One of the more curious features of Michelangelo’s Moses is that the massive sculpture at the Church of St. Peter in Rome is depicted with horns on his head, like some great bearded Pan. This was not due, as one might suppose, to an anti-Semitic canard that Jews had horns like the devil. Michelangelo was merely following the artistic convention of the time in depicting Moses, based on a mistranslation of a Bible passage describing his appearance when he came down from Mt. Sinai. The passage in question from the Book of Exodus noted that the skin of his face was shining; however, the Hebrew word in the original text could be translated as either “rays” or “horns.” St. Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible in use at that time, chose the latter, giving rise to a horned Moses rather than a radiant one.
Moses’ appearance when he came down from Mt. Sinai was scary enough to his followers, even without the horns. They had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years and were strangers to the fearsome God who descended on Sinai in thunder and fire. They had been told that if they went too near the mountain they would die. They had no reason to doubt it. The ground shook, and Sinai was wrapped in thick smoke. Moses went up the mountain and was gone 40 days. When he returned bearing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, his face still shone from his encounter with the Lord Most High. The people were terrified, and Moses was made to veil his face.
Moses had gone to Sinai with hopes of meeting God face to face. In this he was disappointed. The Lord placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with his hand as he passed by. Moses caught only a glimpse of the Lord from behind. God was not being shy. Moses had been warned that he could not look upon God’s face and live. But why should this be so? Like moths to a flame, we are drawn to God. Yet if we get too close – pfft! – we are consumed. We have come up against the terrible otherness of God – or so the theologians would have us believe.
At their first encounter at the burning bush, the Lord had refused to reveal to Moses any name by which he could be known. The God who revealed himself to the prophet Hosea made it abundantly clear that he did not bear any resemblance to those who were created in his image: “For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” – holy meaning “set apart.” To the prophet Isaiah he said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” The hapless Job got nowhere seeking an explanation for the misfortunes he suffered at God’s hands. "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” the Lord thundered, making it clear Job had no standing even to ask why his life had been torn asunder on a whim. For the Greeks, a God who is comprehensible is not God.
It does not follow, of course, that God is incomprehensible just because we do not understand him. And it may be that the otherness we attribute to God may, in fact, apply to ourselves. According to the biblical creation story, it was we who first set ourselves apart from God and his creation. Even before humankind’s expulsion from paradise, Adam and Eve hid themselves from God’s presence. We established a sovereign kingdom of self and thereafter jealously guarded its boundaries. The God who initially appeared strolling in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day is transformed into the fearsome demiurge who thundered atop Mt. Sinai. He is portrayed as threatening because we instinctively feel threatened by an entity that undermines our sense of separateness.
We are mistaken in thinking we cannot survive a face-to-face encounter with God. We do live on, but no longer as ourselves – as least not as the sovereign self we believe ourselves to be. As St. Paul put it after his fateful encounter with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Moses was not deceived when told that he could not look upon the face of God and live. To look upon the face of God is to discover that God is all there is. We live on, but not as ourselves. We live on as a manifestation of God.