Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Niditch, Susan, “My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man”: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pp. 159. Hardcover. US$45.00. ISBN 978-0-19-518114-2

Some of the Hebrew Bible's most memorable stories concern hair. Susan Niditch's informative volume sheds fresh light on these narratives by fulfilling the aims summarized in its last lines: “to further our understanding of actual hair customs and practices in Israelite and neighboring cultures and to explore the various symbolic roles of hair and transformations of hair, its emotional and evocative effect on wearers and viewers, its cultural messages and meanings, and its political power and influence” (p. 140).

Chapter 1, “Introduction,” presents the idea that hair is central to expressions of personal and cultural identity. Niditch outlines three ways in which the relationship between hair, body and culture has been conceived by anthropologists. The first model, following anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, focuses upon the interplay between how hair relates to an individual's body (e.g., hair style as an expression of self image), the role of hair in social context (e.g., the symbolic significance of long hair), and the regulation of hair in the body politic (e.g., whether shaving is voluntary or forced). The second model is Victor Turner's symbolic analysis, which, when used to study hair, seeks to understand the “grammar” of hair-related practices and their relation to other cultural symbols. The third model comes from Gananath Obeyesekere's work, which highlights the interplay of private and cultural meanings, along with the potential for innovation.

In the latter part of the chapter Niditch explores the environmental, natural and political contexts in which ancient Israelites wore their hair. She then briefly surveys the main epochs of Israelite social history, to the extent that this can be reconstructed from biblical and archaeological sources, as background to her subsequent study.

Chapter 2, “Hair in the Material Culture and Art of the Ancient Near East,” is a most informative survey of hair related objects and practices in ancient Israelite, Egyptian, Assyrian and Persian societies. Niditch examines artistic representations of hair in Egyptian reliefs, “the only possible pre-monarchic portrayal of Israelites” (p. 33), highlighting how hair styles reflect status and ethnic origin. She then examines Israelite depictions of hair in drawings on storage jars discovered at Kuntillet 'Ajrud and on Judean pillar figurines. Finally, she takes a detailed look at Assyrian portrayals of hair on the Black Obelisk and Sennacherib's reliefs, demonstrating that beards can symbolise manliness, and that hair styles are utilized to distinguish victors from vanquished. Throughout this chapter, plates and figures helpfully illustrate Niditch's discussion. She concludes that hair was a critical element of how the Israelites perceived themselves—or were made to perceive themselves—, as well as how they were perceived by others.

Chapter 3, “Samson: Maleness, Charisma, Warrior Status, and Hair,” considers how hair is presented as a proxy for the hero's life force. Samson's hair distinguishes him from the less hairy Philistines, and Delilah's act of cutting his flowing locks is an assertion of Philistine dominance. The shearing of Samson is especially significant because he was a Nazir, whose hair had never been cut. Niditch turns, therefore, to study the Nazirite vow, including the translation of פרע (Judg 5:2; Deut 32:42), which she takes to be hair-related. The chapter concludes with a study of Absalom, who is singled out by his hair, a sign of his “manly fecundity” (p. 79). God's view of the matter, however, is different, and Absalom's hair becomes his undoing. “The hair suits him but is beautifully manipulated in this tale to suggest an antihero, not one meant to lead, not one who is divinely chose, a fake—all hat and no cattle” (p. 80).

Chapter 4, “The Nazirite Vow: Domesticating Charisma and Recontextualizing Hair,” considers in detail Numbers 6, which refers to two rites of passage, and related postexilic texts. Niditch uses Turner's model of ritual to explain Numbers 6. She concludes that the “Nazir, during his vow, is…in a perpetual state of priestly-style cleanness and holiness, as if he were about to enter the sacred locus” (p. 87). Furthermore, while long hair is a public symbol of the hairy person's status, it is also a constant, uncomfortable reminder to individuals of their commitment, for “the longer the hair, the more the lice” (p. 91).

Chapter 5, “Absent Hair,” discusses shaving, mourning practices, and the contrast between “hairy” and “smooth.” The central feature of hair loss is that it is related to a change of status. Niditch shows how the forced beard removal of David's messengers in 2 Sam 10:4–5 is a sign of subjugation. Because women do not grow beards, it has gendered connotations (p. 98); and it is similar to David's cutting of Saul's cloak (1 Sam 24:7). Niditch observes that the “men respond emotionally and viscerally to the forced removal of their hair…[which] only makes sense within a cultural context that equates male power with facial hair, the loss of hair with loss of power” (p. 98).

Context, however, is crucial. While the forced removal of hair may be shameful, ritual hair removal by individuals in mourning gives other messages. In her discussion of relevant texts, Niditch comments upon the use of the image of hair removal as a sign of mourning in Jer 7:29 and Ezekiel 5, where shaving is a sign of loss of consecration, of distance from God because of transgression and consequent punishment. The inability to mourn characterizes the chaos of defeat in Jer 16:6. Niditch outlines the differences in priestly and lay mourning practices regarding hair described in Leviticus, noting that they highlight status differences. That the whole people of God were to be distinct explains the prohibition against adopting non-Yahwistic hair styles in Lev 19:27–28. Shaving can be a sign of cleansing. This is clear both in the ritual of priestly initiation in Numbers 8, and in Lev 14:8 where the formerly leprous person removes all hair, entering a liminal phase that passes as the hair grows back.

The chapter concludes with an examination of hairy and smooth biblical characters. Elijah and Elisha, like Esau and Jacob, are contrasted by their hair/lack of hair (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8; 2:23 and Gen 25:25, 27). In the case of Esau and Jacob, the underdog gets the upper hand. Niditch proposes that telling such a tale to men would have amused women, for “all such stories amuse and psychologically liberate those without power” (p. 117). In the case of Joseph, we read that “he shaved and changed his clothing” before presenting himself to Pharaoh (Gen 41:14). In doing so, according to Niditch, he became like the smooth Egyptian ruler: “It is a common theme for immigrants of all kinds and all periods. And, once again, hair is a crucial marker of the acceptance, at least outwardly, of transformation from ‘us’ to ‘them’” (p. 120).

Chapter 6 is entitled “Letting Down Her Hair to Cutting It Off: The Ritual Trial of a Woman Accused of Adultery and the Transformation of the Female ‘Other’.” The chapter commences with a study of Num 5:11–31, which she later observes is “not the sort of marriage counseling offered by modern family therapists” (p. 128). Niditch then discusses the evidence for women's hair styles, suggesting that young Israelite women wore hair loose, while married aristocratic ladies pulled their hair back in some way (p. 126). Hair also plays an important symbolic role when a captive bride is incorporated into her new family.

“My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man” ends with brief “Conclusions,” a 10 page bibliography, and general and biblical indices.

Those familiar with Niditch's work will know that she writes with a delicious lucidity, and that her discussions are readily accessible even to those without prior knowledge of the social science utilized in her interpretations. “My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man” is no exception.

With respect to the content of the book Niditch is methodologically meticulous while avoiding heavy handedness: she is both careful and interesting. Moreover, her presentation of hair styles, etc. in the extra-biblical sources really does help illuminate the text, often shedding new light on otherwise obscure passages.

In this context, I would make two points. First, if one were to ask more of this volume it would be at the level of further integrating the models for thinking about hair, body and culture Niditch outlines in Chapter 1 into the subsequent discussion. In particular, while the author takes the seminal work of Obeyesekere as her third model, she does not employ his insights often; instead, she prefers to rely upon Turner. In the conclusion she recognizes her preference, noting that the other models “encourage the exegete to seek out the emotional, personal, and psychological roots, dimensions, and responses of Israelites” (p. 134). Perhaps this is all that can be expected—it is, after all, difficult to analyse the sometimes unconscious relationships between personal and cultural symbols that Obeyesekere highlights in an ancient text—but, if so, it would have been better to delineate the model's limitations at the start.

Second, when discussing the test for an unfaithful wife in Num 5:11–31, Niditch highlights how the manipulation of the woman's hair by men “subjugates the woman and enhances the empowerment of the men around her” (p. 123). I agree. It is also necessary, however, to note that by publicly questioning a wife's chastity the husband had to recognise that he suspected that he had been cuckolded. In other words, in the context of ancient society, he had to admit that his honour had been compromised. For this reason the trial described in Numbers 5 would almost certainly have been a last resort—although I concur with Niditch that its misuse remains a possibility. Furthermore, whereas one might expect a husband to wreak vengeance for his wife's (suspected) infidelity, the ritual actually places that responsibility in God's hands.

But these are minor points. One can wholeheartedly recommend Niditch's sparkling little book to scholars and students interested in social-scientific interpretation of the Hebrew Bible or the “hairy” texts she discusses.

Jonathan Y. Rowe, Seminario Evangélico Unido de Teología, El Escorial, Spain