In the Spring 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Lee M. Jefferson provided an excellent survey of how the horns of Moses (see Exodus 34:29–30, 35) were reinterpreted over the centuries. Whereas earlier readers, including Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, understood the phrase “the skin of his face was horned” in a positive light, perhaps even exhibiting the presence of God, with the passage of time, many later readers, especially Christians of the later Middle Ages, began to view the horns negatively, often with dire consequences for the Jews who lived within Christendom.
I would like to travel further back in time, to the original setting of Exodus 34. In that context, “horned” should be understood as having actual horns. This curious description relates to one of the main objectives of the Book of Exodus: to present Moses as Pharaoh’s equal.i
First, contrary to everything that the Bible professes—in which no person can achieve divine status—in this instance, Moses is elevated to the level of deity:
“And it will be, he [Aaron] will be to you as a mouth, and you will be to him as a god.”
“Look, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet.”
In my experience, most readers of the Bible have not paused sufficiently to ponder these extraordinary statements. In both verses, Moses is called an elohim (“god”) in the former instance vis-à-vis his brother Aaron and in the latter instance vis-à-vis Pharaoh.
In these two passages, Moses, the prophet par excellence, is elevated to the level of deity, while Aaron, the first high priest, is elevated to the level of prophet. The exigencies of the moment, namely the impending summit with Pharaoh (Exodus 7:10‒12), require that Moses meet with his opposite as equal. And since the pharaoh in Egypt was considered divine, God promotes Moses to the level of deity, for this singular occasion. Indeed, these passages are remarkable, for they indicate the extent to which the biblical author was willing to reflect the Egyptian background of the story. Thus, literary flavor overrides biblical theology.
(Sidebar: Those knowledgeable in military history will wish to compare the process known as “brevet promotion,” often used during the exigencies of war, to allow officers of a certain rank to command even more soldiers, now with their higher status. Famous examples include both George Custer and Joshua Chamberlain during the Civil War.)
Both infants are hidden by their mothers (Isis and Jochebed)ii in papyrus baskets amongst the reeds of the Nile Delta to protect them from the machinations of those who seek the death of the baby (Seth and Pharaoh, respectively). In both stories, an emphasis is placed on the mother of the baby nursing the child. This is stated explicitly in the case of Moses’s mother in Exodus 2:7‒9, while from ancient Egypt there are numerous statuettes of Isis suckling baby Horus.
Most important for our present purpose is the following: Horus is the god of kingship, and Pharaoh was considered the living embodiment of Horus. So whatever story was told about Horus essentially applied to whichever Pharaoh sat upon the throne. Hence, the goal of the birth story of Moses, akin to that of Horus, is to portray the future leader of the Israelites as the equal to Pharaoh.
Most significantly, in crafting the narrative of Exodus 2, the Israelite author has subverted and undermined the core belief of ancient Egypt. As indicated, Moses has become the equivalent of Pharaoh, and Pharaoh, the guarantor of order in Egyptian society, has been transformed into Seth, the deity of chaos and disorder.
Third, in Exodus 4:4 God commands Moses, atop Mt. Horeb, to hold the staff-turned-snake by the tail, an action to be compared with the many portrayals of the young Horus holding snakes (and other animals) by the tail. Once again, so Horus, so Moses, as the latter becomes the equal to the former (and by extension to Pharaoh).
All of the above serves as the foreground for our analysis of qaran ‘or panaw (“the skin of his face was horned”) in Exodus 34:29–30. To be sure, many modern Bible translations render the verb qaran not as “was horned,” but rather as “shone” (RSV, NRSV) or “was radiant” (NIV, NJPSV). The noun qeren, from which the verb is derived, means both “horn” and “ray,” as in the rays of the sun. But the former meaning clearly predominates in the Bible, with only one possible instance of “ray” attested (Habakkuk 3:4). When we look at the verbal forms qaran, etc., we note that in the only other instance of this verb in the Bible, namely, maqren in Psalms 69:32, the meaning is clearly “be horned” (i.e., “have horns”). In fact, not until the middle of the first millennium CE (that is, perhaps 1,500 years after Exodus 34 was written) do we find the Hebrew verb qaran manifesting the meaning of “shine, be radiant.”
Support for understanding Exodus 34:29–30 as “the skin of his face was horned” derives from ancient Egyptian artwork. Two wall reliefs at the Luxor Temple depict two different pharaohs with ram’s horns on the skin of their cheeks—or more accurately, given the Egyptian penchant for profiles, a single ram’s horn on the one visible cheek. Both Amenhotep III (r. 1386–1348 BCE) and Ramesses II (r. 1290–1224 BCE) are portrayed in such fashion, with the ram’s horns no doubt representative of the power of the god Amun, who was associated with the ram in Egyptian iconography.iii
Once again, the Bible wishes to portray Moses as Pharaoh’s equal. Just as the facial skin of Egyptian kings was horned, so was the facial skin of the leader of the people of Israel. So Pharaoh, so Moses. At every turn, the biblical narrative directs the reader to understand Moses as the equal to his Egyptian counterpart—from the birth story in Exodus 2 to the horns in Exodus 34.
We end this essay where we began: Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate. It is hard to imagine that Jerome (c. 345–420 CE) was cognizant of the Egyptian parallels, given the demise of ancient Egyptian civilization during his lifetime. Most likely, the great scholar simply was guided by his fine sense of the Hebrew language. Thus, he rendered qaran ‘or panaw (“the skin of his face was horned”) from Exodus 34:29 quite literally—and to my mind accurately—as cornuta esset facies sua (“his face was horned”), notwithstanding the slight change of “the skin of his face” to the simpler “his face.”
Western Christians throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, including both Michelangelo (1475–1564) and his papal benefactor Julius II (r. 1503–1513), read the Bible in Latin, with the expression cornuta esset facies sua well known to them. And thus, it was only natural for the great sculptor to portray Moses with horns, as an indication of the ancient prophet’s honor and prestige, as the focal point of the tomb of Julius II in the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). Michelangelo was not the first to do so, and he also was not the last.
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I end with a personal note: By sheer coincidence, during the spring of 2023, I actually was in Rome, visiting, among other places, both the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli and the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice to stand before the two famous “Moses” statues, the former by Michelangelo, the latter by Fontana. Imagine my pleasant surprise to return home, to open my copy of the Spring 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and to find the excellent article by Lee M. Jefferson, with the superb photo of the famous Michelangelo sculpture!
Gary Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History at Rutgers University. He has extensively published on the Hebrew language and literature and on Hebrew manuscript studies.
[i] Gary A. Rendsburg, “Moses as Equal to Pharaoh,” in G.M. Beckman and T.J. Lewis, eds., Text, Artifact, and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2006), pp. 201‒219.
[ii] The mother of Moses is not named in Exodus 2, though we learn her name from Exodus 6:20.
[iii] See Lanny Bell, “Luxor Temple and the Cult of the Royal Ka,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44 (1985), pp. 251‒294.
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