O Beard, Where Art Thou?

Joab’s charge to play the man still endures, immortalized in Scripture. “Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him” (2 Samuel 10:13).

Joab, facing enemies from the front and from the rear, took some of his best men and faced the Syrians ahead. The rest of his army would turn with his brother, Abishai, to meet the Ammonites to their back. Here we find the iconic words of Joab to his brother:

If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him. (2 Samuel 10:11–13)

This battle scene, equal to the best of Braveheart, Gladiator, or 300, began, if I may comb things out just slightly, with a man’s beard. Or, to be precise, the beards of several bushy men.

Sheared Like Sheep

David had sent several bearded messengers to meet the newly crowned King Hanun of the Ammonites, who succeeded his father, Nahash. David expressed his condolences for the deceased Nahash by dispatching these warm-chinned chums to “console [Hanun] concerning his father” (2 Samuel 10:2). Nahash had remained loyal to David — the neighboring kings kept the peace between each other. David’s delegates extended, as it were, the right hand of good will to Hanun.

A hand Hanun would not shake.

Led by the folly of suspicious counsel, the princes of the Ammonites convinced Hanun that these servants did not come to comfort but to conquer. “Has not David sent his servants to search the city and spy it out and to overthrow it?” (2 Samuel 10:3). And this is where things get rather hairy for the king. How should he respond?

He decides to shame David’s men and make them a spectacle. “Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off half the beard of each and cut off their garments in the middle, at their hips, and sent them away” (2 Samuel 10:4). He left multiple cheeks exposed.

Like sheep, Hanun sheared these men. These trees lost half their leaves; these lions, half their manes. When David heard of the barber-ous deed, he sent to meet them because they were “greatly ashamed.” The king acknowledged their humiliation and told them, “Remain at Jericho until your beards have grown and then return” (2 Samuel 10:5).

And what would David do next? Touch a man’s goat, and it’s time for court; touch a man’s beard, and it’s time for war.

Still Waiting in Jericho

In the twenty-first century, we might miss how hostile this act really was, how deeply shaming for an Israelite man in that day. If King Hanun cut off half of our beards today, it would be considered less shameful than strange. Also, not very effective — for each could just shave the other half off and still fit in with society. So why did this razor cut them to the heart? Why wait outside Jerusalem until it grew back? One historical commentary states, “What may seem like a ‘prank’ was in fact a direct challenge to David’s power and authority, and precipitated a war between the two nations” (336).

And beyond its spitting upon David’s outstretched hand of peace, consider the prominence of the beard in Israel.

First, in Israelite culture, the beard served as a sign of mature masculinity. All Israelite men grew beards; God commanded it: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). Beards were a facial billboard for manhood, distinguishing men, at first glance, from boys and women.

The full, rounded beard was a sign of manhood and a source of pride to Hebrew men. It was considered an ornament, and much care was given to its maintenance. In fact, the wealthy and important made a ceremony of caring for their beards. Custom did not allow the beard to be shaved, only trimmed (Leviticus 19:27; 21:5), except in special circumstances [such as great lament or distress: see Jeremiah 41:5; Ezra 9:3]. (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 80)

Thus, to cut off the peacekeepers’ beards was, quoting again, to “symbolically emasculat[e] them and by extension David” (IVP Bible Background Commentary, 336). Not to split hairs, but the beards also served as a sign of masculine might: “Beards worn during ancient periods were viewed with great reverence and often symbolized strength and virility” (Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, 158). To hack at it was to hack at a symbol of their manliness.

What of the Beardless?

The connection between manhood and unmown cheeks today has flowed down through church history, like oil running down the beard of Aaron (Psalm 133:2).

Augustine, commenting on Psalm 133, writes, “The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man” (Augustine’s Commentary on Psalms, John, and 1 John). Or take Charles Spurgeon, who told his students that “growing a beard is a habit most natural, scriptural, manly and beneficial” (Lectures to My Students, 99). Or take ministers during the Reformation who grew manhood’s symbol to defy the celibate, clean-shaven faces of the Catholic priesthood.

Or overhear our day questioned by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters as the senior demon writes his nephew, “Thus we have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females — and there is more in that than you might suppose” (118).

So, what of the beardless?

Rome’s men were clean-shaven in biblical times (as were the Egyptians). When these beardless came to the bearded Christ, they did not need to grow one to enter the kingdom of God. They, like we, are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone — apart from any strands of good works, lest the hairier among us boast. Of course, on the face of it, beards hold no salvific design, nor are they commanded. Even the shaved can be saved. Nor do beards make us men. Some boys living in basements, addicted to video games and porn, grow beards. But here we walk a fine line. Does this then relegate the beard, that ancient landmark, to a matter of obsolete decoration, of mere preference?

“If you walk according to your God-given masculinity, you are a bearded man, whether you have hair on your face or not.”

I know more than a few godly men who testify that though they try, the fig tree does not blossom, nor is fruit found on the vine. Little islands of hair sprout, but the lands never form the continent. They are more Jacob than Esau — whose mother glued “the skins of the young goats on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck” (Genesis 27:16) to pass as his hairy brother (and the older did come to serve the younger, Genesis 25:23; 27:15, 42). Chin wigs, my brother, are no solution.

The solution is to be the man God made you to be. Many today, if not most, will not have beards and are not the lesser for it. This article, with all its bearded banter, has nothing negative to say to you. We agree with Shakespeare that “he that hath a beard is more than a youth,” but not when he continues, “and he that hath no beard is less than a man” (Much Ado about Nothing, 2.1). For if you walk according to your God-given and God-matured masculinity, you are a bearded man, whether you have hair on your face or not. To understand that statement, consider the wonder of why God made beards.

O Beard, Where Art Thou?

Why did God make men with the capacity to grow beards? Why grow beards at all, or why not give them to children and women, like some speculate of the dwarves of Middle-earth?

Is it not because God delights in the distinctions he made? The day and the night, the land and the water, the heavens and the earth, the man and the woman — “Good.” For centuries, he hid the chromosomal signatures in every cell in our bodies, where only he could delight in them, but he did not leave himself without a witness, even to the unscientific. He shaded the man’s face with his pencil from the very beginning. What ecstasy of Adam observing the beautiful and smooth face of Eve — like me, yet not.

“We paste false beards on women and shave the beards of men, catechizing the children that there isn’t any difference.”

This appreciation is under assault in many places today. Figuratively speaking, our culture dislikes everything about beards. We paste false beards on women and shave the beards of men, catechizing the children that there isn’t any difference. Hair is just hair. With enough hormones, anyone can grow them. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools, exchanging the glory of God for images (Romans 1:22–23) — and now we barter away our own.

That makes literal beards, in my opinion, worth having. Beards protest against a world gone mad. In other words, beards beard. They testify, in their own bristly way, that sex distinctions matter, that manhood will not be so easily shaven, shorn, or chopped by the Hanuns of this world. Its itchy and cheeky voice bears witness, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).