Moses, Bible archaeology

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Face of Moses, da Vinci

Moses: leader, lawgiver, legend

Middle Eastern woman

Miriam's story

Map of the ancient Middle East

Where it happened

Canaanite bronze bull, symbol of fertility

Aaron, brother of Moses

Man covered in boils

Ten Plagues of Egypt

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'Ten Commandments'






Moses' Stone Tablets - were they stelae?

The Bible says that when Moses went up onto Mount Sinai, he was given 'stone tablets' by God (see Exodus 20 and 34). These tablets were engraved with a long list of command that formed, in essence, a law code for the ancient Hebrew people.

What were the stone tablets? 

Were the stone tablets of Moses like the ancient stele of Hammurabi?

The Hebrew people were not isolated in time and space. They were part of Eastern Mediterranean culture, and shared in the culture and ideas of their neighbors. The Tablets of the Law, as described in Exodus 20 and 34, bear a striking resemblance to the stele on which the Laws of Hammurabi were carved. 

Rembrandt, Moses and the Stone Tablets

Moses Smashing the Stone Tablets, Rembrandt. 
The artist portrays the tablets as slate slabs


Moses, marble statue by Michelangelo in San Pietro in Vinculi

Moses, marble statue by Michelangelo in San Pietro in Vinculi. 
Here, the stone tablets are fine slabs of marble

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Stone Tablets of Moses: stele of Hammurabi

The Stele of Hammurabi was made of polished black diorite in circa 1800BC in Babylon.
The text is Cuneiform. The stele is held in the Louvre Museum, France.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Stone Tablets of Moses: top section of stele of Hammurabi

Hammurabi had authority to give judgement on points of law, 
and to apply punishments when the law was broken

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Stone Tablets of Moses: back view of stele of Hammurabi

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Stone Tablets of Moses: back section of stele of Hammurabi

The stele bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of stone tablets given to Moses

The Laws of Hammurabi

The great lawmaker Hammurabi instructed that the laws on the Stele were intended for future generations, and in fact the Code of Hammurabi was used in schools in Mesopotamia for another thousand years. This became even more pronounced in the Israelite tradition, where fathers were instructed to teach their children the commandments, and people met together at regular intervals to listen to a reading of the Law.

Similar codes of law were created in several nearby civilizations, including Ur-Nammu's code and the later Hittite code of laws. 

There were certainly differences between the content of the two sets of laws - comparison shows that the laws of the Old Testament were predominantly 'apodictic' - they began with 'thou shalt' or 'thou shalt not', whereas most ancient law codes were casuistic: 'when a man...., he shall....'. But the actual tablets were probably similar to the stele of Hammurabi.


Brick-making in ancient Egypt

Wall relief showing Semitic laborers in Egypt

Wall relief showing Semitic laborers in Egypt making bricks with clay and straw (15th Century BC),
 as the Hebrews did when enslaved in Egypt 

The caption that accompanies this wall painting says that they are 'captives whom his majesty brought, for the works of the temple of Amon".  It also says that 'the taskmaster says to the builders: "The rod is in my hand; be not idle."  Some Egyptian texts mention brick quotas and a lack of straw, just as Exodus 5 does.


First mention of  'Israel'

Inscription on the Merneptah Stele with the word 'Israel'; this is the oldest reference to Israel outside of the Bible text

Inscription on the Merneptah Stele with the word 'Israel', 
the oldest reference to Israel outside of the Bible text

A passage from the Merneptah Stele Inscription showing the word 'Israel' (this is the oldest reference to Israel in a text outside the Bible). From 4th year of Pharaoh Merneptah (1212-1202 BC), possibly the pharaoh under whom the Exodus took place (his father Ramesses II  may have been the pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites). 

The passage reads as follows:

            The Great Ones are prostrate, saying: "Peace" (shalama); 
              Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows; 
                Plundered is Thehenu; Khatti is at peace; 
                  Canaan is plundered with every evil;  
                    Ashkelon is conquered; 
                      Gezer is seized;  
                    Yanoam is made non-existent;  
                  Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more;
                Kharu has become a widow because of Egypt! 
              All lands together are at peace;
            Any who roamed have been subdued.

The three characters on the left (woman, man, bent throwstick), along with the three vertical strokes beneath the first two, indicate that 'Israel' refers to a people, not a land or a city like Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam. In other words, Israel was a nomadic people in or near Canaan at the time this inscription was made.


 See Bible People: Moses for a short version of Moses' story

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible




  Stone Tablets of Moses  - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible  Study Resource:  The Ten Commandments and the Laws of Hammurabi


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