This and the many other legends in Louis Ginzberg's classic work Legends of the Bible were culled from a vast literature, scattered over many countries and centuries; his sources ranged from the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, to compendia of legends compiled from the third century late into the Middle Ages, to the new harvest of folk tales and legends of the Bible which grew up in the eighteenth century during the period of religious revival in Eastern Europe.[*]

When Moses was in his third year, Pharaoh was dining one day with the queen Alfar'anit at his right hand, his daughter Biti'ah with the infant Moses upon her lap at his left, and Balaam the son of Beor together with his two sons and all the princes of the realm sitting at the table in the king's presence. It happened that the infant took the crown from off the king's head, and placed it on his own. When the king and princes saw this, they were terrified, and each one in turn expressed his astonishment. The king said to the princes, "What speak you, and what say you, O ye princes, on this matter, and what is to be done to this Hebrew boy on account of this act?"

Balaam spoke, saying: "Remember now, O my lord and king, the dream which you dreamt many days ago, and how your servant interpreted it for you. Now this is a child of the Hebrew in whom is the spirit of God. Let not my lord the king imagine in his heart that being a child he did the thing without knowledge. For he is a Hebrew boy, and wisdom and understanding are with him, although he is yet a child, and with wisdom has he done this, and chosen unto himself the kingdom of Egypt. For this is the manner of all the Hebrews, to deceive kings and their magnates, to do all things cunningly in order to make the kings of the earth and their men to stumble.

"Now therefore, my lord king, behold, this child has risen up in their stead in Egypt, to do according to their deeds and make sport of every man, be he king, prince or judge. If it please the king, let us now spill his blood upon the ground, lest he grow up and snatch the government from your hand, and the hope of Egypt be cut off after he reigns. Let us moreover, call for all the judges and the wise men of Egypt, that we may know whether the judgment of death be due to this child, as I have said, and then we will slay him.

Pharaoh sent and called for all the wise men of Egypt, and they came, and the angel Gabriel was disguised as one of them. When they were asked their opinion in the matter, Gabriel spoke up and said: "If it please the king, let him place an onyx stone before the child, and a coal of fire, and if he stretches out his hand and grasps the onyx stone, then shall we know that the child has done with wisdom all that he has done, and we will slay him. But if he stretches out his hand and grasps the coal of fire, then shall we know that it was not with consciousness that he did the thing, and he shall live."

The counsel seemed good in the eyes of the king, and when they had placed the stone and the coal before the child, Moses stretched forth his hand toward the onyx stone and attempted to seize it, but the angel Gabriel guided his hand away from it and placed it upon the live coal, and the coal burnt the child's hand, and he lifted it up and touched it to his mouth, and burnt part of his lips and part of his tongue, and for all his life he became slow of speech and of a slow tongue.

Seeing this, the king and the princes knew that Moses had not acted with knowledge in taking the crown from off the king's head, and they refrained from slaying him. God Himself, who protected Moses, turned the king's mind to grace, and his foster-mother snatched him away, and she had him educated with great care, so that the Hebrews depended upon him and cherished the hope that great things would be done by him.


[*] When Louis Ginzberg died in 1953, he was recognized as the world's upstanding scholar in the field of Talmudic learning. His studies were carried on at the universities of Berlin, Strassburg and Heidelberg, and since 1902 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he served with distinction as Professor of Talmud for more than half a century. The Legend of the Jews, a massive seven-volume work with notes, written in German, and translated into some forty languages, was originally published for scholars (the first volume was published in 1909). This selection from a shorter and simpler edition, published by Jewish Publication Society in 1975. [Back]


Sources: Exodus 2:10; Sefer Yashar Shemot 131b-132b; Divre ha-Yamim le'Moshe Rabbeinu (ed. Jellinek II), 1-4; Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:26; English language sources: Louis Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews II, 272-276.

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