Scala/Art Resource, NY

Moses receives the Commandments on Mt. Sinai, as depicted by Raphael on a wall of the Vatican. The earliest biblical exegetes, whether Jewish or Christian, believed that there could be no sin without knowledge of the Law, since sin was the conscious violation of a known rule. That is why Moses broke the tablets of the Law when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf—so that they would not merit death for their conscious violation of the Second Commandment, which prohibits idolatry.

These exegetes then had to explain why—in the 70 chapters of Genesis and Exodus that precede the giving of the Law—some people are punished and some are not. Their answers hinge on the difference between intentional and accidental violation of certain universal laws that were in force even before the events at Sinai.