Historically, men and women in general have regarded their hair as ornamental, enhancing their attractiveness, and as a sign, in many cases, of strength and youth. Therefore, great care has been given to the hair.
Egyptians. The Egyptians had, probably, the most peculiar customs with regard to their hair. The men, especially priests and soldiers, shaved their heads and beards. Herodotus says that the Nile dwellers shaved the heads of the boys, leaving only a few locks on the sides and perhaps on the front and back. When the child reached maturity these were removed as being marks of childhood. For the men, it was a sign of mourning or slovenliness to let the hair and beard grow. For this reason Joseph, when taken out of prison, shaved before being brought into the presence of Pharaoh. (Ge 41:14) Egyptian men, however, sometimes wore wigs, and beards that they tied on. Some Egyptian monumental representations show men of high rank with long, well-cared-for hair; it is not discernible whether the hair is their own or is a wig.
Conversely, Egyptian women wore their natural hair long and plaited. Well-preserved, plaited hair has been found on a considerable number of Egyptian female mummies.
Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans. The Assyrian and Babylonian men, and Asians in general, wore their hair long. Assyrian reliefs show the men with close-combed hair, the ends falling on the shoulders in curls. Their beards were also long, sometimes divided into two or three tiers of curls, with the mustache trimmed and also curled. Some believe that the very long hair depicted on the monuments was partly false, an addition to the person’s natural hair.
In ancient times the Romans evidently wore beards but, about the third century B.C.E., adopted the custom of shaving.
Hebrews. The practice among Hebrew men from the first was to let the beard grow, but it was kept well groomed; and they trimmed the hair to a moderate length. In Absalom’s case, his hair grew so abundantly that when he cut it once a year, it weighed 200 shekels (2.3 kg; 5 lb), possibly made heavier by the use of oil or ointments. (2Sa 14:25, 26) God’s law commanded Israelite men that they should not ‘cut their sidelocks short around,’ nor destroy the “extremity” of their beards. This was not an injunction against trimming the hair or beard but was evidently to prevent imitation of pagan practices. (Le 19:27; Jer 9:25, 26; 25:23; 49:32) To neglect the hair or beard, likely leaving them untrimmed and untended, was a sign of mourning. (2Sa 19:24) In instructions to priests given through the prophet Ezekiel, God commanded that they clip, but not shave, the hair of their heads and that they not wear their hair loose when serving in the temple.
Hebrew women took care of their hair as a mark of beauty (Ca 7:5), letting it grow long. (Joh 11:2) For a woman to cut off her hair was a sign of mourning or distress. (Isa 3:24) When an Israelite soldier captured a virgin woman from an enemy city and desired to marry her, she was required first to cut off her hair and attend to her nails and to undergo a one-month period of mourning for her parents, since they would have been killed in the taking of the city.
In the diagnosis of leprosy, one factor that the priest had to consider was the color and condition of the hair on the affected part.
Christians. The apostles Peter and Paul were both impelled to counsel Christian women not to give undue attention to hairstyling and ornamentation, as was the custom of the day. Instead, they were admonished to focus their attention on adorning themselves with the incorruptible apparel of a quiet and mild spirit.
The apostle Paul also called attention to the situation and general practice among the people to whom he wrote and showed that it was natural for a man to have shorter hair than a woman. (See NATURE.) A woman having her hair shorn, or shaved off, was disgraced. God had given her long hair “instead of a headdress,” but, Paul argued, a woman could not use this natural covering, which was a glory to her, to excuse herself from wearing a head covering, “a sign of authority,” when praying or prophesying in the Christian congregation. By recognizing this fact and wearing a covering in such circumstances, the Christian woman would be acknowledging theocratic headship and showing Christian subjection. She would thus glorify both her husbandly head and Jehovah God, the Head of all.
Figurative Usage. Job cut the hair off his head as a symbol of the desolate condition he was in, with his children and property taken away.
Ezekiel was commanded to cut off the hair of his head and of his beard, divide it into thirds, and dispose of it in ways that would prophetically describe the distressing things that would happen to the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the execution of God’s judgments against her. (Eze 5:1-13) Distress and affliction were also symbolized by pulling out the hair, or cutting it off. (Ezr 9:3; Jer 7:29; 48:37; Mic 1:16) Dishonor, contempt, or reproach could be expressed by pulling out the hair of another’s head or face.
The number of hairs on the human head (said to average about 100,000) was used to represent great numbers or innumerability. (Ps 40:12; 69:4) And the fineness of the hair was used figuratively for minuteness. (Jg 20:16) ‘Not a hair of your head will perish (or, fall)’ is a statement guaranteeing full and complete protection and safety. (Lu 21:18; 1Sa 14:45; 2Sa 14:11; 1Ki 1:52; Ac 27:34) A similar implication was denoted by Jesus Christ’s words to his disciples as to God’s care for them: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
Gray-headedness merited respect (Pr 16:31; 20:29) and was used at times synonymously for age and for wisdom. (Job 15:9, 10; see GRAY-HEADEDNESS.) Jehovah, in a vision to Daniel, symbolically was represented as having white hair, “like clean wool,” as “the Ancient of Days.” (Da 7:9) The apostle John saw Jesus Christ represented in a vision as having hair “white as white wool.”
Animal Hair. Goat hair was used in making cloth. (Ex 26:7) John the Baptizer wore a garment of camel hair. (Mt 3:4; Mr 1:6) This type of garment was an official one for a prophet. (2Ki 1:8; compare Ge 25:25.) Rebekah placed goat hair on the hands and neck of Jacob to simulate Esau’s hair.