Does the Bible Describe Moses as Having Horns?

A preposterous question, surely. But perhaps you have noticed the artistic depictions. What does the biblical passage that they are derived from really mean?

Various artistic depictions portray Moses as having two protruding horns on his head. Among the numerous statues, paintings, drawings and woodcuts are Michelangelo’s famous marble statue (pictured above) and the relief of Moses in the United States Capitol (below, right). Have you ever wondered why Moses is depicted in this way?

Relief portrait of a faintly-horned Moses at the U.S. Capitol in the chamber of the House of Representatives
US Capitol

This artwork stems from an interpretation of a very curious passage of scripture in Exodus 34. This passage describes Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive instructions from God. Upon his descent, it was recognized that his visage had changed, following his close contact with the divine. Verses 29-35 are often interpreted as meaning that Moses’s face radiated light; the Hebrew verb used, however, can literally mean to become horned.

This was the subject of a 2023 Biblical Archaeology Review (bar) article titled “Moses as Pharaoh’s Equal—Horns and All,” which made the case that the passage does describe Moses as having literal “horns” and that this was another case of the Torah utilizing Egyptian motifs among an Egypt-familiar populace. It’s a controversial stance that was met with a degree of pushback from readers.

Does Exodus 34 really describe Moses as being horned? The answer to this question has proved more historically consequential than you might think.

Translational Treatment

This passage of scripture is handled differently by various translations. The King James Version (kjv) renders it:

And it came to pass … when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone …. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. … And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put a veil upon his face … (Exodus 34:29–30, 35).

Statue of Moses at the U.S. Library of Congress
Carol M. Highsmith

The Jewish Publication Society (jps) writes: “Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth abeams … behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams …. [T]he skin of Moses’ face sent forth beams.” A footnote states: “aHeb. Horns.”

The Douay-Rheims translation (a popular Catholic Bible) reads: “… he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near. …. [T]he face of Moses when he came out was horned, but he covered his face.” This rendering comes directly from the fourth-century c.e. Jerome’s famous Latin Vulgate translation.

In the opinion of Egyptologist Prof. Gary Rendsburg, Jerome “was guided by his fine sense of the Hebrew language. Thus he rendered qaran ‘or panaw (‘the skin of his face was horned’) from Exodus 34:29-30 quite literally—and to my mind accurately—as cornuta esset facies sua (‘his face was horned’)” (“Moses as Pharaoh’s Equal—Horns and All”). The Latin Vulgate was used throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, making the emergence of contemporary artistry depicting Moses with horns “as an indication of the ancient prophet’s honor and prestige” unsurprising (ibid).

Certain artists met the subject somewhere in the middle—here is Gustave Doré’s Moses (1866). He is emitting rays of light, albeit in the position of “horns.”
Dorés English Bible

The Hebrew text does clearly refer to something projecting from Moses’s face. But the question remains: Was Moses adorned with literal horns or rays of light?

The Case for Literal Horns

One of the astonishing, often overlooked aspects of the Torah is the number of Egyptianisms it contains specific to the chronological period in which Moses was on the scene—the New Kingdom Period (see our article “Searching for Egypt in Israel”). This can be seen in the terminology, symbolism, perspective, understanding of particular contemporary customs—attesting to the genuine period of composition reflected in the Bible: during the latter part of the second millennium b.c.e. at the hand of a skilled, Egypt-educated scribe (i.e. Moses).

Against this backdrop, Professor Rendsburg sees another Egyptian motif in Exodus 34. In his bar article, he points out certain artistic depictions of pharaohs having horns, representing their divine status. He then compares this to two particular passages of scripture in which God informs Moses that he will take on a divine status in relation to Aaron and the pharaoh. “And he [Aaron] shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and … he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God” (Exodus 4:16; kjv). “And the Lord said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exodus 7:1; kjv).

Rendsburg wrote:

In these two passages, Moses, the prophet par excellence, is elevated to the level of deity, while Aaron, the first high priest, is elevated to the level of prophet. …

[This] serves as the foreground for our analysis of qaran ‘or panaw (“the skin of his face was horned”) in Exodus 34:29-30. … The noun qeren, from which the verb is derived, means both “horn” and “ray,” as in the rays of the sun. But the former meaning clearly predominates in the Bible, with only one possible instance of “ray” attested (Habakkuk 3:4). When we look at the verbal forms of qaran, we note that in the only other instance of this verb in the Bible, namely, maqren in Psalms 69:31, the meaning is clearly “be horned” (i.e. “have horns”).

Head of Amenhotep III, with ram-like “Horn of Ammon” barely visible, coming out of his head piece and curling around his ear.
Vladimir Dmitriev

Support for understanding Exodus 34:29-30 as “the skin of his face was horned” derives from ancient Egyptian artwork. Wall reliefs at Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple depict two different pharaohs with rams’ horns on the skin of their cheeks—or more accurately, given the Egyptian penchant for profiles, a single ram’s horn on the one visible cheek. Both Amenhotep iii (c. 1386–1348 b.c.e.) and Ramesses ii (c. 1290–1224 b.c.e.) are portrayed in such fashion, with the rams’ horns no doubt representative of the power of the god Amun, who was associated with the ram in Egyptian iconography.

Once again, the Bible wishes to portray Moses as Pharaoh’s equal. Just as the facial skin of Egyptian kings was horned, so was the facial skin of the leader of the people of Israel. So Pharaoh, so Moses.

Rendsburg makes an interesting case. And certainly, the appeal to cultural background can be appreciated. But given the broader scriptural context, is it the most logical?

The Case for Rays of Light

The following are the pertinent snippets from Exodus 34 in Hebrew with the English translations:

Verse 29:

וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא־יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו

“and Moses knew not that qaran [was the] skin of his face.”

Verse 30:

וְהִנֵּה קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו

“and behold, qaran [was the] skin of his face.”

Verse 35:

כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה

“for qaran [was the] skin of Moses’s face.”

As Professor Rendsburg pointed out, the associated noun, qeren, can refer to both horns and rays (although in most cases referring to the former). Of the related verb form, qaran—a form only found in this precise manner in these three verses (the Psalm 69 verbal form is slightly different)—the Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon renders it as meaning “to radiate, to emit beams, to shine (used of the face of Moses).” The lexicon protests the Vulgate’s interpretation: “Absurdly rendered by Aqu. and Vulg. cornuta erat, whence painters represent Moses as having horns.”

Other commentaries argue the same “mistaken rendering of the Vulgate” (Ellicott’s Commentary); “the Vulgate Latin version renders it very wrongly” (Gill’s Exposition); “[t]he Vulgate wrongly translates [qaran]” (Pulpit Commentary). Each of these state that this passage of scripture denotes projecting/radiating light.

Part of the claim of “absurdity” for the Vulgate rendering is because it is not a directly accurate translation of the sentence in full. Rendsburg himself wrote, “cornuta esset facies sua (‘his face was horned’), notwithstanding the slight change of ‘the skin of his face’ to the simpler ‘his face.’” It’s a slight change, but consequential—and part of a broader series of logical questions mandated by the scriptural context.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s rather curious rendition of Moses on Mount Sinai (circa 1900).
Public Domain

The Most Logical Solution

All three verses mention qaran in direct association with the skin and the face. Identifying these passages as referring to literal horns requires saying, not that his head was horned—not even that “his face was horned”—but that the “skin of his face was horned.” Yet literal horns come out of the head (the separate word ראש, rosh. See also Daniel 7:20). Why would the face (פנים, panim) be described as being horned? Even the aforementioned Egyptian artwork depicts horns growing out of the head (or headpiece), not out of the face. Certainly, in the case of pharaohs occasionally depicted with ram’s horns (“Horns of Ammon,” the symbol of the deity Ammon/Amun), these are shown to somewhat curl around in front of the cheeks. But these are hardly facial horns.

Seti I with ram’s horns (“Horns of Ammon”).
Egypt Museum

Further, it is the skin that is the focal point of the verses: “the skin of his face was horned/rayed.” This word is completely omitted in the Vulgate. Why would skin be the key feature defined as being horned? Horns emerge from from the head and are rooted to the bonenot the skin of the face. (This implicit connection between the words קָרַן עוֹר has even led to all-the-more outlandish interpretations that these were horns of skin!)

Moses is described as being “as a god,” with Aaron as his mouth, for the purposes of witnessing to the pharaoh—never to the Israelite population at large (who had just been informed to recognize “no other god”—Exodus 34:14; 20:3). Why, then, would Moses be presented unhorned before Pharaoh, yet some months after leaving Egypt horned before the Israelites? Why would his interaction with God on Mount Sinai have caused him to become “horned”? How, exactly, were “all the children of Israel” (Exodus 34:30) able to see this peculiarity in Moses’s visage? Why was this condition of being “horned”—thus requiring his face to be covered with some sort of veil—apparently only temporary? And why, if this was God’s doing in order to present Moses in such a “prestigious” manner, did Moses keep himself veiled in public? Further, why use this peculiar verb three times in a row to describe the action of what was happening to the skin of Moses’s face? If Moses had static “horns,” why not just say so—at least just once—using the ubiquitous biblical noun for such?

All of these issues are resolved when taking the Hebrew word qaran to give the sense that Moses’s face was rayed—that it shone.

Face-to-Face With Glory

This event occurs specifically in the context of Moses’s close contact with God (Exodus 33:11), including his request that he would be able to see God’s glory.

And He said: “Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” And the Lord said: “Behold, there is a place by Me, and thou shalt stand upon the rock. And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (verses 20-23).

Contact with such radiant glory would be the only logical reason for why the exposed skin of the face would be highlighted as being affected—reflecting and radiating such brilliance with which it had come into contact. It would also explain why the descending Moses, after his communion with God atop the mountain, could have been seen by “all the children of Israel” (Exodus 34:30, 35)—not just those close enough to make out some kind of horn-like protrusions on his face. It would further explain the necessity for Moses’s face to be veiled (which could hardly hide the shape of horns for those close enough to see)—and would also explain why such veiling was only temporary, worn long enough for the light post-exposure to “fade.” It would also explain why Moses sought to hide his appearance—not because it was something God necessarily wanted to demonstrate to the Israelites, but rather, as the by-product of Moses’s own personal interactions with His glory.

Certainly, the related noun to qaran refers most often in the Bible to literal horns—but this is not always necessarily the case, as in the example of Habakkuk 3, using the plural word קרנים (in the jps and most other translations, “rays”) in the context of brightness and light (as well as in the context of wilderness sojourn locations). “God cometh from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His glory covereth the heavens … a brightness appeareth as the light; Rays hath He at His side …. The sun and moon stand still in their habitation; At the light …” (Habakkuk 3:3-4, 10).

“The noun qeren, from which the verb is derived, means both ‘horn’ and ‘ray,’ as in the rays of the sun,” wrote Rendsburg. Given this dual possible meaning, we are not mandated to interpret the term as referring to literal horns in Exodus 34 but must consider the context in order to understand which of the options best fits the situation at Mount Sinai—a situation we already know to be one unequivocally of brightness and light.

Of course, depicting a blinding bright face artistically—particularly in statue form—is somewhat more complex and less-titillating than horns, but fourth-century c.e. Latin Vulgate aside, that is the sense that our earliest translation of the passage gives.

Septuagintal ‘Glory’

Ancient translations can be extremely helpful for understanding certain uncommon words or phrases that, over time, have fallen out of use. And the earliest known translation of the Hebrew scriptures is the Septuagint (lxx)—a Greek translation, initially of the Torah, by Jewish scribes of the third century b.c.e. The following is how the passage was understood by these ancient Hebrew speakers (from the Brenton translation of the lxx):

And when Moses went down from the mountain … Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified [Greek, δεδόξασται], when God spoke to him. And Aaron and all the elders of Israel saw Moses, and the appearance of the skin of his face was made glorious, and they feared to approach him. … And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that it was glorified; and Moses put the veil over his face.

Glorious indeed, because Moses had been exposed to God’s “glory” (Exodus 33:18, 22). The sense, as understood by these translators, was that Moses’s appearance reflected the glory with which he had come into contact. Because God was horned, Moses became horned? Hardly. Because God radiated glory, Moses radiated glory. The brilliant glory of God was shielded on Mount Sinai by a cloud (e.g. Exodus 24:16-18). Moses’s reflection of that was shielded by a veil.

The same is concluded in the New Testament in the writings of the first-century Apostle Paul: “[T]he children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance” (2 Corinthians 3:7; kjv). A glory that, “unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face … we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the [reflected] glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (verses 13, 18; New King James Version). Decidedly not “from horned to horned.”

And the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo wrote to the same effect—that the Israelites’ “eyes could not continue to stand the brightness that lashed from him like the brilliance of the sun” (Philo, Volume vi: “On Abraham, on Joseph, on Moses”).

As summarized in his Deuteronomy 34:10 epitaph: “And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses whom the Lord knew face to face.”

Mount Sinai (Jan and Kaspar Luiken, 1723)
Public Domain

From Vulgate to Vulgarity

“Saint Jerome in his Study,” Albrect Dürer (1521)
Public Domain

There is no real questioning Jerome’s intentions and motivations with this translation of Exodus 34 at the time in which it was penned. However, as time progressed throughout the Middle Ages—with the rise of artwork reflecting Moses with horns—a negative, even anti-Semitic sentiment began to develop. Lee Jefferson explained in his own Biblical Archaeology Society article titled “The Horns of Moses”:

[W]ith the appearance of a Moses with horns on his head in Christian art, a shift began toward a derogative, anti-Jewish interpretation …. Christian anti-Judaism weaponized Jerome’s translation to justify hatred toward Jews. …

Moses and the old law began to be distanced from Jesus and His new law. The horns became readily visible in appearances of Moses …. Occasionally the horns appeared as small nodules, such as on a statue at Dijon, France, but they could also be rather large and demon-like in stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, such as the Huntingfield Psalter.

Jesus’s [original] closeness to Moses was deemphasized with the appearance of the horns, as they served to segregate Jews in a Christian era when Jews were often labeled as Christ-killers …. Although Moses had previously been an honorable figure in early Christian texts and art, after the 13th century he was associated with blind Synagoga and increasingly derogative images of Jews who followed the “old” law. Images of Jews wearing horned headdresses, or devil’s horns, appeared more readily in post-Reformation art, even on the cover of [Protestant Reformation leader] Martin Luther’s infamous tract On the Jews and Their Lies.

“On the Jews and Their Lies,” Martin Luther (1543)
Public Domain

On the Jews and Their Lies is an appalling text that enjoyed some level of popularity among Nazi supporters. The seven steps of Part xi read almost like an outline for the progression of events of the Holocaust at large—from Luther’s recommendation of the burning of synagogues and schools, to eviction from personal dwellings, to confiscation of valuables; advising the collective rehousing of Jews “under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies,” and requiring forced labor. “We are at fault in not slaying them,” Luther wrote, appealing to the regional princes and lords to “be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews.”

Jefferson continued: “Jews were seen as united with the devil in opposition to Christ …. The idea developed that if Moses, the most important Jew of the Old Testament, had horns, then all Jews must have horns, reflecting a demonic heritage”—a trope that has continued in some parts of the world even into the modern age.

It’s a truly tragic and ironic twist. From the slightest tweak of the sense of this passage, Moses’s reflection of the glory of God was turned into a reflection of the devil. As Jefferson put it succinctly: “Words matter.”