Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Still, Small Voice

(This piece, with slight alterations, was originally written for the D'var Torah series, a weekly series of meditation and commentaries on the Jewish Scriptures posted by the Elders of Zion, a group on the Daily Kos website.)
I never liked gym class in high school.  I was never very good at it.  About the only sport I cared for much was volleyball.  I did okay in volleyball.  But there was one thing about it I found frustrating.  Whenever I made what I thought was a good return, I never had time to pat myself on the back for it.  I knew that within seconds the ball would come back and I'd have to be ready for it.  No one would remember the great save I made if the ball came back to me and I botched it.
It seemed to me that this was a metaphor for life.
Perhaps Elijah could have empathized with me.  
For a brief, shining moment, Elijah was on top of the world.  At the Lord's command, he had gone to King Ahab to challenge the Prophets of Baal.  Elijah and the Prophets of Baal met on Mount Carmel to have a Prophet-off:  both would build altars to their respective deities, and whichever prophet's prayers were answered would be the winner.
You probably know the story.  Four hundred priests of Baal danced around their altar, praying and imploring their god to answer them, while Elijah mocked them.  "Shout louder!  Maybe he's taking a nap, or out to lunch!  Maybe he's in the john!"
Elijah built his altar with twelve stones, one for each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  When it came his turn, he commanded that the altar be drenched three times with four large jugs of water.   Then he prayed.  And the fire came.
The Fire of the Lord came down from Heaven and burnt up the offering, and boiled away all the water that had been poured on it.  And everyone knew who was God in Israel.  Elijah slew the Prophets of Baal.  And then, to punctuate the miracle, the Lord sent rain.  For seven long years the land had suffered under a drought as the Lord withheld the rains; but now the heavens opened up and Elijah, laughing Elijah, told Ahab to hurry home if he wanted to avoid a drenching.
It was a spectacular demonstration of the Lord's power and a vindication of Elijah seven years of ministry and exile.
But that was yesterday.
1 Kings Chapter 19 picks up as Elijah is running ahead of Ahab's chariot, caught up in a divine adrenaline rush.  It was what Christians like to call a "Mountaintop Experience", after the story of the Transfiguration; (which, come to think of it, also involved Elijah).  At one point in that story, the Disciple Peter said, "Wow, this is so cool.  Maybe we should, I dunno, build three tents up here and just stay here." (Mark 9:5, Revised Wilcken Version).
Ah, but the problem with having an experience on a Mountaintop is that eventually you have to come back down to earth; and this is what happens to Elijah.
Ahab is still King in Israel.  More important, his wife Jezebel is still Queen, and she is majorly cheesed.  Despite the tremendous victory on Mount Caramel, nothing has significantly changed in Israel.  Expect that Jezebel is more determined than ever to kill Elijah.
So Elijah flees, south to Beersheba in Judah; and from there he ventures out into the desert.  He travels until he comes to a broom tree, and there he falls in a heap.  All he wants to do is crawl under a rock and die.  "I have had enough, Lord.  Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." (1 Kings 19:4)
He doesn't die.  An angel shows up an feeds him, and nags him until he gets up and continues on his journey.  He travels for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness his ancestors traveled for forty years.  I wonder if during that trek his words to the Prophets of Baal came back to to him.  "Shout louder!  Maybe your god can't hear you!  Maybe he's asleep!"  It certainly must have seemed to him like God was out to lunch.
Elijah finally ends up on Horeb, the Mountain of God; the place where the Lord spoke to Moses.  And there, finally, he hears the Lord speak to him.  "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
"I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected you covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."  (1 Kings 19:10)  What he doesn't say, but is implicit in his complaint is, "AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT???"
The Lord doesn't answer right away.  He tells Elijah to stand outside on the mountainside, because He's going to pass by.  And as Elijah watches and waits, a tremendous windstorm whips the mountains, strong enough to rip apart the very rocks; and it's followed by an earthquake, and then a raging fire; like the miracle on Mount Carmel, awe-inspiring demonstrations of divine power.
Elijah realizes that he does not sense the Lord's presence in these calamities.  They're just a lot of special effects, "Full of sound and fury, signifiying nothing," as the fellow said.
Then comes the voice; the still, small voice; the gentle whisper that he might almost miss.  It tells him that the Lord has not forgotten him.  He will deal with His enemies in His own way, not with flashy cosmic destruction, but through earthly means.  And he tells Elijah that there are seven thousand in Israel whose knees have not bowed down to Baal.  Elijah is not the only one left; he is not alone.
We want signs and wonders.  We want St. Michael to descend with a flaming sword and dispatch the Enemies of Righteousness.  We want the Lord to Smite the Wicked.  But more often the Lord works through humbler means, like you and me.  And rarely does He command us to do any smiting; more often he calls on us to build, to heal; and to cultivate leaders who will do His will, which is what Elijah is called to do.
And if it looks like God isn't doing anything, maybe what he's doing lies just on the periphery of our senses and we aren't paying enough attention.  And maybe He's not performing miracles because He wants us to have the chance to do things ourselves.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Conservation of Marys

Personally I blame Pope Gregory the Great. 

Don’t get me wrong; Gregory did some remarkable things during his papacy.  He was a prolific writer and made important contributions to the Catholic liturgy, including, it is said, inventing the Gregorian chant.  He sent St. Augustine (the other one) to Britain as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons.  John Calvin, not an easy man to impress, called him “the last good pope”.  On top of that, Gregory was an able punster; a rare quality in pontiffs.  But against his notable accomplishments, there is one I have to question.  He was the one who decided that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute; an accusation which has hung on her ever since.

Why would Gregory want to malign this woman, whom some have called “the apostle to the Apostles”?  What did she ever do to him?

The answer is complicated and has a bit to do with what I call the Conservation of Marys.

There are several Marys mentioned in the Gospels, most of them popping in and out of the Passion and the Resurrection narratives.  There’s Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James; I guess the name was popular then; almost as popular as it later became among Catholics.  And, as George M. Cohan once observed, It’s A Grand Old Name.

Still, the plethora of Marys can get confusing.  I once wrote a puppet play for our church’s Sunday School about the Resurrection story and I found it challenging to deal with all the Marys running around; so I can understand the impulse to combine some of them into a kind of Marian Composite.

But who is Mary Magdalene?

She is mentioned in Luke chapter 8 as one of a number of women who had been healed by Jesus and who helped support his ministry by their own means.  Luke says that she is called Magdalene; which most interpreters have assumed means that she came from Magdala, a large town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee; and that she had been afflicted by several demons.

People tend to forget about these women, except when they turn up again in the Resurrection account; but woman had a greater role in the early Christian Church than a lot of us realize.  The first Christian convert in Macedonia was an independent businesswoman named Lydia.  Priscilla and her husband Aquila were close friends of Paul’s who worked with him in Corinth and then later in Rome.  The personal greetings in Paul’s epistles suggest that women were key organizers in the congregations he founded.  And Luke’s mention here of Mary Magdalene and these other women show that this was true for Jesus’ ministry as well.

Mary Magdalene was one of the women present at the foot of the cross when Christ was crucified and when his other disciples were in hiding.  She was also among those who went to his tomb the following Sunday to finish the funerary preparations they didn't have time to complete before the Sabbath.  Mary was the first to see the Risen Lord, and returned to tell the Disciples, which is why she has been called “the apostle to the Apostles.”

The story told in John 20:10-18 of how she encounters the Risen Christ in the garden and at first mistakes him for a gardener is a touching and familiar one; but it also provides storytellers with something the Gospels otherwise lack:  a Love Interest.

The sorrow Mary felt upon the death of Jesus, the way he made a special trip to reassure her, and particularly the enthusiastic glomp she gave him when she discovered he was alive, have all led many readers to suspect that Jesus and Mary were particularly close.  All right; I’ll come out and say it.  They suggest that Mary Magdalene was the Girlfriend of Christ.

A lot of people would find that sort of blasphemous; and I have to admit that the idea of Jesus boinking one of his groupies doesn't really fit with how I envision the Pure and Sinless Son of God.  Then again, we are also taught that Christ became incarnate as True Man, meaning that he was subject to the same joys and sorrows, the same temptations and the same experiences as ordinary folks.  By that reasoning it’s not that implausible – in fact it’s quite likely – that Jesus might have been in love at some point in his life as well.  And either way, I hardly find it heretical to suppose, as many dramatists have, that Mary might have been in love with him.

Some have taken it even farther, speculating that Jesus and Mary were married in Milwaukee, secretly, and ran off to Gaul; but that this fact has been suppressed, first by patriarchal Church Fathers wishing to downplay Mary’s role in Jesus’ ministry, and later by a Bourbon conspiracy in order to deny that her children by Jesus are the Rightful Rulers of France.  The former might be somewhat plausible; the latter, not so much.

Personally, I've sometimes entertained the notion that Mary was carrying on a romance on the side, but that she was really fooling around with the Disciple John.  But I don’t think even Dan Brown would buy that idea.

The Resurrection account is the last mention we have of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels.  But wait, you perhaps are thinking; wasn't there a story about her and her sister Martha?  And the Raising of Lazarus?  And there was hair involved somewhere, right?

Now we get to the Second Mary in our composite.

In Luke chapter 10 we find the familiar story of Mary and Martha, two sisters living in the town of Bethany, who were friends of Jesus.  One time while Jesus is visiting them, Martha becomes annoyed with her sister because Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus teach instead of helping her with the housework.  Jesus tells Martha to cut her sister some slack:

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  (Luke 10:41-42 NIV)

I suspect that Jesus might have been thinking of the time he got chewed out by his family because he got so caught up in listening to the learned rabbis discussing Scriptures in the Temple that he stayed there for three days.

Mary and Martha appear again in John chapter 11 when they summon Jesus because their brother Lazarus is deathly ill.  By the time Jesus gets there, Lazarus has already died; but Jesus raises Lazarus from death.

Shortly after the Lazarus incident, Jesus is again visiting the family.  Mary takes a container of nard, an expensive perfume, and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet, then wiping them off with her hair.

Judas disapproves of this display of devotion, grumbling that the perfume would be better used if it were sold and the proceeds given to the poor.  John didn't like Judas and never misses an opportunity to remind the reader what a jerk he was.  Jesus replies with one of the more misused quotations from the Gospels:  “The poor you have always with you.” (John 12:8 KJV).

This verse is sometimes used to deride secular attempts to fight poverty, but in its context I don’t see Jesus saying that at all.  He recognizes that Mary has done this out of devotion to honor him and that her sincere act of love deserves no rebuke.

Mary of Bethany is not mentioned as one of the women at the cross; that is, unless she is also Mary Magdalene.  But is she?

Well, both women are named Mary.  It’s an obvious point, but I might as well make it.  And both women seem to have dearly loved Jesus.  And Jesus seems to display a certain amount of affection to them both.  So why shouldn't we combine the two?  It would make the cast of characters a little less confusing.  And Mary Beth is so cute; she’s like the Kitty Pryde of Jesus’ followers.  The Mary Beth who anointed Jesus’ feet would fit so well in the story of Mary Mags in the Garden.

I might be willing to buy it, if not for that Luke 8 passage.  Luke is the one, remember, who introduces us to Mary Magdalene.  Then a couple chapters later he tells about Mary and Martha.  If the two Marys were the same woman, wouldn't Luke have told us so?

But let’s waive that point.  By his own admission, the author of Luke got his material second-hand; perhaps he got the story of the Mary with the Seven Demons and one of the Mary with the Bossy Sister from two different sources and didn't realize the two women were the same person.

More significantly, as I read it, the Mary Magdalene described in Luke 8 is an independent woman with her own income, or at least a sizeable nest egg, who can afford to help support Jesus’ ministry and who can accompany his other followers.  The Mary of Bethany described in Luke 10 is a stay-at-home, the dependent younger sister of an older, more responsible sibling.  I don’t see the two portraits matching.

But why would Pope Gregory think that either Mary Beth or Mary Mags was a harlot?  Especially since Mary Beth seems like such a nice girl.

If she was such a nice girl, then where did she get the money for that perfume?  A pint of nard doesn't come cheap.  And nice girls keep their heads covered.  And for that matter, where did Mary Magdalene get her money?  We tend to get the impression that women didn't own property back in Bible times, they were property; so if Mary Mags had that much disposable income, it must have come from someplace disreputable, right?

Well… maybe not.  I don’t think that society in First Century Judea was quite that rigid, even if perhaps some of the more conservative element wished it were.  She could have been like Susanna, another woman mentioned in Luke 8, who was a member of an affluent household; or she could have been a single woman, widowed or otherwise, who was able to run her own business, like Lydia of Philippi.

Another more subtle point is that perhaps Gregory found the Marys’ affectionate attitude towards Jesus suspect.  The Church has a long tradition of looking with disapproval at anything remotely hinting of sex.  I’d like to blame St. Augustine (of Hippo, not of Canterbury) for this, but some of it can be found in Paul’s epistle as well. 

My Dad was once pastor in a small town that was equally divided between German Lutherans and Polish Catholics.  The previous Lutheran minister, who had served for something like twenty years, had been a life-long bachelor, so a lot of people in town regarded the idea of a Pastor’s Wife as something unusual, and my Mom always got the impression that some of her Catholic neighbors regarded her as a Scarlet Woman somehow for marrying a man of the cloth.

Likewise, I can imagine Gregory feeling uncomfortable with the public displays of affection both Marys show to the Son of God.  But perhaps I’m reading too much in here.

More significant is the story of the Anointing.  There is a parallel account of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus in the other three Gospels.

The accounts in Mark (Mark 14:3-9) and Matthew (Matt 26:6-14) are pretty similar to the story John tells, except that the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed and the incident is said to take place at the home of a guy named Simon the Leper.  (Was that another name Lazarus went by?  Although in one of Jesus’ other parables he gives the name Lazarus to a fictitious leper).  Luke, however, tells the story differently.

Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.  When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town leaned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears.  Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.  (Luke 7:36-38 NIV)

The Pharisee, whose name is also Simon, looks at this scene with disapproval and mutters to himself that if this Jesus was as hot a prophet as he was made out to be, he’d know what kind of woman was fondling his feet.

Jesus hears his muttering and responds with a mini-parable; and then goes on to add:

“Do you see this woman?  I came into your house.  You did not give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”  (Luke 7:44-47)

When we get multiple parallel stories like this in the Bible, there are a couple ways we can treat them.  One is to assume that they are separate events that just happened to be similar in some ways to each other; the other is to assume that they are accounts of the same events and chalk any discrepancies to a different writer telling the story from a different point of view and emphasizing different elements.

This latter view is how Gregory chose to interpret the stories of the Sinful Woman and of Mary at Bethany.  And so we have the following chain of reasoning:

Mary Magdalene = Mary of Bethany 
Mary of Bethany = the Sinful Woman of Luke chapter 7 
Mary Magdalene = a Whore 

And people say that the Church has no place for Reason.

But as logical as Gregory’s argument looks when lined up in syllogistic form like that, I still don’t buy it.  For one thing, it depends on identifying Mary Mags with Mary Beth; and as I said before, I think there’s good reason to doubt it.  Neither do I think we have to identify the woman of Luke with the story in John.

Luke places his story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; and the Anointing at Bethany takes place nearly at the end.  Luke sets the story at the home of sanctimonious Pharisee; John has Jesus visiting friends.  The one story emphasizes the woman’s sorrow and her sinful past; in the other, Mary is simply performing an act of love.

None of these arguments, I’ll admit, are conclusive; and the other accounts in Matthew and Mark don’t really clarify things.  They name the host Simon, which links their version to Luke’s story; but they also place the incident in Bethany and include the criticism about wasting the perfume when it could be donated to the poor, which links it to John’s version.  And isn't it too much of a coincidence that the same thing would happen on two separate occasions?

Not necessarily.  Remember, this was a time when everyone wore sandals and traveled by foot on dusty roads.  It was customary for hosts to have a servant wash the feet of guests as they entered their home, or to at least provide water and a towel for that purpose.  Jesus alludes to this in the Luke account; and he uses the custom to make a point later in John chapter 13 when he washes the feet of his disciples.

It’s not surprising that Mary Beth, the youngest member of her household, would have been the one to wash the guests’ feet and might have wanted to do something special for Jesus.  It’s even possible that she had heard of the previous incident and used the perfume in imitation of the other woman’s gift.

And even if Mary of Bethany was the Sinning Woman of Luke 7, neither one of them was Mary Magdalene.

Nevertheless, thanks to Gregory, for something like fifteen hundred years Mary has been regarded as a prostitute and the term “Magdalene” synonymous with “whore”.  It was only in 1969 that the Vatican officially separated the three women comprising the Composite Mary.

I guess I’m of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I hardly think it fair that Mary Magdalene be tarnished with a reputation she doesn't deserve.

On the other hand, Jesus taught and ministered to and associated with all sorts of outcasts and sinners whom the Gospels never named:  the Sinning Woman of Luke 7; the Samaritan Woman at the Well; the Afflicted Woman who touched his garment; the Canaanite Woman with the sick daughter.

With his identification, whether right or wrong, Gregory gave a name to these women, upon whom Jesus shared his love and compassion.  I suppose that is worth something.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Abigail and Her Really Stupid Husband

Nabal was a wealthy property owner living near Carmel during the reign of King Saul.  He owned substantial flocks of sheep and goats as was married to a beautiful and intelligent wife named Abigail.  Nabal was a bad-tempered man and mean in his dealings.  Perhaps it was his name that made him so grouchy; “Nabal” in Hebrew means “fool”; and undoubtedly he was often mocked behind his back.

At this time David and his men were encamped in the Desert of Maron (or Paran, in some manuscripts) near Nabal’s lands.  This was during the time when David was a fugitive, on the run from King Saul.  Although Saul was not actively pursuing him at the moment, David was still keeping out of Saul’s way.

David heard that Nabal was shearing sheep.  Shearing season is usually a festival time for shepherding folk, as David would known from his own boyhood.  So he sent some of his men to Nabal with this message:

“Long life to you!  Good health to you and your household!  And good health to all that is yours! 
Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time.  When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing.  Ask your own servants and they will tell you.  Therefore, be favorable towards my young men, since we come at a festive time.  Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.  (1 Samuel 25:6-8)

Nabal answers scornfully.  “Who is this David?  Who is this son of Jesse?  Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days.”  (v.10)

Nabal might have had reason to suspect David.  After all, what did he know about him?  David was an outlaw who had left the King’s service under a cloud.  And how did David support himself and his men during his years of exile?  The text is vague on this subject, but many in his position would have turned to raiding and banditry.  That’s probably why David emphasizes in his message that he and his men have stolen nothing from Nabal‘s men, that in fact they have protected Nabal‘s flocks; and that Nabal’s own men will vouch for his honesty.  Still, an uncharitable mind might interpret David’s protection as nothing more than an extortion racket; and charity does not seem to have been one of Nabal’s virtues.

Nevertheless, whether David was a bandit or a benefactor, he did command a small army, and insulting him as Nabal did was a remarkably boneheaded move.

One of Nabal’s servants went to Abigail and told her about her husband’s adventures in diplomacy, emphasizing that David and his men had always treated the shepherds well and deserved none of his master’s abuse.  “Disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household,” the servant warns.

He is right to be worried.  We like to think of David as compassionate and forgiving; and in some cases he was:  he respected King Saul and deeply loved his son Absalom, despite the wrongs both did him.  But in other cases we see that David had a temper; and that, although he would often forgive, he would rarely forget.  Upon hearing Nabal’s insulting response, David gathers his army together to teach the jerk a lesson.

Abigail, however, takes action immediately.  She gathers up enough bread, wine, dressed sheep and other foodstuffs to cater a small army, which is exactly what she intends to do, and has them packed up on donkeys and sent to David’s camp, following close behind.  She does not tell Nabal what she is doing.

She meets up with David just as he is telling his men, “It’s been useless -- all my watching over this fellows property in the desert so that nothing was missing.  He has paid me back evil for good.  May God deal with David ever so severely if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!”  (v. 21-22)  This oath, “May God deal with me ever so severely...” is one which appears frequently in the Books of Samuel, and shows he means business.

Abigail goes to David and asks his clemency.  “Do not pay attention to him,” she says of her husband, “As his name says, he is a fool”  (v. 25).  She begs David not to stain his own honor and reputation with an act of bloodthirsty vengeance.

David is moved by her plea, (and no doubt also by the gifts of food), and calls off the raid.

When Abigail comes home, she does not tell her husband about what she did right away.  It’s festival time, remember, and Nabal is busy partying.  She waits until the next day, when he’s sober.  Nabal does not take the news well.  “His heart failed him and he became like a stone,” the NIV says.  (v. 37)  “...his heart died within him” is how the King James Version puts it.

Various commentators have interpreted this to mean he suffered an apoplexy or a stroke.  Some have suggested that he was stricken with terror when he realized how closely he came to being slaughtered by David’s vengeance.  Another possibility, and given what we've seen of Nabal’s personality, I think it the more likely one, is that Nabal was furious that his wife had gone behind his back and given away his stuff in defiance of his express wishes.  He grew so enraged that he worked himself into an aneurysm.

However it was, ten days later Nabal dies.

David hears about Nabal’s death and offers to take Abigail as a wife, and she agrees.  Under the culture of the time, she has no rights to her late husband’s property.  The best she can hope for is to find a new husband.  Whether David gained any claim to Nabal’s lands and livestock by marrying Abigail, I’m not sure, but he was impressed by the wisdom she showed and grateful to her for preventing him from rashly attacking.  David already had one wife, Ahinoam of Jezreel; (one-and-a-half, if you count Michal, the daughter of Saul, whom Saul had given him and then taken away again), but polygamy was still accepted at this time.

I would like to think that Abigail proved a wise and prudent wife and that her advice became valuable to David.  Unfortunately, she falls out of the narrative.  She is mentioned a couple of times later, but only as one of David’s wives, and we hear nothing about her once he becomes king.

She deserved a happy ending; and she certainly deserved better than the fool she was married to.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Moses's Horns

“You’re a preacher’s kid, maybe you can answer this,” my high school art teacher said; “Why does Moses have horns?”

“Moses has horns?” I said.

He showed me a picture in the encyclopedia of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli.  Sure enough, it looked like he had horns.  “Maybe those are supposed to be locks of his hair,” I suggested, but I didn't really believe it.

“They’re horns,” Mr. Schmidt said.

So I asked my Dad, who was a Lutheran minister, about it.  Dad said, “Moses has horns?”

On thinking it over, he guessed that it was a mistranslation from the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, confusing the Latin word for “beams” with the one for “horns.”

I found out later that his guess was mostly right; but there was more to it than that.

Exodus 34:29-35 tells how when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after speaking with God, his face was transformed in a manner which frightened the Israelites so much that he was forced to wear a veil. How was his face transformed? Interesting question.

Most translations of the Bible say something like "the skin of his face shone" (KJV), or "his face was radiant" (NIV). A more literal translation would be "the skin of his face sent forth beams". The thing is, the key word in the Hebrew phrase: qâran ‘ôr pânâw can be translated either as "rays of light" or as "horns". In the context, "rays of light" or "beams" makes more sense, and that is how it was translated in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures composed in the First Century BC. But every where else the word qâran appears in the Bible, it means "horns".

(Which, to be fair, would also have freaked out the Israelites).

When Jerome, the medieval scholar responsible for the Vulgate translation of the Bible which was used for most of the Middle Ages, translated this passage, he chose a wording which kept this ambiguity,.  Whether by coincidence or by design, the Latin word he used could be translated either way. Jerome has a lot to answer for.

Jerome’s translation led to an artistic tradition in the Middle Ages  of depicting Moses with horns that lasted well into the Renaissance . You can see it in the statue by Michelangelo that Mr. Schmidt showed me.  In the 20th Century, the Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagal combined the two interpretations in his paintings of Biblical themes; his Moses had two rays like the beams of headlights coming out of his forehead and looking much like horns.

This tradition about Moses also led to a peculiar superstition that all Jews had horns, which lasted well beyond the Middle Ages.  There’s a klezmer band which references it; they call themselves -- what else? -- “Jews With Horns”.

But one of the sources I came across while researching this story makes an interesting point.  Moses was not transformed the first time he ascended Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law.  It happened the second time, when he went up the mountain in order to plead with God to show mercy on His people.  It was not when he acted as the Lawgiver that Moses reflected God’s Glory, but rather when he acted as Intercessor.

Something to keep in mind whenever we're tempted to toot our own horns.