Many believe that Western civilization was built on Roman law and Greek ideas of democracy that date from more than 2,000 years ago. However, few today realize that much of the culture and civilization of the Western world rests on the foundation of five books written 3,500 years ago by a man named Moses. Though skeptics claim that Moses is a fictional character and assert that taking his writings literally has been a detriment to humanity, such claims ignore the remarkable content and undeniable impact the books of Moses have had on the course of world history.
The five books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—are part of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and claim to be the inspired words of God (Exodus 3:4–6; 2 Timothy 3:16). In striking contrast to other "holy" books, the Bible—including these five most ancient books—contains unique, internal self-authenticating evidence in the form of nearly two thousand prophecies that confirm its divine inspiration. No other text than the Bible—not the Quran, not the Upanishads, not the Tao Te Ching—can rightly claim to contain such specific prophecies that correctly foretell future events.
Some critics say the Law of Moses was copied or borrowed from the code of laws proclaimed by Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who lived several centuries earlier. However, the laws of Hammurabi were essentially civil laws to govern the commercial city-state of Babylon; they included barbaric punishments administered by judges subject to the king (see "8 Things You May Not Know About Hammurabi's Code," History.com). By contrast, the Law of Moses is a much more comprehensive set of civil and religious instructions related to every aspect of life. The books of Moses provide a theological perspective on the origin of the universe, the creation of life on earth, the origin of marriage, the purpose of gender, the origin of language and the origin of nations—and also contain laws that govern human relationships.
The perspectives on God, the universe and mankind contained in the sacred books of the Hebrew people have had an incalculable influence on the history and culture of the Western world. God revealed the Mosaic laws in a stunning manner at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16–18)—laws that are based on a religious orientation toward the one true God, not obedience to an earthly king. The laws God revealed to Moses also contain concepts of sin and forgiveness that are totally absent from the code of Hammurabi.
It is also instructive to notice that God gave Moses the law written on two tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18), and that Moses wrote "all the words of the Lord" in a "Book of the Covenant" or "Book of the Law"—leaving a permanent set of divine instructions for the nation of Israel (Exodus 24:4–7; Deuteronomy 31:24–26). Historians have noted a "close association of books with some crucial transitions in history" because books preserve ideas that can influence the minds of later generations and mold entire civilizations (Eight Decisive Books of Antiquity, F. R. Hoare, pp. 7, 13).
The laws God revealed to Moses were purposefully designed to set the nation of Israel apart so its people could be a light and an example to the surrounding pagan nations of the ancient world (Deuteronomy 4:1–10, 40). This was in line with promises God made to Abraham (who also obeyed the laws of God—see Genesis 26:5) that his descendants would be a blessing to "all the nations of the earth" (Genesis 22:18). The laws of Moses are remarkable in their scope, especially when compared to the laws of Hammurabi. The Ten Commandments define mankind's relationship to God (commandments 1–4) and how to love one's neighbor (commandments 5–10). The moral dimensions of the Mosaic Law define right and wrong for all mankind, and protect the fundamental unit of society, the institution of marriage between man and woman. Commandments against lying and stealing protect against the corruption that so permeates human societies.
The books of Moses include stipulations for weekly and annual Holy Days (Leviticus 23). The biological law recorded in Genesis 1:11, 24–25 states that each living organism reproduces "according to its kind"—a fact that agrees with the discoveries of science but contradicts modern macroevolutionary theories. Other Mosaic laws outlined an economic system and provided for debt relief (Deuteronomy 14:22–29; 15:1–2), guided agricultural practices (Exodus 23:10–11) and instituted wildlife management (Deuteronomy 22:6–7). Health laws in the Mosaic Code forbade tattoos and self-mutilation (Leviticus 19:28), outlined quarantine practices, identified appropriate sources of food (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14) and prescribed proper sanitation and the prevention (far more economical than mere treatment) of infectious disease (see Leviticus 11–15). The fact that Jewish communities in the Middle Ages suffered less from disease epidemics is one demonstration of the benefits of observing the biblical health laws.
Another interesting fact is that biblical writers never call the Mosaic Laws a burden; rather, they are revealed as a source of liberty, wisdom, truth and happiness (Deuteronomy 4:40, Psalm 119; 1 John 5:2–3) whose value extends far beyond the ancient nation of Israel. Legal authorities even today acknowledge that "the Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western world" (The Ten Commandments & their Influence on American Law, Federer, p. 14). In America, "Twelve of the thirteen colonies adopted the entire Decalogue [Ten Commandments] into their civil and criminal laws" (ibid.). An American legal scholar has stated, "To ignore the influence of the Ten Commandments in the founding and shaping of American law and government would require significant historical revision" (ibid., p. 11). In summary, "The direct and indirect influence of the Ten Commandments on American law goes back in time to the development of English Common Law, and before that to the origins of Western Civilization" (ibid., p. 183).
The books of Moses contain a dimension of knowledge that has had a profound influence on the world, yet is non-existent in the writings of other ancient religions and philosophers. They give unique information about the purpose and meaning of life. As British writer Paul Johnson wrote regarding the ancient Israelites: "No people has ever insisted more firmly… that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny," that God has a "providential plan" and a "divine scheme for the human race" (A History of the Jews, p. 2). These ideas came from the books of Moses. The concept that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), that all human life is sacred (Exodus 20:13), that God is working out a grand plan on earth (Genesis 17:1–7; 22:15–18; 49) and that He has given mankind a divine set of laws to live by were recorded long ago by Moses in five books that changed the course of world history.