How do you understand Exodus 32:15?

Exodus 32:15 reads:

“And Moses turned and went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand. The tablets were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other they were written.”

The two tablets of the Testimony refer to the two tablets of stone, containing the Ten Commandments, which Moses carried in his two hands (cp. Exodus 32:19; Deuteronomy 9:15). But what is meant with the statement (only found in Exodus 32:15) that the two tablets were written on both sides?

Much confusion exists regarding this statement. This confusion is somewhat related to the confusion regarding the correct numbering of the Ten Commandments.

In chapter 3 of our free booklet, “The Ten Commandments,” we say the following about the different ways in which people have been numbering the Ten Commandments:

“There is… much disagreement as to HOW to number the Ten Commandments…  It was Augustine, a Catholic bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who, in the fourth century, combined the First and the Second Commandment as ONE commandment… In order to reach the number ten, he divided the last or the TENTH Commandment into two… the reason Augustine renumbered the Ten Commandments (by counting the First and the Second Commandment as just one commandment) was a strictly ‘political’ one. It was done for the purpose of allowing the worship of images and statues as part of the worship of God. But… THAT is EXACTLY what the Second Commandment prohibits. While the First Commandment prohibits the worship of anything else BUT God, the Second Commandment prohibits the worship of statues in connection with the worship of God…

“Augustine’s renumbering of the Ten Commandments, which has been adopted today by so many professing Christians, is in DIRECT CONTRADICTION to God’s inspired Word!…”

Regarding the connection between the numbering of the Ten Commandments and the question as to which commandments were written on each of the two tablets,  Rienecker, Lexikon zur Bibel, “Gebote, Zehn,” points out on page 439:

“Nothing is said about the size of the tablets with the words which were written on both sides; however, we know from findings that 2 tablets not yet 10 cm high would have been enough to include the text. … Philo, Josephus, the Talmud, Irenäus and others were of the opinion that each tablet contained 5 commandments, later the border was placed behind the 4th commandment … Corresponding to the different numbering, the tablets for Augustine contained 3 and 7, for Calvin 4 and 6 commandments…. However, [for the Sabbath commandment], only the words of Exodus 20 [not the words of the version of Deuteronomy 5] were written on the tablets.”

The reason for Calvin’s decision to place the first four commandments on one tablet, and the last six on the other tablet, was that the first four commandments, correctly numbered, describe our relationship with God, while the last six commandments describe our relationship with our neighbor. But as we saw, this division, as far as the two tablets is concerned, came rather late (under Calvin), while originally, each tablet was thought of containing five commandments.

The question then arises as to what is meant, precisely, with the statement that the “tablets were written on both sides, on the one side and on the other.”

Friedman, Commentary on the Bible, p. 282, writes:

“Does this mean: written on both tablets? Or written on both the front and the back of each tablet? The former seems too obvious to require this mention: of course it is written on both sides; otherwise, why have two tablets? So the point is precisely that they are written on both sides of each tablet. For pictural purposes (in art and film), it is preferable to put the commandments all on the same side of each tablet, but the text suggests otherwise. And we know of numerous ancient royal inscriptions and statues that were written on both sides, front and back.”Gill’s Exposition of the Bible adds:

“… the letters were written on both their sides, on the one side and on the other were they written; some think that the engraving of the letters was such, that it went through the stones, and in a miraculous manner the letters and lines were in a regular order, and might be read on the other sides… others think that the letters were written both within and without, like Ezekiel’s book of woes; that the same that was within side was written without, that so, when held up, they might be read by those that stood before and those that stood behind; but rather so it was that the whole was written within, some of the commands on the right, and some on the left, and so the tables [sic] might be clapped together as a book is folded.”

Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary agrees with the last suggestion, saying:

“[God] wrote the ten commandments on these tables [sic], on both their sides, some on one table [sic] and some on the other, so that they were folded together like a book, to be deposited in the ark.”

However, this explanation does not seem to correspond with the plain text of Exodus 32:15, as quoted above.

Accordingly, Adam Clarke’s Commentary writes the following:

“‘The tables [sic] were written on both their sides’ — If we take this literally, it was certainly a very unusual thing; for in ancient times the two sides of the same substance were never written over. However, some [rabbis] suppose that by the ‘writing on both sides’ is meant the letters were ‘cut through’  the tables [sic], so that they might be read on both sides, though on one side they would appear reversed… We may conceive the tables [sic] of stone to have been thin slabs or a kind of slate, and the writing on the back side to have been a continuation of that on the front, the first not being sufficient to contain the whole… Or the same words were written on both sides, so that when held up, two parties might read at the same time.”

Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible seems to agree, elaborating:

“… therefore, lest men should annex anything of their own inventions, God filled both sides, so that nothing remained unwritten upon.”

Further comments can be found on the Internet, as follows:

The question arises whether the commandments were divided between the tablets (as has generally been assumed) or whether the two tablets were identical copies of all Ten Commandments… since it was conventional to make duplicate copies of the treaty document for the suzerain and vassal respectively, and it is arguable that the sanctuary would be the appropriate place to deposit both the copy for God and that for the people.

“However, while it would make good sense to make duplicate copies and keep them in separate places for security, making duplicates and then keeping them in the same place (which is clearly what happened, if they were indeed duplicates) seems to be a rather [strange] procedure. Moreover, while it would be logical to keep God’s copy in the ark, and thus in the most holy place, keeping the people’s copy there as well would make it inaccessible to them and of little practical use. It would seem more probable that the pair of tablets kept in the ark were viewed as God’s copy of the covenant, and that one or more accessible copies were made for reference by the people and their leaders…

“The OT itself does not give any indication whether the two tablets were thought of as identical copies, or whether the material was divided between the two…”

As we can see, we cannot be sure as to what is meant with the statement in Exodus 32:15. What we do know is that God gave us Ten Commandments which He Himself wrote on two tablets of stone; and that the first four commandments regulate our worship of God, while the last six address our relationship with our neighbor.

It appears however that the two tablets did not just contain four or five commandments on their front side, while nothing was written on the back of the tablets (but so Matthew Poole’s Commentary, without explanation), as it says that the two tablets were written “on both sides, on the one side and on the other they were written.” The Authorized Version says: “…the tablets were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.” So also the JPS Tanakh 1917 rendition. The New International Version says, “…they were inscribed on both sides, front and back.” The revised Luther Bible 2017 says: “…die waren beschrieben auf beiden Seiten, vorn und hinten waren sie beschrieben.“ [“…they were written on both sides, they were written on the front and back.”] So the Neue Lutherbibel 2009; the Schlachter Bibel; the Elberfelder Bibel; the Zürcher Bibel; and the Menge Bibel.

Beyond this, insofar as the precise way is concerned in which the Ten Commandments appeared on the two tablets of stone, we are left to a large extent with assumptions, imaginations and speculations.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link