopted by the rabbis: that Gentiles can be accepted by God without conversion to Judaism.
* Peter had initially waffled on this topic in Antioch (Gal. 2), but by the time of the Council, he came down strongly on Paul’s side.
That the Council was thinking along the same lines as the rabbis can be seen in their decision, which established three requirements for Gentile believers, sometimes called:
The Three Exceptions
According to the Council of Acts 15 (Acts 15:20,29)
(1) no idolatry,
(2) no sexual immorality, and
(3) no eating of what is strangled (meat with the blood still in it), or of blood itself.
These match three of the Laws of Noah!
But why did the Council mention only these three laws and not all seven? Most likely because the other Laws of Noah were already accepted by the Gentile world. The Romans recognized that murder and robbery were wrong, and had set up courts to deal with such crimes. The prohibition of blasphemy was likely considered unnecessary, as the rabbis ruled that blasphemy only took place with the actual name of God (Yhwh), the pronunciation of which had become a closely guarded secret, known only to the priests. That left just three of the Laws of Noah that needed to be affirmed: the prohibition of (1) idolatry, (2) sexual immorality, and (3) eating blood, the same three things commanded by the Council of Acts 15. If Gentile believers would keep themselves
free from such things, the Council ruled,
you will do well (Acts 15:29), and do not need to observe the rest of the Law of Moses.
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden (Acts 15:28).
The debate at the Council assumed that Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus were already united in obedience to the Law of the Messiah, the teachings of Jesus that were common to all, and which include all the other great moral commands of the Law of Moses. It also assumed that the Jewish believers in Jesus would continue to obey the Law of Moses, as Jesus had, since this is part of their unique calling and identity as Jews (1 Cor. 7:17-20). But Gentile believers are under no obligation to the Law of Moses because they are adequately covered by the laws given to Noah (the
* The Council of Acts 15 made its decision based on Amos’ prophecy of the restoration of the tabernacle of David (Acts 15:15-18). This prophecy recalled a time when many in David’s kingdom were not Jewish, and yet were not subject to the Law of Moses (Arameans, Ammonites, Edomites, and others). But all were under the kingly rule of David. In the same way, not all in the kingdom of Messiah are subject to the Law of Moses, yet all come under the royal authority of King Messiah.
Unfortunately, most Christians have never heard of the Laws of Noah, and are not aware of the position that Gentiles occupy in the religious thinking of the Jewish people—including that of Jesus and his disciples. As a result, when Gentile believers begin to learn about the Jewish roots of the Christian faith—that we have been grafted into Israel (Rom. 11:17) and are fellow citizens with the Jewish believers in Jesus (the
saints or holy ones mentioned in Eph. 2:12,19)—many assume this implies the necessity of obedience to the Law of Moses in some way. This includes the many groups that forbid eating pork, for example, or who insist that Gentiles must rest and/or worship on the Biblical Sabbath (the Saturday Sabbath).
The strange thing about these Gentile opinions is that the rabbis themselves don’t consider obedience to such things necessary or even desirable for Gentiles.* Many are, in fact, forbidden for Gentiles. Paul reacted strongly to those who encouraged Gentile Christians to obey the Law of Moses.
Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3; that is, ‘are you now being perfected by the works of the Law?’ Gal. 3:2,5). For as he taught in Ephesians, we already have
every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies by means of Messiah (Eph. 1:3).
* Observing the Biblical Sabbath has been taught as a legal requirement by several different Christian groups because it is listed in the Ten Commandments. This is because, in Christian theology, the Ten Commandments have often functioned as an alternative to the long-forgotten Laws of Noah. (Five of the Laws of Noah can be found in the Ten Commandments.) But, curiously, observing the Sabbath is not included in any of the Jewish formulations of the Laws of Noah, including Acts 15. Sabbath observance was considered by the Jews—including the early Jewish believers in Jesus—to be a requirement for Jews alone (Col. 2:16).
Paul’s teaching on this topic has often been understood as a rejection of the Law of Moses. But in fact, his teaching is based directly on the Law itself, and is in agreement with the rabbis after him. They all agreed, as mentioned above, that Gentiles are excluded from the requirement of obedience to the Law; and this is on the basis of instructions found within the Law itself. In other words, Gentiles are excluded from the Law of Moses in obedience to the Law of Moses. Instead, Gentiles have their own law—the Laws of Noah—and their own relationship to God through that law,* which is not to be confused with the Law of Moses.
* This is in addition to the requirement for believers in Jesus to obey the Law of Messiah (the New Testament).
But this leaves a big question unanswered: If it is possible to be right with God through the Laws of Noah, why was the Law of Moses necessary at all? Paul found the answer in his faith in Jesus, who fulfills everything these earlier covenants point to. The Law of Moses, he says, is a guardian—literally a
child-conductor (a paidagogos)—to lead the Jewish people to Messiah, through whom the rest of the world has learned of him (Gal. 3:24, John 4:22). The purpose of the Law of Moses, as with the Laws of Noah, is to point to Messiah, a function that they continue to fulfill today (Rom. 10:4).* But the fullness of faith and salvation can be found in Messiah alone (Col. 2:17).
* Messiah is the
goal (telos τέλος) of the Law, not the
end of the Law, as Rom. 10:5 is often translated, reflecting centuries of anti-Judaistic interpretation. Messiah is the
end of the Law only in the sense that he is its goal or purpose (as in the saying, "the ends justify the means.")