1 Corinthians 11:14—Hair in the Bible

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1 Corinthians 11:14

— Hair in the Bible—

Men in the Bible have short hair

It seems common to depict the ancients as having long hair, but in fact only women and Nazirites had long hair. Leviticus 19:27 prohibits people from 'rounding off the sides' of their head, and many commentators take that to mean that people should let the hair on their temples grow indefinitely. But the context (divination, tattooing, cosmetic or ritualistic lacerating, ritualistic or regular pimping) and other references to the cutting of the sides of the head (Leviticus 21:5, Jeremiah 9:26, 25:23 and 49:32) make it clear that this phrase denotes some kind of established pagan custom, and this specific divine clause a mere prohibition to partake in such practices and not a command to do something else.

Even Absalom, the insurrectional son of David, whose beautiful hair has become almost proverbial, had short and not long hair. We know this because the only time that his hair is mentioned (2 Samuel 14:26), it says that he cut it every year because it became too heavy for him. Since human hair grows about twelve centimeters per year, and one needs to cut a substantial percentage of it to make it feel less heavy, we can be sure that Absalom's hair was rather short. How he then managed to get his head stuck in the branches of an oak (18:9) is a bit of a mystery, but, as Harris, Archer and Waltke's Theological Wordbook notes, contrary to the usual understanding, his hair is not mentioned in this scene.

Major hair-scenes in the Bible

There are a few major hair-scenes in the Bible. The differences between wild-man Esau and his domestic brother Jacob, the future arch-father of Israel, is illustrated by Esau being hairy and Jacob being smooth (Genesis 25:25, 27:11). Esau went to live in the land of Seir, and in later texts the latter became synonymous for the first. The name Seir (שעיר) is derived from the word שער (se'ar), hair, and means Hairy.

Another typically hairy man is Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), whose story is also surrounded by outbursts of wildness and violence, almost to the level of revelatory slapstick. He taunts the Baal priests into a theocratic contest (1 Kings 18:23), outruns the chariot of Ahab (18:46), gets so depressed that he wants to die (19:4) and is separated from his successor Elisha by a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). Contrary to common understanding, Elijah is taken up to heaven not by the chariot but by a whirlwind (2:11). The word for whirlwind used in this scene comes from the word סער (sa'ar), which is more often used for theophanies than for physical storms, and is closely related to our word שער (se'ar), meaning hair (see the word study below).

Another storm-word, רעמה (rama, meaning thunder—see the name Raamah), occurs in Job 39:19, where God insinuates that He has clothed the horse's neck with it.

But the wildest and probably least sophisticated man of the Bible is the arch-hooligan Samson, known for his signature Nazirite coiffure and absurd tendency to be violent.

Samson

Samson is a Nazirite from birth, but not very serious about it. He rips a lion apart (Judges 14:6) and returns later to the carcass (14:8), which indicates that he most likely enjoyed killing and being a mass executioner/murderer (while Nazirites weren't to go near someone dead, see Numbers 6:6). Samson barters with his great blessing and shows not a lick of insight, foresight or hindsight, and that while he was a judge of Israel. The reason why he informed Delilah of the seat of his might, while she tried to debilitate him twice earlier, can only be that he himself no longer believed that it was in his hair.

Although the story of Samson is one big carnival of symbols, it clearly illustrates the position of hair in the greater symbolic structure of the Bible. There are two more symbols from the Samson cycle that are of interest in our quest. First there are the doors of the gate of Gaza that Samson moved to the top of a mountain. Gaza was a substantial city and the gate of a city was more than just an entrance. The entire gate complex contained market places, meeting spaces and room where judges and government sat and ruled and debated. With removing the door of the gate, Samson indicated that he had the power to expose the town's most intimate inner workings. The Hebrew word for gate is שׁער (sha'ar), which differs from our word שׂער (se'ar; hair) only by the dot on the letter on the right. In the time that this story plays and even in the time when it was written, those dots did not yet exist.

Another important Samson-symbol is the honey that he finds in the dead lion. Honey serves in the Bible as a source of physical strength, but mostly as one of mental or spiritual strength. Canaan was called the land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). Milk returns in the New Testament as symbol for introductory Scripture study (1 Corinthians 3:2, 1 Peter 2:2), which makes honey a symbol for advanced Scripture enthusiasm. Hence Ezekiel's scroll tastes like honey (3:3), Manna tastes after honey (Exodus 16:31), and Jesus is Manna (John 6:31-35). The word for honey-bee (= deborah, see the name Deborah) is derived from the word dabar (see Dabar), which is the Hebrew equivalent of the familiar Greek word Logos, or Word (of God). Another famous Nazirite, John the Baptist, typically lives on a diet that consists largely of honey (Matthew 3:4).

Hair and disease

Hair also plays a major role in the sequence of laws pertaining to Biblical leprosy (צרע, sara'; Leviticus 13), which is not the same as the disease we now call leprosy, but a general term that covers a range of skin afflictions, some more malignant than others. Harris, Archer and Waltke's Theological Wordbook proudly reports that the Hebrews were the first people that understood the dangers of contagion, and the benefits of medical isolation. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, however, keenly observes that the response to Biblical leprosy was of a religious and not medical nature. And the criterion was a multifarious coloration of the skin. Should the disease spread and cover the person entirely, this person was no longer considered unclean because the skin had now one color (Leviticus 13:12-13) and was welcomed back into the community. The Oxford Companion links this to the law against ambiguity that also prohibits interbreeding two kinds of animals, sow two kinds of seeds in the same field or plow it with two kinds of animals, or use two kinds of materials in the same garment (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:9-11). Similar anti-ambiguity statements occur in the New Testament in Matthew 5:37, 7:16, Romans 7:15, James 3:11, 5:12, Revelation 3:15-16 and many other locations.

Hair and Tears

Finally we mention the famous New Testament hair-scene, the one in which a certain woman wets Jesus' feet with her tears and with costly oil. Then she wipes His feet with her hair (Luke 7:37-39, 44, 46). John describes a similar event when Mary, the brother of Lazarus also anoints Jesus' feet and also wipes them with her hair (John 12:3).

There are two peculiarities about these stories. First of all, it seems rather inefficient to use hair to dry something. Secondly, the lady anoints Jesus' feet while it is much more customary to anoint someone's head. Christ actually means Anointed One, but all that's ever literally anointed of Jesus are His feet.

The reason that the Pharisee of the Lukan version is so upset (Luke 7:39) is that feet, being the foundation of the body, sometimes serve in poetic passages as euphemism for the sexual organs. The 'hair of the feet' mentioned in Isaiah 7:20, for instance, is generally understood to denote pubic hair. And as Ruth advances on Boaz, she waits until he sleeps, uncovers his 'feet' and let nature do the rest (Ruth 3:7). Now that we know that the symbolic charge of hair is probably going to be something either very emotional or otherwise something very passionate, the story of the lady's hair and Jesus' feet makes for one of the most intimate passages in the New Testament. (And since we know that Jesus would never praise or consent to any act of indecency, we may also learn that great intimacy is allowed between unmarried people, and even open allusions to physical intimacy, probably with the proviso that this intimacy is sincere and not just sensual.)

Paul insists that nature teaches that men should have short hair and women long. But instead of simply providing men with short hair, nature gives them long hair, and then, assuming that Paul is right, teaches that men should cut of what they have been given. The only other body part with which mankind is endowed and which, according to the Old Testament, should be cut off is again a body part of men: the foreskin of the penis.

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