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Horny Jew: What’s the deal with Michelangelo’s Moses?

September 7, 2009 – 12:27 pm32 Comments

michelangelo_moses1By Simon Holloway

Almost everybody who has been to Italy has seen it and those who haven’t, should. Sitting within a small church on one of Rome’s seven hills, the tomb of Pope Julius II sports a larger-than-life statue by the renowned sculptor, Michelangelo. The august proto-prophet sits nobly, a cloak draped over one knee and the two tablets of the law in his right hand. His head is turned thoughtfully to one side and, thanks to Michelangelo’s uncanny ability to coax fluidity from stone, Moses’ beard flows elegantly from his chin. Oh yes: and he has horns.

Many people have commented in the past upon this cornual indiscretion, and two suggestions have been raised. The first, and I am pleased to say the least popular, is that it constitutes an antisemitic slur. There is an old expression: “Speak of the devil and he will appear“. Wikipedia lists a variety of variations on this expression, from a total of 30 languages (including English). In Italian alone, the expression becomes “Speak of the devil and his horns will appear”. Is it a reference to Jews? Was Michelangelo equating Moses with Satan? I doubt it, but those who would prefer to believe that could certainly have some fun with the evidence in its favour.

In reality, the more compelling of the two explanations is simply that it’s a sloppy translation. Not Michelangelo’s sloppiness of course, but the sloppiness of St. Jerome, who translated the Pentateuch into Latin in the 5th century. When Jerome came across Exodus 34:29 (and, though slightly differently, verses 30 and 35), he rendered it as “cornuta esset facies sua“. That is to say, “his face became hornéd“. Everybody knows, of course, that that’s not what the Hebrew says. Or is it?

Exodus 34:29, according to the JPS Tanakh, reads as follows: “as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant“. This is more or less what the King James version has as well, when they translate “the skin of his face shone“. It would seem that Jerome was way off! Where did he derive this nonsense about horns?

Truth be told, both the King James version and the JPS are relying very heavily upon the earliest translation of this passage that was ever made: the translation into Greek. The Greek Septuagint (which was, of course, a Jewish translation) makes it very clear that Moses’ face was shining, and it is this translation that became standard in later Jewish interpretation. In fact, the Midrash goes even further by suggesting that Moses was radiant even at birth; and images of holy people with light emanating from their skin, so popular in the artworks of Renaissance painters, have their source in similar declarations. The Hebrew itself is not quite so easy to understand.

The problem is that of the three Hebrew words employed in the collocation, one of them doesn’t make much sense. The words are קָ֛רַן‭ ‬ע֥וֹר‭ ‬פָּנָ֖יו, and I include them with the vocalisation and accentuation that the masoretes gave them. For the benefit of those who don’t read Hebrew, the words read as qaran ohr panav and the first word (קרן, qaran) is vocalised as a verb. This is the first problem with the passage, because there are only four instances in the whole Tanakh when this word is a verb and of those four instances, three of them concern Moses’ face. The fourth instance is found in Psalms 69:32 and means… “to have horns”.

Okay, but surelyקרן‭ ‬ can also mean shine, right? I mean, this is the way the word is used in Israel today! Let’s have a look. As a noun, rather than a verb, the word turns up 90 times in the Bible, in 79 different verses. In every one of those instances, bar one, it either means “horn”, or it refers to something that is the shape of a horn, like the protuberances on the side of the altar. The one exception is Habbakuk 3:4, in which it appears to mean “ray of light”, although the context is non-literal. As if to complicate matters, the following verse (Hab 3:5) makes reference to two Near Eastern gods known as “plague” and “pestilence” (דבר and רשף) both being subservient to the god of Israel. It is therefore possible that the reference to “concealment” in verse 4 (חביון) might be also be an allusion to the hornéd demon known as Hebyon, and that the word קרן might therefore being implying “horns”, rather than “rays of light”.

Whether or not that is the case, the word does most certainly come to mean “ray of light” in post-Biblical Hebrew, but the corresponding verbal form (“to shine”) isn’t actually attested at all until the liturgical poetry of the mediaeval period! What is more, the usages of the verb with that meaning might have been back-formations, based upon the classical understanding of the verses that describe Moses.

The problems, unfortunately, don’t end there. If the passage simply seemed to be saying that Moses grew horns, then there would be a thousand better ways of saying so than “the flesh of Moses’ face horned.” What some scholars have suggested is that the passage was originally intended to have the meaning, “his face became a horn of flesh” – like the nightmarish vision that Daniel has in Daniel 7:8.

Feeling that this was possibly disrespectful, the Alexandrian Jewish community favoured an alternative reading tradition that they then reflected in their Greek translation. Following this tradition, the Tiberian masoretes vocalised the word as a verb, and punctuated it with their accent marks in such a fashion that, even though it’s an awkward reading, it favours the Greek translation over any other possible interpretation. Jerome, who sought a fresh translation from the Hebrew with little assistance from the Greek, hit upon an alternative, although equally viable reading of the text.

Of course, this is all theoretical. All that we have at our disposal is a complex Hebrew clause that seems to be saying something about horns, something about flesh, and something about Moses’ face. It’s easy to understand how there could be such radical disagreements regarding precisely what it was that all of that was supposed to mean.

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32 Comments »

  • Beatle Juice says:

    Simon, is this issue one of linguistics or one of how Jews were imagined during the time of Michaelangelo?

    While the word Keren obviously has more than one meaning, horn and rays amongst them, your article does not try to explain why Michaelangelo took the horn route, when others were available.

    The association of the Jew being on side with the devil, that the devil and his henchmen had horns, and that other European Middle Age’s art works negatively depict Jews with multiple symbols that also include horns, offers a broader sociological answer to the question. Your argument presumes that Michaelangelo was a sophisticated linguist with your expertise. I would suggest he was a brilliant artist magnificently depicting the imagined worldview of those who he lived amongst.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Very nice summary Simon.

    There’s also the connection with ideas of divine radiance in ancient Mesopotamia and Israel –see Moshe Weinfeld at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0016_0_16068.html for the discussion of pulhu and melammu.

  • Thanks, Beatle Juice! You make a good point: I am not suggesting that Michelangelo was a linguist, nor even that he weighed up different traditions and chose the one that he found most preferable. My suggestion is that he simply went with the Latin Vulgate, which states that Moses had horns. For the record, I was recently in Jerusalem and I acquired a beautiful Hebrew Bible from 1701. It’s a small edition, published in Amsterdam, but not so small that I didn’t note the title page illustration, which features Moses standing next to Aaron. Moses is holding the two tablets of the Law in his hand, and has two very noticeable horns on his head.

    As for Jews being traditionally portrayed negatively, I don’t personally know of any Renaissance artworks that feature Jews with horns, but I am aware of the general conception that Jews were under the sway of Satan. I don’t think it’s necessarily related to this verse, but your point that it might be is well taken.

  • Thank you too, Larry. I wasn’t previously aware of Weinfeld’s article, but I was certainly aware of the fact that, in the Ancient Near East, depicting holiness as light was not uncommon. The Book of Enoch, incidentally, describes Noah as having flooded the house with light when he was born (just as the Midrash says about Moses). I don’t personally agree with Weinfeld’s take on Exodus (he takes it as read that the passage refers to an illuminated Moses), but I think that his comparison of pulhu-melammu and kavod-yir’ah is very interesting.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Unfortunately for us all, Assyriology is barely taught in Australia. If it was, there would be a much better understanding of the background to biblical text, and the emergence and development of religious concepts

  • ariel says:

    Very interesting thesis.

    The passage in Exodus continues to say that the people were frightened of what they saw in Moshe’s face. This lends plausibility to the idea that our verse means “his face became a horn of flesh”, whatever that looks like.

    Prof. Moshe David Cassuto in his commentary says that the rays of light emanating from Moshe’s face were remnants of ziv ha’shchinah – the radiation of the Divine Presence which Moshe encountered when meeting God “face to face”.

  • I was never much of a fan of Cassuto’s commentary, but that’s an interesting observation that he makes. There is a midrash, for the record, that says something fairly similar, in relation to Leviticus 1:1. The midrash states that the aleph in the first word (ויקרא) is small because Moses, in his humility, wished to suggest that God had merely encountered him (ויקר) but that, constrained by the necessity of writing the Torah letter for letter (which, incidentally, nobody ever believed happened on Mt Sinai anyway), he was forced to simply diminish the final aleph, rather than remove it altogether. That meant that, when the Torah was completed, a tiny bit of ink was left over. God lovingly placed the ink on Moses’ forehead and, as a result, Moses shone with the light of Torah when walking down the mountain.

    :-)

  • ariel says:

    Fascinating Midrash, I’ve heard it before.
    I don’t know about the “letter for letter” idea (the mechanics of what went on up there we’ll never know), but I understood it was because G-d wanted (so to speak) Moshe to convey the concept of קרא rather than קרה despite Moshe’s misgivings.

  • Ah, that does make sense. I did remember that the midrash made reference to קרי (which would denote the change to קרה). Either way, my statement regarding the fact that nobody has ever believed this to be literally true was not me being snarky. It was a reflection on the fact that traditional Jewish belief has Moses receiving the Torah over the course of 40 years wandering in the wilderness; not over the course of 40 days on a mountain.

  • What a dissapointment. I thought this article was about HORNY Jews, not Jews with Horns! Maybe that was the comment Michelangelo was really making in this stature, or perhaps someone snuck up behind the figure, gave the “PEACE” sign, and good ole’ Miche added it to his art as a commentary on social issues.

    Probably not.

    Art and literature have always been more powerful tools than any “weapons” which can kill a human, but can never kill an “idea”. Good or evil, the message is always in the eye of the interpretation, and not always what the artist, or the writer, ever intended it to be.

    Those who hate Jews will see the stature’s “horns” as evil. Those who don’t will see the guy standing behind it holding fingers of PEACE.

    Or maybe he was just having a bad hair day?

  • CORONA QoaReN Koof-Resh-Noon
    CO-ren___________ קרן ____________[KRN]
    ROOTS: Anything crown-like, such as the halo of light around the sun, is a CORONA. Latin corona is a crown, but the experts have erred in citing Greek korone (anything curved or bent, wreath – see “CURVE.”).
    Both CORONA and the CROWN are named for hornlike rays of extending light and not for any circle these rays might form. קרן QeReN is a ray, extension, or horn. קרן QoaReN means shining and radiating (emitting a CORONA of light beams); “Moses’ face was radiant in Exodus 34:29-30. Michelangelo’s statue of Moses shouldn’t have included two horns on the head. He needed 7 or 8 extensions or rays of light to resemble the CORONA-CROWN on the Statue of Liberty. The original CROWNS were not bejeweled hats, like some CORONETS, but were raised spikes or horns connected by a band.
    Habukuk 3:4 offers a resplendent CORONA which will help art historians understand the halos of light crowning saints, etc.: “His splendor fills the earth. It is a brilliant light which gives off rays on every side – and therein His glory is enveloped–” קרנים QaRNaYiM. The ק-ר Koof-Resh/QR hard core of קרן QeReN is at “UNICORN.”

    BRANCHES: A COROLLA or garland of flower petals (another example of Hebrew Noon/ N, which looks like an L in the mirror, flipping over to an L) reinforces the picture of a CROWN as projectiles ringing a center rather than the CROWN as a ring or flat tiara. The KRL of COROLLA might also link up with K’LeeYL (garland, crown).
    Since QoaReN is shining, other bright and beaming things to consider include the CARNATION, CORNEA, CRANBERRY, GERANIUM, GLANCE, GLEAM, GLIMPSE, GRAY (also from the IE “root” gher (to shine, glow), GREEN, KRONA (and other coin words).
    In Japanese there’s akari (light, lamp), akarui (bright, light) and akaruku naru (brighten up). Japanese hikari precisely means a ray or beam of light, like the קרן QeReN which is קרן QoaReN (radiating light, shining).
    See “CORNER,” “CROWN,” and “UNICORN.”

  • I don’t know about “corolla”, but you are correct in suggesting that some of these words are related. They all come from the Proto-Indo European *ker (the asterisk denoting the fact that the word is unattested in this form), which means “peak, summit, head”. Hence, Latin cornu and the English adjective “cornual” (in my second paragraph). “Corona”, on the other hand, derives from the Greek word, korone, which refers to something with a curved shape. There is a cognate Sanskrit word, incidentally, that means “ray of light”. Unfortunately unattested in Hebrew until a later stage.

  • TheSadducee says:

    Simon

    Next time your downtown (Sydney) pop into St Andrew’s (Anglican) Cathedral and I believe you can see Moses with horns there too (right near the high altar).

  • Great comment Isaac. I kept thinking about Toyotas (Corona, Corolla, Crown) – although that’s giving away my vintage!

    Simon,

    Your belief system ascribes the vowels on “karan” that make it a verb to the Maroretes rather than an alternative view that vowels are a tradition passed down from Moshe.

    That said, what other conjugal form beside verb can the word with just those letters take in that verse?

  • David,

    An excellent point. I wouldn’t suggest that any of the Masoretes made anything up: everything that they had was on the basis of tradition. It is debatable just how old their traditions were, but they were certainly well-established, as is testified by the Talmud’s interpretation of various passages as well.

    The alternative suggestion, to which I referred above, was the vocalisation as a noun: קֶרֶן. That noun would then be in construct with the following word (“a horn of flesh”), and would serve as the predicate of פניו (“his face”). As it is, the text is vocalised with עור פניו in construct (“the flesh of his face”) and with קָרַן (“it […]ed”) as the verb.

    Maybe it does mean “shine”. I think it’s pretty random, though, that the word doesn’t ever appear anywhere else. But then, the whole thing seems pretty random. How do you read it?

  • My starting point is that it has to be a verb because of the nikud and the conjugal form and position within the verse. If it were a noun or adjective, there would need to be some extra letters.

    Rashi (yeah, I’m such a traditionalist) says: “an expression like horns – the light shines and sticks out like a horn”. He doesn’t make it clear why it has to be light that sticks out of his skin, and not some other protrusion.

  • You are correct. I am sorry that I didn’t make that more clear: the way that the word is vocalised (ie: the nature of the nikkud) leads one to suppose that it has to be a verb. I’m not sure what you mean by “conjugal form”? To make it a noun, however, you don’t need any more letters. You just need to vocalise it as qeren instead of qaran.

    That noun idea was just a suggestion (and not my suggestion: I think that William Propp was the first fellow to have come up with it). Honestly, I have no idea what the clause means. If you keep it as a verb, what does the verb mean? “Shine” is completely unattested until well into the Middle Ages, and “grow horns” should be in a different verbal form (ie: a hiphil, rather than a qal).

  • By “conjugal form” I mean as a verb, noun or whatever. Yes, with just the three letters, it’s either karan/verb, or keren/noun. But the noun form doesn’t fit in with the verse. If the usage was as a noun, it should have said k’keren (“like a horn”) or similar.

    True – as a verb, “shine” is not documented until the time of the rishonim. Although Onkelos, who predates the commentators by quite a bit, clearly translates it as “shine”.

  • You could say keren ohr panav. It would mean, “his face was a horn of flesh”.

    You’re right about Onkelos, who certainly predates the mediaevals. Nobody is entirely sure when Targum Onkelos was written, but it’s also safe to say that the Septuagint predates it, so the interpretation of the Septuagint is still the earliest indication that we have that Jews understood this clause to be referring to illumination.

  • Algernon Misanthrope says:

    Isn’t that funny? I always thought the horns was a reference to Moses’ divine authority over the people. Sort of like how horns were used in the ancient world to symbolize Kingship etc. e.g. how Alexander the Great was depicted with Rams Horns on his coins. Who knew it was such a complex issue? Thanks Simon!

  • David says:

    Simon,
    Obviously it has to be a verb. Not just because of the vocalization, which you can say comes later, but because it’s much harder to read the phrase if there are no verbs in it: It just comes out as a string of nouns meant to explain why they couldn’t look at him. Now, here’s my question: Of all the times the root q-r-n appears in the Bible meaning horns, how many of them are verbs in the qal form meaning “to grow or have horns”? Just a hunch that it’s really rare in that direction as well.
    I know it’s sometimes a mistake to take modern Hebrew and use it to read back into the Bible, when so much of modern Hebrew is derived from traditional Jewish understandings of what the Bible meant. But in this case, it just makes so much more sense than anything else. You’d think that if the Bible wanted to say something as wacky as having horns grow on his face, it would have been a little clearer.
    There’s also the cool pun of “or” with and ayin (meaning skin, as appears) and “or” with an aleph (meaning light) that you’d lose if you go with the horny translation.

  • David,
    You make an excellent point. The only other instance in which this word appears as a verb, it appears (predictably!) in the Hiph’il. In that instance, it means “to grow horns”, but its usage in the Qal; is odd – and is part of the reason why this clause is so difficult to understand! Also, you are quite correct when you suggest that there would have been easier ways of saying the same thing, and I think I made that point as well. Truth is, whatever they were trying to say, there would have been an easier way of saying it, so it’s not surprising that so many people suggest that the text is corrupt.
    I must disagree, however, with your final point. There is no lexical relationship between the words for “flesh” and for “light” and, even though subsequent generations of exegetes drew midrashically on their seeming relationship, I think it would be presumptious to assume that this relationship was noted by those who still preserved markedly different pronounciations for the two. In other words, there is no greater connection between the aleph; and the ayin; than there is between either of them and the gimmel; or the quf.

  • Michael Grijak says:

    Title is misleading.  Moses was NOT a Jew!  He was a Hebrew and an Israelite, not a Jew.  Big difference!

  • Henry Herzog says:

    I always thought that the “horns” were supposed to be beams of light.

  • David says:

    Simon – Don’t make a straw man out of the light/skin thing. I know there’s no connection between the words. That’s why I called it a pun. I do think you’re overstating how far away the ayin and the aleph were. It’s all speculative, I know, but I doubt they were too far away as to make the puns impossible.
    But maybe there are lots of puns in the Bible. There’s that whole bit about the copper snake (hanachash hanechoshet) which sounds like she sells seashells. There’s the clever snake and the naked lady in the Garden of Eden, both of whom are “arum” or “erom” or something like that. The words are way too close together to not be deliberate.
    How about that scary place where the goat went, called Azazel. Has it ever occurred to anyone that if you change the vocalization but leave the letters as is, you get “Ez Azal,” meaning that they sent the damned goat to a place called Goatwent? Okay, so a little Aramaic crept in, so what?
    Anyway, these are not exactly the case of the ayin/aleph pun, but I think it’s much more fun reading the text under the assumption that the authors had a sense of humor.

  • No straw men, I assure you. The three examples that you produced were all puns on words spelt exactly the same. If you start producing puns on words spelt differently, just because the letters sound similar to you, then you’re on shakier ground. Besides, Moses either grew horns or he shone light. How could the author have been punning on both? In order to imply ambiguity between the two? I don’t think so. Just because there is humour in the Bible, doesn’t mean you can spot it everywhere. This is not a passage that appeals to a humorous interpretation.
     
    (By the way, the interpretation that you offered for ‘Azazel is one of the most widespread theories on the word’s etymology. I wouldn’t call it a pun, but only because puns operate on a duality of meaning. So too with נחש הנחשת, which is alliterative but not humorous. The shrewd serpent, however, is an excellent example and there are dozens of others as well – including many that are no doubt invisible to our eyes, so unfamiliar with the Ancient Near East.)

  • glenn bogue says:

    This discussion does not bring into consideration the very words of Jesus in John 8 “you Jews cannot hear me because your father is the devil.” What is JC up to?

    According to Tracy Twyman, horns are symbolic of the fish lips atop the head of the Fish God Oannes, the Babylonian version of the Sumerian God El. Once we realize that El actually duped Moses
    (as He had duped Abraham)with promises of land and heritage, we can “see” that Jesus is warning the Jews about the god of Moses. Jesus himself appeared to Abraham as the priest king Melchizedek and gave him the bread and wine covenant. This act Jesus repeats with the disciples, asking them “Do you remember me now?”

    Moreover it seems that JC has been appearing all over the world,
    to the Maya, Inca, ancient Chinese, Babylonians where he taught at water’s edge. His message was obviously repelled in Jerusalem although he appeared there as Melchizedek and Harsiese, who married the daughter of David and became Solomon. See Rev 22:16 – “I was the father and son of David (Djuat).

  • Marky says:

    From what you write, JC did some of the best duping. A master duper….

  • M-F SINGER says:

    F.Y.I
    In the French Bible : La Sainte Bible ”
    traduite des textes originaux hebreu et grec
    par Louis SECOND,docteur en theologie.
    = Translated from original texts in hebrew and greek,by Louis SECOND, doctor in theology.

    This verse : Exodus 34-29 reads : ….and he did not know that the skin of his face was shining because he spoke to the Everlasting one.
    Fr.: ..,et il ne savait pas que la peau de son visage ” rayonnais ” (bright like sun rays ).
    This term is repeated three times in this particular passage.
    Also in French -KRN- sounds like “couronne”
    No mentioning of horn here at all.
    Yet since there are no voyelles this might explain the confusion ????
    I came to read this blog since some of my Japanese friends asked me for some explanations
    regarding Michelangelo’s sculptur.
    Thanks to all of you I have a better understanding.I am not a scholar either so forgive me if my comments do not fit.

  • GinDubonnet says:

    Here’s the explanation I heard, and it was one I heard as a little boy from my father (of Italian, although not exclusively Italian, heritage).

    For Italians, the worst insult in the world is to be “cornuto”, that is, “horned”, cuckolded.

    What Michelangelo is getting at in this depiction of Moses is that for all of his apparent physical strength (and the physical strength symbolizes his psychological strength, his drive, his “will to power”) the prophet is one who is cuckolded by his people.

    Because what does Moses find when he gets back from the hilltop? The people are worshipping the Golden Calf. And this is a pattern that keeps repeating itself throughout the story of Exodus. The Jews keep turning on him — that is, cuckolding Moses for other gods.

    Michelangelo, an Italian, would have been familiar with this insult, and wouldn’t have shied from applying it here. Michelangelo’s snarkiness is legendary — his stamping of his name on the Pieta, for instance, or his depiction in “The Last Judgment” of a cardinal in hell with his genitals in the mouth of a snake (a cardinal who apparently made some negative critique of the work as it was in progress). Here, though, I think the “joke” is a pretty profound reflection on Moses’s predicament.

  • Travis Bryan III says:

    They were horns. Moses face reflected the angel who spoke to him at Sinai, Satan. An angel handed down the law to Moses. See Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19-20; Heb 2:2. A Christian is to reflect like a mirror the face of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and not the face of the one behind the law. Moses covered his face it was so terrifying to the people. Read the passage 2 Cor 3:1-18 and 4:1-6. The reflection on Moses face was “the god of this world,” Satan. It is not the Jews that were horned it was Satan. God allowed Satan to hand down an accusing, cursing, condemning and killing law in order to close all doors of escape except the one door, the Cross of Christ. Gal 3:10-13; rom 8:1-4. The law of Moses provokes people to commit sins they would not otherwise have committed. See Rom 5:20; 7:5-12; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:21. Saran is behind Moses law and Moses’ face reflected this.

  • jjyammers says:

    I wrote my masters thesis on this topic. I argued that the intended meaning of QRN here is horn.
    A couple of points:
    The word turns up 69 times in the Bible. I am wondering where you got 90?
    You are right to say that Horn is the intended meaning every time.
    Hab 3:4 is also horn ( see Anderson’s commentary anchor bible 2001)
    Horns = power strength and connection to the divine. Horns of the alter. raising ones horn. having ones horn cut off (wink).
    See also the pun of Amos 6:13 for fun.

    Let’s reclaim the Horns for Moses!

    Let me know if you want a copy of my thesis
    Jaycakes@hotmail.com

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