Westminster Theological Journal 22 (1960) 133-46.

         Copyright © 1960 by Westminster Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.






                                MEREDITH G. KLINE


“AND he declared unto you his covenant, which he com-

manded you to perform, even ten commandments;

and he wrote them upon two tables of stone" (Deut. 4:13).

            It has been commonly assumed that each of the stone tables

contained but a part of the total revelation proclaimed by

the voice of God out of the fiery theophany on Sinai. Only the

subordinate question of the dividing point between the "first

and second tables" has occasioned disagreement.1  A re-

examination of the biblical data, however, particularly in the

light of extra-biblical parallels, suggests a radically new

interpretation of the formal nature of the two stone tables,

the importance of which will be found to lie primarily in the

fresh perspective it lends to our understanding of the divine

oracle engraved upon them.

            Attention has been frequently directed in recent years to

the remarkable resemblance between God's covenant with

Israel and the suzerainty type of international treaty found

in the ancient Near East.2 Similarities have been discovered

in the areas of the documents, the ceremonies of ratification,

the modes of administration, and, most basically of course,


   1 The perashiyoth (pericopes marked in the Hebrew text) apparently

reflect the opinion that the "second table" begins with the fourth com-

mandment. (Here and elsewhere in this article the designation of specific

commandments is based on the common Protestant enumeration.) The

dominant opinion has been that the "second table" opens with the fifth

commandment, but Jews usually count the fifth commandment as the

last in the "first table", filial reverence being regarded as a religious duty.

    2 See G. E. Mendenhall, "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition",

The Biblical Archaeologist, XVII (1954) 3, pp. 50-76. D. J. Wiseman had

previously read a paper on some of the parallels to the Society for Old

Testament Studies (Jan. 1948). The most adequate documentation for

the suzerainty treaty, particularly in its classic form, comes from the New

Hittite Empire of the second millennium B.C., but there are references

to such international treaties in the late third millennium B.C., and the

suzerainty type continues to be attested in its essential form during the

early first millennium B.C.




the suzerain-servant relationship itself. On the biblical side the

resemblance is most apparent in the accounts of the theocratic

covenant as instituted through the mediatorship of Moses at

Sinai and as later renewed under both Moses and Joshua.

Of most interest for the subject of this article is the fact that

the pattern of the suzerainty treaty can be traced in miniature

in the revelation written on the two tables by the finger of God.

"I am the Lord thy God", the opening words of the Sinaitic

proclamation (Exod. 20:2a), correspond to the preamble of

the suzerainty treaties, which identified the suzerain and that

in terms calculated to inspire awe and fear. For example, the

treaty of Mursilis with his vassal Duppi-Tessub of Amurru

begins: "These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the great

king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favorite of

the Storm-god, the son of Suppiluliumas, etc."3 Such treaties

continued in an "I-thou" style with an historical prologue,

surveying the great king's previous relations with, and espe-

cially his benefactions to, the vassal king. In the treaty just

referred to, Mursilis reminds Duppi-Tessub of the vassal

status of his father and grandfather, of their loyalty and

enjoyment of Mursilis' just oversight, and climactically there

is narrated how Mursilis, true to his promise to Duppi-

Tessub's father, secured the dynastic succession for Duppi-

Tessub, sick and ailing though he was. In the Bible the

historical prologue is found in the further words of the Lord:

"which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of

the house of bondage" (Exod. 20:2b). This element in the

covenant document was clearly designed to inspire confidence

and gratitude in the vassal and thereby to dispose him to

attend to the covenant obligations, which constitute the third

element in both Exodus 20 and the international treaties.

There are many interesting parallels to specific biblical

requirements among the treaty stipulations; but to mention

only the most prominent, the fundamental demand is always

for thorough commitment to the suzerain to the exclusion of

all alien alliances.4 Thus, Mursilis insists: "But you, Duppi-


    3 Translation of A. Goetze in ed. James B. Pritchard: Ancient Near

Eastern Texts, Princeton, 1950, p. 203. Cf. V. Korosec, Hethitische

Staatsvertraege, Leipzig, 1931, pp. 36 ff.

    4 Cf. further, Korosec, op. cit., pp. 66 ff.; D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-

Treaties of Esarhaddon, London, 1958, pp. 23 ff.; Mendenhall, op. cit., p. 59.

THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT                        135


Tessub, remain loyal toward the king of the Hatti land, the

Hatti land, my sons (and) my grandsons forever.... Do not

turn your eyes to anyone else!"5 And Yahweh commands his

servant: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exod.

20:3; cf. 4, 5). Stylistically, the apodictic form of the decalogue

apparently finds its only parallel in the treaties, which contain

categorical imperatives and prohibitions and a conditional

type of formulation equivalent to the apodictic curse (cf.

Deut. 27:15-26), both being directly oriented to covenant

oaths and sanctions. The legislation in the extant legal codes,

on the other hand, is uniformly of the casuistic type.

Two other standard features of the classic suzerainty treaty

were the invocation of the gods of the suzerain and (in the

Hittite sphere) of the vassal as witnesses of the oath and the

pronouncing of imprecations and benedictions, which the

oath deities were to execute according to the vassal's


Obviously in the case of God's covenant with Israel there

could be no thought of a realistic invocation of a third party

as divine witness.6 Indeed, it is implicit in the third word of

the decalogue that all Israel's oaths must be sworn by the

name of Yahweh (Exod. 20:7). The immediate contextual

application of this commandment is that the Israelite must

remain true to the oath he was about to take at Sinai in

accordance with the standard procedure in ceremonies of

covenant ratification (cf. Exod. 24). Mendenhall7 finds no

reference to an oath as the foundation of the Sinaitic covenant;

he does, however, allow that the oath may have taken the

form of a symbolic act rather than a verbal formula. But

surely a solemn affirmation of consecration to God made in

the presence of God to his mediator-representative and in

response to divine demand, sanctioned by divine threats

against the rebellious, is tantamount to an oath. Moreover,


    5 Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 204.

    6 There is a formal literary approximation to the invocation of the oath

witnesses in Deut. 4:26; 30:19; and. 31:28 where by the rhetorical device

of apostrophe God calls heaven and earth to be witnesses of his covenant

with Israel. Heaven and earth are also invoked along with the mountains

and rivers, etc., at the close of this section in the treaties. Cf. Matt. 5:34,

35; 23:16.

    7 Op. cit., p. 66.



Israel's eating and drinking in the persons of her represent-

atives on the mount of God (Exod. 24:11) was a recognized

symbolic method by which people swore treaties.8

The curses and blessings are present in Exodus 20, though

not as a separate section. They are rather interspersed

among the stipulations (cf. verses 5, 6, 7, 11, and 12). More-

over, an adaptation of the customary form of the curses and

blessings to the divine nature of the suzerain who here pro-

nounced them was necessary. Thus, the usual invocative

form has yielded to the declarative, and that in the style of

the motive clause, which is characteristic of Old Testament

legislation and which is illustrative of what may be called the

reasonableness of Israel's Lord.9

There is one final point of material correspondence. It

provides the key to the nature of the two tables of stone and

to this we shall presently return. The parallelism already

noted, however, is sufficient to demonstrate that the revelation

committed to the two tables was rather a suzerainty treaty

or covenant than a legal code. The customary exclusive use

of "decalogue" to designate this revelation, biblical ter-

minology though it is (cf. "the ten words",10 Exod. 34:28;

Deut. 4:13; 10:4), has unfortunately served to obscure the

whole truth of the matter. That this designation is intended

as only pars pro toto is confirmed by the fact that "covenant"

(tyriB;; Deut. 4:13) and "the words of the covenant" (Exod.

34:28; Deut. 28:69; 29:8; etc.) are alternate biblical ter-

minology. So too is "testimony" (tUdfe; Exod. 25:16, 21;

40:20; cf. II Kg. 17:15), which characterizes the stipulations

as oath-bound obligations or as a covenant order of life.11

Consequently, the two tables are called "the tables of the


    8 Cf. Wiseman, op. cit., p. 84 and lines 154-156 of the Ramataia text.

    9 Cf. B. Gemser, "The importance of the motive clause in Old Testament

law", Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, I (1953) pp. 50-66. It must be

borne in mind that the decalogue does not stand alone as the total revela-

tion of the covenant at Sinai. For curses and blessings see also the conclu-

sion of the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 23:20-33) and especially Deut.


    10 The contents of the treaties are also called the "words" of the suzerain.

    11 tUdfe is related to the Akkadian ade, which is used as a general appella-

tion for the contents of suzerainty treaties. Wiseman (op. cit., p. 81),

defines adu (sing.) as "a law or commandment solemnly imposed in the

presence of divine witnesses by a suzerain upon an individual or people



covenant" (Deut. 9:9, 11, 15) and "the tables of the tes-

timony" (Exod. 31:18; 32:15; 34:29); the ark, as the depos-

itory of the tables, "the ark of the covenant" or "of the tes-

timony"; and the tabernacle, where the ark was located, "the

tabernacle of the testimony".

The two stone tables are not, therefore, to be likened to

a stele containing one of the half-dozen or so known legal

codes earlier than or roughly contemporary with Moses as

though God had engraved on these tables a corpus of law.12

The revelation they contain is nothing less than an epitome

of the covenant granted by Yahweh, the sovereign Lord of

heaven and earth, to his elect and redeemed servant, Israel.

Not law, but covenant. That must be affirmed when we

are seeking a category comprehensive enough to do justice

to this revelation in its totality. At the same time, the

prominence of the stipulations, reflected in the fact that "the

ten words" are the element used as pars pro toto, signalizes

the centrality of law in this type of covenant. There is

probably no clearer direction afforded the biblical theologian

for defining with biblical emphasis the type of covenant God

adopted to formalize his relationship to his people than that

given in the covenant he gave Israel to perform, even "the

ten commandments". Such a covenant is a declaration of

God's lordship, consecrating a people to himself in a sov-

ereignly dictated order of life.


who have no option but acceptance of the terms. It implies a ‘solemn

charge or undertaking an oath' (according to the view of the suzerain or


    22 There does appear to be some literary relationship between the legal

codes and the suzerainty treaties. J. Muilenburg ("The form and structure

of the covenantal formulations", Vetus Testamentum, IX (Oct. 1959) 4,

Pp. 347 ff.) classifies both under "the royal message". Hammurapi in his

code, which is still the most complete of the extant ancient Oriental codes,

introduces himself in the prologue with a recital of his incomparable

qualifications for the promulgation of laws, then presents the laws, and in

the epilogue pronounces curses and blessings on future kings as they

ignore or honor his code. The identity of the decalogue with the suzerainty

treaties over against such law codes is evidenced by features like the

covenant terminology, the ade character of the stipulations, the "I-thou"

formulation and the purpose of the whole as manifested both in the

contents and the historical occasion, i. e., the establishment of a covenant

relationship between two parties.



But what now is the significance of the fact that the cov-

enant was recorded not on one but on two stone tables?

Apart from the dubious symbolic propriety of bisecting a

treaty for distribution over two separate documents, all the

traditional suggestions as to how the division should be made

are liable to the objection that they do violence to the formal

and logical structure of this treaty. The results of the tradi-

tional type of cleavage are not two reasonably balanced sets

of laws but one table containing almost all of three of the

four treaty elements plus a part of the fourth, i. e., the stipula-

tions, and a second table with only a fraction of the stipula-

tions and possibly a blessing formula. The preamble and

historical prologue must not be minimized nor ignored because

of their brevity for this is a covenant in miniature. In com-

parison with the full scale version, the stipulations are pro-

portionately as greatly reduced as are the preamble and the

historical prologue. That would be even clearer if the addi-

tional strand of the curses and blessings were not interwoven

with the commandments. Certainly, too, there was no phys-

ical necessity for distributing the material over two stones.

One table of such a size that Moses could carry, and the ark

contain, a pair of them would offer no problem of spatial

limitations to prevent engraving the entire text upon it, espe-

cially since the writing covered both obverse and reverse

(Exod. 32:15). In fact, it seems unreasonable, judging from

the appearance of comparable stone inscriptions from, antiq-

uity, to suppose that all the area on both sides of two, tables

would be devoted to so few words.

There is, moreover, the comparative evidence of the extra-

biblical treaties. Covenants, such as Exodus 20:2-17 has

been shown to be, are found written in their entirety on one

table and indeed, like the Sinaitic tables, on both its sides.13

As a further detail in the parallelism of external appearance

it is tempting to see in the sabbath sign presented in the midst

of the ten words the equivalent of the suzerain's dynastic seal

found in the midst of the obverse of the international treaty

documents.14 Since in the case of the decalogue, the suzerain


    13 Cf., e. g., Wiseman, op. cit., plates I and IX.

    14 The closing paragraph of the Egyptian text of the parity treaty of

Hattusilis III and Ramses II is a description of the seal, called "What is



is Yahweh, there will be no representation of him on his seal.

But the sabbath is declared his "sign of the covenant" (Exod.

31:13-17). By means of the sabbath, God's image-bearer,

as a pledge of covenant consecration, images the pattern of

the divine act of creation which proclaims God's absolute

sovereignty over man. God has stamped on world history

the sign of the sabbath as his seal of ownership and authority.

That is precisely what the pictures on the dynastic seals

symbolize and their captions claim in behalf of the treaty

gods and their representative, the suzerain.

These considerations point to the conclusion that each table

was complete in itself. The two tables were duplicate copies

of the covenant. And the correctness of this interpretation is

decisively confirmed by the fact that it was normal procedure

in establishing suzerainty covenants to prepare duplicate

copies of the treaty text.

Five of the six standard sections of the classic suzerainty

treaty were mentioned above. The sixth section contained

directions for the deposit of one copy of the treaty document

in a sanctuary of the vassal and another in a sanctuary of

the suzerain.15  For example, the treaty made by Suppiluliumas

with Mattiwaza states: "A duplicate of this tablet has been

deposited before the Sun-goddess of Arinna.... In the

Mitanni land (a duplicate) has been deposited before Tes-

sub.... At regular intervals shall they read it in the presence

of the king of the Mitanni land and in the presence of the

sons of the Hurri country.”16  Deposit of the treaty before

the gods was expressive of their role as witnesses and avengers

of the oath. Even the vassal's gods were thereby enlisted in

the foreign service of the suzerain.17


in the middle of the tablet of silver" (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p.201).

For the Mitannian practice of placing the seal on the reverse, cf. D. J.

Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets, London, 1953, plates VII and VIII, texts

13 and 14.

    15 Cf. Koroseg, op. cit., pp. 100-101. On a stele from Ras Shamra an

oath-taking ceremony is depicted with the two parties raising their hands

over two copies of the treaty (Ugaritica III, plate VI).

    16 Translation of A. Goetze, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 205. In

various treaties the public reading requirement specifies from once to

thrice annually.

    17 Cf. II Kg. 18:25 and observations of M. Tsevat, "The Neo-Assyrian



Similar instructions were given Moses at Sinai concerning

the two tables. They were to be deposited in the ark, which

in turn was to be placed in the tabernacle (Exod. 25:16, 21;

40:20; Deut. 10:2). Because Yahweh was at once Israel's

covenant suzerain and God of Israel and Israel's oath, there

was but one sanctuary for the deposit of both treaty du-

plicates. The specified location of the documents as given in

Hittite treaties can be rendered "under (the feet of)" the

god, which would then correspond strikingly to the arrange-

ments in the Israelite holy of holies.18  The two tables do not

themselves contain instructions concerning their disposition,

for the legislation regarding the ark and sanctuary had not

yet been given. The same is true of the Book of the Covenant

(Exod. 20:22-23:33). But it is significant that when such

legislation was given after the ceremony of covenant ratifica-

tion (Exod. 24), the ark was the first object described in detail

and directions for the deposit of the two tables in it were

included (Exod. 25:10-22).

As for the further custom of periodic public reading of

treaty documents, the contents of the two tables were of

course declared in the hearing of all Israel and the Book of

the Covenant was read to the people as part of the ratification

ceremony (Exod. 24:7); but the practice of periodic proclama-

tion was first formulated some forty years later in the Book

of Deuteronomy when God was renewing the covenant unto

the second generation. When suzerainty covenants, were re-

newed, new documents were prepared in which the stipula-

tions were brought up to date. Deuteronomy is such a

covenant renewal document; hence its repetition with mod-

ernizing modifications of the earlier legislation, as found, for

example, in its treatment of the decalogue (5:6-21) or of the

passover (16:5 ff.; cf. Exod. 12:7, 46).19 Another case in point


and Neo-Babylonian Vassal Oaths and the Prophet Ezekiel", Journal of

Biblical Literature, LXXVIII (Sept. 1959) III, p. 199.

    18 See Exod. 25:22. Cf. Korosec, op. cit., p. 100.

    19 Taking Pentateuchal history at its face value, we discover that the

Book of Deuteronomy exhibits precisely the legal form which contemporary

second millennium B.C. evidence indicates a suzerain would employ in

his rule of a vassal nation like Israel at such an historical juncture. It will

no longer suffice for negative critics to grant only that certain individual



is Deuteronomy's addition of this requirement for the regular

public reading of the covenant law at the feast of tabernacles

in the seventh year of release (31:9-13), a requirement that

became relevant and applicable here on the threshold of

Israel's inheritance of Canaan. The document which was to

be brought forth and read was not one of the stone tables but

the "book of the law" which Moses wrote and had placed by

the side of the ark (31:9, 26). However, even if "this book

of the law" is identified with Deuteronomy alone, reading it

would have included a re-proclamation of the contents of

the tables.

The relevance of the foregoing for higher critical conclu-

sions concerning the decalogue may be noted in passing.

Along with a decreasing reluctance in negative critical studies

to accept the Mosaic origin of the decalogue20 the judgment

continues that the present form of the Sinaitic decalogue is an

expansion of the original, which is then reduced to an abridged

version of the ten words, without preamble, historical prologue,

or curses and blessings, and often without even an abridged

form of the second and fourth words. Similarly, even where

there is no bias against the Bible's representations concerning

its own origins, the supposition has gained currency that it

was an abbreviated version of the decalogue which was en-

graved on the stone tables. Such estimates of the contents

of the Mosaic tables are clearly unsatisfactory, since the

supposed abbreviated forms lack those very features which

distinguish the tables as that which comparative study in-

dicates was called for by the historical occasion, and biblical


ancient laws and cultic patterns are preserved in Deuteronomy; for the

fact is that its total structure conforms to the classic structure of suzerainty

treaties, all six standard sections being represented. The implications of

this for the unity and authenticity of Deuteronomy are clear. While the

suzerainty pattern has been widely recognized in the Decalogue and in

Joshua 24, there has been a strange lack of acknowledgment of all the

obvious facts in the case of Deuteronomy. It is to be hoped that the

traditionalistic higher criticism will not long indulge in obscurantism out

of regard for the unfortunate circumstance that its seventh century date

for Deuteronomy is the pivot of the massive volume of modern historical

studies of Israelite literature and religion.

    20 Cf. H. H. Rowley, "Moses and the Decalogue", Bulletin of the John

Rylands Library, xxxiv, 1951-52, pp. 81 ff.



exegesis indicates the tables to be—not a brief ethical

catechism but copies of the Sinaitic covenant.

            The purpose of Israel’s copy of the covenant was that of

a documentary witness (Deut. 31:26).21  It was witness to

and against Israel, reminding of obligations sworn to and

rebuking for obligations violated; declaring the hope of cov-

enant beatitude and pronouncing the doom of the covenant

curses.  The public proclamation of it was designed to teach

the fear of the Lord to all Israel, especially to the children.22

            Both copies of the covenant were laid before Yahweh as

God of the oath. But what was the purpose of Yahweh’s

own copy in his capacity as covenant surzerain?  In the case

of the international treaties, the suzerain would naturally

want to possess, preserve, and protect a sealed legal witness

to the traty. It would remind him of the vassal’s ade for the

purpose of enforcement and punishment; for he would be

the actual avenger of the oath, the instrument of the oath

deities according to the religious theory which was the legal

fiction lending sacred sanction to the treaty. It would also

remind him of his suzerain’s role as protector of the vassal

and of the various specific promises of assistance often con-

tained in the treaties. He had not, however, like the vassal

taken a covenant oath and human lords being what they are

he would have considerably less interest in the benefits he

might bestow than in the amount of annual tribute he was

entitled to exact from the vassal.


            21 Various types of covenant witnesses other than the divine witness

are mentioned.  Cf. the song of Moses, which he had Israel memorize

(Deut. 31:19, 22; 32); the stones with the law written upon them erected

on Ebal (Deut. 27: Josh. 8:30-35); and the stone witness of covenant

renewal at Shechem (Josh. 24:26, 27).

            22 Deut. 31:13, Ps. 78:5ff. The treaties and the biblical covenant share

a perspective of family solidarity reflected in numerous references to the

sons and grandsons of the vassal.  In the treaties, sworn commitment is in

the terms:  “we, our sons, and our grandsons” and agreeably both curses

and blessings are pronounced unto children’s children. “Visiting the

iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth genera-

tion of them that hate me” (Exod. 20:5b) is the biblical counterpart,

defining the bounds of corporate responsibility in guilt under this covenant

administration by the utmost limits of contemporaneity (here described

by means of numerical climax, a popular device of Hebrew and Canaanite


                  THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT                    143


            Such mutatis mutandis was the purpose of Yahweh’s own

stone table of covenant witness. However, even from the

formal point of view there is here a remarkable shift in

emphasis arising from the fact that God’s suzerainty covenant

with Israel is an administration of salvation.  The form of

the blessing suggests the unique emphasis: “showing mercy”,

and that not merely to the third and fourth generation of

them that love him but, contrary to the balance observed in this

respect in the curse and blessing formulae of the international

treaties, “to a thousand generations” (Cf. Deut. 7:9). This much

more abounding of grace is evidenced even in connection with

the function of the stone tables as witnesses against Israel;

for since the divine throne under which the tables are located

is the place of atonement, the witness of the tables against

Israel never ascends to Yahweh apart from the witness of

the blood advocating mercy.

            The divine suzerain’s condescension in the Covenant of

Grace at the time of its Abrahamic administration extended

to the humiliation of swearing himself to covenant fidelity as

lord of the covenant and fulfiller of the promises (cf. Gen. 15).

Mendenhall23 mistakenly regards the Abrahamic covenant as

completely different in kind from the Sinaitic, partly because

of God’s oath and partly because of an alleged absence of

obligations imposed on Abraham.  Actually, the total alle-

giance to his Lord demanded of Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:1;

17:1) was precisely that fealty which the treaty stipulations

were designed to secure. Moreover, it is demonstrable that

an oath on the part of the suzerain is not incompatible with

the genius of the relationship governed by a suzerainty treaty.

There are, for example, a treaty and a related deed from

Alalakh,24 both concerned with one Abban, the vizier of

Hattusa, and his bestowment of certain cities upon his polit-

ical “servant” Iarimilim.  The treaty states that Abban con-

firmed the gift in perpetuity by a self-maledictory oath

accompainied by the symbolism of slaughtering a sheep. It

also stipulates that the territorial gift is forfeit if Iarimlim


            23 Op. cit., p. 62.

            24 Published by D. J. Wiseman in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies XII

(Dec. 1958) 4, pp. 124-29 and in The Alalakh Tablets (London, 1953),

pp. 25, 26, plate I, respectively.



is disloyal to Abban. The text deeding Alalakh (part of

Abban's gift) pronounces curses upon any who would alter

Abban's purpose by hostilities against Iarimlim. All this

corresponds perfectly to God's dealings with Abraham. The

Lord covenanted territory to his servant Abraham as an

everlasting possession (Gen. 12:1, 2; 13:14-17; 15:16, 18) and

did so by a self maledictory oath symbolized by the slaying

of animals (Gen. 15:9 ff.). Moreover, it is clear that by

rebellion against Yahweh's word Abraham would forfeit the

promise (Gen. 22:16, 17a; cf. Deut. 28, especially verses 63ff.);

and finally, the Egyptians and Canaanites who oppose this

territorial grant are cursed (Gen. 12:36; 15:14, 16, 19-21).

God's oath is, therefore, in keeping with the suzerain-vassal

relationship and simply enhances the condescension and

graciousness of God's covenant reign. Considered in relation

to the divine oath and promise, Yahweh's duplicate table of

the covenant served a purpose analogous to that of the rain-

bow in his covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:13-16). This divine

condescension anticipated the humiliation of the Incarnation,

and this divine oath contemplated the ultimate humiliation

of the accursed death of him who should be "found in fashion

as a man".

There remains the question of the relevance of our inter-

pretation of the duplicate tables of the covenant for the

understanding of their law content. The increased emphasis

on the covenantal context of the law underscores the essential

continuity in the function of law in the Old and New Tes-

taments. The decalogue is not offered fallen man as a genuine

soteric option but is presented as a guide to citizenship within

the covenant by the Saviour-Lord, who of his mercy delivers

out of the house of bondage into communion in the life of the

covenant--a communion which eventuates in perfect con-

formity of life to the law of the covenant. To stress the

covenantal "I-thou" nature of this law is also to reaffirm the

personal-religious character of biblical ethics at the same time

that it recognizes that covenantal religion and its ethic are

susceptible to communication in the form of structured truth.

Yahweh describes the beneficiaries of his mercy as "them that

love me and keep my commandments" (Exod. 20:6; cf.

John 14:15).

THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT                        145


Recognition of the completeness of each of the tables

provides a corrective to the traditional view's obscuration of

the covenantal-religious nature of the laws in "the second

table". An hegemony of religion over ethics has, indeed,

always been predicated on the basis of the priority in order

and verbal quantity of the laws of "the first table", analyzed

as duty or love to God, over the laws of "the second table",

analyzed as duty or love to man. Nevertheless, this very

division of the ten words into "two tables" with the category

"love of God" used as a means of separating one "table"

from the other suggests that the fulfillment of the demands

of "the second table" is to some degree, if not wholly, in-

dependent of the principle of love for God.

Our Lord's familiar teaching concerning a "first and great

commandment" and a "second like unto it" (Matt. 22:37-40;

Mk. 12:29-31) has figured prominently in the speculation

about the contents of "the two tables".25 It is, however,

gratuitous to suppose that Jesus was epitomizing in turn a

"first table" and "second table" as traditionally conceived.26

Furthermore, it must be seriously questioned whether Jesus'

commandment to love God's image-bearer, ourselves and our

neighbors alike, can properly be restricted after the dominant

fashion to the fifth through the tenth laws. The nearest

parallel in the decalogue to the specific language of Jesus is

found in the fourth law as formulated in Deuteronomy (5:14):

The sabbath is to be kept "that thy manservant and thy

maidservant may rest as well as thou". And does man not

best serve the eternal interests of himself and his neighbor

when he promotes obedience to the first three commandments?

Is that not the ethical justification of the great commission?

But beyond all doubt Jesus' "great commandment" must

be the heart motive of man in the whole compass of his life.

Restricting the principle of love of God to the sphere of


    25 In the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, it is the only

proof text cited 'for distinguishing between the "tables" in terms of duty

towards God and duty to man (chap. XIX, sect. II).

    26 There is no explicit reference to the two stone tables in the context,

which is broadly concerned with the generality of scriptural legislation.

Jesus relates his two commandments to the totality of Old Testament

revelation (Matt. 22:40).



worship prejudices the comprehensiveness of God's absolute

lordship which is the foundation of the covenant order.

That the love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength

is as relevant to the tenth commandment as it is to the first is

evident from the fact that to violate the tenth is to worship

Mammon, and ye cannot love and serve God and Mammon.

Or consider the tenth word from the viewpoint of the principle

of stewardship, the corollary of the principle of God's covenant

lordship. Property in the Israelite theocracy was held only

in fief under the Lord who declared: "For the land is mine;

for ye are strangers and sojourners with me" (Lev. 25:23b).

Therefore to covet the inheritance of one's neighbor was to

covet what was God's27 and so betray want of love for him.

The application of this is universal because not just Canaan

but "the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the world

and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1).

The comprehensiveness of Jesus' "first and great command-

ment" is evident from the preamble and historical prologue of the covenant

document. Being introductory to the whole body of stipulations which

follow, they are manifestly intended to inculcate the proper motivation for

obedience not to three or four or five of the stipulations but to them all;

and the motivation they inspire is that of love to the divine Redeemer.

Why are we to love our neighbors? Because we love the God who loves

them and, according to the principle articulated in the sabbath commandment

(Exod. 20:11), the imperative to love God is also a demand to be like him.

The two commandments of Jesus do not distinguish two

separable areas of human life but two complementary aspects

of human responsibility. Our Lord's perspective is one with

that of the duplicate tables of the covenant which comprehend

the whole duty of man within the unity of his consecration to

his covenant Lord.


Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia


    27 Considered in this light, there is an exact equivalent to the tenth

commandment in a Hittite treaty where the suzerain charges the vassal:

"Thou shalt not desire any territory of the land of Hatti". (Cited by

Mendenhall, "Ancient Oriental and Biblical Law," The Biblical Archaeol-

ogist XVII (May, 1954) 2, p. 30).


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            Chestnut Hill

            Philadelphia,  PA   19118


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu