ON THE HORNS OF MOSES
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The Old Testament features a convenient scapegoat for our natural ambivalence, bigotry and materialism: our spiritual ancestors, the stereotypical Jews. The perennial Jewish Question, “How should we treat the Jews,” should be asked not only of the self-styled Jews but of our thoroughly Judaized Western culture. Josephus might better say of the lot of us today what he said centuries ago of the early Western philosophers: “Our earliest imitators were the Greek philosophers, who, though ostensibly observing the laws of their own countries, yet in their conduct and philosophy were Moses’ disciples.” If we would know ourselves, we should first of all know the Jews, and to know them we have to know their history.
The Jewish poets and scribes did a wonderful job of recording our same old story. In their eloquent books we find the best and worst of human nature in the portrayal of the progress of the naturally ambiguous religion of ambivalence, of human cruelty and loving kindness projected onto a single national deity. Now each man would be god almighty, or at least a wild bull to his domesticated cattle, but that just cannot be. Although he cannot be all that he would be, he can cling to clan and tribe and kith and kin; he can attribute his fatal flaw to outlandish enemies, outlaws who do not participate in his group’s sacred rituals. And there are always enemies, within besides his own self, to accuse him of hypocrisy and found their own cults: Judaism, for instance, spawned two world religions on the principle of “Thou Hypocrite!” i.e., on the demand that the deed match the ideal.
Indeed, hypocrisy is the underlying crisis; an actor on this spinning ball cannot be the person he pretends to be; that person in turn is a masked actor or hypocrite in his won right. Out of self-contempt for his lack of omnipotent identity, man resorts to bigotry, the hate-others-based group-love of mass seclusion and corporate narcissism. Yet the attempt at self-aggrandizement through identification with the higher power of the herd is bound to fall short of the self-contempt gestalt of its individual cattle; self-destructive or groundless hatred for one’s own rabble eventually atomizes the metaphysical superstructure into rubble.
The foregoing may appear to be misanthropic raillery, yet who is not angry at self or humankind at one time or another for our faults? And what is lovingly stamped on the other side of the coin, but the image of the ideal or head person who would be free of faults?
Man would be free but is circumscribed by restraints. The Greeks counseled him to know his limits, but the flip side of knowledge is ignorance, wherefore he exceeds his limits, reaches for the stars, and suffers painful consequences from time to time; but he does not give up even though his sacrifices may not be worthwhile. And the life-saving fear of being trampled and crushed and annihilated as a consequence of the exercise of the native will to stampede from fear to absolute freedom so that the existent being might persist forever without impediment, gives each and every one who is blessed and cursed with conscience due cause for guilt for the damage they have done in the process. We have good cause to love even our enemies lest they retaliate in our moment of weakness; we have good cause to have abiding faith in justice; for it is as plain as day and night that justice shall certainly be done; if not now, then in the long run, for in the end all of us under the heavenly dome are obviously doomed by the summary judgment of Dom, amen.
To each his own to the best of his abilities: Without a natural sense of justice each man and woman would do whatever they could get away with, given their relative strengths, in a war of all against all, where only might is right, hence the ancient Greek religion held that anyone without that certain sense of universal justice, of equality under law, should be put to death. Yet to the unreasonable victors belong the spoils. Religion worships absolute power while politics determines its relative distributions.
We are not surprised to learn that the aggressive and often cruel Hellenistic culture of our Western heritage embraced oriental Moses, the ever-so-meek servant of loving kindness who ordered a multitude executed for disobedience to the laws handed down to him, by the lord of justice, for digesting into succinct expression that they might be better imposed upon his people. Love the Lord or else suffer the direst doom.
YHWH at Sinai was allegedly incensed by the worship of the golden bull made of melded ornaments in Moses’ absence. Bulls were uncommon to Arabia, the region believed to be the origin of the Semitic race. Perhaps bull worship was derived from the hated Egypt of their former bondage if not brought down long before by Hebrews from those Sumerian lands where cattle were wont to graze and where the ambivalent bull symbolized strength and whose name was synonymous with ‘hero’. The wild Mesopotamian bull of raging storms that devastated the land also brought nourishing rain and protected his cattle. Just as every Hindu god of note had his white elephant to ride, every Mesopotamian god and king had a preferably white bull for his steed or as his throne. The great Lord Baal, for one, who ruled the world under authority of El – whose bullish Phoenician letter, standing on its horns, is the ‘A’ that heads our alphabet – was associated with the bull. Moreover, Zeus took the form of the sacred white Cretan bull when he carried Europa, the astonishingly beautiful Semitic princess, off from Phoenicia to Crete, where she reigned as queen. Crete was cradle for the catholic Hellenic religion at Delphi – the pythias who uttered oracles while sitting on the mystical tripods there were Cretan nuns. We further note that the appearance of a white bull in America signified a cleansing apocalypse for its original Americans. Despite YHWH’s ire at Sinai, King Jereboam of the Northern Kingdom of Israel placed images of bulls in sanctuaries, where they were adored as likenesses of YHWH. And as we shall see in our discussion of horns, YHWH was otherwise likened to a bull. Why, then, the Lord was so outraged at Sinai, is one of the eternal mysteries that results in a great deal of blasphemy by way of explanation. Freud might speculate that the golden bull worshiped there, a young bull or calf, represented an attempt by a rebellious son to replace the old father bull.
“Now let me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation,” commanded the irate Lord at Sinai. Meek Moses interceded on behalf of the doomed disobedient, and the Lord demurred, but when Moses saw the people dancing around the golden bull his own ire was raised as high as the Lord’s, wherefore he called together the Levites (‘priests’) and had them slay thousands of his wayward followers, including their own brothers and friends and neighbors, in the name of the lord of loving kindness for one’s own kind; and the Levites were washed clean of sin by the blessed blood of the slaughter, that they become a nation pure, standing apart from all humankind. Lest the slaughter go even further, Moses interceded again, and asked the lord to annihilate him too if forgiveness could not be had; the merciful Lord relented again, but with the proviso that he would punish the people for their idolatry over the golden bull at a later date. First things first: the Promised Land must be seized:
“Observe thou that which I am commanding thee this day; behold, I am driving out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thy self, lest though make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest they be for a snare in the midst of thee. But ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim.”
Alexander the Great of Macedonia, the “Two-Horned One” mentioned in the Koran in regards to the Last Day, saw the promised lands and seized them for the Hellenes. Moses, oft depicted with horns, had seen his chosen people’s small portion of the promised lands from Mount Nebo in Jordan although he never set foot on it, yet he was the universal model for those pioneers who colonized continents with Moses in mind. Mount Nebo, incidentally, was the residence of Nebo, the Assyrian-Babylonian messenger-god of speech and writing; his symbols were the clay tablet and stylus; he recorded the deeds of people that they might be judged after death. “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there,” the Lord said, giving His messenger’s people the right to seize the land he saw from its inhabitants. Nebo’s Roman equivalent is Mercury, messenger to the gods and god of travel and thievery. The Greeks viewed Moses as a messenger of god and as a consummate lawgiver. Wherever law rules, wherever truth is told and justice is accordingly done, peace shall prevail in the end. That destination is of course the Promised Land.
The legendary Moses was presumably familiar with the laws of Eygptians, Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians – Hammurabi had similar laws engraved on stelae erected in Babylon six centuries prior. But the script of Moses was divinely underwritten. Reward for performance and punishment for breach were guaranteed upon acceptance. Stone outlasts generations of human beings, including those who lay claim to immortality and insist that this world is vain and shall vanish while they forever persist in their own vanity of vanities. Prior to the invention of writing, awful oral curses were duly made over covenant stones or torahs in order to violently engrave the memory and thereby ensure good faith performance of the terms by the parties thereto.
“Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen: but let not YHWH speak of us, lest we die.’ And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for YHWH has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.’”
Speech and writing are very different: we seem to be born with innate rules of grammar; speech comes naturally to all normal human beings, who soon talk up a storm; but writing is a contrivance that requires painstaking forethought. We can imagine the trouble taken to inscribe two stone tablets on both sides with not only the Decalogue at the head of the Law but with all the ordinances that followed, which fill up about three pages of our modern Bible text in small font – of course the absence of consonants in the Hebrew written language saved space. In fact the written expression of language transforms consciousness and therefore the way we think and speak. Now writing set in stone may last as long as stone; that preservation is undoubtedly an invaluable mnemonic aid to the technological advance of civilization.
But where mere morals are concerned, precautionary words about the magic of writing are in order here: we tend to forget what is written down because we can refer to it later; today most people cannot remember the Ten Commandments writ by Moses, nor can they recite the first four of them in the right order, nor can they explain why the first few must be prior to the rest for the rest to be honored – hence the old prophets forewarned warned them, and said they must remember and obey the Writ or their bodies will become as dung on the ground. Posting the law on every post and on the walls of every court shall not suffice for the active observance required by the covenant: the laws, whatever they might be, must be understood, and must be embedded in the heart (mind).
The unwritten Law of the Unknown God was finally made plain, set in stone; the Writ was inscribed by the Lord’s lightning rod or finger, Moses, whose followers were unaware of the existence of that Lord until Horeb, the mountain of the Lord, was reached during their peregrination. That mysterious mountain, unknown today, is otherwise called Mount Sinai, the dwelling of Sin, the Sumerian crescent-moon god and lord of wisdom who also served as the dominant deity of Arabia. Sin’s title in Arabia was al-ilah, “the deity,” namely, Allah, the greatest of all gods, who would eventually become, for Mohammed, not merely the chief of the 360 gods at the Kaaba in Mecca but the one and only god whose sign appears on mosques, minarets, and flags. In fact astrological religion headed by the moon god and his chief star-goddess once dominated what we now call the Middle East; after all, the heavenly bodies are obvious to everyone on Earth. And now Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike take care to repudiate the origin of their faiths in the universal worship of the heavenly bodies: the Old Testament repeatedly denounces moon worship; for example, in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, we find this injunction:
“And beware, lest your lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to the peoples under the whole heaven.”
Sin was depicted as an old man who wears a hat adorned with multiple horns and who rides a bull. He has a long flowing beard; his other symbols are the crescent moon and the tripod, known throughout the world for its stability. Sin was apparently as bullish as El, the Semitic father of the gods adopted by the Hebrews, represented at the head of the alphabet by aleph (alpha), the sign of a horned bull or strong ox. Sin served as protector of the cattle that grazed about the marshes of Ur. Both Ur and Haran, places mentioned in Genesis, were Sin’s cult centers: Abraham and his family “went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there.” Sin’s oracles from Mount Sinai down south were issued in the form of commandments that even the gods must obey, hence Sin, although he was son to Enlil, was considered to be the father of the gods, wherefore his cult tended to monotheism. The wilderness Sin was known in the more comfortable quarters of Babylonia as the somewhat older, full-moon god called Nanna, the beloved, friendly god of many a prayer. Nabonidus, the last neo-Babylonian king, tried and failed to replace Marduk, the chief god of the pantheon, with Nanna.
Since the ancients told time by the moon, the crescent-moon god Sin was naturally perceived as Father Time, god of destinies and fates hence judge of heaven and earth. And Sin was the generous being of periodic fertility whose regular harvest fed the hungry and who otherwise helped the lonely and poor. Thought fights fear with knowledge of the past, hence the future is in part secured by memory or predictable, but in infinite time it always remains in part unknown. The unknown or universal god of gods, the indefinite and absolute power at the root of the creature’s fear of deathly nothing and love for life has no cause to think in self-defense because ineffable X is indestructible, eternal or timeless. This nuclear power, so to speak, gives the Sun cause to blaze forth the radiating branches or arms of the unquenchable burning bush once beheld by Moses, who was himself drawn from the water of chaos to be the el yoked by his staff to shepherd the chosen people as their number 1.
The moon-god who measures out time is occasionally attacked by the demons that eclipse the regular order that it might collapse back into chaos, hence Sin was associated with inexplicable natural disasters, particularly with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes:
“On the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whosoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.’ …So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled…. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.”
The Moon came down to light the volcano: and Moses’ face shone gloriously when he came down from the volcano with the splendid stone, reflecting the radiant light of the law; no mere mortal can bear to see such a blinding light, even when reflected, so he veiled his effulgence that his glorious face appeared as clouded as that of the moody Man in the Moon, yet showing the glowing tips or horns of the crescent moon. And when he descended he found his people had prepared a throne, a golden bull for the leader to ride, and they had proceeded to worship it in his absence, but this idol pleased him not because it was a mere reflection of the power almighty that can smash every stone, even that great stone Sisyphus shoves to the apex of the heavenly vault that it might give the world daylight and roll back down again into night that the Moon might appear for its fates hidden in a cave nearby to do their work, one spinning the thread, another weaving the chord, another cutting it. Nay, not even those tablets upon which the law is writ on both sides, nor the letters themselves, should be idolized, for the spirit must preside over the letter that the strong authority have free reign.
Thus reads Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “(God) made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.”
Now for Mesopotamians Sin was the strong white bull of the Night, Night being the Nothing from which all things emerge; his crescent horns of light represented the moon-boat, the sacred ark that carries the philosopher’s stone, upon which is engraved the law of existence of the arc between the horns of the poles, from horizon to horizon, from birth to death and rebirth ad infinitum. The moonbeams from his shining face anointed kings with royal halos. Naturally the face of Moses shone like the crescent moon upon Mount Sinai, wherefore he was depicted with crescent horns.
“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked with him.”
One form of the Hebrew root-word QRN (karan) suggests radiation, as in the emission of rays of light, the other suggests the growing of grow horns. Jerome translated the Hebrew phrase describing Moses’ facial glory into the Latin cornuta esset facies sua – “his face was horned.” Pious people who would fain disassociate themselves from their animal nature and eschew their forebear’s totemism are offended by the horny suggestion. To appease their divine prejudice it is generally agreed that the depictions of Moses with horns, such as those that appear above the gloriously clouded face of Michelangelo’s sculpture, are the result of a mistaken translation of the Hebrew text. Perhaps most insulting of all is the suggestion that the horns are not those of a powerful bull but rather the horns of a ram, the creature which the hated Egyptians associated with the Ra the solar God; or of the sure-footed, mountain-climbing goat, notorious for the promiscuity celebrated by Pan and the satyrs, not to mention the devil.
Bacchus the Greek god of wine was horny and many a dame and damsel were corrupted at his festive orgies. But horns are nothing to be entirely ashamed of even when shed. Horned Dionysus enjoyed irrational orgies when in his horn-cups, yet his human form has been associated with Moses and with Moses’ most illustrious successor, the Christ with whom those who drink his blood shall be in the vine as one.
Horns are obviously instruments of destructive force; they were used during the Stone and Bronze ages as weapons and tools, and served well as natural symbols of power. Horned helmets were proudly worn throughout the world, among the Romans, Greeks, Estrucans and others. The Vikings certainly were not above wearing horns or power-drinking out of horns. An American chief such as Sitting Bull did not mind horns at all. Cernunnos (cerna: horn), underworld god of the Gauls, was distinguished by horns. Hindu Agni and Buddhist Yamam are with impunity adorned with horns to this very day – Indra himself is referred to as a bull. Assyrian, Hittite, and Babylonian kings would not be caught dead without a good set of horns. For the occultist, the budding horns of the calf signify successful initiation into the Mysteries – the number of Commandments, Ten, represents the perfection of the Law in Christ, who is crowned with ten radiant horns. On the other hand, we have the ten horns of Revelation: “And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings, who have not received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour.”
The Hebrew altar itself had horns at each end for the priest to grasp. Horns stand for choices. In Chapter 33 of Deuteronomy, Joseph is blessed and promised the best of everything, with choice lands and choice produce, and is referred to as “the first-born of his ox, majesty is his, and his horns are the horns of the wild ox; with them he shall push the peoples, all at once, to the ends of the earth.”
The poets spoke figuratively and the scribes inscribed many a white lie. The Supreme Being is not really a man or a bullish man, much less a monstrous Minotaur. Yet since thought and speech configures and reconfigures sensory experience after the fact, the storyteller cannot help resorting to figures of speech: the book of Numbers informs us that YHWH is “not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.” YHWH is not a hypocrite; He makes good what He says; His word is good; His truth comes true: YHWH is for Israel “like the horns of the wild ox. He shall devour the nations who are his adversaries, and shall crush their bones in pieces, and shatter them with his arrows.”
The highest priests are YHWH’s thoroughgoing iconoclasts: they have evolved beyond the worship of the bullish Lord Baal, and even beyond El, have climbed the metaphysical mount to its pinnacle. We speak of an evolution that spirals from the base camp to the summit where the climber of the golden chain of being takes the fatal leap to faith in nothing in particular, faith in the One that is at once Nothing. The Supreme Being is not a bull nor does the Supreme Being need such a steed. The poetic scribe inscribed this emotional motivation for YHWH’s volcanic wrath: “I, the Lord your god, am a jealous god.” But the poet lied in order to have good faith in something. But YHWH, the ineffable, unknown god, the infinitely variable yet permanent X that is neither tablet nor word nor letter, is not jealous of golden calves or concepts or of anything else for that matter. Thought is fearful flight from reality; concepts separate us from what is; reality has no cause to think. The iconoclast therefore smashes everything in sight, and whatever remains is good. It is said that Moses smashed the first set of tablets to save his people because their idolatry could not withstand the Law that would put an end to it and therefore to them as well; yet he may very well have smashed the tablets to keep them from worshipping the letter of the Law instead of the indefinite spirit that endures forever and ever without such impediments.
Each I would identify with a higher I in order to be something greater, perhaps beyond every grouping to the WE that is I-AM-I, and even to eventually cast off the superficial individuation of divided individuals and return to the original purity where nothing is permanent, the alpha and omega every individual as such fears. Ten is the perfect number, the number of the Decalogue and of YHWH. The number Ten, sum of One through Four, is in points the figuratively triangular Tetragrammaton. In numerical form the aleph, the magic wand, appears with the cipher or nothing pregnant with everything, thus we have the 10 that signifies something that transcends Either/Or, something other than being and nothing, namely the Negatively Existent One, or capitalized Nothing if you prefer. Faith in Nothing, the secret of unconditional love, clings to no thing yet revels rebelliously in the All.
The chosen people were in want of a miracle in the wilderness of Sin. They and their livestock were about to die of thirst, and they proceeded to quarrel with Moses: “Have you brought us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Wherefore the Lord had Moses take his magic wand in hand and strike the stone so that water would pour forth from it. The question quarreled over, “Is the Lord among us or not?” had been answered by the Negatively Existent One. If we take this truth to heart, that Nothing is perfect and permanent, there shall be plenty of bread and water for everyone.