Why did Moses break the stone tablets?

I have long been puzzled over the Bible event where Moses broke the tables of stone on which were written the ten commandments by the finger of God.  I have wondered whether God approved or disapproved of the actions of Moses.  There is nothing in the text to suggest that God wanted Moses to break the stone tablets, but there is also no record of God admonishing Moses for his actions.  We are left to speculate as to whether or not Moses did the right thing.  Or are we?

If we remember the background of what the ten commandments are, we might receive some light on this matter.  God had called to Moses out of Mount Sinai and given the terms of His covenant with the nation of Israel.  They were to obey His voice and keep His covenant, and in doing so they would be a special treasure to God above all other people on the earth.  The “special-ness” of Israel would be that they would serve God as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  This is all found in Exodus 19:5-6 and if you notice, this is before God gives the ten commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.  So before the Israelites even know one of the commandments that God will give, they are commanded  to obey His voice and that is how the covenant will be kept.  The nation of Israel readily agreed to obey God’s voice.  Then they heard the ten commandments from the voice of God.  Moses wrote down all of the words in a book, the ten commandments and the rest of what God had commanded.  The nation of Israel again affirmed that they would obey God’s voice, see Exodus 24:3-4.  Then God invites Moses up into the mountain to be with him for 40 days and 40 nights.

When Moses comes down from the mountain, he has been experiencing communion with the one true God.  He then witnesses the debauchery and sinfulness of his people who were supposed to be a holy nation to the one true God.  The ten commandments, written in stone by the finger of God, embodied the covenant that God had made with the nation of Israel.  It plainly described what Israel had to do to obey the voice of the LORD.  Moses saw them committing sexual sin, idolatry, and every other type of pagan sin you would expect of a heathen nation.  What God wanted from the nation of Israel and what they were doing were complete opposites.  Just before Moses came down and witnessed this first hand, God wanted to strike the entire nation dead in His wrath.  Moses interceded reminding God of His covenant with Abraham.  So God did not follow through with a display of His wrath, see Exodus 32:7-14.

Immediately after this, the same one that talked God out of consuming the nation of Israel in His wrath, came down and saw first hand what had made God so angry.  The anger of Moses grew hot and he broke the tables of stone.  The act was based on the same anger that might have consumed the nation of Israel had not Moses interceded.  It was, in essence, the same thought of God.  God’s thought was, these people cannot be My people any longer.  They are sinful, they disobey Me, they cannot continue with Me because I am a holy God.  Moses also must have thought, how can we continue in a covenant relationship with this holy God?  The tables of stone were now worthless because the nation of Israel had broken the covenant.  So the action of Moses is a recognition of the failure of His people to keep the covenant.  Why would they need the tables of stone any longer since the covenant was broken and there was no longer a covenant relationship between the nation of Israel and the God of Israel?  Consider the following quote by Cecil Yates Biss from a sermon preached in 1896:

This breaking of the tables of stone was in itself a sign of the infraction of the holy law engraven upon them, and also of the covenant which depended upon obedience to that law.  But let it be noted that the breaking of the tables was Moses’ own act: it does not seem to have been enjoined by God.  Moses appears to have thought that as the law was hopelessly broken, and the blesssings of the covenant hopelessly lost, the tables must be destroyed also.  He did not realise that God was able, by a new work of mercy, to overrule the sin of His people, and to cause His grace to much more abound where their sin had so grievously abounded.

I would echo this main idea, but with the modification that perhaps Moses was acting in accordance with the character of the one true God.  Now the roles are reversed.  Previously, Moses had interceded before God on behalf of the nation of Israel, now God intercedes on behalf of the nation of Israel encouraging Moses to come up into the mount once again.  The “new work of mercy” as Biss puts it, is the creation of a second set of tables of stone.  This signifies the renewal of the covenant and the continuation of this sinful nation in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel.

There is still much to ponder about in this story, but perhaps this sheds some light on the issue.

Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

-The Orange Mailman

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18 Responses to Why did Moses break the stone tablets?

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’d always figured God wasn’t pleased with Moses’ actions since He made him cut out his own copy to replace the broken one. Either way, Moses got to experience the amount of effort required to prepare the stones for God’s writing.
    How subtle God can be with our behavior in the Scriptures has always been a puzzle. In many ways it would be easier on us if He always acted like He did with Ananias, Sapphira, Nadab and Abihu.
    My biggest question has been why God didn’t zap Aaron, or at least demote him and his family for his behavior and that calf.
    One thing is sure, we see as much about God’s mercy as His justice in those events!

  2. Thanks Cheri, I’ve always wondered about the lack of censure for Aaron as well. Perhaps God knew that His plan included Aaron as the first high priest. Interesting that this idolater would be the first high priest and not someone else. Of course, who else would there be?

    • Larry Hubartt says:

      Darren, my name is Larry Hubartt; I’m pastor of a small church in Northern Indiana and a committed Pre-Wrath advocate. I have been reading your blog and am very appreciative of what I am finding there. I’m writing because I’d really like to have a personal conversation with especially about your Post of Jan 11, 2010 “Rosenthal’s view of Revelation 14:14-16. You said there that you’ve been trying for some time to get the rest of the PreWrath community on board with seeing Rev 14:13-16 as the rapture of the Church. You’ve convinced me and I’m definitely on board; I have already taught it to my congregation. I have found, like yourself, that many people do not want to talk about the prophetic portions of God’s Word and that is one reason that I’m really hankering to somehow connect with you. I agree with you that PreWrath has a problem concerning the chronology of Rev 12-16 and I’m desperate for someone to talk with about it–especially about harmonizing the trumpet and bowl judgments. Would love to hear from you.

    • Miriam Bakker says:

      Why wasn’t Moses and his sons made High Priest especially after the way Aaron sinned? Is it because Moses’s wife was a Cushite and therefore his children were only half Israeli?
      Also I think that God didn’t like it that Moses, in a fit of temper, broke the tablets with the commandments on because when God tells Moses to make a second set He also tells him to make an ark to safely keep them in to prevent them from being damaged again.

      • Interesting thoughts and questions. My view on why Moses wasn’t made high priest is that people would have venerated Moses above what he should have been. He was only a man yet in the days of Jesus they considered themselves disciples of Moses, see John 9:28-29. Imagine if he had held the priesthood. I don’t think it had anything to do with the wife of Moses. The lineage of Christ had Rahab who was a Canaanite and Ruth who was a Moabite. That didn’t preclude David from being king. When someone wanted to become an Israelite they could join the nation of Israel through circumcision, see Exodus 12:48. I thought I remembered a passage where priests were forbidden to take a wife except from the children of Israel but I can’t seem to find it.

        The instructions for building the ark were given before Moses broke the first set of tablets, see Exodus 25:10-22. It is possible God did not like that, but He never chastised Moses for that which would be in keeping with the theme of my post, that of God’s graciousness.

        Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

        -The Orange Mailman

  3. Yves P. says:

    Just before breaking the tablets Moses had just been told by God that He would annihilate the Israelites and would make a new nation from Moses. (Gen 32:10). So Moses new at that point that the Israelites were condemned. Moses must have calculate that breaking the tablets would be quite wrong (possibly the equivalent of making a golden calf. Notice here the contrast between Break vs Make ) but if there was a way to save his people that was it. In others worlds Moses was telling God that he was now a sinner like his people and there was no point to annihilate every body.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Couldn’t it be a reference to Jesus who came down from heaven the first time to be broken for us? And he will come down again a second time.
    “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” – Luke 24:27.

  5. Shavonne says:

    I’m so glad that this was a top result after googling, “why did Moses break the tablets?” Your write-up really cleared it up for me, thank you so much.

    Also to the people asking about why Aaron seems to get off at first glance “so easy,” there are lots of neat discussions online with some great answers if you google the question. I know that really helped my understanding of the scripture.

  6. Theophilus says:

    Here is a thought that I have held for a while. God gave Moses the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The people of God promptly broke them because of their sin. But the Law does not change because God does not change. That was the symbolism of the STONE tablets. Since the Law hadn’t changed God provided Moses with another copy (though Moses had to carve the stones himself). Only this time God says, ‘let’s put them in the Ark for safekeeping.’ Now the Ark represents Jesus, which is another topic for another day, but for our purposes here, Jesus kept the law perfectly (Matthew 5:17, Hebrews 4:15). Because He kept it perfectly the cover was placed on the Ark. Now this cover was sometimes called the Atonement Cover and rightly so because the law was sealed in by His atoning sacrifice. It is also called the mercy seat because by his atoning sacrifice God is now able to provide us with Mercy. That mercy seat is the place where God meets with us and forgives our sin because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. So, in summary, God gave us the rules, we promptly broke them because we are naturally sinful. Since God’s righteous requirements don’t change, He gave them to us again. This time Jesus kept them perfectly and because of that our sin is atoned for and God and provide us with Mercy. Another amazing picture of Jesus the Christ in the pages of the Old Testament! Shalom!

  7. Adewuyi Margaret Oluwafunmilayo says:

    But is breaking the tablets the best thing for Moses to have done?

    • I didn’t really address that, did I? God never chastised Moses for breaking them. But the point of my article is that the action of Moses was short sighted in that he did not comprehend just how far reaching the grace of God is. So perhaps his action was not ideal, but used it to demonstrate a new work of grace.

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