God’s Handwriting

  • Question from MF, USA

    In what language were the 10 Commandments written by the finger of God, or even by Moses, given that the Hebrew people had no written language at the time? Egyptian hieroglyphics? Phoenician? Assyrian cuneiform? Or did the Hebrews have a written language hundreds of years before the Babylonian Captivity?

    The Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue) are recorded in Hebrew in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus and chapter 5 of Deuteronomy. According to these accounts, Yahweh wrote on the original stone ‘tablets’ and gave them to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32 verse 16; Deut. 5 verse 22,). Moses then smashed the tablets when he saw the idol of the Golden Calf that had been set up in his absence by the Israelites (Exodus 32, verses 15-19). Later, after the Levite priesthood slaughtered the idolaters (Exodus chapter 32, verses 25-35), God instructed Moses to chisel out new tablets, on which he would write the words again (Exodus chapter 34, verse 1, Deut. 10, verses 2-4).

    Hebrew as a distinct language has been found in documents and inscriptions dating back to 1000 BC. The exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan are usually dated by Biblical historians at sometime between 1300-1200 BC. This means there are only 300 years between known examples of written Hebrew (admittedly a primitive dialect) and the events at Mount Sinai.

    Hebrew itself seems to belong to the Canaanite family of Semitic languages, along with Phoenician, Moabite and possibly Ugaritic. The word ‘Hebrew’ itself is not used of the language until the Hellenistic period, shortly before the time of Christ. The other major Semitic language family in the area was Aramaic, which due to the conquest of Israel had become the principal language of the common people in Christ’s day, with Hebrew being retained in religious settings – the Temple, synagogues and religious writings.

    The ‘Hebrew slaves’ in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus probably spoke a rudimentary form of Hebrew that was very similar to other Canaanite languages. This was probably their identifying feature among the many slave communities that existed in Egypt at that time. Presumably it was spoken by the Israelites during the exodus, which is why they were able to relate to the Moabites so well. In Numbers chapter 25 the men of Israel are ‘seduced’ by Moabite women and begin worshipping the Moabite Gods. Roots in a common language would explain why, after leaving the radically different culture of Egypt, the Israelites found it so easy to lose their ‘unique’ identity, simply because it was no longer unique.

    If the events recorded regarding the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai are true, then it is likely that the ‘Yahweh-inscribed’ stone tablets were written in Hebrew. However, there is no way of verifying this, as Moses placed the second set in the now-lost Ark of the Covenant (Deut 10, verse 5). What we do know is that the only records we have of the Ten Commandments are in Hebrew – they do not appear in other languages until translated from the Hebrew centuries later.

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