Sunday, September 03, 2006


So far, it's been a nice weekend: I did some laundry, watched a bit of TV, had penne al' arrabbiata and I took part in a fascinating discussion concerning the meaning of the word "horn" in the Old Testament over at Lingamish's place. Passages like "the horn of my salvation" (Psalms 18:2) and "in my name shall his horn be exalted" (Psalms 89:24) are usually accompanied by notes stating that "horn is a symbol of strength" or something to that effect.
After thorough examination, the consensus seems to be that in these instances, קֶרֶן (horn) refers to authority or political power. The evidence is plentiful:
  1. In Job 16:15, Job mentions his horn being defiled in the dust when describing how God "hath broken him asunder".
  2. Jeremiah 48:25 speaks of the kingdom of Moab whose "horn is broken" and whose "arm is cut off".
  3. Zechariah 1:21 speaks of four horns which scattered Judah and mentions "the horns of the Gentiles" which will be cast out.
  4. In Ezekiel 29:19, the Lord gives Egypt to Nebuchadrezzar, but in 29:21 He promises to "cause the horn of the house of Israel to bud forth, and I will give thee the opening of the mouth in the midst of them". In other words, Babylonia is now the great power, having conquered the previous great power, Egypt. But the day will come when the Lord will raise Israel to that status.
  5. Lamentations 2:3 - notice the parallelism between "He hath cut off in his fierce anger all the horn of Israel" and "he hath drawn back his right hand from before the enemy".
  6. Lamentations 2:17 - again, note the parallel "he hath caused thine enemy to rejoice over thee" and "he hath set up the horn of thine adversaries."
  7. The text of Revelations 12:3, 13:1 and 17:3 describes, respectively, a great red dragon, a sea monster and a "scarlet coloured beast" with 7 heads and 10 horns each. A strikingly similar motive appears Daniel 7:23-24 where another 10-horned beast is depicted and Daniel explicitly states that the 10 horns represent "ten kings that shall arise".
  8. The Ugaritic Ba'al Cycle, where the god El is often referred to as = the bull, El, the father. El and other gods have often been portrayed with bull horns.
  9. In KTU 1.92, Ba'al desires Ashtart and seeks her out. Then “Ba'al raised his horn in front of the guards. The guards replied: the city is well guarded…”* The horn here could again be a symbol of authority, used by Ba'al to compel the guards to answer/let him pass.
  10. Even Arabic might provide a clue. In Arabic, Alexander the Great is usually referred to as ذو القرنين = "he with two horns". The standard explanation given is that it indicates his power in both West and East.

There is one more option we should consider: the obvious sexual one. One could bring up the following arguments:
  1. 1 Samuel 2:1 where Hannah's "horn is exalted in the LORD".
  2. Again, Job 16:15, which could also be interpreted as Job lamenting the loss of his manhood and his inability to father any more sons (his sons having died previously).
  3. KTU 1.10, which is a description of a sexual encounter between Ba'al and (probably) Anat. In it, Ba'al greets Anat with the words “(Ba'al) shall anoint the horn of your strength.”*
  4. Again, KTU 1.92.
According to Stehlík**, in both KTU 1.10 and 1.92, the horn is an euphemism for both male and female genitalia. Additionally, qrnh in KTU 1.92 could be read as both "his horn" and "her horn". Stehlík lists 1 Sam 2:1, passages in Psalms quoted above (plus 89:17, 89:24 and 112:9) and Jeremiah 48:25 as proof of the sexual meaning of horn. But as we have seen, the context does not support this: Job speaks of his suffering, Jeremiah of the judgement that will "come upon the plain country" (48:20-25) and Psalm 112 - to pick one - refers to the good man who "hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness endureth for ever; his horn shall be exalted with honour" and in the next verse goes on to say "The wicked shall see it (i.e. the horn), and be grieved". I mean... Ehm... surely not!

In the light of all of this, I can only agree with Lingamish. With my thanks to Peter and Ian, I shall now retire to a) sleep, b) gather more information, at least on the Ugaritic side of the story.

One last thing: there are several passages which indicate that "horn" could be a synonym of "head".
  1. Notice the parallelism 1 Samuel 2:1: my heart - my horn - my mouth.
  2. Psalm 74:4-5: "(I said) to the wicked: lift not up the horn; lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck."
That would bring us to Lingamish's question "why only one horn?" and Peter's response concerning unicorns in the Septuagint and KJV. But that we shall leave to another day.

* Translation courtesy of Ondřej Stehlík's "Ugaritské náboženské texty". A must have if you're interested in Ugaritic and/or mythology and you read Czech. You don't read Czech? Go and learn. You're not seriously considering reading Švejk in translation, are you?
** "Ugaritské náboženské texty", p. 311.


David Ker said...


I have thoroughly enjoyed this exchange with you. Thank you for your positive contribution. I will probably post a follow-up on Monday or Tuesday outlining the situation for the general public.

David Ker said...


Looking again at your post, I was particularly fascinated by the reference in Psalm 74 (in my edition, it's Psalm 75.) It would really clear things up if horn could be shown to be a synonym for head.

Nice work on this problem!

bulbul said...

Thank you, lingamish. I will pursue the issue as soon as I get my hands on certain Arabic and Ugaritic materials I'm quite sure I missed something.

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