What’s Wrong With Shaved Heads and Trimmed Beards?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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"The priests must not shave their heads or trim their beards or cut their bodies. They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the LORD, gifts of food for their God."

Leviticus 21:5-6

Leviticus 21:5-6 is one of those passages in Scripture—and there are many in Leviticus—that seem to make little sense to us. That priests should not cut their bodies makes intuitive sense to us. But why is it wrong for priests to shave their heads or trim their beards? How is this related to being holy for God?

It is always a good rule of biblical interpretation to pay close attention to the literary context of a passage you wish to understand. But, in the case of Leviticus 21:5-6, this approach doesn't appear to help. The first four verses of the chapter explain how priests are to avoid touching dead bodies, except in the case of their nearest relatives. This seems irrelevant to the matter of head shaving and beard trimming.

Another trustworthy rule of biblical interpretation instructs us to understand a passage in its historical and cultural context. This principle turns out to be quite helpful in the case of Leviticus 21:5-6. Shaving heads, trimming beards, and cutting bodies were all common grieving practices among the Canaanites. We see this sort of behavior when, in 1 Kings 18, the priests of Baal, during their epic conflict with Elijah, attempt in vain to get their god to send fire to consume their sacrifices (see v. 28).

So, once we understand the cultural context for cutting and trimming, then we can quickly see the connection between our passage and what precedes it. When Israel's priests lose a member of their immediate family, they are not to grieve in the manner of the pagan priests. As those who have been set apart for God's service, even in their grief they are to demonstrate their distinctive calling.

This passage from Leviticus reminds me of Paul's teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14. There he instructs us not to grieve "like people who have no hope" when those we love die. Yes, we are free to grieve, but our grief is distinctive because it is filled with the hope of the resurrection, the new life that we will experience beyond this life.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How can we grieve as people who have hope? What would this kind of grief look like? When we lose those we love, how can we be authentic in our grief and still reflect our hope in Christ?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, first of all, I want to thank you for those who labor as scholars so that we can understand the cultural background of the Scripture. Their efforts help to make clear that which would otherwise leave me puzzled.

Thank you also for the reminder that, as your holy people, every part of our life is to be set apart for you, even our grieving. For the priests of Israel, this meant not cutting their hair or their bodies. For us, it means finding ways to grieve that also celebrate our hope. Help us to live as your priests in every facet of our lives. To you be all the glory, Amen.