Scala/Art Resource, NY

A living story. Pharaoh puts baby Moses to the test in this late-15th-century painting by the Italian painter Giorgione. According to the midrash, Jewish stories written centuries after the Bible to expatiate on biblical stories, when Moses was very young, he reached for Pharaoh’s crown, causing the king and his advisors to mistrust him. A test was devised—a piece of gold and a burning coal were placed in front of Moses. If he reached for the gold, his intentions toward the throne were clear and he would be killed. If he reached instead for the coal, he posed no threat. Guided by the angel Gabriel, Moses shifted his reach from the gold to the coal—burning his hand and then his mouth. Thus he became halting of speech. In the painting, Pharaoh’s daughter holds Moses. The angel is not depicted.

This midrash provides an explanation for Exodus 4:10, in which Moses refuses to be God’s spokesman because he has a speech impediment: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” The tale also serves as a reminder that Exodus is a living story, remembered and reshaped by each generation.