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Does Leviticus 19:27 Prohibit Haircuts?

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Does Leviticus 19:27 Prohibit Haircuts?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In diatribes against the citation of the book of Leviticus in contemporary discussions about such matters as same-sex unions, critics often use what I call the “Leviticus? You can’t be serious” argument. This is the argument that prohibitions against homosexual activity in the Bible may be safely ignored as morally irrelevant because some of those prohibitions appear in Leviticus, which also contains other material we think morally irrelevant.1 A specific example comes in Leviticus 19:27, which is often understood as forbidding men to get haircuts. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, for example, opined: “This argument from Scripture is difficult to take seriously—though many, many people do—since the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts.”2 Meacham was careful not to claim that Leviticus forbids all haircuts—notice his qualifying word “particular”—but the impression left is the same.

My guess is that Meacham did not look up the passage in Leviticus himself, but simply assumed that Leviticus forbids these haircuts “with equal ferocity” as it does same-sex unions. But this turns out not to be correct. Indeed, to characterize the text as forbidding “certain haircuts” is highly misleading. The reference in question reads as follows:

“Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” (Lev. 19:27 KJV)

Most scholars agree that the four prohibitions in verses 27-28 all “deal with mourning rites.”3 The hair-cutting of verse 27 is probably associated with the skin-cutting in verse 28, and both were related to specific pagan rituals having to do with the dead. The description of the cuts made on the body “for the dead” in verse 28 offers explicit support for this interpretation. Jacob Milgrom agrees that “these prohibitions ban idolatrous rites.”4 The IVP Bible Background Commentary notes, “The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting the hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead.”5

The point here is not merely that certain haircuts were taboo then because of their association with pagan rituals. The cutting involved actually disfigured the man. As Gordon Wenham points out, what the text forbids is “physical disfigurement” as part of mourning rituals. “Man is not to disfigure the divine likeness implanted in him by scarring his body.”6 Unfortunately (if understandably), most contemporary readers interpret the specific prohibition concerning hair in light of the Jewish rabbinical traditions preserved today in the Orthodox Jewish community, which eschews ordinary trimming of sideburns. Milgrom, a leading Jewish scholar specializing in the Levitical law, correctly understands the instruction to ban a ritual act of shaving part of the head bald.7 Clyde Woods and Justin Rogers may be correct when they explain that because the Hebrew word naqaph means “to go around,” Leviticus 19:27 is describing a ritual in which “the hair is shaved on the sides so as to maintain a ‘circle’ of hair on the top.”8 This is a reference to the so-called “bowl cut,” in which the head was shaved bald except for a round area on top. Many but not all interpreters favor this specific description of the rite. In any case, the prohibition is not a regulation about culturally acceptable haircuts; it is a serious injunction forbidding men to disfigure their bodies in idolatrous mourning rituals.

Two other brief points, and the matter can be put to rest. First, whatever the precise significance of the prohibition in Leviticus 19:27, the fact remains that the prohibitions against same-sex acts appear in the specific context of socially deviant and even morally reprehensible behaviors (again, these are incest, adultery, child sacrifice, and bestiality). Thus, the immediate context of the same-sex prohibitions demonstrates that they are not merely cultural “taboos” but are moral judgments.

Second, Leviticus 19:27 does not (contrary to Meacham) forbid the disfigurement of the head “with equal ferocity” as the Levitical condemnations of same-sex acts. Leviticus describes same-sex acts as “detestable” and “an abomination” and stipulates the death penalty for those committing these acts (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). Leviticus 19:27 does not attach any condemnatory language to the forbidden act, nor does it stipulate any penalty for those who commit that act. The text simply says, don’t do it. The prohibition is apparently treated as an unenforceable regulation, since no civil penalty is attached to it, akin to most of the other laws and commands in Leviticus 19. The contrast between this simple instruction and the strong language used to denounce same-sex acts in the same book could not be more pronounced.

Advocates of same-sex marriage (and of social acceptance of homosexuality in general) often use this “haircut argument” to slough off any citation of the Bible against same-sex unions. Of course, the Bible also condemns homosexual conduct in other passages, including in the New Testament, where the cutting of hair is not an issue at all. But it turns out that the objection has no force even with regard to Leviticus. Christians who respect the Bible as a source of moral authority need not and should not be embarrassed by Leviticus. It is a powerful book that advanced human ethics far beyond its time. It is the sexual permissiveness of the last fifty years that drives contemporary hostility to the ethical teaching of Leviticus.

1. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Leviticus: Is It Obviously Out of Date?” (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2015).

2. Jon Meacham, “The Editor’s Desk,” Newsweek, Dec. 5, 2008.

3. Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1996), 276.

4. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Continental Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 241.

5. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 134.

6. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 272.

7. Milgrom, Leviticus, 241.

8. Clyde M. Woods and Justin M. Rogers, Leviticus—Numbers, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2006), 124.