Moses and the Tablets of Covenant

I was raised with the idea that Moses was punished for his anger when the Israelites made the golden calf. The lesson was something like this: God wrote the first tablets with his own finger. Moses was so angry that he smashed the tablets. Because he acted rashly in his anger, he had to carve the replacement tablets himself.

I have a few problems with this interpretation. First, God never explicitly condemned Moses for the anger or the action. Second, God was angry enough himself to wipe them all out and start over with Moses. Third, I think it’s a dangerous message.

The interpretation of who wrote the tablets is complicated. Yes. The first tablets were prepared by God, and Moses had to prepare the second set himself. Yes. The first set were explicitly said to be written by the finger of God. But, according to the Faithlife Study Bible, New Testament scholars believed that angels carved the tablets. In chapter 34, verse 1, God tells Moses to cut new tablets and “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first.” God says he’ll do the writing. So while, in verse 27, God tells Moses to “write these words,” it isn’t perfectly clear what this means.

Maybe Moses was writing a daily use copy. Constantly consulting a set of stone tablets could get awkward. The point is, I don’t know. It isn’t clear. It’s never declared a punishment or even related in a negative or disapproving light.

Why does this matter?

Because sometimes anger is the appropriate response. The people broke the covenant, and Moses broke the tablets it was recorded on. This is a pretty standard demonstration of a voided contract. The renewal of the covenant was a mercy.

God gets angry, often. Jesus got angry when the temple court was corrupted. Anger can be appropriate. Anger can be righteous.

This should be used to discuss the violation of the covenant, the breaking of it in the very first days. This should be used to discuss the mercy of God in allowing it to be renewed, after appropriate measures had been made. The Levites earned their role as priests with their response and faithfulness.

We discuss the violation, the idolatry. We discuss the faithfulness of the Levites. But we condemn Moses.

God is slow to wrath; he does not deny it entirely. He does not condemn it entirely.

Series Disclaimer: throughout this particular series, it is always possible that I simply missed something, or honestly forgot it. I am, however, operating on the assumption that my experience is actually fairly typical despite coming from a comparatively small denomination. I feel justified in this assumption because I have put effort into interacting with and listening to as wide a variety of people as I can, and I put effort into paying attention. My entire life I’ve put effort into paying attention, into understanding. So perhaps I’ve missed something, or forgotten a single lesson, but I am speaking of broad impressions of a large culture. Should your experience differ, I am glad. Should I be wrong, I would be relieved.

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