#147. Who writes the laws and commandments on stone tablets: Moses OR Yahweh? (Ex 24:4, 34:28 vs Ex 24:12, 32:16, 34:1)


The traditions relating the giving of the law present both Moses and Yahweh writing them down on stone tablets. If we follow the composite text as it now stands, here is how the occurrences progress.

  1. Exodus 24:4 states that “Moses wrote all of Yahweh’s words.” Presumably we are to understand this in its context, that is that Moses wrote down both the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 and the laws of Exodus 21-23—all of Yahweh’s words.
  2. But Exodus 24:12 states that Yahweh has written “the instruction and commandment on the stone tablets.” These two statements cannot come from the same tradition. We must surmise that two traditions have been conflated here, one recording that Moses wrote down the laws, the other that Yahweh wrote them down.
  3. Next, Exodus 32:16 reaffirms that both the tablets and the writing were “God’s doing,” and “God’s writing.”
  4. Likewise, Exodus 34:1 has Yahweh proclaim that he will write them down again after Moses had smashed the tablets because of the Golden Calf incident (but this is in fact not the case; see #134-135).
  5. Yet, Exodus 34:28 claims that Moses wrote down “the Ten Commandments.” How do we sort all this out?

The later Deuteronomist proposed a solution. For when he re-presents this tradition he claims that Moses wrote the laws and commandments, but it was Yahweh who wrote the Ten Commandments (Deut 4:13, 5:19). But this division does not fit neatly onto what the older Yahwist and Elohist sources claim. The Yahwist tradition, which is the clearest, states that Moses wrote down the Ten Commandments (Ex 34:28). The Elohist tradition (Ex 24:12, 32:16) preserved a version in which Moses wrote the laws and the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20-23. And Exodus 34:1 might best be explained as an editorial remark using the Elohist as its source, which presents Yahweh as claiming that he wrote them down—and at that, a different set of Ten Commandments (#134-135)!

It should furthermore be mentioned that just because the text claims particular words, commandments, or even sections were penned by Moses or Yahweh does not mean that this was actually the case. Ancient Near Eastern literature—not to mention the ancient literature of Greece, China, and India as well—is full of these sorts of literary practices. Authorizing a politically or religiously oriented text by assigning its authorship to an ancestral hero, or even a god, was common practice in the ancient Near Eastern world.

The discovery of the law code of Hammurabi, for example, highlights this point. The law code which dates from the eighteenth century BC is a list of 282 case-laws, many of which are expressed almost verbatim in the biblical law code accredited to Yahweh in Exodus 21-23.

At the top of the seven foot stela listing these 282 case-laws Hammurabi is depicted receiving the commission to write the law-book from the god of justice, Shamash. The prologue, written in the first person, has Hammurabi declare that these laws were divinely given to him “when the god Marduk commanded me to provide just ways for the people of the land.”

Archaeologists have additionally unearthed other “divinely-ordained” law codes from the ancient Near East, such as the Sumerian law code of Ur-Nammu. The text describes how the god Nanna chose Ur-Nammu to rule as his representative.

The biblical account of Moses receiving the law from Yahweh is an adaptation of this ancient Near Eastern genre, and it must be seen in the broader context that produced it—the literature and culture of the ancient Near East. The Bible’s law codes, therefore, are a product of the ancient Near Eastern world that produced them. They are cultural, man-made products. This is obvious to anyone who has compared the Pentateuch’s three law codes (#137-138) and/or compared these biblical law codes with contemporary ancient Near Eastern law codes.

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