Brigstocke, Thomas, 1809-1881; Moses with His Arms Supported by Aaron and Hur

Why Is Moses Pictured With Horns?

If you’ve been a fan of biblical art or art history then you have probably seen some strange images or statues of biblical characters with horns on their heads. If you have not, here are some examples.

Why Moses Has Horns

Let me first state that there is no reason to believe that Moses had horns. However, a lot of art throughout history has pictured Moses with horns. The reason is because of Exodus 34. We all recall the story of Moses coming down from the mountain of God with the tablets and God’s glory causing his face to shine. However, earlier translations of the Hebrew were not done very well leading to this discrepancy.

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. (Exodus 34:29 KJV)

And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.” (Exodus 34:29 English translation of the Latin Vulgate)

The translation listed second is from the 4th century and was in Latin. It was the language of the Catholic church and a large majority of people in the ancient Mediterranean. But it seems that there was confusion about how to translate the word “קָרַ֛ן”. The whole verse can be read below in the original Hebrew text.

וַיְהִ֗י בְּרֶ֤דֶת מֹשֶׁה֙ מֵהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וּשְׁנֵ֨י לֻחֹ֤ת הָֽעֵדֻת֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּרִדְתּוֹ֖ מִן־הָהָ֑ר וּמֹשֶׁ֣ה לֹֽא־יָדַ֗ע כִּ֥י קָרַ֛ן ע֥וֹר פָּנָ֖יו בְּדַבְּרֹ֥ו אִתּוֹֽ׃
Ex 34:29.

Obviously it is clear that someone translated something wrong. First, let us remember that even though 0ne translation makes more sense; that accurate translation is not only about translating something based on what makes sense to us, but rather to faithfully transmit what is in the original text. Though, most of the time the best translation is the one that makes sense. So, which translation is correct?

Proper Translation of קָרַ֛ן (QRN)

Before we venture into this specific word, remember that Hebrew is a language of roots. קרן (QRN) is just 3 consonants. The 3 letter roots can be conjugated to mean many things and express multiple forms of the same thought.

Additionally, there are no written vowels in ancient Hebrew. The difficulty with this is that without the vowels the reader must imply where the vowels are and what they are. Often multiple options exist. In English we have 10 different ways to say 1 idea. In Hebrew they have 1 word that can represent 10 different ideas. This is achieved through conjugation and context. It sounds difficult but we can usually do the same thing in English. For example, can you recognize the verse below without vowels?

Fr Gd s lvd th wrld tht h gv h n nd nly Sn, tht whvr blvs n hm shll nt prsh bt hv trnl lfe.

This is a slightly difficult passage without vowels but most will recognize the passage from John 3:16. Also keep in mind that ancient cultures were oral. Writing and reading was a luxury not a necessity.

Vowels were helpful but they were memorized and passed down orally. Not until the time of the Masoretic scribes, sometime around 600AD, did the Hebrew scriptures have  vowels to help the reader differentiate. Since the Latin vulgate was done about 150 years previous to the Masoretic vowel pointers that means that Jerome (the translator) would have been working with Hebrew manuscripts that did not have vowel pointers. He did have the Greek Septuagint to guide him but it seems as though he did not follow the Greek rendering of Exodus 34:29.

So how does קרן get turned into horns? Let’s first note that sometimes a verb that is formed from a noun does not directly refer to it’s noun counterpart. Also, as time goes on verbs take on new meanings. For example, in English we can use the word “call” to mean the action of calling someone on the phone but it originated from a verbal function of simply speaking to someone in a particular manner. The idea that a phone is involved is implied by our culture and developed over time.

What does that have to do with קרן?

Options for translating קרן

The word קרן can be either a verb or a noun. The noun usage is usually translated as “horn” or an object sticking out of something. It’s the same word used to describe the horns of the altar in the tabernacle. It can also refer to the horn of an animal. The vowel pointers added to the word would make it conjugate like this: קֶ֫רֶן (QEREN). Notice the two “E” vowels. This would also have a very distinct and sharp tone in Hebrew. In more rare occasions the קֶ֫רֶן conjugation can also indicate something going forth from something or someone.

His radiance is like the sunlight;
He has rays(קֶ֫רֶן) flashing from His hand,
And there is the hiding of His power.
(Habakkuk 3:4)

One can see from the context that קֶ֫רֶן is clearly not referring to horns. The previous part of the sentence already introduces the idea of God’s light and power. Furthermore, it would seem silly to say that horns were growing out of someone’s hands.

The verb usage of קרן can be conjugated many ways but the version we have in Exodus 34:29 is “קָרַ֛ן” (QARAN). This conjugation is more commonly meant to indicate light rays coming from something. While the קֶ֫רֶן (QEREN) form can, at times, refer to shining light, the קָרַ֛ן (QARAN) form is much more likely to be used to indicate light shining.

One might naturally assume that the proper translation is that Moses’ face “shone” not “grew horns”. However, what make sense to us may not have made sense to other cultures. We see elsewhere in the OT that the use of קרן (QRN) can refer symbolically to power or strength. Referring to a large horn or many horns often referred to the strength of something.

לָקַחְנוּ לָנוּ קַרְנַיִם = we have taken horns to ourselves. (Amos 6:13)

Thus, we have another alternate reading based on the idea of strength or power. However, the context of the Exodus passage does not support such a translation. Saying that Moses’ face grew horns as a symbol of strength or power would be an out of place reference. Usually power and glory coming from a person’s face is described as radiance.

Using the translation of QRN as horns would only make sense if it were used in a figurative sense…. But that presents a problem because the people were afraid of Moses’ appearance. So whatever was on his face it was visible, not a figurative reference. 

I would also suggest that the exodus passage is refering to God’s goodness and his presence being on the face of Moses, not strength and power. I believe that the goodness and presence of God would be more like light which is common is semitic imagery. Indeed, when Jesus revealed himself to the 3 disciples on the mountain (channeling Exodus 34) Jesus’ face was glowing. 

I believe also that the refernce to Moses’ skin in the next verse is a bit specific to go with horns. I think ones’ skin would more than likely be described as glowing or shining rather than growing horns. 

We see in many ancient texts that someone’s radiance was the representation of their glory. It was very common to talk about one’s radiance or light, especially on the face.

Radiance on the Face, in Ancient Semitic Culture

When Apsu heard this, his face grew radiant
Because of the evil he planned against the gods, his sons.
As for Mummu, he embraced him by the neck
As that one sat down on his knees to kiss him.
– (Enuma Elish, Tablet I) –

In order to (show the) strength of my rule,
the possessions of his palace I plundered;
A valuable image of my likeness,
for his temples I glorified.
The Kummuheans and Patinians,
radiance overwhelmed them.
– (A Psalm praising Assurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE)) –

“I razed, destroyed, and burnt their cities. I unleashed against them my Lordly radiance.”
– (Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 BCE)) –

Tablet of Shamash

At that time —
of Nabû-apla-iddinna,
king of Babylon,
his heart rejoiced,
and shining was his countenance.
Towards Nabû-nādin-šumi, high priest of Sippar, the diviner
he lifted his face.
With his bright face,
(and) his ruddy countenance,
(and) his beautiful (generous) eyes,
happily he looked at him.
– (The “Sun Disk” Tablet of Nabû-apla-iddina (888-855 BCE)) –

When the god Shamash, great lord of heaven and earth, king of the gods, with his shining face, joyfully looked at me, Hammu-rapi, the prince, his favorite, granted to me everlasting kingship (and) a reign of long days
– (HAMMU-RAPI Inscription (1792–1750 BCE.)) –

More examples exist in ancient literature but I just wanted to briefly show that ancient themes of power and glory often manifest itself as a radiance or a shining.

Additinally, the Septuagint, the Targums, and the Peshitta, translate it as various types of luminous facial splendor. Also, the Midrash seems to use the imagery as well. Adam is described as having a face of light until the fall.


Given the ancient imagery one should conclude that Moses’ face was more than likely shining, not growing horns. The textual witness in Hebrew does not pose any linguistic challenge to such a conclusion. Moreover, the context of Exodus would lead one to believe that God’s glory manifested in the face of Moses in the form of light, not horns.

Some artists have attempted to rectify or pair the idea of horns and light, as seen in the featured image on this article. Such compromises are common as translations change over time. Though, it is clear that time and translation advances have decided that the passage is clearly referring to light and not horns.

Moreover, the New Testament teachings of Paul included interpretation that it was light that was beaming from Moses’ face.

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was (2 Cor 3:7)