Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments
Have you ever wondered why the Ten Commandments are always shown to be on single, or double-arch topped stone tablets? If you check out the Ten commandments on 'Google images' almost all of the images show a double-arched top stone! You can Buy a 'Ten commandments' silver pendant with a double-arched top , or even a double arched top (life-size) resin garden ornament of the Ten commandments! So how did we arrive at this shape? Where did it originate? Is it authentic? You might be tempted to blame Cecil B. DeMille for starting it all in the 1956 Biblical epic 'The Ten Commandments' starring Charlton Heston, but it goes back a lot further.

O.k. then, what about Gustave Doré? Was he responsible? Well, he also showed the Ten Commandments to be on a double-arched top stone tablet in his 1865 engraving, but the shape goes back even further than Gustave Doré. In fact, 350 years earlier!

This is the earliest picture I came across (see left) showing the double-arched top stone tablet.
This picture dates back to 1512. (Sorry I don't know the artist!) You can clearly see the hand of God handing Moses the 'double-arched top' stone tablet. This image is taking us back into the realms of Christian Iconography, and I still can't find any clues as to why this shape was used-!!

What I would like to do though is suggest another shape that the tablets might have been! Square!
I was reminded when reading 'The Quest' of the significance of the square in the Bible . Many of the items that God designed were square. The 'Holy of Holies' in the Temple was square, The 'high priest's breastplate' was square, the 'alter of burnt offerings' was square, as was the 'alter of incense'. The end elevation of the 'Ark of the covenant' (which contained the stone tablets) was square, and the "Great City, the Holy Jerusalem" spoken of in Revelation is square! With this in mind, and the fact that the first tablets were written by God, isn't it feasible that the tablets might have been square in shape?

Of course, we won't know the shape of the tablets containing the Ten commandments until they find the Ark of the covenant. But, it's an interesting theory! Let me know your thoughts! Photo © NEAEHL

Update: 17 July 08
Just found out that the Talmud does record that the 'Ten commandment tablets' are in fact Square! (Amazing!) See the comments for more information on this.

Related posts:
The contents of the Ark


Jessica said...

Interesting! I never really thought to question what shape the commandment stones might be. I think (at least) modern artists often pander to the expectations of their audience, who would based on cultural assumptions quickly recognize a arch topped stone as being commandments, whether or not that's technically acccurate.

I wonder if there's any relation that the most freqent place we are familiar with seeing letters carved into stones is on tomb-stones, which do often have an arched top, among other common shapes.

Bible artist said...

Yes, they are like tomb-stones aren't they!

Bible artists do tend to follow what's been done before. We assume that certain details have been thoroughly researched, and in many cases they have.

It could be argued that the shape of the tablets is not important, (which is probably true). If the shape was relevant, it would almost certainly have been recorded in scripture.
I just wondered how the early artists arrived at that particular shape!

Paul Green said...

I think the shape as depicted in movies and books might be influenced by the Greek and Roman arch shape. Something prevalent in Western architecture. The arch shape originated in Middle Eastern cultures such as Egypt, Persia and Assyria. This makes it possible the tablets might have had an arched shape. But they could also have been square. A comparison with other carved stone tablets of the time might provide clues.

Bible artist said...

The square 'Uzziah Tablet' in the photo dates back to the latter part of the Second Temple period which was much later.

Paul Green said...

I discovered this information on a website :
"In 1923 Cecil B. de Mille produced his spectacular The Ten Commandments, showing a wild-looking Moses bringing down two squarish-shaped stone tablets of the Law from the mountain. In this he was following the Talmud, that says the tablets were square and the tops were level."

Bible artist said...

Thanks for that Paul! That's really interesting! I didn't know that the Talmud commented on the tablet shapes. We'll have to have a look at when the Talmud was written.

I had read that the 1956 version of DeMille's film was a remake of the earlier 1923 one. But didn't know that they had changed the tablet shapes. It sounds like DeMille bowed to popular opinion! Maybe he should have stuck with the Talmud!

Thanks for that Paul!

Bible artist said...

I've just found the very interesting article that you are referring to Paul.
Stephen Rosenberg's article in the Jerusalem Post "Two tablets or one?" is debating whether the Ten commandments were written on two pieces of stone or on both sides of one. I don't want to go into that one just yet! (I'm still working on the shape!)

His article does answer one of my questions though. He mentions that all major inscriptions from ancient Egypt "were all written on one piece of stone with a rounded head", and he mentions three in particular, the earliest one, '61 laws of Eshnunna' dates back to 2,000 BCE. It's probably archaeological evidence like this that influenced the early artists to paint 'rounded tops' when they were depicting the Ten commandment tablets.

The article goes on to say Even though the Talmud makes it clear that they were square, the majority of Jewish and non-Jewish artists, in children's books as well as on the majority of synagogue arks, show the tablets with rounded heads.

The Talmud, which I've only just found out actually gives not only a description of the tablets but the dimensions too! (Baba Bathra 14a), was written around the second century, but according to Orthodox Jews had been revealed to Moses along with the Torah and preserved orally until it was finally written down. This Oral Law when written became the Mishna and Talmud.

Remember also that they didn't need to rely on the (3,000 year old) Oral Torah for information regarding the size and shape of the stone tablets because the Ark didn't go missing until it was hidden from Nebuchadnezzar in 598 BC! The Ark could easily have remained in hiding for another two centuries or more! As long as the Ark remained in Jewish hands, the Oral Torah only confirmed what they already knew about its contents!

As you know, I already favored square tablets. The fact that the Talmud confirms this is exciting! I'm not sure about Stephen Rosenbergs 'One Tablet' theory though!

Paul Green said...

Today we view word of mouth as untrustworthy and liable to corruption with each successive telling of the story. But as you know 'oral tradition' was commonplace in ancient cultures and often the only means for preserving history. While it's likely there might be corruption of the original story at work through centuries of re-telling it's highly unlikely the shape of such important stones as those carried by Moses and written by God will have undergone a change of shape in the oral tradition.
At this stage I would go with the square tablets Graham.

It would be interesting to research the reasons behind the change of shape between the first and second DeMille movie. My guess would be for artistic reasons. Charlton Heston raising aloft two arched stones looks more dramatic than two square stones. The arch leads the eye upward whereas a square leads the eye nowhere in particular.

Bible artist said...

I would imagine that DeMille changed his mind because of the fact that most paintings and etchings showed the arched top tablets. He was maybe more concerned about appealing to a larger audience with the second movie than he was about getting details correct. Not many people would have known that the Talmud mentions the shape of the tablets anyway!

Knowing how much trouble the Jewish scribes went to when writing out the scriptures, I would imagine that they passed on the Oral Torah with the same precision.

Patrick said...

Actually, Jewish tradition mentions that the Tablets were heavy cubes made of sapir (sapphire/lapis lazuli) - which resembled the pavement before God's throne (Exodus 24:10). Not just that: they were cubes, but they seem to have been flexible enough to be rolled up like a scroll. The length and width of each of the tablets was six tefachim, with its thickness at three tefachim - respectively roughly 20 and ten inches.

Another possibility I've seen (here:http://www.thefishersofmenministries.com/Recreating%20the%20Tablets%20of%20the%20Law.pdf) was that the Tablets would have been like ostraca (bits of pottery or stone), and thus, would not have been that big, contrary to art (I personally think they only make the tablets big so they can fit in all Ten Commandments! :p). Instead, they could have easily fit the palm and be carried in one hand (cf. Exodus 32:15 "and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand"?).
Which kinda makes the scenario in Exodus 32 more easy to imagine for me: Moses is so angry that he throws out two not-so-large stones hard enough that they shatter to the ground.

BTW, Exodus 32:15 also mentions that (KJV) "the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written," yet it seems to me that some movies (DeMille's 1923 and 1956 versions included) and artworks only show one side of the tablets being written.

The "sapir cube" version has the words not just engraved on the surface, but rather bored fully through the stone. At least two miracles are mentioned in connection with the tablets; even though they were bored fully through the stone, and the reverse side expected to be a mirror image, it was not, and both sides appeared normally.

Bible artist said...

I've reposted your link to the pdf file Patrick which I've split onto three lines as the blogger comment box doesn't like long links!


There are some very mystical Jewish traditions surrounding certain biblical items like the stone tablets and the rod of Aaron/Moses which are quite fantastic. These items became objects of worship themselves, like the snake on the pole, and had powers attributed to them that have no biblical origin.

Bible artist said...

A young lady from our church, who has a degree in Egyptology, mentioned to me that the traditional round topped stone tablets reminded her of the ancient Egyptian 'Tomb Stelae' (gravestone) which is what Jessica mentioned first of all.

The round top of the stelae often housed an image of one of the Egyptian gods such as Osiris. The earliest stelae were erected in Egypt during the 1st dynasty (3,000 - 2,800 BC) so this would probably qualify as the earliest appearance of the round topped tablet shape! Apparently the stelea was the inspiration for the traditional tombstone shape.

Patrick said...

There are some very mystical Jewish traditions surrounding certain biblical items like the stone tablets and the rod of Aaron/Moses which are quite fantastic. These items became objects of worship themselves, like the snake on the pole, and had powers attributed to them that have no biblical origin.

Yes, there's actually the legend that Moses' staff (in some versions, Aaron's and Moses' staves are treated as one and the same) was made also out of sapir, weighed forty seahs (a seah = 10.70 pounds), and had the name of God as well as the ten plagues inscribed upon it.

The legend continues that God created this staff in the twilight of the sixth day of creation. He gave Adam the staff when the latter was driven out of Eden, and after that it passed through the hands of Shem, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. On Joseph's death the Egyptian nobles stole some of his belongings, and, among them, Jethro appropriated the staff and took it to his garden, where it became stuck to the ground and even bloomed that Jethro could no longer retrieve it. Anyone who attempted to pull it out was devoured by the ground.

So, in what is like the precursor to the King Arthur legend, when Moses arrives at Jethro's place, he managed to pull the staff out without any disaster. As a reward, Jethro gave the hand of Zipporah to Moses, as he hadsworn that she should become the wife of the man who should be able to master the staff.

As an aside, some Christians also have a version the legend, but now, the staff is a fragment of the Tree of Knowledge. The line of owners is mostly the same as the Jewish version, save that Judah, and Pharez (ancestor of David and the Messiah) then received it. AtPharez's death an angel carried it to the mountains of Moab and buried it there, where Jethro found it. When Moses, at Jethro's request, went in search of it, the rod was brought to him by an angel. From Moses, the staff passed on to Joshua, then to Phinehas, who buried it in Jerusalem, never to be found until the birth of Jesus, when the hiding place was revealed to Joseph. It then passed on to James from Joseph, until Judas stole it. At Jesus' crucifixion, when the executioners found that they did not have enough wood to make a cross, Judas gave the staff to them!

Patrick said...

BTW, I'll also just comment on the 1923 Ten Commandments (which Mr. Paul referred to a while ago):

No, the tablets in that film wasn't square. There aren't even 'tablets' to speak of; instead, what we have is ONE tablet with two rounded arches. Also, unlike the 1956 version, here Moses is the one carving on the rock face of Sinai as God flashes the words (in English, no less!) on the screen. All this while a tablet-shaped light is provided for Moses as a guideline.

There's also an unintentional comedy there: God flashes the full commandments ('Thou shalt not have other gods before me', etc.) but Moses manages to carve only ONE Hebrew letter for each (another popular artistic convention for Jews, where the commandments are represented by the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which in Hebrew usage may be used interchangeably with the numbers 1-10)! Not to mention that the script Moses uses here - perhaps intended to represent proto-Hebrew - is actually the Samaritan alphabet (which then again did descend from Paleo-Hebrew script). I guess that must be the reason why God did it in the 1956 sound version. :p

Anonymous said...

The ancient Babylonian law, Hammurabi's Code, was written on a round-topped stone. I've heard that the stone was supposed to be shaped like a finger pointing upward toward heaven and Babylon's god. Thus, Judeo-Christian artists might have borrowed the rounded-top motif for the Ten Commandments because they point us toward our God.
I am intrigued by the Talmudic statement that the tablets were square, but please note that the Talmud was compiled during the second to eighth centuries A.D./C.E. -- thousands of years after Moses' time. I consider the Talmud to be an important historical source that is too often overlooked by fellow Christian scholars, but Talmudic statements are sometimes less historically authoritative than they appear. (I hope that I am not offending any Jews with that statement, which was first presented to me by a Jewish theologian. I do not intend offense, and I merely present my understanding of historical facts.)
On the subject of how many tablets there were, the Bible says in Exodus 31:18 that God gave Moses two tablets etched with God's own finger. Many people assume that the first tablet had the first four commandments, which relate to our love for God, and that the second tablet had the remaining commandments, which involve our love for humanity.

BigMitch said...

Patrick informs us that according to Jewish the names if the ten plagues were engraved on the staff the Moses used. Actually, it was just an acronym, which is recalled at the Passover seder, as it is recorded in the Haggadah.