#156. What is written on the stone tablets that are placed in the Ark: the instructions for building the Tabernacle OR the Ten Commandments? (Ex 31:18 vs Ex 24:12, 34:27-28)


In the Priestly tradition, what is engraved upon the stone tablets that are placed in the Ark would appear to be the instructions for building the Tabernacle and all its equipment, which Moses receives from Yahweh while on Sinai (Ex 25-31).

And when he finished speaking with him in mount Sinai, he gave the two tablets of the Testimony to Moses, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God. (Ex 31:18)

I have already noted that the Bible’s various traditions have preserved two contradictory statements pertaining to who wrote the stone tablets, Moses or Yahweh (#147). Here we’re concerned with what were on these tablets.

In Exodus 24:12, attributed to the Elohist source, we are informed that Yahweh will give Moses the stone tablets which contain Yahweh’s instruction and commandment. In the redacted text as it now stands, we could easily assume that these are the very tablets that Moses then receives in Exodus 31:18, and which Moses breaks in Exodus 32:19, and which Yahweh rewrites and gives him again in Exodus 34:1. But in fact, textual critics have argued that there are two different traditions here—well actually three—each with its own ideas about what was written on these tablets.

As has already been discussed, and will be discussed further in the forthcoming contradictions, all of Exodus 25-31 and 35-40 come from the pen of P. Try reading through it as an ensemble, and then read Exodus 24 and 32-34 as another ensemble. You will immediately spot the differences in content, style, religious emphases, vocabulary, etc. Exodus 25-31 is a detailed and structured account of the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and its equipment, and the fabrication of Aaron’s priestly garments. These are then built and made in Exodus 35-40. Read Exodus 31:18 and immediately after, Exodus 35:1—that is where the P source continues unaltered.

Although the Priestly source does not explicitly say what’s written on the stone tablets, judging from its context, it must be the actual instructions for the Tabernacle. This makes prefect sense because the cultic institution is the centerpiece of the whole priestly sacrificial ideology. And secondly because the Ten Commandments are no where mentioned in the Priestly literature! Lastly, the Priestly text has these tablets deposited in the Ark which seats in the Holy of Holies—the inner shrine of the Tabernacle, only accessible to the Aaronid priest.

Furthermore, Exodus 34:1 presents its own set of problems vis-à-vis the content of these tablets. It states that Yahweh wrote on these second pair of tablets exactly what was written on the first pair. But this is indeed not the case at all (see #135). There are in fact two different, and once independent, traditions of the Ten Commandments (#134).

Critiques have therefore surmised that the Elohist’s tablets (Ex 24:12) contained some form of the Ten Commandments and/or the laws. The Yahwist’s tablets (Ex 34:27-28) contain only the Ten Commandments, but they are a different Ten Commandments (Ex 34:14-26). And the Priestly version seemed to have contained the instructions for building the Tabernacle.

Furthermore, the narrative that we now have in the redacted text—the giving, breaking, and regiving of the tablets—is seen as the work of the redactor who stitched these traditions together.

7 thoughts on “#156. What is written on the stone tablets that are placed in the Ark: the instructions for building the Tabernacle OR the Ten Commandments? (Ex 31:18 vs Ex 24:12, 34:27-28)

  1. KW I love that metaphor! what a great way to view it. As I also come from a similar background (bible believing conservative Christian) this blog has really been opening my eyes, and I’m finding my thinking about the bible being turned upside down UTTERLY. And finding it all fascinating and horizon broadening in the utmost.

  2. Yes I agree with you KW,that it was probably more to preserve the traditions as you say.I was really being a bit facetious towards the fundamentalist christian understanding I was brought up in.And I’m definitely a neophyte on this subject,so I’m glad to be getting a more truthful and I think better understanding of these texts.

  3. I would suggest (from my humble place as a neophyte to this whole subject) that it wasn’t necessarily a matter of pleasing everybody and committing a sin in the process, but rather *avoiding* a sin through ritual preservation and reconciliation.

    First, as Dr. DiMattei pointed out, the Pentateuch was apparently assembled in the 5th-4th centuries, which means that the scrolls being integrated at that time were up to hundreds of years old. Imagine someone today finding two versions of a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, with some contradictions between them. Before publishing the play, should they simply remove information from one version where it conflicts with the other? These are the words of Shakespeare, how dare they! Removing lines would mess with the structure of the verses and story. Well, these Hebrew religious writings might have been viewed more cynically in their own time — and Shakespeare was not universally praised in his own day — but add hundreds of years into the mix, and suddenly any writing takes on a more sobering reputation.

    I’m also reminded of the accounts of Daniel and Esther where the Persian king cannot reverse laws that have already been decreed by a king, even the same king. I can’t find confirmation that this was actually a part of Persian law (and it seems rather odd), but if it was true, it might have had something to do with the words of a semi-divine leader being infallible — so how could he take back what he had said? It would have troubling implications and make the king seem weak. In the case of the Jewish writings, for the redactor to pick one version of the Flood story, etc., over another would be to acknowledge that one version was wrong.

    To sum it all up in one word, and courtesy of Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition!” The writings had come to be viewed as indispensable tradition, and in the thorough manner of the scribes who counted each letter to ensure their copying work was accurate, it seems that not one “jot or tittle” could be omitted when the redactors assembled the writings. They may have been able to add words in, as putty for the seams in the joined narratives, but they couldn’t cut out one word. At least, that’s the impression I get, though I could be wrong.

  4. The divinely inspired author(redactor) just did his best to please everybody and probably sinned against Yahweh in the process even.Wow,is that a contradiction in itself?

  5. Why is the redactor so tolerant of contradictions within the finished, compiled text? Each individual source makes sense, but putting them together doesn’t. Why would someone put them all together in this way?

    1. Ryan, that is an excellent question, and has plagued many scholars. Granted this particular “contradiction” is not the best example; rather, it just goes to show that there were possibly different traditions regarding the contents of the stone tablets.

      One stream of thought taken by academics is that this particular question, although a viable and important question, is nevertheless constructed on our own “givens” about what literature, narrative, text, and authorship ought to be. Instead, we might try to think of the Bible as a collection of traditions that were woven into, the best they could, a single narrative. Often ancient scribes merely recopied the traditions they inherited, even modifying those very traditions. We have examples of laws that were later revised or amended by later kings or scribes but rather than expunging the older law, the new one merely gets added into the scroll, even when it contradicted the former! In large part, there were also variant ways traditional stories were told. There are variant tellings of the Gilgamesh story, of Homer’s Odyssey, etc. In the case of Israel’s ancient stories, later redactors attempted to safeguard all their traditions by stitching them together. There might have also been some sort of compromise struck between competing priestly guilds, and their texts for example, when the Pentateuch was formed. When we get to the book of Deuteronomy, which will be the strongest evidence for this—contradictory stories and even “histories”—I will argue that the Deuteronomist rewrote the traditions of Israel’s past in order to replace the older traditions. But a later editor/redactor had decided to preserve both, even though they contradicted one another, and more shockingly even decided to label this collection the Torah (singular!) of Moses. Still later editors labeled a larger collection the “Book,” and a still later reading community and tradition accredited this book’s authorship to God!—a far cry from the original texts themselves, their unique authors and unique messages, each with their own sets of agendas and ideologies.

      All we know for sure is that, in the 5th-4th century BC when the Pentateuch was assembled, the redactors apparently sought to preserve Israel’s various textual traditions. I address this question a bit in the Red Sea contradiction (#120-122). Why did the redactor decide to stitch together 2 contradictory versions of the crossing of the Red Sea rather than decide just to preserve one of them?

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