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Exodus 32:19 New International Version

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.

The tablets contained words written by the finger of God. In a moment of anger, Moses broke them.

Did Moses show disrespect to God's writing? Why did God not reprimand him? What is the significance here?

4 Answers 4

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In Ex19:5 God (θεός) requests that Israel guards the testament (διαθήκη) which is a two-sided (δια) inheritance agreement. In 24:12 the stone tablets are for the law and instructions, so they obviously are extra to the testament itself.

The oral instructions though in Ex20:23 explicitly forbid Israel from making golden gods. So when in 32:4 Aaron makes a golden calf and calls it Gods that agreement is broken. Moses breaks the tablets with the law and instructions that are moot.

In Ex34:10 a new testament is given and new law and instructions are written (Ex34:1).

So this is only logical that breaking the agreement/testament was the offense but not the breaking of the tables auxiliary to by then already invalid agreement.

I wonder if the law and instructions had to be rewritten anyway given the (first) violation of agreement. At the moment I do not see direct changes that are introduced, maybe someone could comment on that so I can include this into this answer.

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Sforno on Exodus 32:19

Moses’ anger was aroused over the fact that people rejoiced over the damage to themselves they had caused. We find something parallel in Jeremiah 11,15 כי רעתכי אז תעלזי, ”for you exult in performing your evil deeds.” At this point Moses despaired of the people doing teshuvah before being punished. They were no longer fit to receive the Tablets.

[ https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32.19?with=Sforno&lang=bi&aliyot=0 ]

Chizkuni on Exodus 32:19

וישבר אותם תחת ההר, “he shattered them at the foot of the Mountain.” He did so because the letter ט of the Hebrew alphabet did not appear on them even once. The reward for honouring father and mother, i.e. למען ייטב לך, “in order that you may fare well,” appears only on the second set of Tablets (Deuteronomy 5,16). By smashing the first set of Tablets Moses accomplished that the reward for keeping the commandment of honouring one’s parent was engraved on the second set of the Tablets.

[https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32.19?with=Chizkuni&lang=bi&aliyot=0]

Malbim on Exodus 32:19

Moshe initially thought they only made the calf as a substitute for him—because he failed to return when expected—and he was certain they would repent the moment they saw him. That is why he did not break the Tablets immediately. But then when they continued their revelry despite his arrival, he realized that their intention was to rebel against God.

[https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32.19?with=Malbim&lang=bi&aliyot=0]

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  • A wider source of references are needed...this answer does not follow a sound reference sourcing practise and therefore makes assumptions that are not Biblical.
    – Adam
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 20:48
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    @Adam - Must all answers come from orthodox source practitioners? Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 21:03
  • @Michael16 It's not "purely Biblical," it's intricately entwined and prefuse with Rabbinical traditions. "He did so because the letter ט of the Hebrew alphabet did not appear on them even once" .... according to this Moses broke the tablets of the Law because they weren't right. Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 15:33
  • @SolaGratia I get it, the imaginary inferences, these are just personal expositions or reasons by historical commentators. The arguments are absurd but the midrashic method is historical-biblical. The quotes do look useless if quoted without any basis.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 15:48
  • If the midrashic method was used to derive this, then how are you calling it 'historical-biblical?' Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 15:50
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We clearly see the act of breaking the Holy Tablets makes no sense, this is why the ancient commentators provide speculative commentary, it is the hermeneutics approach of midrashic exposition, which doesn't include the modern speculative hints, "perhaps, maybe, almost", but explains things in a factual way. The Christian commentaries also can only speculate in their explanation. Even the account of melting and grinding the golden calf and feeding it to the Israelites seems clearly impossible. These accounts however can be explained when we understand the nature of the ancient literature. It must have been literary and oral embellishment to the oral history of the Torah. For example, the example of Moses breaking the original tablets could have invented as apologetic explanation to explain the lack of the original tablets at the current time of telling or writing the story. Where are the original tablets, it's supposed to be centuries older, but we have a recent copy?: It was destroyed by Moses himself (rather than it may have been lost etc.). The following article explains about the nature of the critical truths of the ancient Bible.

History of Torah

Perhaps most significant of this approach of understanding Torah in its historical context, is the concept of “history” as was back in the Ancient Near East some 3,000 years ago. In modern times, history is the exact recording of events exactly as they were and exactly as all the details have happened in reality. But it is clear to historians that ancient inscriptions, documents, and writings all exaggerate and add embellishment to a narrative to bring out the point more. Nowadays, there is much interest in the history as it was exactly in reality, whereas in ancient times the point of history was to bring out a message, perhaps a moral one or a religious one. Therefore, the ancient writers would add embellishments to the stories in order to bring out the point and message of the story even more. This is most noticeable with the ancient use of numbers in the ancient historical records. Numbers are so frequently (if not almost always) exaggerated to the point that it almost becomes the rule of ancient history. Lifespans and populations were heavily inflated from what they were in reality. This hyperbole may sound shocking to the modern reader but to the ancient reader this was expected.

The Torah is no exception to this writing style. The historical elements in Torah may have been added as embellishment by the Torah author (Perhaps a similar concept is the Midrashic embellishment of biblical narratives.) The basic storyline would have been true, but possible exaggerations in the details and numbers given are a possibility. We cannot know for sure, since, well, we weren’t there – but this should at least be a possibility in our eyes. This isn’t a novel idea or deception by the author but one that we see in many ancient writings and something the ancient reader would have expected from the writer. This possibility is briefly explored in this article where we discuss the historicity of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, which may have included some embellishment in the account of the Ten Plagues. Similarly, the possibility for embellishment is found in the Israelite census as discussed here (how many Israelites left Egypt).

When we understand the ancient hermeneutics that even the New Testament writers used, the midrashic embellishment in interpretation, we can also understand the midrashic embellishment in the source literature of the Torah.

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The narrative of Moses serves as a profound archetype for the intercessory role of Jesus on behalf of humanity. In this typology, the initial tablets, inscribed by God’s own hand, embody the Old Covenant – a set of divine laws given to govern the people. This first covenant is seen as a testament to God's direct communication and expectations from His people.

The subsequent act of Moses, upon witnessing the Israelites' idolatry with the golden calf, where he shatters the stone tablets, is emblematic of the inherent fragility of the Old Covenant. It suggests that the law, in its sternness and without grace, is brittle and ultimately unattainable for humanity to uphold perfectly.

Moses' subsequent offer of his own life in atonement for the sins of the Israelites is a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. This act of Moses symbolizes the willingness to give oneself wholly for the redemption of others, a notion that finds its fulfillment in the New Testament through Jesus.

Finally, the second set of tablets, carved by Moses, represents a renewal of the covenant. This time, however, it hints at the New Covenant, which Jesus would establish – a covenant not written on stone, but on the hearts of believers, signifying an internal, transformative relationship with the Divine, as opposed to an external adherence to the law. This New Covenant, offered to the tribe of Israel and ultimately to all of humanity, stands as a testament to grace, mercy, and redemption that Jesus Christ embodies and offers.

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