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Did God inscribe the Creation Week in stone?


Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law. By Rembrandt (1659).

Today’s feedback comes from Duncan R. from the United Kingdom. He asks if the different accounts of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 5, especially the different rationales for the Sabbath in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, undercut the idea that God inscribed testimony to the Creation week on the stone tablets of the covenant. He writes:

Hi, I’ve been using your materials for many years.

I recently came across a question while in discussion with a non-Creationist curate, and he raised a point I’ve not seen addressed before.

“I do not believe that Ex 20:11 was written on the tablets—how could it be when you look at Duet 5:15 and see that something different is in its place! … So six created days were most likely NOT written in stone.”

I have always considered Ex 20:8–11 to be a proof text of 6 day creation, along with Ex 31:18 and Deut 9:10 where we read that God wrote the commandments with his own finger.

However the reference to 6 days is only found in this version of the 10 commandments and not in Deut 5 or Ex 34.

This raises some interesting questions. What was written on the tablets? Why the different versions? Was the ‘6 days’ an editorial comment by Moses perhaps?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

There are more differences between Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 than just the different rationales for the Sabbath. Exodus 20 reports what God said (Exodus 20:1), and Deuteronomy 5 reports what Moses said God said (Deuteronomy 5:1–5). Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 were spoken by different characters, to different people, at different times, and in different places. Deuteronomy 5 was spoken after God wrote on the tablets, but Exodus 20 was spoken before God wrote on the tablets. If either rationale for the Sabbath was on the tablets, it was clearly the Exodus 20:11 rationale, not the Deuteronomy 5:15 rationale.

Moreover, Exodus 20 tells the Israelites to remember the Sabbath, and the Creation Week rationale explains why God blessed the Sabbath day. However, in Deuteronomy 5, the Israelites are told to keep the Sabbath, and remember that they were slaves in Egypt. Exodus 20 reminds that generation that they are God’s people, and are commanded to remember that by emulating His pattern of work and rest in the Creation Week. They didn’t need reminding of what it was like to be slaves. However, the generation in Deuteronomy 5 that Moses was addressing had no prior experience of slavery—unlike the Exodus 20 generation. Therefore, Moses had to remind them that God gave the Sabbath as a blessing of rest that their forbears didn’t have as slaves. Indeed, this is highly reflective of Jesus’ own understanding of the Sabbath in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.

But since Deuteronomy 5 has Moses reporting God’s words, and Deuteronomy 5:15 gives a different rationale for the Sabbath from Exodus 20:11, does that mean that Moses misrepresented God? It would be a misrepresentation only if verbatim quotation is the only way to faithfully repeat what God said. While our culture might think that’s the case, it wasn’t so in biblical cultures. For them, slavish repetition was OK, but the ability to faithfully repeat a tradition for a new situation was even better, because it showed one had a masterful understanding of the tradition. Two people who exhibited this well in the New Testament were Mary and Zechariah in their prayers in Luke 1. They both recast biblical tradition faithfully in response to the new situation (the conceptions of John and Jesus) in praise of God, showing that they both have a deep understanding of the messianic expectation in the Hebrew Bible. New Testament books like Hebrews and Romans are also good examples of this; they don’t always quote the Old Testament verbatim, but their use of the OT show a deep understanding of its history and theology. And Moses clearly had a masterful understanding of God’s intent. Besides, no other command among the Ten Commandments had such a situational rationale as the Sabbath command, so it allowed unique leeway for recasting the rationale for the Sabbath for a new generation and situation.

What about Exodus 34? Irrelevant. In Exodus 34:1, God said He would write the previous commands He had given on stone, whereas in verse 27, God tells Moses to write down the commands He had just given. As such, the last sentence of verse 28 (“And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”) doesn’t refer to Moses writing the words of Exodus 34 on tablets; it refers to God rewriting the words of Exodus 20 on new tablets.1

Now, just for the sake of argument, let’s grant that the Creation week rationale for the Sabbath in Exodus 20:11 was an editorial redaction on Moses’ part, and it wasn’t included on the stone tablets. So what? It’s still there in Scripture. And where did Moses get the idea from? Exodus 31:16–17 has God telling Moses that the rationale for the Sabbath is the Creation Week pattern of work and rest. Ironically for the curate you were talking to, this is immediately before the verse that tells us that God inscribed His commands on stone. It’s almost as if Moses wants to leave us with the impression that the Creation Week rationale for the Sabbath was inscribed by God on stone! If Exodus 20:11 was an editorial redaction on Moses’ part, then Deuteronomy 5:15 must have been as well, so that neither rationale was on the stone tablets. But both rationales are given in Scripture, and both are implied by God’s words elsewhere. This would only mean that we shouldn’t go around saying that the Exodus 20:11 rationale was written by the finger of God on stone. We still have every right to say that Exodus 20:11 is God-breathed Scripture! And God’s words on stone are no more authoritative than God’s words on paper; having God himself inscribe them on stone simply gives rhetorical weight to the point that this is what God teaches about the creation of the world. Even if Exodus 20:11 is not God’s word in stone, it is still God’s word in Scripture.

References and notes

  1. For some helpful context on this, please see Holding, J.P., What are the real Ten Commandments?, accessed 23 March 2016. Return to text.
For some helpful context on this, please see Holding, J.P., What are the real Ten Commandments?, accessed 23 March 2016.

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Readers’ comments
Daniel R., United States, 15 October 2016
Excellent reply and explanation! I had never before read or heard anything about this.
King T., South Africa, 15 October 2016
Thank you very much for making this so clear! It's such a coincidence ( or is it ?! ) that just last week I "happened" to see the difference between Exodus 20 and Deutoronomy 5 and now you given a great exposition on it. I've seen the rationale of a "commentary by Moses" used on the Biologos website to dismiss the 6-day creation and my take on that was also - why is it in the bible in the first place? Plus if one was to go about using the absence of a statement as definitive then it should be noted that there is only ONE absence and TWO actual statements which should in a simplistic manner carry far more weight than that which is actually NOT there! Thank you for clarifying the logic with regards to the "written in stone by God" and pointing out that one cannot use that statement categorically in this case.
Jordan C., United States, 19 October 2016
Awesome response Shaun!!! Also, I'm not sure if this is directly relevant to the question, but the two differing points about the Sabbath don't seem to contradict each other. From what I understand, it's like noticing a "bridge closed" sign. There may be two reasons or more for the road sign that states "bridge closed", but initial explanation given by law enforcement is that "there is ice on the bridge." However there is also maintenance work being done on the bridge as well resulting in a need to for the bridge closure, though it was not initially mentioned to the first commuter's inquiry, but given to the second.
Jeffrey C., United States, 27 October 2016
Good analysis, but surely worthwhile, also, to consider the immediate context of Exodus 20:11, namely, Exodus 20:1: "And God spoke all these words:"! Verse 11 clearly seems to be amidst God's oral testimony, audible to all Israel then living and assembled there! The NIV, as, I suppose, many Bible versions, encloses the entirety of Exodus 20:2 - 17 -- God's ten commandments, delivered orally -- in quotation marks, with verse one appearing as the introductory clause for God's testimony.
Shaun Doyle responds
I did originally say this: "Exodus 20 reports what God said, and Deuteronomy 5 reports what Moses said God said." However, I have added references to Exodus 20:1 and Deuteronomy 5:1–5 to make it a little clearer.