The hair on our heads is a strange part of our anatomy: virtually irrelevant to the body’s functioning, but carrying huge social significance. As one of the few bits of us that can be displayed in public, how much we have and what we do with it is partly determined by social convention and partly an expression of our own personalities. And it’s no different in the Bible…
A sign of consecration (Numbers 6:1-21)
The rules for the Nazirite vow are one of the odder sections of the Mosaic Law. A man or woman who wanted to express particular devotion to God could take this vow for a predetermined period of time, during which they had to abstain from alcohol (and all other grape products), avoid coming into contact with anything dead, and allow their hair to grow without cutting it. When the vow came to an end, they were to shave their long hair off and burn it as an offering to God.
Which brings us to probably the most famous head of hair in the whole Bible: that of Samson. He was a lifelong Nazirite – but the vow was imposed upon him rather than being his own choice, and he rebelled against its restrictions during the course of his life. Time and time again, he broke the rule against contact with dead bodies (Judges 14:8,9; 15:15)! By the time he embarked on his ill-fated affair with Delilah, the only remaining sign of his vow (presumably the rule that he found easiest to observe) was his uncut hair – and when that too was gone, it signified that he was no longer dedicated to God and therefore no longer able to draw on God’s power (Judges 16:4-22). However, the shaving of his head also signified a new start – and it wasn’t long before he had an opportunity to fulfil his calling (Judges 16:23-30).
A prince’s downfall (II Samuel 18:9-15)
Fashion is a strange thing. Adverts for hair transplants and other cures for male-pattern baldness seem to be much less common these days than they used to be when I was young. Perhaps that’s because it’s now considered perfectly ‘cool’ for a young man to have his head completely shaven; and so those who find their hairline receding more rapidly than average get less embarrassed about it. But it goes to show that self-consciousness about hair isn’t confined to women.
King David’s son Absalom was naturally blessed with unusually beautiful and luxuriant hair. And since he enjoyed being admired, he let it grow long in order to maximise the impact. “He used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him” (II Samuel 14:26) – but he wasn’t prepared to do so in order to go into battle, and his vanity cost him his life when his flowing locks got tangled up in the vegetation.
A woman’s glory (I Corinthians 11:14,15)
For us women, though, our hair is unquestionably a major part of our persona, and its condition has a large effect on our self-esteem. And that’s as it should be:
“Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Your hair is like royal tapestry;
the king is held captive by its tresses.” (Song of Songs 7:5)
So naturally we pay a great deal of attention to it! We will happily spend hours of our time (and no small amount of money either) brushing it, washing it, dyeing or bleaching it, curling (or straightening) it, and getting it cut and styled to look just right. So easy, though, to go ‘over the top’, and become obsessed with our appearance, to the neglect of other things (and other people)! Nobody wants to leave the house in the morning looking an absolute mess (it shows disrespect for others as well as for yourself), but all things must be kept in proportion. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles… Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (I Peter 3:3,4)
Counting the hairs (Luke 12:7)
Which is why (given the high efficacy of modern anti-sickness medication) hair loss is probably the most crushing side-effect of cancer chemotherapy. Some people lose the whole lot virtually overnight. My hair, however, has for the most part been beating a steady and dignified retreat from scalp to hairbrush. Looking in the mirror each morning has been like watching the ageing process speeded up. It’s a salutary reminder that all physical beauty is ephemeral. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away…
But how incredibly foolish it would be to copy Absalom’s mistake, and rate my lovely thick hair (yes, it was exceptionally thick and much envied) as more important than a longer life!
Especially since it’s only for a few months. Like Samson’s, it will regrow…