Friday, January 18, 2013

Questioning I Corinthians

Samson Destroys the Temple (1890), Holman Bible (Wikipedia)
Samson Destroys the Temple (1890)
from the Holman Bible (Wikipedia)
It’s fairly common for certain teachings presented in the Bible to lend themselves to an enormous amount of controversy. Often Christians (and non-Christians) are so wrapped up in arguing over these teachings that statements within the same passages that really should be examined are brushed over.

Take, for example, Paul’s infamous passage about women’s head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Some question whether Paul tells women to cover their heads (v. 10) or if he says that Christians have no such custom (v. 16). Many insist it’s a matter of choice (v. 13). Some claim that this passage says that women can preach and pray in worship services if they’re veiled (vv. 4-5), while others say that women are to remain silent regardless (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Some say a hairnet or hat is appropriate, while others advocate the burqa. There even arguments about whether “short hair” and “long hair” are to be considered in relative terms (“shorter than” and “longer than”) or absolute terms (such-and-such exact length). And the opinions about Paul are as polarized as the opinions about the passage. Many conclude that he was a saint, a champion of virtue and protector of female modesty, while others dismiss him as a misogynist, bent on keeping women imprisoned in patriarchal slavery despite their equality in Christ.

Much figurative blood has been shed over this passage, but possibly never over what might really be the most controversial thing Paul says. In 1 Corinthians 11:13-15, he makes this claim (ESV):

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

This appeal to nature is often the last say in a discussion on this topic. It usually comes in the form of “Even the pagans know…,” echoing much of what’s said in the Bible. Yet on what grounds can Paul even make that claim? For example, what does it suggest about the Nazirite vow?

Numbers 6:1-21 gives the requirements for those “set apart”: abstaining from any grape products, especially wine; separating oneself from the dead; and, of course, not cutting one’s hair. This vow was generally kept for a specified length of time, but lifelong Naziritism is associated with the judge Samson (Judges 13:5 & 7, 16:17), the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), and John the Baptist (Matthew 11:18; Luke 1:13-15, 7:33). References to practicing Nazirites can be found in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and in Early Church writings. It is believed that Paul took the vow himself (Acts 18:18) and was later ordered by the Church’s leaders to accompany Christian Nazirites, who needed to make their sacrifices before shaving their heads (Acts 21:23-24, 26).

Some men’s hair grows rather quickly, and any lifelong Nazirite would likely end up with quite a head full of hair. If men having long hair is against nature, then why is it sanctioned in the Mosaic Law? Why are its practitioners ranked with the prophets (Amos 2:11-12)? And why would Paul allow himself to be associated with the practice if it were sinful (especially if his supposed rival, James the Just, is rumored to have been one)?

There’s more: Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 (ESV):

For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.

So where does this leave female Nazirites? Are they to be shamed for participating in this ritual designed to include them? Numbers 6:1-21 doesn’t give separate instructions for men and women on how to carry out the vow, while such attention is paid to the act of making the vow. (Numbers 30 makes it clear that married women must have the permission of their husbands and unmarried women of their fathers.) If God wanted women not to shave their heads, He could’ve easily given Moses alternative instructions for them. He doesn’t.

And if this weren’t controversial enough: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 lays down rules for dealing with captive wives. Removing her clothes, shaving her hair, and cutting her fingernails were part of the process of severing connections with her old pagan culture and adopting her into the Israelite one. Yes, the text says that the captive bride has been humiliated (v. 14), but that is obviously in reference to the degrading experience of being kidnapped and raped, not particularly for having a bald head. The concern is that a wife taken by force is not made to suffer further humiliation by being sold or treated as a mere slave in the household. The shaved head of the captured pagan wife seems to have more in common with the consecrated head of the former male or female Nazarite or the clean head of the healed leper (Leviticus 13:33, 14:8-9). It’s all tied in with the idea of ritual purity and cleanliness in the Mosaic Law.

So we’re back to where we began: How can something be against nature if it is sanctioned and praised by God? It seems rather clear that no Jew (Christian or otherwise) in Paul’s day would’ve agreed with his statements about hair. How are we Christians today going to deal with this contradiction? I recommend, first, that all further discussions about women’s head coverings cease until this issue can be satisfactorily resolved.