John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Seeing the Horns of God (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Preached at St. Aidan’s, March 3, 2019 (Year C, Last Sunday after Epiphany). Lectionary readings for the day: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, II Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36.


Today we’re going to talk a little bit about holy Moses; or maybe I should say horn-ed Moses! Here in the 34th chapter of Exodus, squashed between the episode of the Golden Calves and the making of the Tabernacle, we have one of those fun Biblical translation novelties, like the unicorns in the KJV, or the LOLCats Bible which begins in Genesis 1:1 with: “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.”

Your NRSV translation has used a different word in the English, but the Hebrew at the end of verse 29 reads: קרַ֛ן עֹור פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרֹו אִתֹּו (“Karan yor panav b’dabor”) which literally means “[Moses’] face had grown horns in conversation” with God. When the scholar Jerome translated this into the “vulgar tongue,” the Latin Vulgate, he used the literal Latin for “horn” here and so that’s how all Western Christians read it from about the 4th century until the 16th.

Those horns of Moses appear in many forms in Western culture. Michelangelo’s stunningly beautiful sculpture of Moses has a long flowing beard, rippling muscles…and two cute little droopy horns. There’s a fresco in St. Andrew’s church in Westhall, Suffolk that depicts Moses with great bull horns. In Bern, Switzerland, the Moses Fountain has great multi-shafted horns, and the Moses Well in a Carthusian monetary in Djion, France, has horns reminiscent of Hellboy’s cutoff nubs. In the saddest development, the emerging connection between horns and Satan in the late Middle Ages paired with growing anti-semitism led to a viral belief still existing in some parts of the world that all Jews have the horns of the devil under their hair, as their founder Moses did.

This last example is a clear case of ignorance taking the original clear poetry and metaphorical symbolism as physical literalism. Horns in Hebrew literature are always used as symbols of might and power. Just as horns emerge from the head of an animal, so also does light emerge from the presence of God: it radiates out! In Habakkuk 3:3-4 the King James Version reads: “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power.”

Clearly the context defines these horns as rays of light and glory! Most of the artists throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance knew this as well, or at least their Scriptural advisors did. Literal horns on sculptures served the same purpose as the literal horns in the language: they symbolized something that could be experienced in divine revelation but not fully understood or depicted in banal human terms. Thus the King James Version takes that same word translated horns in Habakkuk and makes it read differently in Exodus 34:29: “And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.” Here’s a case where the literal translation can be misleading without really knowing the language, and translators from the pre-Christian Greek Septuagint to all our modern English translations attempt to avoid confusion by translating the sense rather than the word exactly. Moses’ face shone.

But okay, even after we’ve done our translation-clarifying work and can see Michelangelo’s Moses with a new appreciation for the difficulty in artistic rendering of sacred writings, we’re still left with the question: what do we do with this? In our everyday experience, this may seem as odd and “un-human” as growing horns. Moses’ face shone. It emitted light so bright that those around him were terrified, and begged him to drape cloth over it to dim the light (one wonders if that light helped him see through the cloth, or if he need to have a guide directing him around the camps!). This story brings the mystery back to the Christian story of the Transfiguration, which we have in our Gospel reading today, because while so many of us in the church are used to thinking of Jesus as a purely divine being who could light up the glow anytime he wanted to, we don’t think of Moses that way. Moses is fully human, and humans don’t glow. I mean, that’s one thing we can count on, that when you see a glowing being it’s got to be angel or alien or something out of a comic book, right?

Yet, that motif of “glow” appears in many different testimonies of Christian mystics and saints, from the Old Testament to Marcus Borg. I’d like to describe one account of this from a 20th century saint’s own narrative.

Fifteen days from now, on March 18th of this year, it will be the 61st anniversary of the famous life-changing epiphany of the great Catholic Trappist monk and contemplative author Thomas Merton. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in which he writes of his sorrow over the racism, war, and abuses of the 1960s and his inner conflict about his decision to remain apart from it as a monastic, he describes this event:

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people [walking around me], that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream... There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.... I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all of the time."

The biographer William H. Shannon writes of this experience that occurred 17 years after Merton had entered the monastery:  “One of the things going on in [Merton] was the maturing realization, born of this contemplation, that it is not possible to leave the world in any real sense. There is simply no place else to go…The experience challenged the concept of a separate ‘holy’ existence lived in a monastery. He experienced the glorious destiny that comes simply from being a human person and from being united with, not separated from, the rest of the human race.”

The great truth is that we are all horned with light but we have not developed the eyes to see it and our calluses have grown too thick over the surface to reveal it. This is the great gift of those figures such as Moses for the Jews and Jesus for us Christians: their connection to that divine light is so unimpeded that it shines out so even the blind can see. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is unattainable for us average humans, that both Moses and Jesus are a different order of creature entirely, but Saint Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians that every one of us has this connection if we would but have the boldness and confidence to unveil it.

The tragedy of modern understandings of Jesus is how the polarity of divisions have lost the unitive truth. Conservatives tend to emphasize the divinity of Christ while diminishing the humanity. Liberals tend to emphasize the humanity of Jesus without appreciating divinity. In truth, orthodox Christian teaching is both/and rather than either/or. Since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, official Christology (the doctrine of Christ’s nature), as quoted on page 841 of the Book of Common Prayer under the seat in front of you, is: Jesus is both fully God and fully Man in a way that does not diminish the fullness of each reality. Sadly, even those who affirm that sometimes miss the final implication for us.

Just as the horns of Moses imply his presence as the very horns of the altar in the temple sanctuary, just as Jesus promised to “tear down and rebuild the temple in three days” in the form of his body, so also we each of us are temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus descended to the human so that we might understand the human to be divine, as 4th century church father Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation, “God became Man that Man might become God.”* When we realize this, when we see the full implications of the glory of God, we may be just as terrified as those three disciples on the mountain, just as lost for words as James and John or as thoughtlessly babbling as Peter. When we see every body around us as glowing with the radiance of God, when we recognize that our own bodies contain that same radiance, we can no longer respect the divisions of the world. We can no longer hold onto hatred or fear of others, we  can no longer resent or begrudge, or envy people in our lives. That’s a hard thing to do. Enlightenment isn’t always easy: but it’s joyful. And it is the fate Jesus calls us to. May you be aware of your own horns today, as you also see the horns on your neighbor, as we celebrate the light of the world in each and every one of us.



* Eastern Orthodox theologians call this theosis: “a transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God, as taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria ('illumination' with the 'vision' of God). According to Eastern Christian teaching, theosis is very much the purpose of human life. It is considered achievable only through a synergy (or cooperation) between human activity and God's uncreated energies (or operations).” 

Notes from the Jewish Study Bible on the Exodus reading: 

According to passages such as Ezek. 1.27-28; Hab. 3.4; Ps. 104.2, the divine Presence is surrounded by a radiant luminosity (a concept also found in Mesopotamian literature, where it is called "fearsome radiance"). Thus, from his lengthy and intense encounter with God, Moses' face came to reflect the divine radiance. In this way, the golden calf episode ends with the theme with which it began: Moses' role as Israel's conduit to God, which the people feared they had lost (32.1 n.), is reaffirmed and he is shown to be more than a common "man" (32.1).

34.29: 'Radiant,' Heb "karan," from "keren," "horn," in the sense of projection, emanation, as in Hab. 3.4 ("rays"). “His brightness shall be as the light: horns are in his hands: There is his strength hid.” In the Vulgate, Jerome, in an over-etymological translation, rendered "was horned," although he knew from the Septuagint that the meaning was figurative. Nevertheless, his translation led to the image of Moses with horns in medieval and Renaissance art (see esp. Michelangelo's Moses), and eventually, coupled with the notion of Satan's horns, to the anti-Semitic belief that Jews have horns.