Sunday, January 10, 2010

Moshe and the lump of coal

There's a story in Shmos Rabba (with at least two parallels) which explains Moshe's speech impediment. It goes something like this:

Once baby Moshe reached for Pharaoh's crown and put it on his own head. His advisors said, "Ah-ha! This is a sure sign that Moshe will one day dethrone you. Kill him now!" But Yisro intervened, saying the child has no sense yet, and we can prove it by putting before him a platter of gold and a platter of burning coals. If he takes the gold, by all means kill him, but if he takes the coal this is proof he meant nothing when he grabbed at Pharaoh 's crown. Pharaoh did as Yisro recommended, and when Moshe reached for the gold the angel Gabriel intervened and knocked the baby's hand aside. He took the coal instead, put it in his mouth and permanently burned his tongue.

Reasons why this story makes no sense:
(1) What child doesn't reach for sparkling jewels? Why would such an ordinary act alarm the advisors to the point of wanting to execute an infant? (In the Josephus parallel, Pharaoh gives Moshe the crown as a gesture of affection, and Moshe throws it on the floor and stomps on it. This is what alarmed the advisors).
(2) Likewise, why would it prove anything if Moshe were to reach for the gold. Shouldn't that be expected?
(3)  If the coal was hot enough to permanently maim Moshe's tongue, how was he able to hold it in his hand and bring it to his mouth? (In the Armenian parallel Moshe burns his finger with the coal, and burns his tongue with the bunt finger. In Josephus there's no test: After an enraged advisor responds to the attack on the crown by calling for Moshe's death, Pharaoh and his daughter protected him.)

Update: Additional reasons why the story can't be legit history
(1) If this story is a true story, and one that actually happened to Moshe, please explain how it entered our tradition. Moshe was an infant. He couldn't have remembered the story. Did Pharaoh publish it, or tell it over to the Hebrews? And if you say Yisro, Moshe's father-in-law, was a witness, and that he relayed it to the Hebrews at some point, you still haven't solved the problem:
-- (a) Did Yisro see Gavriel? Who added/invented that detail?
-- (b) We only have Yisro identified as an advisor to Pharoah in the later sources. He first appears in that role in Sota, and a coal-story featuring Yisro is first seen in Shmos Rabba, which is a mideival compilation. In the earliest source (Josephus) Pharoh's advisors have no name, and in the slightly later sources (nearly half a dozen) the advisors are called Jannes and Jambres (See Targum Yonatan Exodus 1:16 for one example) So Yisro-saw-it-and-told-us doesn't work as a solution as Yisro isn't identified as an advisor in the first versions of the stories about Pharaoh's court

Solution: According to James Kugel, the error is assuming this story is historically true. Rather, the story was written (and not necessarily by Sages) for a particular purpose, ie, to solve a problem. See below The Bible as it Was by James Kugel pages 295-298 for more.

To correctly understand this famous midrash you really must read those three pages. Nothing of significance is omitted.

Summary for those who ignored the instructions and skipped the embedded text:
In the ancient word it was inconceivable that a leader, such as Moshe, would not be skilled at rhetoric. Therefore the ancient interpreters needed to explain Exodus 4:10 "I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue" in a way that made it clear that Moshe suffered from a deformity, and not from a poor education. The development, over time, of the famous story about the platter of coal was part of the solution. (Update: The Josephus account, which is the oldest of the three cited by Kugel, does not mention the coal. Kugel (in note 6) speculates Josephus left it out)

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