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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

That Wacky Old Testament (1)

Taken in isolation or viewed from a distance of several thousand years and from a completely different cultural background, almost any Bible instruction may initially seem a little alien.

People are generally uninterested in doing historical research or establishing cultural context before they start forming opinions. It’s a whole lot of work … and, let’s face it, it’s fun to mock things. It makes us feel intelligent or morally superior.

So taking a poke at certain of the Old Testament commands that God gave through Moses to the people of Israel as “weird” is becoming increasingly trendy.

As somebody who is convinced the entire Bible is the inspired word of God, it goes without saying that from my perspective absolutely nothing in the Law of Moses can possibly be unintentional, random, insignificant, or intended for comedic effect. Everything in it has a point.

So from time to time, just for fun I’m going to dredge up some of the more frequently derided Old Testament regulations and set them in their historical context. I think you’ll probably agree with me that they make a great deal more sense when we do so.

Sound good? Okay, here’s one.

Rocking the Reverse Mohawk

Stephen James thinks this is one of the Top 10 weirdest Old Testament laws:
3. Tell the barber to take it easy on the sides.

Not too many people prefer the reverse mohawk look, but apparently God does. In Leviticus 19:27 the prescribed holy haircut involved not cutting the hair on the sides of the head, or trimming the edge of the beard. This look would help the Israelites stand out from the people of the other nations.”
Okay, Stephen, fair enough. But here’s what Leviticus actually says:
“You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.”
In Leviticus 19, the passage Stephen references, this command comes in the middle of a long list of general instructions to the congregation. These commands are pretty diverse: we go from instructions about giving testimony in court to instructions about breeding cattle, sowing seed and treating slaves fairly. It seems to be an overview and as such there’s not much context in the chapter to help us understand why this particular instruction may have been given. And since it is this version of the command which Stephen James singles out, I can understand why he thinks the prohibition was intended to make Israelite males into some sort of fashion statement.

Holy to Their God

However, two chapters later when an almost identical instruction is given to the priests, there is plenty of context available to help us understand the command:
“They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body.”
Here the Lord is seeking to ensure that Israelite priests did not default to mimicry of the mourning habits of the nations around them. They are to be “holy to their God” and therefore distinct from others in the way they deal with death. So he tells the priests not to make themselves ceremonially unclean for anyone but a close relative (touching the corpse would do that), not to cut their bodies for the dead and, yes, not to shave bald patches on their heads or trim the edges of their beards like people who were in mourning.

It’s pretty easy to establish from scripture itself that all three of these habits were contemporary cultural indicators of mourning. Cutting oneself was associated with mourning. Making oneself bald was a sign of mourning. The shaving of the beard was an indicator of a man in mourning. There are numerous Old Testament passages that demonstrate this. Somebody died, this is how men of the day expressed their grief. You could tell something was seriously wrong in their lives with one glance at their facial hair.

Middle Eastern Mourning Rituals

Secular historians note that significant changes to dress and grooming while in mourning have often been common practices, along with dramatic and even exaggerated responses to death. Andrew C. Cohen observes:
“In ancient Mesopotamia, the cycle of death rituals commonly included: a period of mourning in which mourners expressed grief through lamentations and changes in their modes of dress and grooming.”
Sami A. Hanna tells of Muslim mourning rituals that still go on today:
“The women hit their cheeks very hard until others stare, because it is believed that a woman who does not hit her cheeks hard and scream loudly doesn’t love the dead person or lacks interest in him.” 
Today we refer to dramatic displays intended primarily for the benefit of others as virtue-signaling. Much of the time they are empty noise. But I believe a God who both values and confers power, love and self-discipline never intended his people to respond to the deaths of friends and family members with some kind of ginned-up emotional display that could be faked in five minutes with the aid of a sharp razor. Rather, he wanted his people to be characterized by a orderliness of conduct that would reflect the confidence that their God intended their ultimate good at all times.

Jesus wept. He did not wail, cut himself or hit himself in the face.

No Holy Haircut

So, notwithstanding the habits of some orthodox Jewish sects today, Leviticus does not prescribe some kind of “holy haircut” for all Israel to wear — not even a set of late-period-Elvis-style bushy sideburns, let alone a “reverse mohawk”. Rather, it discourages the sorts of physical disfigurements the nations around Israel engaged in regularly (and which, prior to the giving of the law, were almost surely common in Israel as well). Israelites were not to put on grief-display competitions, attempting to top neighbours and relatives by doing dramatic and disfiguring reconstruction work on their own faces and bodies.

Sorry, but the standard ancient Israelite haircut for men (other than Nazirites, of course) was in all probability perfectly unremarkable.

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