Reviews of

“My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man”: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel

In HB/OT, Identity, JiSeong Kwon, Oxford University Press, Susan NIDITCH on May 22, 2013 at 9:48 am


2013.05.09 | Susan Niditch. “My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man”: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel. Oxford: OUP, 2008. Pp. 168. ISBN: 978-0-19-518114-2. Hardback.

Review by JiSeong Kwon, Durham University.

Many thanks to OUP for kindly providing us with a review copy.

In this book, Niditch argues that the growing, cutting, and altering of ‘hair’ in Israel reflect the significant social, historical, religious circumstances of the ancient Near East and help us to read the cultural meanings behind texts. Biblical descriptions with regard to the treatment of hair—various terms such as ‘hair’, ‘razor’, ‘shave’, ‘cut’, and ‘beard’—enable us to be aware of the common cultural/social context in the corresponding culture and time.  First of all, this book begins with the assumption that there is a certain link between hairstyle and its context. She gives several examples of ritual practices and narratives in the Old Testament which mention the cultural aspect of hairstyle and speak of cultural symbolism and identity. She argues, that ‘the study of hair reveals attitudes toward gender, ethnicity, holiness, beauty, leadership, and economic status’ (p. 140).

In chapter one, three theoretical models related to the body, culture, and religion are suggested: ‘individual body, social body, and body politic’, ‘Victor Turner’s symbolic analysis’, and ‘Obeyesekere and the Genesis of Symbols’. To support this hair symbolism as reflecting shared cultures and traditions, she adopts Victor Turner’s theory which revises Arnold van Gennep’s idea, in which he claims that cultural symbols have their own meanings, and examines this idea at three levels; the ‘exegetical’, the ‘operational’, and the ‘positional’. This theory throughout the book plays a foundational role in arguing that the hairstyle and its treatment in the biblical world have their meanings.

She then in chapter 2 provides rich visual presentations concerning hair in the ancient Near East, and says that there are complicated relationships between hair treatment and personal cultural identities. In approaching the biblical symbols of ancient Israelite hair, she considers the haired-related images portrayed in various artistic works in Egypt, Philistine, and Assyria. This gives an insight into the similarities and differences—ethnic, religious, and political—between the Israelites and other surrounding cultures.

Chapter three describes the story of Samson in Judges 13-16, where the hero’s hairiness indicates Samson’s particular identity as a Nazirite, and symbolizes his tremendous strength as a man and his exceptional power as a warrior. Tending and cutting his hair reflect the political gains and losses of Israel over the surrounding countries as well as his emasculation. Thus, this is discussed in its socio-historical setting, the conflict between the Israelites and their Philistine neighbours. She suggests other narrative passages related to hair description and the Nazir from tales of Samuel in LXX and Qumran version of 1 Sam 1:11 and from the story of Absalom in 2 Sam 14:25-26.

Chapter four describes another significant example of Nazirite statues in Numbers 6 which is related to abstaining from cutting hair and drinking wine as a symbol of ‘separation’ and ‘holiness’. The Nazirite law in Numbers 6 is a different version of Samson’s Nazirism which highlights the relationship between hair and manliness, charismatic power, and the divine warrior. Nazarism in Numbers is seen as democratizing holy status which is open both to male and to female. It is a voluntary act rather than the involuntary act in Samson’s case, and its status is ended when the Nazir completes his time of separation. Such a view postdates the origin of Nazirism in Numbers than that of Samson and Samuel and it indicates the shift of paradigm in understanding Nazarism.

Chapter five explores the symbolism of the absence of hair—baldness, shaving, and cleaning—which means the loss of masculinity to Nazirites and also refers to emotions of shame and humiliation (1 Sam 10:4-5; Isa 7:20). In particular, its loss involves the status of mourning in suffering or death (Isa 15:2; Jer 48:37; Ezek 7:18) and shaving hair can serve as comment on ethnic politics (Gen 41:14).

Chapter six describes two examples of the treatment of women’s hair; the woman accused of adultery, though there are no witnesses (letting down) and the captured woman (shaving). Such oppression in this male-centred society emphasizes the vulnerability of women and is presented in the alteration of women’s hair.

Over all, the most significant aspect of this book is that it helps us to understand various cultural perspectives related to imageries of hair which interpreters easily miss. This book is likely to be successful in revealing the distinctive relationship between hairstyle and cultural-historical context. However, the major weakness found in this book lies in its explanation of the reasons behind different accounts of Nazirism. It is not about the connection between the hair treatment and identity, but about the claim that the description of hairstyle automatically reflects the ideological shift of ancient Israelite in a specified period. Although it is related to natural and cultural identity, it is impossible to ascertain the exact historical background from the content and context of given texts. Indeed, we have a lot of problems in dating the biblical materials, so that they make it difficult for us to determine which cultural, historical, and ethical identity they are reflecting. Niditch, for example, claims that the present form of a ‘Nazirite vow’ of Numbers 6 was ‘probably determined by postexilic priestly writers of the Persian period, who shaped the work in a time without Judean kings and during subjugation by a foreign empire.’ However, we have no certain clue as to how the symbolism of hairstyle in Nazirism of Numbers was connected to a specific historical view of priestly context and of when such a priestly worldview affected Numbers 6. Also, there is no reason to suppose that the Naziriteship in the narratives of Samson and Samuel is a more original form than the non-charismatic Nazirism because it involves priestly purity and rituals. Moreover, there is no evidence in this that its democratization and two associated rituals in Numbers are aimed at strengthening the religious power and purview of priestly writers for ordinary Israelites in the Persian period.

Nonetheless, in so far as this book introduces a very perceptive view of hair and its historical background in the ancient Near East and in Israel, I gladly recommend this book to those who are interested in understanding the association between the biblical resources and the cultural setting.

JiSeong Kwon
Durham University
jiseongkwon [ at ]

  1. I was of the impression that when pairs of characters appear in an ancient Hebrew/Canaanite myth, one hirsute and one smooth or bald (e.g. Jacob and Esau, Elijah and Elisha), you are frequently dealing with solar and lunar myths that have been euhemerized. The one with long hair is always the sun (his hair representing the sun’s rays), and the bald one is the moon. Also, few Old Testament scholars will deny that Samson started out as a sun god. The text is still full of clues, not to mention his name.

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