Q&A: Why Ten Words on Two Tablets?

When Moses is given the Ten Commandments they are written on two tablets:

And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. (Deuteronomy 4:13)

Why are the Ten Commandments written on two tablets? Was one tablet not big enough for God’s handwriting? Or did God give Moses two copies of the Law, one tablet being a duplicate of the other?

Two Witnesses

Firstly, we must understand that God always requires the testimony of at least two legal witnesses.

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. (Deuteronomy 17:6)

The book of Deuteronomy itself is a “second testimony” of the Law (deutero-nomos meaning “second law”), repeating what was given to the Israel whose bodies fell in the wilderness.

A legal case will fail if the testimony of the witnesses does not corroborate, as was the case in the trial of Jesus. It seems the Father and the Son were two witnesses against the tower of Babel. The angel of the Lord sent two angels as witnesses into Sodom. And Israel herself saw her unfaithful spies slain, leaving only two faithful witnesses of Canaan, Joshua and Caleb.

The Ten Words are referred to as a “testimony”:

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. (Exodus 32:15)

So the tablets of the Law are “two witnesses” with a corroborated testimony, and we should notice that even these two tablets were given twice due to Israel’s idolatry. The tablets themselves suffered a “death and resurrection”, the second set being a prefigurement of every future “new covenant,” including the one predicted by Jeremiah and fulfilled in Ezra/Nehemiah and Haggai/Zechariah.

Because the tablets of the Law agreed, those who swore to keep the Law could be punished, excommunicated, or executed for breaking it.

A Complementarian Covenant

Ray Sutton attempts to fit the ten words to the five-fold Covenant pattern found everywhere in the Torah, as outlined in his groundbreaking book, That You May Prosper (p. 214).

Transcendence 1  No other gods 6  No murder
Hierarchy 2  No graven images 7  No adultery
Ethics 3  The Lord’s name 8  No theft
Sanctions 4  The Sabbath day 9  No false witness
Succession 5  Honor father and mother 10  No coveting

Although numbers 1 and 5 seem to fit the Covenant pattern very well, Sutton has to go to great lengths to make the others relate to it. Also, his book sees the Covenant process as a linear progression, rather than a “there and back again,” as the Bible Matrix shows. With the matrix in mind, we can see this twofold “head and body” progression in the Ten Words.

Being very familiar with the “above, beside, below” movement of the Bible Matrix (also found in James Jordan’s excellent essay on slavery), when I came across another possibility for the arrangement of the Ten Words, even though it made no reference to the Covenant structure or the Bible Matrix, I could see immediately that it corresponded very well.

The alternate arrangement is by Moshe Kline, a Jewish scholar who follows the “scroll” division of the commandments (as did Augustine). This means that our first two are combined into one, and our last is divided into two. This sounds strange until we realize that not only are the Ten Words a double witness, they are an Adam and an Eve horizontally, and God, Mankind and the Future vertically.

If we read the laws as the warp and weft in fabric, we have “Adamic” laws as 1 3 5 7 9 (odd numbers) and “Evian” laws as 2 4 6 8 10 (even numbers). multiples of two – the Bride always “multiplies”

Covenant Head
Past, present, future
Covenant People
1 Word from God
(1&2 combined)
(Genesis: The Fathers)
2 Word to God
(The Lord’s name)
Adam’s Work
(Exodus: Slavery to Sabbath)
4 Eve’s Offspring
(Father & Mother, Land)
5 No Murder
(incarnate hatred)
sex and death)
6 No Harlotry
(incarnate lust)
7 No Theft
(false blessings)
(Numbers: tithes and Balaam)
8 No false witness
(false curses)
9 Coveting House
(Deuteronomy: Preparation for Conquest)
10 Coveting Household

So, the structure works from above to beside to below (from God, through fellow man, down to offspring, that is, past to present to future), and it follows the fivefold Covenant pattern:

Transcendence (God’s authority and Man’s response in taking on his name, His “yoke”)
Hierarchy (Man’s delegated offices. These correspond both to the curses on Adam and Eve, land and womb, and also to the promises to Abraham)
Ethics (Purity/Sacrificial Law: Murder and adultery are strange knife and strange fire, the outcome of false worship at Transcendence. These are the sins which resulted in the Flood.)
Sanctions (Blessings and curses when called to account by God. Once again there is the allusion to Adam’s theft of God’s future blessings through his allowing Eve to be deceived, and then his false witness against her in God’s court)
Succession (Offspring and the future – Adam as shelter, a tree of righteousness, with godly fruit)

You might notice that this is also a slightly truncated version of the Creation Week, since the “mediating veils” are removed. There is no “removal of sin” at Passover (Day 2) or Atonement (Day 6), which things correspond to Circumcision and Baptism. Adam and Eve are entirely naked before heaven at every point. Not only this, but they have unobstructed access to the Garden (Transcendence) and the World (Succession) from the Land.

Covenant Head
Past, present, future
Covenant People
1 Word from God
(1&2 combined)
Day 1 – Light 2 Word to God
(The Lord’s name)
3 Adam’s Work
Day 3 – Land & Fruit
4 Eve’s Offspring
(Father & Mother, Land)
5 No Murder
Day 4 – Governing Lights
6 No Adultery
7 No Theft
Day 5 – Swarms (Plunder and Plagues)
8 No false witness
9 Coveting House (Rest)
Day 7 – Rest and Rule
10 Coveting Household (Rule)

Ten Fingers

The Ten Words were written with the FINGER of God. Ten Words is ten fingers, two human hands, instruments of righteousness or unrighteousness. When Jesus broke bread, He would have used all ten fingers to tear it, picturing His imminent death under the curse of the Law. We should remember this whenever we break bread.

“And Moses threw the tablets out of his hands…” (Exodus 32:19)

The theft in the Garden of Eden was carried out with two hands, the hand of Eve and then the hand of Adam, five fingers each. If the Adam/Eve, priest/people idea is strange, it is simply an expression of the totus Christus in Man and Woman at every level, from the Sanctuary to the Household to the Nations.

Also, the High Priest made two approaches to the Most Holy on the Day of Atonement, once for the priesthood and once for the people. This is recapitulated in Daniel 7, which predicts Jesus’ ascension into the glory cloud as “head,” then four decades later returning “in like manner” for the sacrificial “body,” the firstfruits martyrs.

We also see this in Abraham, who entered the land to sacrifice Isaac (firstfruits/priesthood) and then again to bury Sarah (offspring/people).

When the sin of any culture is fullgrown, it is thus “ten fingered” (priesthood and kingdom corrupted) it has become military, a swarm (the fullness of Day 5). God sends prophets (Day 5/Trumpets), and then acts through mediators (Day 6/Atonement/Sanctions) to save a remnant, and secure for them the future, historical continuity (Day 7/Succession).

Filthy Lucre

Finally, if this arrangement of the Ten Words is correct, it should be reflected through correspondence with other events. The first is the correspondence between theft and lying in Prophetic Ministry, which was condemned by Paul in Titus 1, and appears to be rampant today. We can see this combination in the “ministry” of Gehazi (2 Kings 4), who sought to misrepresent the generosity of Israel’s God to the faithful through his sly words to Naaman, the believing Gentile.

Peter Leithart helpfully highlights another two cases, without corresponding this “unusual” combination to either the Ten Words or to Adam’s sin. He writes:

Zechariah 5:3-4 threatens a curse to those who steal and those who swear falsely. It’s a somewhat unusual combination. Perhaps the implied scenario is this: A thief steals, he is questioned about his theft, and he swears falsely that he did not steal. His theft is compounded by an oath declaring his innocence. He steals goods, and then robs the name of God by a lie.

The ultimate source of this threat, though, goes back to a specific incident in Israel’s history. Jericho was under the ban, which meant that all living things were slaughtered and all plunder was given to Yahweh. Achan, the “troubler of Israel,” stole some of the consecrated goods and hid them in his tent. Yahweh accuses him of “stealing” and “deceit” (Joshua 7:11). Because of his sacrilege, Israel is defeated before Ai, changing the psychological dynamics of the conquest against Israel. Before they got beaten at Ai, the Canaanites’ hearts were melting (2:9); after Ai, Israelite hearts became water (7:5).

No wonder Zechariah takes this combination of sins so seriously: Until the troublers are purged, Israel will flee in fright before their enemies.

Ten Tests

The last example I will present is James Jordan’s list of the ten tests which Israel failed before that generation was doomed to die in the wilderness (from the notes for his lectures on the book of Numbers). It seems to fit very well, typologically speaking:

Covenant Head
Past, present, future
Covenant People
1 Bricks without straw
Ex. 5:21
(Word from false gods)
2 Fearing Pharaoh at the Red Sea
Ex. 14:11

(Word to false gods)
3 Grumbling against Moses at Marah Ex. 15:24 (A Bitter Spring) Hierarchy
Priesthood: food and drink
4 Grumbling against Moses and Aaron about Manna Ex. 16:2 (Sweet Bread)
5 Testing God at Meribah (“quarrelling”) Ex. 17:2
(Possible stoning of Moses)
Kinghood: judgment of head and body
6 Idolatry with Golden Calf Ex. 32:1 (Strange fire “breaks loose”)
7 Misfortunes at Taberah (“consume”) Num. 11:1 (Seeking unmerited blessing) Sanctions
Prophethood: False blessings are curses
8 Swarms of Quail Num. 11:4 (Dual prophetic witness of Eldad and Medad)
9 Aaron and Miriam Oppose Moses Num. 12:1
(The leprous cloud)
Rest and Rule denied due to faithlessness
10 Refusal to enter Canaan Num. 14:2 (Fear for wives and children)

Two Copies?

Meredith Kline argues that the “tables” were actually two copies of the same law (The Structure of Biblical Authority, pp. 117-120.) This is based on the assumption that the Mosaic Covenant is either a divine “answer” to Ancient Near East suzerainty treaties, or their inspiration, and still closely related. Dr. Meshulam Margaliot writes:

To get at the peshat, or simple meaning, we must take account of the historical context in which the Ten Commandments were given. According to Ex. 19, this was done in the course of establishing a covenant–a berit–between the Lord and Israel. Hence, we are dealing with the text of a covenant, a type of contract between two (or more) parties. For obvious reasons, it is customary for every written contract or agreement to be issued in duplicate, each party receiving a complete copy of the agreement, contract, or covenant.

This was also the practice in the ancient Near East. The most famous example of two copies of a diplomatic agreement between two kingdoms is the treaty containing the pact made between the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusilis III, c. 1270 B.C.E. The Egyptian copy was found in Egypt, and the Hittite one in the capital of the Hittites, in eastern Turkey. The contents of both copies are identical.

It would be reasonable for the pact made at Sinai to be issued in two copies, one for the Lord, and one for the Israelites. This practice explains why one tablet did not suffice, rather two were needed.

I believe, as Kline does, that the Lord’s Covenants were the inspiration for the pagan treaties, not other way around, not least because the same Covenant structure can be traced back to Genesis 1. However, the explanation of the need for two copies does not suffice, since in Israel’s case, both copies were kept in the Ark of the Testimony. Israel’s “copy” was the hearing of the graven words. Based on the “complementarian” structure of the Ten Words outlined above, it would seem that each tablet contained only five commandments each, because the Covenant was not merely an expression of unitarian (vertical) authority between heaven and earth (or between Egypt and the Hittites). God’s Covenants are Trinitarian, with not merely an above and a below but a “beside.” They include the relationship between Church and State, the horizontal “marriage” between priesthood and people.

Moreover, Moshe Kline argues:

that the division in the Masoretic Text (MT), which appears in the Torah scrolls read in synagogues, should be preferred because it leads to a reading that integrates all ten Words in a coherent document.

The document itself consists of five consecutive pairs of Words organized hierarchically, from the first pair, which focuses on God, to the last pair, which is limited to subjective human experience, “Do not covet.” Once this internal structure is recognized, it leads to seeing a new arrangement of the Words on the two stone tablets.

They should be seen as written in pairs across the two tablets, the first Word on one and the second Word on the other, the third on the first, etc. Thus one tablet contains the “odd” Words and the other the “evens.” This arrangement may be the literal meaning of the otherwise difficult verse in Exodus 32:15, “לחת כתבים משני עבריהם, מזה ומזה הם כתבים”, “(the writing was) written across both tablets; (alternately), on one and (then) the other, were they written.”

What is the conclusion here? That the Ten Words work not only from heaven down to earth (vertically) but also horizontally, between priesthood (Adam) and people (Eve), the left hand and the right hand. This means that their architecture aligns with the four “points” of the Tabernacle furnitures, leaving out only the Incense Altar in the centre. The Tablets taken together are a cruciform instrument of death, the curse upon Adam and Eve. The missing element, the Incense Altar, is a fragrant symbol of the resurrection, Word and Response, both vertically and horizontally, united at last in the bosom of Christ.

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