Copyright © 1960 by
THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT
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
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
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
4 Cf. further, Korosec, op. cit., pp. 66 ff.; D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-
Treaties of Esarhaddon,
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
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
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
and rivers, etc., at the close of this section in the treaties. Cf. Matt. 5:34,
7 Op. cit., p. 66.
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
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
THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT 137
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,
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
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
THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT 139
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
sub.... At regular intervals shall they read it in the presence
of the king 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.
The Alalakh Tablets,
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
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;
Deut. 10:2). Because Yahweh was at once
covenant suzerain and God of Israel and
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
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
no longer suffice for negative critics to grant only that certain individual
THE TWO TABLES OF THE COVENANT 141
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
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 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
a documentary witness (Deut. 31:26).21 It was witness to
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
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
(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
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
for since the divine throne under which the tables are located
is the place of atonement, the witness of the tables against
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
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.
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.
application of this is universal because not just
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.
27 Considered in this light, there is an exact equivalent to the tenth
commandment in a Hittite treaty where the suzerain charges the vassal:
shalt not desire any territory of the
Mendenhall, "Ancient Oriental and Biblical Law," The Biblical Archaeol-
ogist XVII (May, 1954) 2, p. 30).
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