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.

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