The journey of Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness lasts a long time. During their journey, there are times when they are without food or water, but the Lord always provides (see for example Ex 16).
They fight a battle agains Amalek at Rephidim (Ex 17:8-16). Israel prevails. The Lord says, “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex 17:14), but not right away: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex 17:16).
Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, comes, bringing Moses' wife and sons to him, and meanwhile gives Moses advice on how to manage the life of the community better (Ex 18).
The Lord said to Moses: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).
The Lord promises to show Himself to the people, by coming out of the mountain in a dense cloud. There is thunder, lightning, and loud noises; the people are told that they will be stoned if they approach too close to the mountain. The mountain is wrapped in smoke and shakes violently. Moses is summoned to go up the mountain (Ex 19).
The first listing of the 10 commandments is at Exodus 20. God speaks these words to Moses. But these words are followed by many other ordinances (see Ex 20:23-26 and Ex 21-23). There is no mention of tablets of stone: instead, Moses writes all of this down (Ex 24:4).
Later in Exodus 24, it is as if the story appears a second time: Moses is called up. This time the trusted elders “beheld God” too (Ex 24:11), but then Moses alone is summoned to the mountain. In this version, the Lord does promise tablets of stone, “with the law and the commandment” (note singular) (Ex 24:12). In this account, Moses disappears into the smoke on the mountain and is gone for 40 days and 40 nights.
But I'll pause here to backtrack slightly and comment on what most surprised me. Among the many ordinances offered in chapters 20-21 is the famous "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage. I had always thought that this passage was a general pronoucement. On a negative reading, it sanctions revenge. On a positive reading, it at least limits revenge.
But let's look at it in context:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex 21:22-25).
For the full effect, imagine the following two scenarios:
Scenario 1: Some men are fighting. A pregnant woman intervenes to try to break up the fight but is accidentally punched in the mouth and loses a tooth. Greatly distressed, she also miscarries. The men, ashamed, stop fighting and tend to her. The husband demands a fine and gets paid.
Scenario 2: Some men are fighting. A pregnant woman intervenes to try to break up the fight but is accidentally punched in the mouth and loses a tooth. Greatly distressed, she also miscarries. Her husband goes into a rage and ends up killing the man who had hit his wife. So the husband is put to death.
In scenario 1, the "tooth for a tooth" rule does not go into effect because there was no subsequent harm done after the miscarriage.
In scenario 2, it is unclear whether anyone would lose a tooth in response to the woman's having had her tooth knocked out prior to her miscarriage, but at any rate, she is now left with absolutely nothing. She's lost a tooth, lost her child, and lost her husband, and there is no mention whatsoever of what should become of her then.
So, it's a very strange passage. It's not a general statement (that anytime someone knocks out another's tooth, they lose their own) -- the other ordinances make this very clear. It seems to be a rule for just this special situation -- a rule intended to stop people from fighting further if a woman miscarries -- and yet it conspicuously leaves out how the woman is to be taken care of after such a tragic event.
Other observations about these ordinances: harm done to slaves is dealt with much less severely than harm done to those who are not slaves. The passages also give insight into how people become slaves: when a man sells his daughter (Ex 21:7) or when someone steals and cannot repay (Ex 22:3). Male slaves are released in the seventh year (Ex 21:2), but can take their wives and children into freedom with them only if they were married before becoming slaves -- if they got married while in service, the master can keep the wife and children when the man is released. If the man refuses to go, he is now held in slavery forever (Ex 21:3-6). Female slaves are never given the opportunity for release (Ex 21:7).
Putting all of this together: when a father sells his daughter into slavery, she becomes a slave for life. But a man who steals, is caught, and cannot repay, goes into slavery for 6 years and then is released.
We'll continue with the 10 Commandments story next time -- the text kind of leaves us hanging here, because other things happen while Moses is gone for 40 days...