What Did God Write on the Tablets of Stone?
Receiving the Tablets of Stone on the Mountain
The people of Israel stand at the foot of Mount Sinai when God descends upon it (Exod 19). God then speaks to the people and reveals the Decalogue. Afraid, the people ask that God speak with Moses and that he in turn convey God’s words to them, and Moses agrees. God then reveals many more laws to Moses (Exod 20:19-23:19), followed by God’s description of Israel’s upcoming settlement of the land and what will be expected of them (Exod 23:20-33).
Moses then returns to the Israelites, recites these laws in their presence, and they accept them:
שמות כד:ג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְ-הוָה וְאֵת כָּל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה נַעֲשֶׂה.
Exod 24:3 Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of YHWH and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that YHWH has commanded we will do!”
He then writes down all these laws on a “scroll of the covenant” and, accompanied by a sacrificial ritual involving the sprinkling of blood upon the audience, reads them to the Israelites and they accept them (Exod 24:3-8):
שמות כד:ד וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְ-הוָה… כד:ז וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.
Exod 24:4 Moses then wrote down all the commands of YHWH… 24:7 Then he took the scroll of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that YHWH has spoken we will faithfully do!”
One might have expected this to mark the conclusion of events at the Mountain. Nonetheless, God, at this point, speaks to Moses once again:
שמות כד:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁם וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם.
Exod 24:12 YHWH said to Moses: “Come up to me on the mountain and stay there so that I might give you the tablets of stone and the teaching and the commandment that I have written to teach them.”
Moses was to climb the Mountain once again in order to receive the tablets of stone written by God. But what was inscribed on these stone tablets?
“The Teaching and the Commandment”– The Decalogue?
The most common interpretation is that they were inscribed with the Decalogue. After all, we know clearly from passages such as Exod 31:18, 32:15-16 and 34:1 that the tablets were uniquely inscribed by the “divine finger,” and from Exod 34:28, Deut 4:13 and 10:4 that this consisted of the “Ten Words.” Consequently, most commentators assume that the tablets referred to in our passage must have been inscribed with the Decalogue.
This interpretation, however, is problematic. The verse fails to explicitly mention עשרת הדברים “the Ten Words” or “words of the covenant.” Instead, it refers to התורה והמצוה, “the teaching and the commandment” (perhaps a hendiadys: “the legal teaching” or the like). It seems quite odd, however, to refer to the Decalogue as “the teaching and the commandment” without any further clarification. How is the reader supposed to know that this phrase refers to the Decalogue?
In fact, other uses of this phrase in the Bible almost certainly do not refer to the Decalogue. For instance, in 2 Chron. 14:3 we read about the action of Asa, king of Judah:
דברי הימים ב יד:ג וַיֹּאמֶר לִיהוּדָה לִדְרוֹשׁ אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם וְלַעֲשׂוֹת הַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה.
2 Chron 14:3 He ordered Judah to turn to YHWH God of their fathers and to observe the Teaching and the Commandment.
Clearly, the reference is to obedience to the divine laws in general and not to the Decalogue alone.
The same thing is implied in 2 Chron 31:21, where we read that all of Hezekiah’s acts—regarding temple worship and regarding “the teaching and the commandment” (ובתורה ובמצוה)—to seek out his God, were done with a complete heart:
דברי הימים ב לא:כא וּבְכָל מַעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר הֵחֵל בַּעֲבוֹדַת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים וּבַתּוֹרָה וּבַמִּצְוָה לִדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהָיו בְּכָל לְבָבוֹ עָשָׂה וְהִצְלִיחַ.
2 Chron 31:21 Every work he undertook in the service of the House of God or in the Teaching and the Commandment, to worship his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered.
Here, again, the reference would seem to be to “the laws” in general.
Tablets for Teaching
Furthermore, the formulation, “the tablets of stone and the teaching and the commandment that I have written to teach them” sounds as if something new is being given that must be taught. But Israel was already taught the Decalogue by God! Again, the formulation indicates that the tablets with their teaching (torah) were to be used by Moses to educate the people, as in “they shall teach your laws to Jacob and your Torah to Israel” (יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַעֲקֹב וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל; Deut 33:10).
The “tablets of the covenant” with the Decalogue, however, are stored in the ark, far away from the public eye, and (at least according to P texts) serve as a testimony (hence: לוחות העדות) rather than as an educational tool (see Exod 25:16; 31:18; 40:20; cf. Deut. 10:1-5).
The Decalogue Represents all the Commandments (Rashi)
Rashi explains that the unusual phrase “the teaching and the commandment” is employed with reference to the Decalogue in order to indicate that the “ten commandments” allude to all of the mitzvot:
כל שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות בכלל עשרת הדברות הן, ורב סעדיה פירשם באזהרות שייסד לכל דבור ודבור מצות התלויות בו.
All six hundred and thirteen mitzvot are included in the Decalogue. Rav Saadiah enumerated them in his Azharot, in which he used each commandment as a foundation for all the mitzvot that derive from it.
As support for his reading, Rashi makes reference to Saadiah’s poem enumerating the mitzvot, which categories each of the 613 mitzvot under one of the ten commandments.Thus, Rashi reads the verse to say, “the stone tablets [of the Decalogue, which includes in it] the whole Torah, that is to say, all the commandments.” In this understanding, even though God’s personal writing consisted of the Decalogue alone, it is as if God wrote all the commandments on the tablets of stone. This, however, is clearly not the simple meaning of the verse.
The Tablets of the Decalogue Plus Learning Other Mitzvot (Ramban)
Recognizing that the Torah’s commandments could not have been written on tablets with the Decalogue, and recalling that in Deuteronomy and Exodus 34:28 God was said to have personally written the Decalogue alone, Ramban (Moses Nahmanides, 1194-1270) separates the stone tablets from the “instruction and commandment.” He argues that the initial waw (“and”) of והתורה והמצוה must be taken as “copulative,” that is, indicating something additional to the stone tablets.
In other words, Moses is to take the stone tablets inscribed by God with the Decalogue, and additionally, he is to receive from God orally, further commandments for him to teach the people:
ו”אשר כתבתי” יחזור על הלוחות, ו”להורותם” על התורה והמצוה. ושיעור הכתוב ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן אשר כתבתי, והתורה והמצוה להורותם.
The words “that I have written” refers to the tablets whereas the words “to teach them” refers to the teaching and mitzvot (commandments). And thus, the phrase should be parsed in the following way, “I will give you the tablets of stone which I have written and the teaching and mitzvot for you to teach them.”
Although this reading solves the conceptual problems, Ramban takes for granted, with no textual basis, that the instruction and commandment are not written, but taught to Moses only orally. But the verse does not say this. Moreover, the reading violates Hebrew style; in biblical Hebrew one can “write” a scroll (ספר), and one can write “on tablets” (על לוחות) but one cannot “write tablets.”
Finally, Ramban’s parsing of the verse, separating the tablets from the teaching and commandment, is grammatically awkward. As the Bible scholar, Brevard Childs (1923-2007) writes: “[t]he suggestion [of Ramban] is logically sound, but grammatically impossible.”
A Confusing Supplement (Childs)
Childs instead argues that the verse as we have it now is the consequence of a later supplement:
In sum, the present form of the text seems to suffer from a later expansion which has confused the syntax… Whatever the historical reason, v. 12 has sought to combine the stone tablets which were written in the past with new teachings which were to instruct Israel in the future. Most probably, the waw before hattorah should be construed as a copulative which overlooked the discrepancy caused by the subsequent verb.
In other words, the verse, in its original form, referred only to the written Decalogue, and stated (the bracketed words are redactional supplements):
ואתנה לך את לחת האבן [והתורה והמצוה] אשר כתבתי [להורתם]
So that I may give you the tablets of stone [and the teaching and the commandment] that I have written [to teach them].
A later scribe, for “whatever reason,” wanted to indicate that God additionally gave Moses further laws with which to instruct the people. In the process, the scribe overlooked the fact that he created a verse that gave the mistaken impression that God wrote these additional teachings and commandments as well.
However, a theory that posits that a scribe inadvertently stated something that he did not intend to state seems dubious and should only be suggested as a last resort. Furthermore, it suffers from the same stylistic problem as Ramban: by removing the phrase והתורה והמצוה, God is again “writing tablets.” Finally, the only reason for this tortuous explanation is to allow for the tablets to be carved with the Decalogue, but is it clear that this is what Exodus 24:12 means to say?
Not the Decalogue: Divine Writing of the Law in General
In my view, Exodus 24:12 has nothing to do with the Decalogue, though later biblical editors apparently so understood it. Rather, it means that God wrote “the (unspecified) teaching and commandment” on an unspecified number of tablets, and gave this writing to Moses for the purpose of public instruction.
These commandments were not, as the Decalogue was apparently understood by some, to be a pithy summary of the most vital tenets of the covenant. They were more akin to a law code or collection. This new set of laws was to be given to Moses immediately after his ceremony confirming Israel’s acceptance of another set of laws, the Covenant Collection (Exod 20:19/21:1-23:19).
But why would God suddenly need to supply Moses with written laws in addition to those which Moses had already written down and the people had already accepted? Indeed, why wouldn’t God have inscribed and given his tablets of law to Moses when he first sent Moses down from the mountain to preside over the covenant ceremony (as is indeed implied in Deut 5:19)? And why have Moses write one set of laws on a scroll only to receive another set of laws on tablets?
An Alternative Tradition
The sequence of events described above is almost certainly the result of a splicing together of two separate traditions. According to the longer tradition recounted (Exodus 20:1-24:11), God revealed the Decalogue to all of Israel (Exod 20), followed by the Covenant Collection to Moses (Exod 21-23). Moses then wrote all of them—the Decalogue and the Covenant Collection—on a scroll and conducted the covenant ceremony (Exod 24:3-8).
The brief tradition in Exodus 24:12-15, in contrast, reports of a divinely inscribed law on stone tablets handed over to Moses on the mountain for the instruction of the people. It was originally unrelated to the account of the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant that now precedes it.
Indeed, the formulation “come up the mountain” (עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה) suggests that Moses is being called upon to go up the mountain to receive the law for the first time. Thus, our passage of Exodus 24:12 may be said to reflect a parallel and alternative tradition to that of Exodus 20-24:11.
Divinely Penned Law
The idea of divinely penned law appears elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, in 2 Kings 17:37, God admonishes the Israelites to follow his commandments with the following words:
מלכים ב יז:לז וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב לָכֶם תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת כָּל הַיָּמִים…
2 Kings 17:37 And the laws, and the judgments, and the teaching and the commandment that He wrote for you, be careful to do all the days.
The words in bold are quite close to those of our passage of Exodus 24:12, and the verse refers to God as having written these laws (though it does not say on tablets specifically).
A Torah in Heaven (Midrash HaGadol)
The fourteenth century Yemenite midrash collection known as Midrash HaGadol actually offers a reading of Exodus 24:12 that fits the spirit of what I am suggesting:
אשר כתבתי – מלמד שהתורה כתובה ועומדת במרום, והיינו דתנן והכתב והמכתב, כתב זה תורה והמכתב זה שעל הלוחות, וכן הוא אומר והמכתב מכתב אלוהים הוא חרות על הלוחות.
“Which I wrote” – this teaches that the Torah is written and present in heaven. This is in accord with what is taught in the Mishnah, “the Ketav and the Miktav (two synonyms for writing) [were created by God on the sixth day of creation].” The Ketav refers to the Torah. The Miktav refers to that which was on the tablets (i.e., the Decalogue) as it states, “the Miktav was a writing of God inscribed on the tablets” (Exod 32:16).
The Midrash Hagadol understands the תורה ומצוה of Exodus 24:12 as a reference to the entire Pentateuch, which God wrote as a heavenly book, in addition to the Decalogue, which he wrote on the tablets. The Midrash has no difficulty affirming that God wrote a document containing much more than the Decalogue.
The idea of a heavenly Torah appears in Rabbinic literature and goes back to Second Temple works such as the book of Jubilees. In fact, the conception of heavenly books and tablets serving various functions, though well attested in post-biblical literature, has its earliest roots in Sumer and is attested in quite a few biblical passages.
Were the Broken Tablets the Decalogue?
The heavenly tablets of Exod 24:12 appear again in the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), which connects back to Exodus 24. Moses goes up the mountain and stays there for forty days (Exod 24:18). There he receives the divinely inscribed tablets (Exod 31:18). Having been told of Israel’s sin with the golden calf, Moses heads down the mountain with the tablets (32:15-16), and upon seeing the Israelites sinning with the calf, he throws the tablets down and smashes them:
שמות לב:יט וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף מֹשֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ (מידו) [מִיָּדָיו] אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר.
Exod 32:19 As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
Were these tablets inscribed with the Decalogue? Again, nothing in these verses clearly indicates that this is so. And it is at least quite possible that this story, like Exodus 24:12, thinks of the tablets as inscribed with the “teaching and commandment.” One may indeed wonder if both sides of two tablets were needed for a text as small as the Decalogue of Exodus 20.
The (Second) Tablets of Ten Words – Exod 34
One problem with the suggestion that according to Exodus, the tablets were inscribed with something other than the Decalogue is that Exodus 34 does seem to identify the stone tablets of 24:12 with the Decalogue, albeit in a roundabout way. After convincing God not to destroy the Israelites, Moses is told that he will be given a new set of tablets with the same content as the first set:
שמות לד:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה פְּסָל לְךָ שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וְכָתַבְתִּי עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ.
Exod 34:1 YHWH said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”
This passage still does not say explicitly what was on those shattered tablets, but verse 28 of this same chapter says that they will contain “the Ten Words” (עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים):
שמות לד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתָב לְךָ אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּי עַל פִּי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה כָּרַתִּי אִתְּךָ בְּרִית וְאֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל. לד כח וַיְהִי שָׁם עִם יְ-הוָה אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה לֶחֶם לֹא אָכַל וּמַיִם לֹא שָׁתָה וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֵת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים.
Exod 34:27 And YHWH said to Moses, “Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 34:28 And he was there with YHWH forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words.
Thus, if the replacement tablets had the Ten Words, and they were to be inscribed with the same content as the first tablets, then the first tablets must have had the Ten Words as well. Assuming the term “Ten Words” is a reference to the Decalogue, as it certainly is in Deuteronomy (4:13; 5:19, 10:4), then the first tablets were clearly inscribed with the Decalogue!
This conclusion, however, is not as sound as it appears. First, it is extremely odd that the first and only explicit reference in the book of Exodus to the divine writing of the Decalogue of Exodus 20 on the tablets is found toward the end of the story of the second tablets!
Moreover, Exodus 34 contains an internal contradiction. At the opening of the chapter (34:1), when Moses is told to carve tablets and bring them up the mountain, God says that he (=God) will write on the tablets (וְכָתַבְתִּי עַל הַלֻּחֹת). And yet, later in the same chapter (vv. 27-28), we are told that Moses writes on them.
Redacting Multiple Stories into One
It thus seems that Exodus 34:1 has been redacted to connect the account of tablets written on the mountain in Exodus 34 to that of the previous tablets referenced in 32, as Richard Elliott Friedman has argued. Originally, God merely tells Moses, for the first time, to carve tablets, upon which God will tell him to engrave the Ten Words after they are revealed (Exod 34:1, indented text is supplementary):
וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה פְּסָל לְךָ שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים
YHWH said to Moses: Carve two tablets of stone
כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וְכָתַבְתִּי עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ.
like the first, and I will write upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.
The reference to “like the first” and God inscribing the tablets himself artificially connect this account with the previous account of tablets,
The Cultic Decalogue: A Different Set of “Ten Words”
Once the account in Exodus 34 is decoupled from the other accounts, it becomes clear that the Ten Words in 34:28 is almost certainly not a reference to the Decalogue of Exodus 20. Rather, these Ten Words much more naturally refer to the cultic laws listed in verses 10-26 of this very chapter. The chapter then flows quite naturally: Moses is told to come up the mountain with tablets (vv. 1-4). God promises to make a covenant with Israel (v. 10) and then teaches Moses a set of ten laws (vv. 11-26). Afterwards, Moses is told to carve these Ten Words on the tablets he brought with him (27-28).
In other words, the redactor of 34:1-4, by adding that these tablets were meant to replace the previous set, is connecting two unrelated stories. In one, Moses goes up the mountain, receives tablets from God with writing upon them, but smashes them. In the other, Moses goes up the mountain with tablets that he carved, inscribes the Cultic Decalogue upon them, and returns with these tablets.
Exodus 32 and 34: Two Different Tablets
If this is correct, the story in Exodus 32 in which he receives heavenly tablets and smashes them, perhaps never to be replaced, and that of Exodus 34, in which Moses carves the Cultic Decalogue on tablets, were originally independent of each other until an editor wove them together.
We should not discount another possibility, however, that the last words of verse 28, “the Ten Words,” belongs to the same editor at work in verse 1. Accordingly, the chapter, in its original form, spoke of a covenant made over the listed cultic laws, but this was never thought of as a Decalogue.
Whether the phrase “Ten Words” is original to ch. 34 or not, neither the oldest form of chapter 34 nor the account of divine tablets in ch. 32 is thinking about the Decalogue of Exodus 20, which, according to the straightforward implication of Exodus 24:4, was not written on tablets at all, but on a scroll together with the Covenant Collection.
Three Sets of Laws in Exodus
The editor of Exodus wove together multiple traditions in order to create one overarching timeline. When we disentangle the sources from their current context and put aside the editorial expansions, we are left with three traditions:
- The Decalogue and Covenant Collection are written by Moses on a scroll (Exod 20-24:11);
- Moses inscribes the Cultic Decalogue on tablets (Exod 34);
- God gives Moses tablets containing an undefined “teaching and commandment” (Exod 24:12).
Quite possibly, these tablets of “teaching and commandment” are the very ones smashed by Moses in reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Postscript: If neither of the traditions concerning tablets originally referred to the Decalogue of Exodus 20, how and why did this identification come about? This will be treated in a further essay.
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February 7, 2018
January 11, 2021
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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