Carve something on a stone, and set it upright as a memorial or a boundary marker. People have been doing this all over the world for millennia. Americans today still erect gravestones and mark historic sites with upright stones bearing text.
Anyone can read the inscribed stone or stele and learn something—about the battle that took place at that spot, or the boundary it marks, or the person who is buried there.
In the ancient Middle East, most steles recorded victories in battle. But the oldest stele discovered so far from that region is a stone seven and a half feet high, with the Code of Hammurabi carved into it during the 18th century B.C.E. The 282 laws of the reigning Babylonian king are written in Akkadian.
Standing stones without any words carved into them are even older. Only oral tradition can tell subsequent generations what the stones commemorated. A stranger from another place or a later time who sees a blank monument, or a circle of tall stones, knows only that they are significant, not what they signify.
The first standing stones in the Torah are uncarved. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob erects four different matzeivot or standing stones, marking the sites of his dream of angels, the boundary between his area of influence and his father-in-law Lavan’s, and his wife Rachel’s grave.
Moses erects twelve standing stones at the foot of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel in their covenant with God. But the only engraved stones in Exodus are the two small tablets bearing the ten commandments, and they are so sacred that they are carried inside the ark, which must never be touched or opened.
At Mount Sinai and in the wilderness, the blank stones that depend on mutable oral tradition are out in public. But the immutable, fixed written words are hidden in a sacred place.
Moses does not call for standing stones with writing on them until this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), in the book of Deuteromy/Devarim.
Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day. And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you shall erect for yourself great stones, vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall write on them all the words of this torah when you cross over, so that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as God, the god of your forefathers, has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 27:1-3)
vesadeta (וְשַׂדְתָּ) = and you shall limewash (coat them with a paint-like mixture of lime and water).
siyd (שִׂיד) = lime, quicklime, limewash.
torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching. (The word torah also refers to the first five books of the Bible, to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to any teaching of Jewish law or religion.)
The people of the ancient Middle East made quicklime (calcium oxide powder) by burning bones. Adding enough water to slake the lime turns it into calcium hydroxide, which can be mixed with additional water to make limewash. Limewash is still used to coat surfaces in order to make them smooth and white; the coating hardens into a thin shell of limestone, which may last for millennia in dry conditions. Remnants survive of a text painted in ink on a white limewashed wall in the 8th century B.C.E.
Thus the text on Moses’ limewashed stones could have been readable for many centuries. The Hebrew Bible does not specify which torah Moses wants on the stones, but it must include some or all of the laws from the written Torah we have today—the first five books of the Bible, as copied and recopied on parchment and paper. According to 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses means the 613 commandments that the Talmud (Makkot 23b) says are in the five books. Other commentary speculates that Moses is calling for the code of laws in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 13-26), or for the whole book of Deuteronomy (which would fit on two stones the size of the one used for the Code of Hammurabi).
Until this point in the Torah, Moses passes down God’s laws by announcing them verbally to the assembly of Israelites. Only in this week’s Torah portion does Moses call for laws to be “carved in stone”—or at least painted on limestone—and set out in a public place: the top of Mount Eyval, next to the ancient town of Shekhem.
And it shall be when you cross over the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, as I command you this day, on Mount Eyval; vesadeta them with the siyd. And you shall build there an altar for God, your god … (Deuteronomy 27:4-5)
Moses continues with orders for offerings at the altar, followed by a ritual of blessings and curses to indicate acceptance of God’s law. (See my earlier post, Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)
On the bare summit of Mount Eyval, the stones would be visible from a distance, as shining white pillars against the sky.
Perhaps the author of this section of Deuteronomy imagined that the steles on Mount Eyval would be like the Code of Hammurabi, which many scribes over the centuries copied onto clay tablets. In the Talmud (Sotah 35b), Rabbi Yehudah imagines scribes from different Canaanite tribes visiting the stones on Mount Eyval and bringing home copies of their text.
Yet ancient scribes, including those who copied the Hebrew Bible, not only made copying errors, but also felt free to insert additional material. The steles on Mount Eyval would stand as a permanent record of the original laws of Moses, whatever amendments people made later.
From the viewpoint of the storyline within the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ desire for a permanent, immutable, and public record of the laws is understandable. He is about to die, and he believes the Israelites, with their history of backsliding, will eventually abandon God’s laws and convert to Canaanite religions. Moses’ last hope of preserving his religion is to write it down.
He writes multiple copies of “this torah” in Deuteronomy 31:9, and a book of “this torah” to be placed inside the ark in Deuteronomy 31:24-26. All of these writings appear to be on parchment scrolls. But he also wants a more permanent record, so he orders the limewashed standing stones.
From the viewpoint of modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was written much later than Numbers, probably after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. King Josiah of Judah, the southern kingdom, wanted public support for conquering the old northern territory and reinstating the old religion the two kingdoms shared. The description of a permanent monument bearing the laws of Moses might make King Josiah’s people feel that the religion of the God of Israel should persist.
From the viewpoint of a practicing Jew today, I would say the religion could not have survived this long without additions and reinterpretations. Of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the five books of the Torah, as compiled by Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), only 271 can be observed at all today. (Many of the old laws were about sacrifices at the temple, a method of worship that ended about 2,000 years ago with the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem.)
And some of the commandments are clearly inferior to ethical customs that Jews adopted later in their history. For example, although the Torah includes highly ethical commandments (such as not to insult, embarrass, or slander people), it also contains commandments such as the requirement that a rapist must marry his victim if she is single (Deuteronomy 22:29). There was a reason for that law in Judah 2,700 years ago, but 21st-century American society has better ways of handling the situation.
If archaeologists ever discover limewashed stones with some laws of Moses written on them, I pray that we may view the laws as artifacts, not immutable rules to follow forever. Reinterpretations of both oral traditions and traditional writings are what keep a religion alive, and let it walk farther on the path of virtue.