Lost in Translation: The Curious Case of Moses’ Horns

If you grew up in an evangelical church like me, you might be familiar with the catchy children’s song, The B-I-B-L-E. It goes a little something like this, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” (Now imagine me as a little moppet be-bopping around church singing it, and you’ll get the gist.)

Come to think of it, I know SEVERAL songs about the Bible including *two* that list all of the books of the Bible in order.

Basically, evangelicals and other conservative Christians are BIG fans of the Bible. Some fundamentalist groups subscribe to biblical literalism, which is the belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Others see the collective works of the Bible to be the “inspired” word of God. They believe God used the Holy Spirit to speak through the various authors of the Bible to share the “good news” of the gospel.

Those who see the Bible as inerrant or inspired believe the text is unique, holy, and absolute. Critics cite inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the Bible, but apologists work around, excuse, or deny these examples.

No matter what you believe, there is no denying that language is tricky. (Anyone who watched Bill Clinton debating what the meaning of “is” is during the Monica Lewinsky trial, can attest to language loopholes and ambiguities.) This is particularly true of texts that require translation. The Bible has been translated into a bazillion (give or take) languages and has had countless versions from the New International to the King James, and now there’s even a millennial version (and don’t get me started about the redneck, Klingon, or ebonics editions…).

Ok, now I’m just rambling. Let me get to the point. Well, two points, to be exact–on Moses’s head on Michelangelo’s statue in Rome in the form of horns.

In what some believe to be an epic example of “lost in translation” in Exodus 34 by Saint Jerome in the Latin Vulgate Bible, Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments and a face “horned from the conversation with the Lord.” Most interpreters now say it should read “shone with light” rather than “horned.” Tomato, tomahto.

Either way, Moses ended up with a set of horns, and now for our purposes, it serves as a reminder that language is subtle, nuanced, and prone to confusion. The sitcom Three’s Company existed because of the frequency (and hilarity) of misunderstandings, and I, for one, am forever grateful. I mean, that show is a classic.

The Bible, whether it’s inspired or not, is still at the mercy of its reader to interpret and understand the words, and we all do that in our own unique way. So maybe next time you (or someone you know) demonstrates the sort of certainty that precludes other points of view–especially with regard to religion–just remember Moses and his weird little horns. Remember that words mean things, but they don’t always mean the same thing to everyone, all the time.



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