Michael S. Heiser
When we hear “Moses’ Law,” we think of the story we heard in Sunday school, or the scene from The Ten Commandments where Charlton Heston (aka Moses) gets the two tablets from God. But what if I told you Moses and God weren’t alone?
It may come as a surprise, but the New Testament tells us in three places that the Law was delivered by angels, members of God’s divine council. Here are two of those passages:
“Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:52–53 ESV). 1
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb 2:1–2).
I was pretty shocked the first time I saw these verses. And I certainly hadn’t heard about them in church. So what passage in the Old Testament were they quoting? That’s the second jolt: there isn’t a clear reference to it—at least not in the Old Testament we use.
The New Testament writers didn’t invent the idea, though. They got it from Deut 33:2–4 in their Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Septuagint more clearly connects angels to the law than the traditional Hebrew text upon which our English translations are based.
So they were using a translation. We can understand that. But we’re not done. It gets a bit stranger. The third New Testament passage that talks about the Law and angels is found in Gal 3:19–20. And this time it isn’t just a crowd of angels with Moses and God:
What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.
Galatians 3:19 informs us that there was a mediator between God and the angels when the Law was given. Most scholars assume this is a reference to Moses. But why didn’t Paul just say that? And why repeat part of the creed of Israel, the Shema (Deut 6:4–6), in the next verse (“God is one”)?
The mediator was likely the Angel of the Lord, the Old Testament version of God in human form. Paul emphasized that “God is one” to keep the Galatians from being confused about his viewpoint. So the God of Israel met Moses in human form, but where is the embodied God in the story of the giving of the Law? Moses answers that question in Deut 9:10:
The Shema: The prayer “Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4–6).
Mediator: Someone who delivers God’s message to His people.
The Angel of the Lord: The God of Israel in human form, pre-Jesus.
Angels: Divine beings sent from God.
And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.
Human physicality (“a finger”) is applied to God, who is a disembodied spirit (John 4:24; Isa 31:3). The God of Israel came to Moses in human form, just as he had before, when the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exod 3:1–3; Acts 7:35). We find support for this proposal in the words of Stephen, who, in the same speech where he said the Law was given by angels, tells us that “the angel” spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38).
As much as I love The Ten Commandments, the book is more fascinating than the movie.
1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩