Hairstyles and identity

“‘Their camels will become plunder, and their many cattle for booty, and I will scatter to all the winds those who cut the corners of their hair; and I will bring their disaster from every side,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 49:32 NASV).

It is not news to many that people’s styles and habits differ from region to region, even in the same country. This is even truer as one gets further from home and in different nations and even continents.

I still have not grown accustomed to the Asian men’s preference for extremely long, pointed toes on their shoes. I would trip over my own feet if I were to try to wear them (even more than I already do). They seem inconvenient at best, and not at all appealing. But they are the dominant style here.

Hair styles are among the more important cultural identifying markers. The long hair of the typical Bangla or Nepali woman is carefully tended and much valued by her and her family. I remember a young lady who came to America and had a major crisis when she could not find coconut oil with which to dress her hair. Nothing else would do.

When it comes to hair, it is not only appearance that matters. Hair and the way we maintain it can have connotations of cleanliness, vigor, and even morality. Many of us remember the furor in the U.S. a few decades ago (but not completely gone even now) over the then new fashion of young men letting their hair grow long. To many from older generations this was a moral issue, seeming to violate biblical teaching (1 Corinthians 11:14, but note that Paul’s point is based on nature, not revelation).

Hair style was a distinguishing mark in the Old Testament, separating Israel from the pagan nations. In the Law of Moses, the man’s hair was regulated: “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). In Jeremiah, God’s judgment was pronounced upon the various neighboring nations who were described as “all who cut the corners of their hair” (Jeremiah 25:23; 49:32). This had the same meaning and application as “those who are uncircumcised.” Hairstyle was a convenient way of distinguishing the Israelite from the Gentile.

There is no indication that this style was based on any moral or theological basis. It was simply one of many ways chosen by God to emphasize that Israel was his chosen people, separate and different from others.

Christians express their differences from those of the world in various ways as well. Paul speaks of the immorality prevalent in the world of unbelievers: “Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10 NKJV). He goes on to state that such acts and attitudes are not to be present in the church. Christians are different.

Another difference has to do with the spirit within each Christian. If we are led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16ff) we will live and act differently than others. Though this clearly refers to the influence of God’s Holy Spirit given to each Christian (Acts 5:32), the text also specifies that there are results of this influence in the lives and attitudes of those who have received him (Galatians 5:22-23). These include love, joy, peace and similar positive characteristics.

These Spiritual traits are distinctive. The world displays hatred, envy, unhappiness, anger and many other harmful and sinful works (Galatians 5:19-21). There is no difficulty in recognizing the difference between those who possess the first traits (fruit of the Spirit) and those possessing the others (works of the flesh). Like the way the men of ancient Israel cut their hair, the actions without and the spirit within speak loudly as to what manner of person one is.

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