Friday, January 30, 2009

"My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man": Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel , by Susan Niditch

Book description from Oxford University Press:

"The story of Jacob and Esau is told in the book of Genesis. With his mother's help, Jacob impersonates his hairy older twin by dressing in Esau's clothes and covering his own hands and the nape of his neck with the hairy hide of goats. Fooled by this ruse, their blind father, Isaac, is tricked into giving the younger son the blessing of the firstborn. This is only one of many biblical stories in which hair plays a pivotal role.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of scholarly interest in the relationship between culture and the body. Hair plays an integral role in the way we represent and identify ourselves. The way we treat our hair has to do with aesthetics, social structure, religious identity, and a host of other aspects of culture. In societies modern and ancient, the hairdo is one key to a group's cultural code. In ancient Israel, hair signifies important features of identity with respect to gender, ethnicity, and holiness.

Susan Niditch seeks a deeper understanding of Israelite culture as expressed, shaped, and reinforced in images of hair. Among her examples is the tradition's most famous long-haired hero, Samson. The hair that assures Samson's strength is a common folktale motif, but is also important to his sacred status as a Nazirite. Niditch examines the meaning of the Nazirite identity null held by Samuel as well as Samson null arguing that long hair is involved in a complex set of cultural assumptions about men, warrior status, and divine election. In addition to biblical texts, Niditch looks at pictorial and other material evidence. She concludes by examining the troubling texts in which men impose hair cutting or loosening upon women, revealing much about attitudes to women and their place in Israelite culture. Much has been written on the presentation of the body in various literatures, including the Bible, but the role of hair in ancient Israel has been neglected. This book charts a new path for studies on the body, religion, and culture."


My question for Susan NIditch is, 'have we really run out of things to think and write about?' On top of being stupid, it's expensive - $45 for a 145pg book. I hope Susan has a large family who will by her book because it got published (not sure if I would).

6 comments:

no said...

Dan, I don't think this is stupid at all. There are a ton of books concerned with cultural studies that study seemingly 'stupid' topics like facebook and mcdonalds signs. Peirce F. Lewis wrote an essay entitled "Axioms for Reading the Landscape" in which he presents the Axiom of Common Things. The Axiom of Common Things suggests that even the most simple and overlooked elements in landscape can be studied to give us an understanding cultural and social formation. Peirce's axiom translates to film, art, anthropology, etc, so why not the Bible? And hair IS an integral part of the formation of gender roles and identity. Naditch is simply investigating a relationship between culture and the body. Not stupid, obscure but not stupid. Next time you blog about something with which you disagree or think is stupid tell me *why* and I'll be way more inclined to take you seriously, haha. That being said....I totally wouldn't pay $45 for this book, but not because its stupid. And there aren't a whole lot of books for which I would pay $45 right now...

Beth said...

Ah, obscure books. I actually think this topic would be interesting to learn about, but I'd never buy it, either. Thankfully, amazing research libraries like the one at IU (coughcough) exist to let us read them for free.

The good news? IU owns this book.
The bad news? It's checked out.

I guess curiosity about Biblical hairiness is alive in well in Bloomington. :-)

Dan Waugh said...

Stupid may have been an overstatement. I meant a ridiculous waste of time. I'm sure it is a brilliant analysis of the data. There are 98 or so verses in the Bible with the word hair. Many are references to goat hair or camel hair, most are in reference to the inspection of disease (i.e. if the area is yellow and the hair is white, it's leprosy...), many fall into the general category of 'not a hair on your head will be harmed' or 'he could sling a stone at a hair and not miss it' or 'the hair on my flesh stood up', many reference to 'my gray hair', still others reference specific commands to priests and those who take a vow. Those would be insignificant for constructing a 'deeper understanding of Israelite culture'. There are a few instructions about not cutting the corner of your beard. It might be an interesting essay, but a 145pg. book. Common!

no said...

From the description it doesn't look like Niditch is concerned with every specific reference to hair in the Bible; like you said, those would be insignificant to her argument. Rather, she is looking at the implications of hair in some specific Biblical narratives as well as in "pictorial and other material evidence." So I'm still not sure why it would be a ridiculous waste of time.

Dan Waugh said...

funny, after posting that last comment I went over with my cup of coffee and watched ESPN for a few. They had a whole piece on hairstyles in the NFL. I stand corrected. People care about hair and what it says. Why not the Israelites? It's now on my 'must read list'. Ok, now I'm kidding.

no said...

Haha its also funny that we're having an online discussion about a book that neither of us have ever read (and probably never will). The title, though: My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man. Yeah, that 'sounds' stupid. I'll give you that.