Scala/Art Resource, NY

Moses, the father of prophecy. The leader of the Israelites made a career of pleading with God to spare his people from divine retribution. In this late-15th-century fresco by Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel, Moses’ life is told in a series of scenes, beginning at top center with the kneeling prophet receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. While Moses is atop the mountain, God reveals that the people have made a golden calf to worship (center right) and announces that he intends to destroy them. Moses stands up for the people, though: Like a defense attorney he argues that God’s vengeance upon his people would be a breach of contract, going back on his earlier covenant with the patriarchs. God needs to keep his side of the bargain, Moses argues: “Why, O Lord, should you be angry at your people, whom you have taken out of the land of Egypt?” (Exodus 32:11). Like a savvy spin-doctor, Moses adds that it will only hurt God’s reputation to smite the very people whom he had earlier said he loved.

After Moses successfully stays God’s wrath on Mt. Sinai, the prophet takes the vengeful role upon himself, becoming judge, jury and hangman: Moses descends the mountain and smashes the Tablets of the Law in anger (center), and then leads his supporters to slaughter 3,000 of their fellow Israelites in retaliation for the sin they have committed. Later, Moses returns to Mt. Sinai and descends bearing new tablets (far left); the people, cowed by his earlier wrath, avert their faces from his shining countenance.