One of the fascinating stories of Israel in the wilderness is the occasion when Moses received the tablets of stone on which the finger of God wrote the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18). Personally, I would love to have seen the writing, even though I cannot read Hebrew, but I digress. Of course, we know that God warned Moses of the sin of the people (32:7-8) and when Moses hurried down the mountain he met Joshua, who was concerned about war (32:17). But Moses told him it was not the sound of war, but the sound of singing (32:18). Then when Moses could see the camp, particularly the calf his brother, Aaron, had made and the dancing (very different than the dancing when the Egyptian army was destroyed in the Red Sea — 15:20; 32:6), Moses threw the stone tablets from his place on the mountain to where they were shattered at the base of the mountain (32:19).
The question we want to consider is, “Why?” Why destroy these tablets, written by the finger of God, delivered into the care of Moses, containing the most holy document yet written? We do not have a direct answer given by inspiration that settles the matter. Yet, before some may say, “Since the Bible does not tell us, we should not speculate”, let me hasten to add that the fact that God reveals the story of the destruction of the tablets leads us to attempt to find the cause. Paul found (by inspiration) an allegory based on the story of Hagar and Sarah with their children by Abraham (Galatians 4:21-31), so it is not an exercise in futility to look closer and see if there is a profitable message here also.
Before we can attempt to answer that question, we should establish some given facts. First, the people already knew the Ten Commandments. They had been first given to Moses back in Exodus 20:1-17, 22-23. The people heard the voice of God and begged that He not speak again to them (vs.18,19). Later Moses writes the covenant in a book and reads it to the people and they committed to keeping the covenant (24:7,8), and Moses ratified the covenant by sprinkling blood on the book and the people. When we talked about this in a Bible class, the general consensus was, “Eww.” So, the people, including Aaron, knew this was forbidden by God.
Second, the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), including the organization of the recorded information. Moses goes directly from telling us about God giving him the stone tablets to telling us about the sins of the people in desiring another God to lead them (Exodus 31:18-32:1). The manner in which the story is told leads us to the conclusion that God is giving the covenant to Moses as the people are in the process of breaking it. That leads us to one potential answer to the question of “Why did Moses break the tablets?” Perhaps this is to demonstrate that this covenant has already been broken before the people ever got to see it written by the hand of God.
Some might propose, based on the similarities between this event and the description of the occasion when Moses sinned by striking the rock to produce water (Numbers 20:7-12), that Moses acted in presumption by hurling the tablets to their destruction. After all, on both occasions, Moses appears to be acting in anger because of the sin of the people. He performs an act of violence — throwing the tablets and striking the rock. On both occasions, Moses does something that God did not tell him to do. Yet, I judge that suggestion to be unsustainable when we look more closely at the particulars of the two events. At Mt. Sinai, Moses already knows the anger of God concerning the actions of the people. His anger is a reflection of God’s anger. At Meribah, there is no indication of God being angry with the people in asking for water. At Meribah, God had told Moses what to do, but Moses changed that to something else. At Sinai, we find no instruction from God, except to get down there quickly. But, most significant is what is missing from God when Moses shattered the tablets. At Meribah, God was quick to judge and condemn Moses for striking the rock, since He did not treat God as holy (Numbers 20:12). But, here at Mt. Sinai, with the stone tablets that contained the covenant of God with His people, God says nothing against the action of Moses to destroy them.
It is possible that this is a further addition to the allegory of Moses foreshadowing the Messiah. The allegory is quite clear earlier when God tells Moses that He will destroy the people for their sins, but Moses intercedes for the people and God relents in His wrath (Exodus 32:9-14). That is a clear connection to Jesus offering Himself to appease the wrath of God against our sins (1 John 2:1,2). But Jesus is not only a Savior to us, He is also a lawgiver and covenant-maker (Hebrews 3:1-6). And He will be our judge, both to save and condemn (Matthew 25:31,32). That condemnation comes from the commandment given to Him by God (John 12:48,49). So perhaps Moses uses the words of God as condemnation of the people by throwing them to destruction at the base of the mountain.
It seems to me that greatest value to us from this story must come from the contrast between the covenant that is represented by the tablets of stone and the one represented by the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 3:6-18). God had presented this covenant to the people of Israel as an everlasting covenant (Exodus 31:16,17), yet we know that it was not permanent because of the sins of the people. On the other hand, the covenant of the Spirit renews us continually (2 Corinthians 4:16). Perhaps the most important message is Moses breaking the tablets shows us how the Ten Commandments were a covenant of death from the outset, while in contrast, the death of Jesus on the cross is life eternal.