Many people are familiar with the parody scene in Mel Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I,” where, as Moses, he holds three large stone tablets and declaims, “The Lord…has given unto you these fifteen…” only to drop one, which shatters, forcing him to rephrase his statement as “ten…ten commandments.” A few years earlier, cartoonist Shel Silverstein had also tried to make a similar point by depicting Moses chiseling onto stone more commandments than the ones we presently have, such as, “Remember every day to keep it holy,” and “Honor thy children.”
Such revisions aside, two questions arise regarding the physical properties of these famous tablets. First, is there a reason that their tops are conventionally portrayed as rounded? And second, does the usual division into five “commandments” apiece reflect what the text is really trying to represent?
The rounded tops appear in synagogues all over the world, usually over the Ark, as well as in countless paintings and films. But as with so much of the Bible’s imagery in the popular mind, this tradition actually stems from much later, in the European Middle Ages. Ancient tablets, used for writing exercises and inscriptions, were usually square on top. The medieval shape, introduced in Christian art as an alternate to the square top as early as the eleventh century, was eventually adopted by Jews. There is nothing to suggest that it was what the Exodus text intended.
Then there is the issue of how the commandments themselves would have appeared on the tablets. Conventionally, they are divided with numbers one through five on the right-hand tablet and six through ten on the left one, whether simply in Hebrew or Latin numerals, often in fragmentary, two-word form (although occasionally a few more words creep onto the lines in some versions). But representing them in this abbreviated manner, while easier for the artist, ignores what their probable function was in their ancient setting.
For decades, scholars have raised the possibility that the two tablets were duplicates, and that the phrase “written on both their sides” (Ex. 32:15) should be taken literally–with half of the words on the front and the rest on the back of each tablet. This is premised on the fact that in the ancient Near East, copies of treaties, like documents in a business deal, were made for each of the contracting parties. Although in ancient times there were already disputes as to what exactly was on the tablets, in some form they certainly were meant to represent the Covenant between God and Israel–another kind of agreement. Nahum Sarna notes that in known ancient Near Eastern practice, a king would keep a copy of a treaty “at his feet.” In our case, the gold-plated box known as the aron, the Coffer or Ark, an imagined component of the divine throne, seems to have been thought of as “God’s footstool,” and hence would have been the proper place for the tablets. And since for Israel, the Tabernacle or Temple served as center both for God and the people, the two two-sided copies were preserved together in one location: inside the box.
Today, the phrase “writing on a tablet” would likely send one to search ads for the model with the best display and electronic stylus. In ancient Israel, it meant keeping the rules for society, or at least their Prologue, in its most sacred object and location, an act intended to remind both parties of their sacred obligations to one another.