In medieval artwork, Moses is hard to distinguish from the devil. Could there be a connection between the two?
Artists of the Middle Ages depicted Moses with horns because of a common mistranslation that rendered the rays of light from his face as “horns.” (See Exodus 34:29-35.) Due to this translational error, countless artists depicted the prophet with golden shafts from his head, while others gave him full-blown antlers. Interestingly, artwork of the same era depicted Satan with horns. But this similarity may be more than mere appearance.
Your Accuser is Moses
Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, “Your accuser is Moses, on whom all your hopes are set (Jn 5:45 NIV).” This must have sounded strange in his hearers’ ears. The Hebrew word for adversary or accuser is Satan. Biblia by Faithlife says:
The Hebrew noun שָׂטָן (satan) means “adversary” or “accuser.” The term appears in Job 1–2 as a title for a heavenly being who has some sort of prosecutorial or adversarial role in the heavenly court (Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–7; compare Zech 3:1). The word can also be used in a general sense for an accuser in a human legal context (e.g., Psa 109:6) or for a military or political enemy (e.g., 1 Sam 29:4; 1 Kgs 5:18). By the New Testament, the Hebrew word satan has come into Greek as Σᾰτάν (Sătan), a name for the devil (e.g., Luke 13:16). This being’s role as an accuser is mentioned once in the NT where Satan is called ὁ κατήγωρ (ho katēgōr, “the accuser”; Rev 12:9–10).
So, what could Jesus have meant when he said that Moses was their Satan? In John 5:46-47 NIV, Jesus says:
If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”
Does the Bible Save You?
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time claimed that they understood scripture better than anyone else. If they had been able to read between the lines, Jesus said they would have understood that Moses was writing about him. I’m cautious about superimposing the New Testament on top of Hebrew scriptures. Jewish writers never intentionally wrote about Jesus himself. They did, however, write about the Messiah, without a specific individual in mind. More importantly, they wrote about the Messianic way, in which every believer can live as a messiah. Even though Jesus’ religious hearers knew the scriptures, somehow, they missed the message.
In 5:39-40 NIV, Jesus says:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Those who heard Jesus’s message believed that their spirituality, oneness with God, and salvation could be found in keeping the whole of the law. Jesus said it was by this keeping of the law that they presumed to possess eternal life. Yet, this is not the point of the scriptures. Salvation does not come by keeping every point of the law, but by walking in Jesus’s Spirit of grace. It comes by replacing legalism with love, as Jesus did.
What Then is the purpose of the law? It gives moral direction, not perfectionism. When people fail, it guides them to redirect their course. It highlights principles of compassion and justice, and calls people to live a better way. But the law has a darker side, and Jesus touched on that when he said that Moses can be your Satan.
A Religion of Rules
As in Jesus’s time, religious people today often think that they can please God by keeping the law. Christianity for some is all about rules and regulations. “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?” For these people, Moses and the law stand as accusers that point out personal failures. That horny devil Moses, with his tablets of law instead of pitchfork, stands as an accuser, shining a light on every failure for those who try to be saved by law-keeping. Trying to please God by keeping the law only results in disappointment.
The Law of Love
What, then, should we do? Antinomians abandon the law altogether, stating that where there is no law there is no transgression. But Jesus did not come to abolish the law. Instead, he came to fulfill it. How did he do this? By wrapping 613 Commandments up in two: to love God and love your neighbor. If you have done this, he says that you have fulfilled the law and the prophets. The Christian Life is not antinomian. There is a law – the law of love.
If you try to please God through moralism, Moses ceases to be a spiritual guide and instead becomes your accuser. Legalism does nothing but prove it’s impossible to keep the law. Pretty soon, holiness results in failure. But wholeness can come by living the law of love. Legalism pricks you with horny tines. But love makes your face shine like one who has seen God.