Moses: The Face of Fear


In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 Albright College, USA


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Moses is the only prophet in the tradition to see God “face-to-face,” and this intimate contact transforms his very body – when he comes down from the mountain, his face is altered, and he must veil (Exod. 34:29–35). Both the altered face and the veiled face have strange interpretive histories. What may have begun in Hebrew as rays of light streaming from Moses’ visage become in Greek and Latin horns sticking out of his head; thus a history of interpretation begins which first avers the horns as symbols of power and divinity but later shifts to associate the horns with animals and demons. The veil may have also begun as a powerful symbol of prophecy, but its meaning also shifts, and it later becomes associated with passivity and femininity. These multivalent images reveal deeper realities and resonances. Moses is something other than, something beyond, the human and its gendered bifurcation. He is at the nexus where the human, the animal, and the divine meet and converge. And between the glowing face/horns and the veil lies fear, the fear of the Israelites when they behold their leader, and the fear of the Bible’s readers when they are faced with Moses’ ambiguities. Using affect theory, especially Sara Ahmed’s critical work on emotion, this paper will explore the meanings of Moses’ face, covered and uncovered, as it moves through time and community.


  • 2

    Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” p. 13; emphasis original.

  • 3

    Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” p. 6; their full list is on pp. 6–8.

  • 4

    Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” p. 6.

  • 5

    Benjamin Edidin Scolnic, “Moses and the Horns of Power,” Judaism 40 (1991), pp. 569–79 (571–72).

  • 6

    Ruth Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Berkeley: University of California, 1970), pp. 1–2.

  • 8

    Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses, p. 76.

  • 9

    Scolnic, “Moses and the Horns of Power,” p. 570.

  • 11

    Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses, p. 3.

  • 12

    Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses, pp. 3–5.

  • 13

    Scolnic, “Moses and the Horns of Power,” pp. 575–76. See also Jack M. Sasson, “Bovine Symbolism in the Exodus Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968), pp. 380–87. Sasson also examines the Egyptian and Semitic horned deities that would have been a part of the cultural milieu of the Israelites.

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  • 14

    Scolnic, “Moses and the Horns of Power,” p. 575.

  • 16

    Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus (JPS Torah Commentary; New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 221. Sarna understands Moses’ face to be radiant with the glory of God.

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  • 17

    Brian Britt, Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 114–15. I will discuss Britt’s interpretation of the veil more below.

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  • 18

    See for example, Thomas Dozeman, “Masking Moses and Mosaic Authority in Torah,” Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000), pp. 21–45. Hugo Gressmann first proposes that Moses’ veil was a cultic mask (Moses und seine Zeit: Ein Kommentar zu den Mose-Sagen [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913]). Dozeman focuses on understanding the literary function of the glowing face of Moses and the veil – both of which he understands to be masks.

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  • 19

    Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 144. See also Roland Boer, “Yahweh as Top: A Lost Targum,” in Ken Stone (ed.), Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001), pp. 75–105. Boer explores the sadomasochistic dynamic between Yahweh and Moses during the drama of Sinai’s revelation: both God and his prophet have unstable gender identities.

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  • 20

    Britt, Rewriting Moses, p. 98.

  • 21

    Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 8.

  • 22

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 9. She is summarizing ideas that Durkheim explains in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Although not directly relevant to Ahmed’s work, his theory of the sociology of emotion is largely articulated in terms of religious feelings and beliefs; the sacred is affect. It is society, in fact, that generates religious feelings: “Society in general, simply by its effect on men’s [sic.] minds, undoubtedly has all that is required to arouse the sensation of the divine” (Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life [trans. Karen E. Fields; New York: Free Press, 1995], p. 208).

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  • 23

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 10.

  • 24

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 6.

  • 25

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 12.

  • 27

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 63.

  • 28

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 65.

  • 31

    Britt, Rewriting Moses, p. 83.

  • 32

    Britt, Rewriting Moses, p. 84.

  • 33

    Britt, Rewriting Moses, p. 114; cf. Brian Britt, “Prophetic Concealment in a Biblical Type Scene,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64 (2002), pp. 37–58.

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  • 34

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, pp. 64–65.

  • 35

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 66.

  • 36

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 66.

  • 37

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 67.

  • 38

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 67; cf. p. 50.

  • 40

    Britt, Rewriting Moses, p. 84.

  • 41

    See Jay Twomey, 2 Corinthians: Crisis and Conflict (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013), pp. 64–78, for alternative approaches to supersessionist understandings of 2 Corin-thians 3.

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  • 43

    Farfa Bible, Vat. Lat. 5729, folio 6v, ca 1000.

  • 44

    Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses, p. 8.

  • 45

    Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses, p. 19.

  • 46

    Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses, p. 121. See also T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), especially p. 91, which looks at the roots of Satan’s horns and adds the horns of the Ugaritic Habayu to the list of Satan’s antecedents (cf. p. 81).

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  • 47

    Melinkoff, The Horned Moses, p. 126.

  • 49

    Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (trans. David Wills; New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

  • 50

    Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 132.

  • 51

    Scolnic, “Moses and the Horns of Power,” p. 576.

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