We have all seen the image of Moses—in paintings, drawings, and movies—carrying the two tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed by God. Like many of our religious traditions, the familiar picture is most likely inaccurate.
The Bible does not record the size of the tablets, although a maximum size is determined by the size of the ark built to contain them. The Hebrew word translated “tablet” (or, in the KJV, “table”) refers to the fact that the material—stone, wood, or metal—was polished; the word could be used to describe any such object, from a plate to a table. Rabbinic tradition says that each tablet was ten inches by twenty inches, which corresponds to similar legal documents of that time. (It’s also about the size of the tablets that people use today.) They also would have been rectangles with four sharp corners, unlike the shape usually shown in artwork. Rabbinic tradition further says that the stones were blue—either sapphire or lapis lazuli—taken from the floor under God’s throne as seen by Moses and the other leaders of Israel.
The Bible indicates that the stones were each inscribed on both sides by the finger of God. Many teachers describe the stones as if some of the commandments were written on one tablet and the rest on the other, but far more likely both tablets contained all the commandments. The two stone tablets were duplicate copies of a contract, similar to the two pieces of paper produced when you use a credit card at a store. The store keeps one copy you have signed and you keep the other copy. Because Moses was acting as a mediator between God and Israel, he was entrusted with both copies of the contract.
When God spoke the commandments from Mount Sinai to the people of Israel, before Moses received the same commandments in writing, he spoke “ten words” according to the book of Exodus. Because Exodus does not enumerate the commandments, different traditions count them in various ways. One tradition combines the prohibition of other gods with the prohibition of graven images; that tradition then closes the Ten Commandments with two prohibitions of coveting. In this tradition the Ninth Commandment forbids coveting your neighbor’s house, which includes any property that is bought with money alone. The Tenth Commandment forbids coveting your neighbor’s spouse, workers, or work animals, or anything that is your neighbors—anything bound to your neighbor by loyalty. (This would include pets and even friends.) Another tradition has a distinct prohibition of graven images—the Second Commandment—and closes with only one commandment against coveting. In the third tradition, both combinations are made, but the first “word” of God is the opening declaration, “I am the Lord your God.” Because of these different ways of numbering the commandments, mention of the Sixth Commandment without any context causes some people to think of murder and others to think of adultery.
When teachers or artists describe the two tablets as if they contained different groups of commandments, they separate the commandments into a vertical relationship—our relationship with God—and horizontal relationships—our relationships with other people. These relationships are summarized in the two greatest commandments: to love God wholeheartedly, and to love each neighbor as yourself. The first three or four commandments speak of other gods, graven images, God’s name, and God’s time; the remaining six or seven speak of parents and neighbors. In my opinion, the commandment to “honor your father and your mother” (as well as others in authority) should be counted with the vertical relationship. All figures of authority are pictures of God’s authority. The way we treat our parents, teachers, supervisors, and government officials represents our attitude towards God’s authority. After that commandment, the Ten Commandments continue with an orderly set of commandments about horizontal relationships, defending (in order) our neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations. Coveting is uniquely a sin both horizontal and vertical. We cannot love our neighbors while being angry that they have something good that we do not have. We cannot love God when we refuse to be content with the good things he has made available to us.
The Ten Commandments are an owner’s manual for our lives. They inform us why we were made, why we are alive today, and what we are supposed to be doing. When we break any of these commandments, we void the contract we have made with God; we void the warranty he gave us with these commandments. Yet Jesus Christ, the Son of God, obeyed these commandments in our place, setting us free from their burden. We live by them now, not to earn the blessings of God, but to imitate Christ since he has rescued us from the consequences of sin and made us free people, unbound by the commandments. Of course these facts are not trivia: the knowledge contained in this paragraph is the most important knowledge any person can possess. J.