The Tablets of the Covenant: we all have an image of them in our minds, thanks to Rembrandt. In Hebrew, they even have their own Wikipedia entry. They are the bedrock of the Jewish relationship with God.
So why don't they appear anywhere but in this week's portion? As Moses reminds the Israelites, he went up the mountain to get the Tablets of the Covenant (9:9), receives them from God at the end of 40 days (9:11), and carries them back down the mountain on his way to check out the Golden Calf (9:15). But as soon as he sees the calf, he drops them and breaks them.
It's not that we've never seen these tablets before. They appear, of course, in the original story. Moses gets them in Exodus 31:18 and breaks them in Exodus 32:19. In fact, we see the tablets over and over again. They appear 17 times in Exodus alone, 16 times in Deuteronomy, and once more in 1 Kings 8:9, where they are described as still being in the Ark when it was placed in the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple: "There was nothing in the Ark but the two stone tables that Moses deposited there at Horeb [an alternate name for Mount Sinai], when the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt."
God's "covenant" with Israel is, if anything, referred to even more often than the tablets. Even the Ark of the Covenant—the one in which the tablets were kept—is mentioned more than 40 times, and there are dozens of other references to the covenant inscribed on the tablets.
Yet nowhere but Deuteronomy 9 do we encounter the words "the Tablets of the Covenant" as a phrase. The only two verses in the Bible that come anywhere near to using the expression are the exceptions that "prove" the rule—that is, they test it and confirm it:
"[Moses] was there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, eating no food and drinking no water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Words." (Exodus 34:28)
"He told you His covenant that He commanded you to perform—the Ten Words—and He wrote them on two stone tablets." (Deuteronomy 4:13)
The "Ten Words," of course, are what we today call the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 (and repeated in Deuteronomy 5 in last week's portion). Both Jewish tradition and the Bible itself disagree on exactly how, but the revelation described in those chapters somehow consisted of these "Ten Words," and that is what was inscribed on the tablets. But the two mentions of their being written show us that Moses is using the phrase "Tablets of the Covenant" in Deuteronomy 9 in a very specific way.
You see, the tablets on which "the words of the covenant" were written in Exodus 34:28 were the second set of tablets, replacing the ones that Moses broke. But when Moses retells the story in Deuteronomy 4:13, the covenant is written on the first set of tablets—the "Tablets of the Covenant," the same one that Moses breaks in Deuteronomy 9:16, in this week's portion.
The difference is crucial. As Deuteronomy presents it, Israel and God will still have an everlasting covenant, but it will no longer be an intrinsic part of the tablets kept in the Ark. They will be a record of the details—nothing more. Instead, God and Israel will re-establish their covenantal relationship by "bespeaking" each other, in Deuteronomy 26:17–18. There too Moses uses a verb form found nowhere else in the Bible, the causative conjugation of the verb "to say." This unique expression replaces our phrase "the Tablets of the Covenant" as the basis of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
Perhaps the reason is Moses' awareness of his own approaching death. The second set of tablets, after all, have "the same commandments that were on the original tablets" (Deuteronomy 10:2). But Moses' farewell address shifts our focus away from rewriting of the tablets to the breaking of the original ones. God's covenant with Israel now depends on words, vanishing into thin air the instant they are spoken. It is no longer—as it once was—carved in stone.
Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/thenatureofthecovenant