Karen's hair

A Most Public Hair Affair: Numbers 6

Haydn Sennitt

There's something about fiction films that inspires the most ingenious bizarre skin patterns, voices, songs, languages and hairstyles. Regardless of how essential the characters are to the story, makers of countless movies find different ways to make humans, animals and aliens look more and more off the planet. Not that anyone minds, of course; audiences around the world have always enjoyed their creations, not only because of their ingenuity, but because they add to the richness of cinematic experience and give us confidence that the film was original. The Star Wars movies were a trendsetters in the creative body-part industry; the funky hairdos of Princess Leia and Queen Amidala captured our attention and made us look at George Lucas in awe. For, although Cousin It entertained us with his floor-length mop in The Adams Family, Angelica Houston horrified us when she removed her toupée in The Witches, and Arnie shocked us when he sported a bald patch in Batman & Robin, no other film has been able to trump Star Wars in the hair stakes. Chances are, if you went up to people on the street and asked them what movie springs to mind when they think of crazy hair, they would struggle to think of anything else.

Movies aside, the Old Testament had its own eccentric episodes in the hair department. The story from 2 Kings 2:23-24 of how the prophet Elisha was heckled by a band of youths for having a bald head may come to mind (the punishment for this teasing was being mauled by a pack of bears). After Nadab and Abihu (two of the sons of Aaron) offered unauthorised fire before the Lord and were slain for it, despite their grief, Moses, Aaron and Aaron's other sons were told to keep their hair well-groomed and not render their appearance as mourners do (Leviticus 10:1-6). In other parts of Leviticus, baldness was a sign of ritual cleanliness (13:40), unkempt hair signified moral pollution (13:45), and the shaving of eyebrows was required to satisfy some parts of the Law (14:9). Israel in general was meant to be different among the nations; they were to display their uniqueness by, not only living a life of purity, but also being different in a physical sense: wearing clothes with tassels (Numbers 15:38), celebrating special “days” (e.g. the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16), dining on holy food (e.g. at Passover, Exodus 12) and, of course, wearing their hair strangely (19:27). Like the fantastical creatures in Star Wars, Israel was to be distinct.

During the time when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God gave a commandment in Numbers chapter 6 on how individuals were to undertake special vows of dedication to him. This non-compulsory act could be committed to by any man, woman, or child (e.g. Samson, who was dedicated as a infant in Judges 13:5) and for any particular reason (Numbers 6:1-2). Called the vow of the Nazirite, this vow required the dedicated individual to abstain from the consumption of products made from grapes during the specified time. Nazirites were also prohibited to touch dead bodies—even for the sake of their own family—and, if they broke the law, they had to offer atoning sacrifices and renew the vow all over again. As a public show of the their special dedication, they had to grow their hair from the beginning to the end of the vow. Once the time of the vow had finished, the Nazirite's locks were to be cut and offered in the fire of the Temple. After the priestly ceremony, the Nazirite restrictions no longer applied and the individual was free to go and consume all the grape products their hearts desired.

The Nazirite law, to western ears, sounds obscure and even odd. With the exception of nuns, Catholic priests, and rabbis, who have clearly marked themselves off as distinct members of the community for religious service, no one would expect religious people today to grow their hair long and abstain from raisins. If individuals do dedicate themselves to God, it's expected to be a private affair, kept in the inner sanctuary of a person's house and heart with minimal disruption to the rest of the community. (In extreme cases like in France, where it is currently illegal for people to wear in public any articles of religious clothing, it is particularly important that people keep their dedication to God to themselves.)

Back in the days of the ancient world, however, the dedication of individuals through the growing of hair wasn't unusual. According to the New Bible Dictionary , “Semites and other primitive peoples often left the hair uncut during some undertaking calling for divine help, and thereafter consecrated [it] ...”. Hair in the days of ancient Israel “was regarded as the seat of life, ‘the favourite abode of spirits and magical influences’, to be kept in its natural state until its burning ensured its disappearance without fear of profanation”.1 In essence, hair was revered as being more than protein strands atop the head; it had religious significance and could be used as a sacred offering to Yahweh.

In later stages of Hebrew history, the Nazirite vow was abused by Israelites as a means of manipulating God into giving them whatever they wanted.2 However, the vow was originally intended to represent sincere devotion to him. John the Baptist was an atypical Nazirite who used his dedication to pave the way for God's Messiah (Mark 1:1-8, John 1:6-8). Whereas Samson defiled himself by joining to the Philistine prostitute, Delilah (Judges 16), and future Nazrities abused the vow to get God to do what they wanted, John the Baptist remained true to his vow, maintained his integrity as a consecrated Jew and performing a unique role in heralding the coming of Christ. But Jesus the Nazarene was the ultimate Nazirite who was consecrated to do the work of his Father from Day 1 of his ministry (Matthew 3:16-17) and who completed his mission without a hitch or a sin to his name. He displayed to his fellow countrymen what true dedication to Yahweh should looked like—but not as an act of manipulation, as a gesture of selflessness, as displayed by his sacrifice on the cross 2000 years ago (Philippians 2:5-8).

What is interesting about the Nazirite vow is that the giving of it is a complete act of grace on God's part: he allowed his people to dedicate themselves in a very special way. It was enough that Israel as a nation was dedicated to God and called to be holy (the average Israelite already had more than 600 commandments to obey, and the extra laws concerning the Nazirites would never have been necessary. Except for the odd occasion, it wasn't a compulsory thing for the average person to take on a Nazirite vow). Yet, in his goodness, God allowed people to give themselves to him for a specified time and for a special purpose, whatever that was.

Strangely enough, the Nazirite vow speaks to Christians today, particularly regarding the way we live our lives publicly as followers of Jesus. Back then, the vow was a very public display of an individual's dedication to God. It wasn't a private affair, confined to the walls of a house or monastery; it was a very obvious and deliberate act in the Israelite community. In today's western world, it is becoming the norm for people to think that religious beliefs and observance are something best kept to oneself. It's increasingly common in our postmodern, pluralistic world to hear the media (and others) say such things as, “You have your beliefs and I have mine. You keep them to yourself and let me live my life as I want to. Congratulations on your sincere belief in Jesus, but I'm doing my own thing. You keep your views and religion to yourself and we'll all get along just fine”.

After hearing sentiments like that, it can be tempting for Christians to cower, walk into a corner and stop talking about Jesus. The pressure of being a follower of Christ in this world can be quite overbearing, especially when being a Christian brings about humiliation, contempt and derision from non-believers. Telling others that they need Jesus and suggesting that he is supreme above all other gods, faiths, and loyalties is something that attracts few friends and even fewer favours. Yet such attacks are spawned, not only from telling the world that it needs Christ, but also from the way that Christians live distinct lives of holiness. By abstaining from the practices of this world, our dedication to God is seen as foolish—something to be kept indoors, not brought into the light of day. Even without taking a Nazirite vow and growing long hair to prove it, the purity of a Christian's life is often looked down upon by a world that is wantonly sexually immoral and decadent, as being wowserish, wimpish and stupid.

In spite of all that is against Christians, their dedication to God, like the Nazirite vow, is meant to be a very public affair. Jesus reinforced the point in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

(Matthew 5:14-16)

Although the Nazirite vow and all of its commandments no longer apply to the Christian since Jesus has fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17), nevertheless the Christian is to maintain his/her uniqueness in the world. If we don't, we will be rendered useless, to be trampled underfoot (Matthew 5:13). We need not grow our hair or abstain from certain fruits, but rather we are to live distinctly holy lives, filled with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). In this way we will spread the fragrance of our Saviour abroad and make him wonderfully known in this darkened world.


1 Eds. I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer and D.J. Wiseman, New Bible Dictionary, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 2000 [1962], 3rd edition, pp. 808-809.

2 Ibid, p. 809.

Haydn works in market research and attends Christians in the Media church.


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