A 5 minute theology of hair

Katy Morgan | October 22nd 2019

“Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is.”

So said Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in a scene which met with huge approval from the show’s audience. Finally, the struggle was understood and articulated. We all know we shouldn’t care so much about hair, but we do.

Hair can change the way people perceive us (or at least the way we think they perceive us). A bad hair day can set everything else back. And a drastic cut or a sudden bristle of facial hair often accompanies a big life change.

Hair really isn’t everything. But it isn’t nothing, either. And the Bible backs this up.

Hair tells a story

There are some great hair moments in the Old Testament.

There’s the bride’s hair described as “like a flock of goats descending from the hills of Gilead” (Song of Solomon 4 v 1). What a compliment!

There’s Absalom, David’s son, whose handsomeness and vigour is proved by the fact that his yearly haircut results in more than two kilograms of hair lying on the floor around his barber’s chair. (Yes, he weighs it. See 2 Samuel 14 v 26.)

And there’s the Ammonite king who humiliates David’s envoys by cutting off half of each of their beards (2 Samuel 10 v 4-5).

Given that “people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16 v 7), it might be surprising how significant hair sometimes is in the Bible. Hair is an expression of what is going on inside. It tells a story about who you are and what has happened to you. 

So, those envoys are told by David to lie low until their beards have grown back: he doesn’t want them around when their defeat is so evident. Similarly, healed lepers shaved their hair to display their new beginning (Leviticus 14 v 9). Cutting or tearing hair could also be a sign of grief (e.g. Jeremiah 7 v 29; Ezra 9 v 3).

In the New Testament, Paul takes his hair seriously enough to use it as a symbol of a promise he has made to God (Acts 18 v 18)—keeping it long and then cutting it off when he has fulfilled his vow, as the Nazirites did (more on them below). It’s true that Peter and Paul both advise women that the best kind of beauty doesn’t lie in elaborate hairstyles (1 Peter 3 v 3; 1 Timothy 2 v 9-10); but that doesn’t mean that hair can’t be meaningful. In Bible times as much as today, hair was a significant part of everyday life. It isn’t everything, but it does mean something.

A sign of something important

The most famous head of hair in the Bible might be that of Samson, whose story is told in Judges 13 – 16. From birth, Samson is dedicated to God as a Nazirite. Among other things, this means he will never cut his hair (Numbers 6 v 1-8). It’s a sign of holiness and devotion. This time, hair doesn’t just tell a story: it tells a story about God.

Samson’s vow also means that God gives him miraculous strength. When Samson shares this secret with his treacherous lover Delilah and his hair gets cut off, this strength—and God’s Spirit—leaves him (Judges 16 v 19-20).

Why does God care so much about Samson’s hair? He doesn’t just dislike the new style. Telling Delilah about his hair suggests that Samson has begun to take God for granted: he no longer guards his vow of dedication. When his hair is cut off, it symbolises the end of his vow. Samson is turning his back on God. That’s why he loses his strength.

Yet God does not abandon Samson altogether. Verse 22 notes that his hair begins to grow back, and this seems to be a sign of returning favour. When Samson prays for one last moment of strength in verse 28, it is granted: in his dying moments he pulls a building down to defeat God’s enemies. God values and uses Samson even after Samson has failed him.

Every hair on your head

This brings us to the most enduring meaning of hair in the Bible. Hair shows that God values and protects his people.

There are a lot of hairs on the human head. Bible writers recognized this, and the expression “hairs on the head” came to mean “an uncountable number” (e.g. Psalm 40 v 12)—just like “grains of sand” or “stars in the sky”. Yet in Luke 12 v 7 Jesus tells us that God knows that number: he has counted every hair on your head. God knows each one of us that intimately. 

Jesus’ application of this point is: “Don’t be afraid”. This is because hairs on the head express not just a big number but also how much God values the lives of those who love him. 

The hairs on the head also signify total protection. In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into a furnace, yet emerge unharmed. We are not to imagine them coming out of the fire coughing and burnt, just clinging to life. No: “the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed” (v 27). These men are so valuable to God that not one hair is left unprotected by him.

Astonishingly, God promises the same experience to us. In Luke 21 Jesus predicts the suffering Christians will have to endure: war, famine, illness, persecution, and more. “Everyone will hate you because of me,” he acknowledges (v 17). Then he says: “But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.”

Of course, the hairs on our heads will perish. They will fall out or go grey. That’s okay, because hair isn’t everything. But once again, hair does mean something. Jesus is picking up on the symbolism of hair in the furnace story and elsewhere (see 1 Samuel 14 v 45; 2 Samuel 14 v 11; Acts 27 v 34) to emphasise the complete protection he guarantees for his followers. He is telling us how greatly he values us, and how totally we can trust him. 

If we trust in Jesus, then the hairs on our heads can remind us of our absolute security in him. We may, like Samson, fail to keep our vows. We may lose all our hair. But God is still faithful, and he promises life everlasting.

Katy Morgan

Katy Morgan is an Editor at The Good Book Company. She is involved in Chessington Evangelical Church in Surrey, UK, where she lives. She holds a master's degree in classical Greek literature, and previously worked in a ministry role as part of a school chaplaincy.