When Moses descended from Mount Sinai after being in the presence of God, his face became transformed to the point that the Israelites were terrified and refused to go near him (Exodus 34:29-30), causing Moses to cover his face with a veil (Exodus 34:33-35). There is a general consensus that historical artistic representations of Moses with horns protruding from his head, such as in the famous statue by Michelangelo in the church of San Pietro, are based on a mistranslation of this passage into Latin. We are told that the original Hebrew text of Exodus 34 says that Moses’ face ‘radiated’ as he stood in the presence of God, but St. Jerome mistranslated this in the Latin Vulgate to say that Moses’ face ‘grew horns’.
A friend of mine recently uploaded a video to YouTube based on an article he wrote several years ago addressing whether it was horns or light that protruded from the face of Moses in Exodus 34. He does a nice job representing the view that Moses did not have horns, so I link his work here:
You can see in the video that the argument is basically that the Hebrew root QRN (קר”ן) can mean ‘horn’ or ‘radiance’ as a noun and ‘grow horns’ or ‘radiate’ as a verb. The semantics of radiance are allegedly established by usage (i.e., Habukkuk 3:4) and ancient testimony (i.e., the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). It is thus concluded that Moses’ face did not ‘grow horns’ but rather became luminous or ‘radiated.’ However, it is my view that the evidence for the root QRN having any semantics of luminosity or radiance in biblical Hebrew is incredibly slim, and I am therefore inclined to render the Hebrew text in Exodus as ‘the skin of his face grew horns’ rather than ‘the skin of his face radiated.’
The Greek Septuagint
It is sometimes argued that the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, referred to as the Septuagint or LXX, supports the argument that Moses’ face radiated. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew verb qaran with the Greek term doxazo (δοξάζω) which means ‘to honor/glorify’ and is the standard Greek translation for the Hebrew verb kavad (כב״ד). Since glory is frequently associated with radiance in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Isaiah 60:1-3, 16, etc.), it can therefore be inferred that the Septuagint understood this verb as meaning ‘to radiate’ in the context of Exodus 34 (Paul uses similar semantics to describe the face of Moses in 2 Corinthians 3:7, employing the term doxa [δόξα], a noun related to the verb doxazo).
However, it is also true that horns can be associated with glory and strength. For example, in the Psalms we read the following:
“You are the glory (תִפְאֶרֶת) of their strength;Psalm 89:17 (ESV)
by your favor our horn is exalted.”
And similarly in Deuteronomy:
“His glory (הָדָר) is like a firstborn bull,Deuteronomy 33:17a (NKJV)
and his horns like the horns of the wild ox.”
The Hebrew root used in Psalm 89 (פא״ר) is translated with the Greek doxa / doxazo several times in the Septuagint (Isaiah 44:23; 60:17, etc.), as is the root used in Deuteronomy 33 (הד״ר—see Proverbs 20:29). So it is plausible that the translators of the Septuagint saw an association between growing horns and a display of glory, and opted for a more abstract translation of an otherwise concrete verb. It is unclear why the translators would feel the need to translate the text this way, but even if we accept that the translators understood the verb to indicate radiation it is still uncertain why they chose a verb meaning ‘glory’ rather than a verb meaning ‘to shine.’ (It might be objected that the Greek term chromatos [χρώματος] means ‘color’, and therefore a translation like “the appearance of the color of his face was glorified” suggests a change to Moses’ complexion, which does not fit as well with Moses growing horns. However, a better translation of chromatos in this passage is probably ‘skin’, given that this is a viable translation of the Greek and more true to the Hebrew word being translated, owr [עור]).
With all that said, I am willing to accept that the translators of the Septuagint might have interpreted the root QRN as referring to luminous glory in Exodus 34. There is certainly an ancient tradition of interpreting the text in this way, preserved in the writing of the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria:
“… he descended again forty days afterwards, being much more beautiful in his face than when he went up, so that those who saw him wondered and were amazed, and could no longer endure to look upon him with their eyes, inasmuch as his countenance shone like the light of the sun.”On the Life of Moses, II.70 (trans., C. D. Young)
Perhaps the Septuagint is an earlier iteration of Philo’s interpretation (or perhaps Philo’s interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of the Septuagint). The issue is that, whether discussing the Septuagint or Philo, we are discussing much later interpretations that might themselves be misunderstanding the Hebrew text. And so it is to the Hebrew texts I now turn.
The primary prooftext for QRN having the semantics of radiation is Habakkuk 3:4, which says the following:
“And his brightness was as the light;Habakkuk 3:4 (KJV)
he had horns coming out of his hand:
and there was the hiding of his power.”
Most modern English translations do not follow the King James version in translating the root QRN as ‘horns’ but choose ‘rays of light’ or some such equivalent phrase. It is assumed that because light is mentioned in the previous line, that the noun QRN must have some semantic overlap with radiance. This assumes that there is a semantic parallelism between the first and second lines. But it is also possible that the parallelism is actually between the second and third lines, in which case ‘horns’ are parallel with ‘power’, an association that I already mentioned is attested elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
But the question naturally arises, “What then are we to make of the first line? How does it fit in with the poetic structure?” The verses have probably been incorrectly divided in English Bibles, and the first line in Habakkuk 3:4 is most likely parallel to the last line in Habakkuk 3:3, which says “His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.” (This poetic division is supported by the placement of waw-conjunctions [translated ‘and’] connecting the lines that are parallel).
It should also be noted that the Hebrew term translated as ‘horns’ (קַרְנַיִם) in this passage is not morphologically plural but rather dual, meaning it indicates something that usually occurs in pairs (the plural ending is -im, dual is -ayim). Of course, this vocalization was not preserved (though it may have been recited) until the development of the Hebrew vowel system in the Middle Ages, and we cannot always infer semantics from morphology. Nevertheless, this pronunciation tradition seems to support ‘horns’ more than ‘radiance’. Furthermore, the Greek Septuagint understood Habakkuk 3:4 to refer to horns, using the Greek word keras (κέρας).
Why the Skin and Not the Head?
One common objection to the horn interpretation is that Exodus 34 says that it was the skin of Moses’ face that grew horns, not his head (which is where one might expect horns to grow). I never found this objection to be particularly compelling, mainly because the ‘skin of his face’ could easily include the lower forehead or sides of the head, which are plausible areas for horns to grow. It is also possible, as suggested by Gary A. Rendsburg, that the horns resembled rams’ horns, curving down from the head and ending along the cheek (Egyptian pharaohs are sometimes depicted with horns like this), and thus the ‘skin of his face’ refers to the skin of his cheek.
How Did ‘Horns’ Become ‘Radiance’?
I cannot say with certainty why post-exilic Jewish and Christian readers interpreted this passage as saying that Moses’ face became radiant. I mentioned earlier that it is possible that the Greek Septuagint rendered the verb ‘to grow horns’ abstractly as ‘to be glorified’, which later interpreters might have taken as a reference to glorious radiance. One other possibility is that there was an intentional reading of the Hebrew word for ‘skin’ (עור) with the word for ‘light’ (אור). Once the guttural letters aleph (א) and ayin (ע) lost their consonantal value (a phonological transformation that was well underway prior to the common era), the two words came to be homonyms, as they are in modern Hebrew today. William Propp has pointed out that the Aramaic Targums (i.e., Aramaic translation/commentary on the Hebrew Bible) appear to misinterpret (perhaps with exegetical intentionality) the noun for ‘skin’ as the noun for ‘light’ in Exodus 34, as well as other passages like the Genesis 3:21 (so ‘garments of light’ rather than ‘garments of skin’). Therefore, it is possible that the ancient readers did not consider the verb qaran to actually mean ‘to radiate,’ but instead recognized that it means ‘to grow horns’ and with interpretive ingenuity asserted that it was horns of light that came from Moses’ face (more on this below).
I will conclude by mentioning two scholars—one medieval, one modern—who accept the view that Moses’ face became radiant. The first is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (known as Rashi), who is perhaps best known for writing commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. In his discussion of Exodus 34:29, he says the following:
“Hebrew קָרַן, an expression meaning horns (קַרְנַיִם) because light radiates and protrudes like a type of horn.”Chabad.org
The second is a 2013 dissertation by Josh Philpot titled “The Shining Face of Moses.” In the section dealing with the debate on the meaning of the root QRN in Exodus 34, Philpot says the following:
“There is an additional question regarding why the author chose קרן instead of the usual אור to communicate a ‘display of light’… In my view, the use of קרן arises from both ancient and modern imagery of light emanating from a radiant body like the sun, which is usually depicted with pointed, horn-like projections.”Philpot, 87, n. 18
In both of these defenses against the idea that Moses grew horns, it is acknowledged that the Hebrew text states that Moses grew horns. Both Rashi and Philpot interpret the horns to be ‘horns or light’/’rays of light’, which is a possibility, but nevertheless, they must admit that a straightforward reading of the Hebrew seems to indicate that Moses grew horns. (What’s more, the only occurrence of the verb form of QRN outside Exodus 34 is in reference to an ox or bull displaying its horns in Psalm 69:31. True, it uses a different verb stem [hiphil rather than qal], but this single occurrence is still better than the complete absence of any attestations of this verb meaning ‘radiate’ in biblical Hebrew).
To be clear, I do not think it impossible that QRN could refer to radiance in Exodus 34. It is certainly possible in theory that such a semantic development could have taken place, and I am open to being persuaded of this. However, as it stands, I reject this view on the grounds that I don’t see any evidence persuasive enough to convince me that the biblical Hebrew root QRN carries the semantics of luminosity. I am therefore more comfortable reading Exodus 34 as saying that Moses grew horns, as strange as that idea might sound to some modern readers.
Philo. The Works of Philo, translated by C. D. Young (Hendrickson, 1993).
Philpot, Joshua Matthew. “The Shining Face of Moses: The Interpretation of Exodus 34:29–35 and Its Use in the Old and New Testaments.” Dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013.
Propp, William H. C. “The Skin of Moses’ Face—Transfigured of Disfigured?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly vol. 49. no. 3 (1987): 375-386.
Rendsburg, Gary A. “Moses as Equal to Pharoah.” In Text, Artifact, and Image – Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion ed. by Gary M. Beckman and Theodore J. Lewis (Brown Judaic Studies, 2010): 201-219.