Biblical Hebrew Homeschool Curriculum

Why does this man have horns?


Nothing like having your little Biblical Hebrew translation errors immortalized in marble

Michelangelo sculpted Moses with horns. (There he is, above.) Leonardo da Vinci depicted the Messiah eating fluffy rolls for Passover. Trusting art, you might believe that Pharaoh’s daughter was decked out in the latest Italian fashions while King David could hardly find a stitch to wear.

For reasons of art and theology, paintings do not always pass muster with historians. But Moses’ protuberances were a Biblical Hebrew translation conundrum. For more than one thousand years Christians believed that Moses came off Sinai sporting new horns. Michelangelo's Bible said he did.

There is a Hebrew word in Exodus 34:29 whose root meaning is horn. But Hebrew builds vocabulary on root words and by creating figurative meanings from physical objects. See the "horns" of the sun at left? Because light radiating from the sun can appear as shafts that resemble horns, the word figuratively means to shine. Jewish interpretation favored the shine meaning, though not entirely unanimously. Horns were commonly a symbol of honor and divinity: see Alexander the Great below with ram's horns. A miraculously horned Moses may not have seemed so odd to the classically educated, 4th century translator Jerome, or his European readers. Skin emanating photons is not inherently more reasonable than horns sprouting. Literal or figurative interpretation? Horns or light? Many over the years have split the difference and imagined Moses with horns of light, as below in the English 12th century illuminated manuscript and 1638 painting.


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Did Michelangelo depict an embarrassing mistranslation? The debate continues. If he did, I can only say, may we never suffer having our little Biblical Hebrew translation errors immortalized in marble.

The moral of the story: learn Hebrew, trace words and ideas through Scripture, consider how history influences our understanding, and don't believe everything you see!

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Images: da Vinci's Last Supper (1498), Colantonio's painting of St. Jerome in His Study (circa 1450), James Tissot's Moses and the Ten Commandments (1902), Jan de Bray's Pharaoh's Daughter (1661), the Chertsey Abbey beviary illuminated letter (14th C), the Bury St. Edmund's Bible (1135), and Jusepe de Rivera's 1638 painting of Moses are in the public domain in the United States because their copyrights have expired, but may not be in the public domain in other countries :: others,

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