words of (human) motion

Targumim (or: Targums) are translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. They were translated and used when Jewish congregations increasingly could not understand the biblical Hebrew anymore. Targum Onqelos (also: Onkelos) is the name of the Aramaic translation of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) probably composed in Israel/Palestine in the 1st or 2nd century CE and later edited in Babylon in the 4th or 5th century, making it reflect Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. It is the most famous Aramaic translation and was widely used throughout the Jewish communities.

In many, but not all, cases the translation of Targum Onqelos avoids anthropomorphisms (attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions) as they relate in the original Hebrew text to God.

The Hebrew of Genesis 20:3 and 31:24 as well as Numbers 22:9 that is translated in English as “God came to . . .” is translated in Targum Onqelos as “the word came from before God to ….”

Other occurrences of Hebrew terms that are translated in English as words of motion and are circumvented in Targum Onqelos include:

  • Exodus 19:9: “I am going to come to you” becomes “I am going to manifest myself to you”
  • Exodus 20:24: “I will come to you and bless you” becomes “I will send my blessings to you and I will bless you.”
  • Deuteronomy 33:2: “The Lord came from Sinai” becomes “The Lord manifested himself from Sinai”
  • Exodus 12:12 and 12:23: “pass through the land of Egypt” becomes “manifest (myself) in the land of Egypt”
  • Exodus 11:4: “I will go out through Egypt” becomes “I will manifest myself in the midst of Egypt”
  • Exodus 3:18: “has met with us” becomes “has manifested himself to us”
  • Numbers 23:3: “the Lord will come to meet me” becomes “the word from before the Lord shall be proclaimed before me”

(Source: Schochet 1966, p. 29ff.)


The name that is transliterated as “Moses” in English is signed in Spanish Sign Language in accordance with the depiction of Moses in the famous statue by Michelangelo (see here). (Source: John Elwode in The Bible Translator 2008, p. 78ff.)

“Moses” in Spanish Sign Language (source)

Another depiction in Spanish Sign Language (source: Carlos Moreno Sastre):

The horns that are visible in Michelangelo’s statue are based on a passage in the Latin Vulgate translation (and many Catholic Bible translations that were translated through the 1950ies with that version as the source text). Jerome, the translator, had worked from a Hebrew text without the niqquds, the diacritical marks that signify the vowels in Hebrew and had interpreted the term קרו (k-r-n) in Exodus 34:29 as קֶ֫רֶן — keren “horned,” rather than קָרַו — karan “radiance” (describing the radiance of Moses’ head as he descends from Mount Sinai).

Even at the time of his translation, Jerome likely was not the only one making that decision as this recent article alludes to.

See also Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration.