First Person: Should Israel Return the Tablets of the Law to Egypt?

Cultural Heritage: A Hypothetical Case Study


Hershel Shanks’s First Person as it appeared in the September/October 2012 Issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

In 1969, barely two years after the 1967 Six-Day War, a team of Israeli archaeologists made an exploratory excavation at the base of one of the numerous sites in the Sinai Peninsula proposed as Biblical Mt. Sinai. It was not long before a member of the team exposed a piece of rock with a single Hebrew letter on it. This naturally led to more intensive excavation in this area, as a result of which additional, larger pieces of inscribed stones were recovered. They were taken to Israel for further study.

When examined by paleographers, experts in dating inscriptions by the shape and form of the letters, they were in agreement that this inscription dated to about 1200 B.C.E.

Gradually, the pieces of stone were fitted together. In the end, a few pieces from the end and on the side were missing, but they did not appear to have contained letters. What could be read was clear. Word for word, the inscription was identical to the text of the Ten Commandments. This text appears in the Bible twice, once in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5. There are some differences, but the most important is in the Fourth Commandment’s reasons for the observance of the Sabbath. Surprisingly, the text on the reconstructed stone tablets from Sinai follows Deuteronomy more closely than Exodus.

It was difficult for the scholars to resist the obvious conclusion: These were the original Tablets of the Law that Moses destroyed when he came down from the mountain and found the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. The scholars agreed that, all things considered, it was best to keep the discovery secret, at least for the time being. The tablets as reconstructed were placed in the university vault and forgotten.

Since the Arab Spring and the revolution in Egypt, the new Egyptian government has learned of this archaeological discovery and made a formal demand for the return to Egypt of the two Tablets of the Law, claiming that they were recovered in territory under the sovereignty of Egypt. There can be no doubt is where they were found. Is Israel obligated to return them under international law if found in an excavation in the Sinai?

In law school this is called a hypothetical; that is, a hypothetical case that tests the application of a legal rule. In this instance: Would Israel be obligated to turn over to Egypt the original Tablets of the Law if they had been discovered in Sinai?

The rule generally recognized (like many rules of international law, it has not been formally “enacted” or enunciated in haec verba) is that archaeological objects, especially recently recovered objects, belong to the nation with sovereignty over the place where the object was found unless it was removed legally.

Often this makes sense. Sometimes, it doesn’t.a This hypothetical case would surely be one of them.

While the nation where the object was found certainly has some claim to the object, so does the culture that produced it.

This is especially so where a modern nation has no cultural connection to the culture/nation that ruled the area when the object was created. In this case, modern Egypt occupies largely the same space occupied by ancient Egypt, but it has no cultural relationship to ancient Egypt. Egyptians don’t speak the same language (ancient Egyptians spoke Egyptian; most modern Egyptians speak Arabic), they don’t use the same writing system (hieroglyphic vs. the Arabic alphabet), don’t worship the same gods, don’t revere the same texts, and there is no resonance of ancient Egyptian culture in modern Egyptian culture. The opposite, of course, is true of Israel.

If the outcome of this case is not clear, at least it should be discussed. As far as I can tell, it is not. The only cases that are discussed involve demands by Egypt, Greece, Italy, Turkey and perhaps a few other countries for the return of objects from Western, mostly American, museums and universities.

The “culture” element may well come up in contexts other than our hypothetical. The caves near Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found lie just within the West Bank. The Palestinians claim the scrolls as part of their heritage. (So does Jordan, which claimed this area when the scrolls were found.) Indeed, much of Israel today occupies ancient Philistia, rather than ancient Israel. Much of Biblical Israel lies in the West Bank.

Other questions involve not what Israel has that others could claim but what Israel could claim from others. For instance, the Gezer Calendar, which is a contender for the oldest Hebrew inscription,b was found in the early 20th century at Tel Gezer, a site that lies about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This treasure can be seen only in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The famous Siloam Inscription found in Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem was also discovered under Ottoman control and taken to Constantinople; it, too, now resides in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Long ago, I pleaded with the Turkish government to return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem.c I did not even get a response. The inscription’s importance to Turkey is reflected in the fact that at that time the inscription was not displayed in a public gallery. Later, I urged the Turkish embassy to consider a short-term loan in connection with the observance of Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary in 1996. Same response—no response.

Ironically enough, as I write, the Turkish government has refused to lend objects to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London unless they return disputed artifacts. Adding irony to irony, some of the objects Turkey refused to lend the Met were excavated in Saudi Arabia and were taken to Turkey in Ottoman times.1

I confess it is hard to imagine Israel’s giving up the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine the Jordanians giving up one of the most important and intriguing of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is exhibited in the Amman archaeological museum—the Copper Scroll, which probably records the location of hidden treasures from the Jerusalem Temple.

There are no easy answers to these questions.




1. Owen Matthews, “Turkey’s Archaeology Blackmail,” The Daily Beast (blog), Newsweek, April 9, 2012,

a. See Rachel Hallote, Archaeological Views: “A Case Against the Repatriation of Archaeological Artifacts,” BAR 37:03.

b. See Christopher A. Rollston, “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” BAR 38:03.

c. See Hershel Shanks, “Please Return the Siloam Inscription to Jerusalem,” BAR 17:03.



Reference for this article
Shanks, Hershel. “First Person: Should Israel Return the Tablets of the Law to Egypt?.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep/Oct 2012, 4, 63.

Posted in Artifacts and the Bible, Cultural Heritage.

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  • lynn says

    the REAL Mt Sinai is in Saudia Arabia and Bible says YHUH wrote on TWO Tablets, not one, and Moshe lived @ 1500 bce, right? Who would think to pick up shards of broken stone and carry them for the rest of their lives, anyway; to discover in jerusalem sometime after a 6-day war? Ruacxh gives us Truth; man, maybe not.
    see this link for many videos re: the REAL Mt Sinai:

  • Daniel says

    Daniel prayed 3 times a day. I’m sure daniel would NOT fall prostrate to worship a giant HELLRAISER cube box thing that supposedly came from above. This Daniel needs not fall prostrate to pray and he sure doesn’t do it so everyone can see. I hate when people take the Holy Bible and mix it with there cheap knock off book. To fall prostrate and kiss the ground would be like israel denying God for an idol in the old testament.For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.Deuteronomy 4:24 …5
    When the king asked him, “Why do you not worship Bel?” Daniel replied, “Because I do not revere idols made with hands, but only the living God who made heaven and earth and has dominion over all flesh.”
    Then the king continued, “You do not think Bel is a living god? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?”
    Daniel began to laugh. “Do not be deceived, O king,” he said; “it is only clay inside and bronze outside; it has never eaten or drunk anything.”
    Daniel, Chapter 14

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