1 Corinthians 11:14 | Paul's remarks on hair | Commentary

Source: http://www.abarim-publications.com/Bible_Commentary/1Corinthians11v14.html

1 Corinthians 11:14

— On the Incredible Significance of Hair in the Bible—


In the Bible there seems to be a certain symbolic meaning to hair, something that is completely lost in modern languages and translations. We can see this by the few usages of the Hebrew word for hair that seem at odds with the regular meaning of hair or hairy. But most notably, in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 Paul seems to refer to a common understanding about hair, something that everybody in those days was aware of but which in our time goes unnoticed. Paul does not refer to fashion or law but to nature. He says that nature teaches that a man should have short hair and a woman long hair. There must have been some symbolic system in which hair played a role, something so utterly obvious that the Old Testament doesn't even mention it per se but plays with it all the time. Let's have a look.

1 Corinthians 11:14-15

Paul's statement occurs in a paragraph that deals with prayer, and which runs roughly from 1 Corinthians 11:2 to 11:16. There are a few parallels in his other letters, most notably the second chapter of 1 Timothy.

Paul simply loves complexity, which makes him a bit hard to read to some — see 2 Peter 3:15-16, but to others all the more enjoyable. To argue his case in the Corinthian letter he refers to three separate symbolic systems:

Three Symbolic Systems

First Paul invokes the Bible's dominant marriage metaphor that compares God to a husband and the church to His bride, and which encompasses all of mankind always (v3). Then (v5) there is the local and contemporary custom that had prostitutes and the likes shave their head (and apparently wear blonde wigs, as many commentaries report). And thirdly (v14-15), he reminds his audience of what he so clearly states in his letter to the Romans, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made..." (Romans 1:20).

On top of that he freely mixes physical reality with metaphorical reality. The head of a woman, which is endowed with the hair presently under our scrutiny, he equalizes without flag or counterpoint with the wife's metaphorical head, which the husband is. The result of this is that his statements say far less about the individual woman and man, but far more about our species in general. In our time it is customary to be focused on the individual but Paul seems to employ the appearance of the human individual to make statements about the human collective.

It seems that Paul is initially depicting a common hierarchy of authority, which places God the Father as head over everything, with Christ as the head of what comes next, then man as head over what follows that, and finally woman. He even squeezes angels in somewhere between women and Christ (v10), but it is not clear if he means that angels and men are sort of on the same rung. If so, then it might be confirmed by Genesis 32:25, where the angel can't win from Jacob, and in Revelation 22:9, in which the angel says that he is a fellow servant of John, the prophets and the brethren, and those who pay heed to 'this' book. In our day and age there are plenty women paying heed to Scriptures, but in Paul's days their only source was their husbands at home (1 Corinthians 14:34). Whether this is fair or not, or whether Scripture follows culture or vice versa is not the focus of our study right now (but here at Abarim Publications, we much prefer the instructions of a wise woman, of which are few, over the rabid rants of some dumb guy, of which are many).

Eldest and youngest

One remark should be made though, and that is that in the Bible the oldest sibling often had much if not all authority, but the youngest often the most glory. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve we've been growing towards some kind of format in which God can be received, a journey which will end with the New Jerusalem, spoken of in Revelation. That means that every younger phase of development is more glorious than the preceding one, but also that every older phase is more general, encompasses more people, and thus is more authoritative. The Davidic kingdom was better than Israel under the judges. Israel in the desert was better than Israel in Egypt. And so on. Benjamin and Joseph were Jacob's youngest but also his most glorious sons. Moses was the youngest of three; David was the youngest of seven or eight. When we look at texts in the Bible that discuss differences between man and woman, we should never forget that mankind's final format is always depicted in Scriptures as a single human female, and that woman came from man, and denotes a younger, less authoritative but more glorious phase.

Hair as a garment

Paul says that the hair of a woman serves her as would clothing (a noun from a verb that literally means 'throw around,' and which is most often used to mean clothe or don). A little verbal arithmetic yields the following: The hair on the head of a woman is for clothing. The head of woman is man. The hair of woman is to clothe man. Man is to have his head uncovered. Man's head is Christ. Ergo, man is to be covered and Christ isn't. That pretty much means that the growing bald of the individual male symbolizes humanity's evolving readiness to receive (=uncover/discover) Christ, and the long cranial hair of a woman symbolizes the body hair of the male, which stands for the covering of humanity's sin. And to continue this line of thought: When Adam and Eve sinned they discovered that they were naked and God covered them with 'coats of skin' (Genesis 3:21). This action resounds what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:7, "Love covers all things," or Peter in 1 Peter 4:8, "Love covers a multitude of sins."

Hair as redemption

Science has it that men generally prefer women to have long hair because in the caveman days this would signify health and all that. But if that were so, then women would prefer men with long hair just the same. And since nobody knows and all are guessing, the Abarim Publications Editorial Team proposes that men prefer women to have long hair because somewhere deep inside it reminds them of their own redemption. And if that doesn't sound very convincing: Leviticus 4 discusses the sin offering. A leader who had sinned was to offer a male goat; a commoner who had sinned was to offer a female goat. The word for goat is שעיר (sa'ir), which comes from שער (s'r), which means hair.

Nature tends to equip creatures with bodies that correspond to their natures. That makes perfect sense, and it also explains how Adam could name them by just looking at them (Genesis 2:19). Hence peacocks have shiny tails that girl-peacocks just happen to fancy. Theology links this to God's premeditation; evolution theory links it to natural selection. The result is the same.

It stands to reason that when nature produces a very smart animal, it also equips it with a body that corresponds with its highly intricate sense of symbolism. That same sense of symbolism allows us to have language, and think about things that can only be represented by metaphor, such as life after death and the nature of God.

Since Paul says that hair is explained by nature, let's have a look at the nature of hair.