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Shemot/Exodus 34:4 And he cut two tablets of stone like the first ones
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We all know the back-story to our text: the first set of tablets had been smashed by Moshe when he rushed down the mountain atHaShem's urging to find that the Israelites had made and were worshipping an idol, a golden calf, in his absence while he was on Mt. Sinai with HaShem. After Moshe has interceded for the people and won not only HaShem's withdrawal from His threat to destroy them, but the reinstatement of His presence to go with them to the Promised Land, HaShem tells Moshe, "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" (Shemot 34:1, NJPS). Our text reports that Moshe did as he was commanded: he prepared a second set of stone tablets, ready for HaShem to re-write the words. Nahum Sarna reports: "The shattered tablets which once testified to the reality of the covenant, are to be replaced; the original text incised upon them is to be reproduced." The covenant endures, but the medium will change.
Our text starts with the verb - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to cut or hew, especially stone, with a vav-conversive - so here, "and he cut or hewed". The next three words - , two tablets of stone - is used three times in this story block; twice in this verse and once in the command that Moshe is obeying (above, verse 1). Umberto Cassuto says that the narrator's "desire that the expression ... should be identical in each instance ... gives the phrase a special connotation."1 Immediately followed by the qualifier , "like the first", both here and in the command, this makes the second set of stone tablets a major focus in this narrative flow. is the plural of , a tablet of stone or wood; it can also be used figuratively: "The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron, engraved with an adamant point on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars" (Jeremiah 17:1, NJPS). The Proverb writer uses this as well: "Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart" (Proverbs 3:3, ESV).
Is there significance in that last phrase, "like the first"? Cassuto suggests that it means, "as far as possible endeavour to make them similar to the first, but they will not be identical; of the first it was stated that 'the tablets were G-d's work, and the writing was G-d's writing, incised upon the tablets' (Shemot 32:16, NJPS), whereas the second tablets would be the work of Moshe's hands."Ibn Ezra says that "like the first" means "like them in kind and in size." He then adds that " Saadia Gaon lists seven ways in which the second set of tablets outshone the first. But this is arrant nonsense, deserving of punishment. For it is well known that the writing was the same on both sets - 'the writing was G-d's writing' (32:16, NJPS) and 'I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets' (34:1, NJPS) - making them equivalent in that respect. Is Moshe's making of a higher status than G-d's?"
What did Saadia Gaon actually say? He starts with this intriguing comment: "The second lukhot (tablets) were more esteemed than the first lukhot." Why should this be so? TheNetziv says that the future exile and dispersion of the Jewish people was already on the horizon and explains that "in order to survive in the Diaspora, the Jews need a Torah with the potential for creativity and renewal." The first set of tablets, produced and written only by G-d represented the pure unchanging Torah. He continues: "If the Torah was nothing but unchangeable tablets of stone, then people could be led astray. In an act of great creativity, Moshe broke the tablets. Only a living Torah which represents the living relationship between G-d and Man can function as the covenant between the finite and the Infinite. G-d agreed. The second set, was a hybrid creation, a covenant between God and the Jewish people." Tablets by Moshe, the human component; words and writing by G-d: the divine component.
In his monumental work about the Torah and its treatment by the rabbis, Abraham Joshua Heschel muses on why the Torah was given to Israel and notes that "the matter is complicated when we come to the second set of tablets."2 He affirms that the Torah is clear that when the first set of tablets were ready, "[HaShem] gave Moshe the two tablets of the pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of G-d" (31:18, NJPS), but asks who wrote the second set. Although the verse we quoted earlier announces HaShem's intentions, "I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets" (34:1, NJPS), at the end of the chapter, He tells Moshe, "Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel" (v. 27, NJPS), which seems to suggest that HaShem dictated but Moshe wrote. Moshe insists that it was in fact HaShem in his recounting of the episode to the Israelites on the plains of Moab: while he made the ark and cut the second set of tablets, taking them up to G-d, "The L-RD inscribed on the tablets the same text as on the first" (D'varim 10:4, NJPS).
Another transition in medium is announced by the prophet Jeremiah: "But such is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after these days -- declares the L-RD: I will put My teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people" (Jeremiah 31:33, NJPS). Moving from tablets of stone to each man's heart - in the Hebrew text, the word 'heart' is singular, seeing the House of Israel having one heart - the Torah becomes known to all, "No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, 'Heed the L-RD'; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me" (v. 34, NJPS), and is the means of full obedience among the people. This is how the people-G-d/G-d-people relationship is supposed to work.
Ezekiel takes us on another important step in the process. First he voices HaShem saying, "I will give them one heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, that they may follow My laws and faithfully observe My rules. Then they shall be My people and I will be their G-d" (Ezekiel 11:19-20, NJPS). Here we see again one heart for the people and a new spirit or attitude; it is the heart of flesh, rather than stone, that enables obedience and so a close relationship between G-d and His people. Then, in very similar words, HaShem adds, "And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules" (36:26-27, NJPS). This time, that new heart of flesh is capable of receiving the Ruach, the Holy Spirit of G-d, His empowering breath, who is to be the cause of obedience and relationship.
We shouldn't be surprised to find the Apostolic writers picking up on this important change. The writer to the Hebrews quotes the Jeremiah passage - "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the L-rd: I will put My laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people" (Hebrews 8:10, ESV). See how Jeremiah's "innermost being" is matched by "minds"; G-d's law is not a mindless requirement, a slavish or unthinking compulsion. On the contrary, we are to keep G-d's instructions in our minds, so that we are always aware of them and engage our reason and intellect to understand them and know exactly how to implement them in our lives in Yeshua. Then the writer quotes the same passage again, but with a difference: "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds" (10:16, ESV). The word order has changed, to place the Torah in our hearts first and then write it on our minds. Important as the process of understanding is, our relationship with G-d is a matter of the heart, not the mind. We serve Him because we love Him, not simply because if makes logical sense to do so: "We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19, ESV).
Rav Sha'ul also talks about writing on tablets as he teaches the community of believers at Corinth: "And you show that you are a letter from Messiah delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living G-d, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3, ESV). Now, although 'tablets' remain in view to make the metaphor work, the agent of the writing is the Spirit on the heart rather than ink on stone. The Corinthians themselves are to be a living letter, revealing their relationship with G-d by their joyful and loving obedience to His commands. This is not because Sha'ul has taught and drilled them in rote obedience; he disclaims any part in the process - "not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us" (v. 5, ESV) - but because the Spirit who is life has done His work: "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (v. 6, ESV). It is He who enacts the new covenant, the new relationship with G-d, through the heart, "not of the letter but of the Spirit". We are to obey - and are enabled to obey - G-d's commands as Yeshua obeyed the Father's commands, in love: "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples" (John 15:8, ESV).
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 438.
2. - Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations ed. & tr. Gordon Tucker, (New York, NY: Continuum, 2007), page 543.
Further Study: D'varim 10:1-5; Psalm 37:30-31; Zechariah 7:11-13; John 6:63
Application: Where is your reference point today? Is it the books on your shelf (modern tablets of stone) or the Spirit in your heart? Do you worship G-d and serve Him and His people because the book tells you that you must, or because the Spirit in your heart fills you with love and power to do so? Ask the Master Scribe to show you where He is writing in your life and follow His words of love.
Comment - 14:33 13Feb22 Joshua VanTine: A drash that goes straight to the heart. May the Spirit of the living G-d find fertile soil for root of Yishai to increase and bear fruit that pleases Abba.
Comment - 16:23 13Feb22 Scott Moore: A thought occurred to me while reading your VERY helpful exegesis. In particular, while reading the comments from Saadia Gaon, I recalled that, in Hebrew writing, the use of the same word twice (though possibly in different form or tense) connotes an enhanced degree of emphasis.
The fact that the same content might be inscribed twice on the tablets may also imply a special emphasis on the second set of tablets.
Then my mind wandered even more as I considered the Torah written on our hearts and minds. This third writing must certainly have even greater emphasis, especially when we consider that it was sealed by the Ruach Elohim. Thank you for your diligent labors in this project.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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