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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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