My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel

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Overview

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 held by Samuel as well as Samson 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Theoretically engaged, drawing upon a broad range of textual and material data, and sensitive to the complex relationship of hair, context, and meaning, Susan Niditch presents a compelling, accessible analysis that advances our understanding on a number of fronts." —Saul M. Olyan, Samuel Ungerleider Jr. Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University

"Hair, for Susan Niditch, is not a trivial or frivolous matter in making sense of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Israel from which the Bible comes... Niditch makes her case by close and perceptive readings of the relevant Biblical texts, alive to their subtle nuances and ironical plays in language and imagery. Woven into her readings is an appeal to a wide range of other sources both textual and pictorial, and drawn from all over the ancient Near East and beyond to illuminate the darker corners of the Biblical texts. The value of Niditch's analysis is enhanced by her fluent, lucid style; she has written a book that is fully accessible to non-professional readers, even as it will have much to say to professionals in Biblical and related fields." —Peter Machinist, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Harvard University

"Engaging in its lucid and lively prose, erudite in its presentation of diverse theoretical discussions, and enlightening in its analysis of the major biblical passages in which hair is prominent, Niditch's book offers the reader new insights into the fascinating complexity of representations of body hair in the literature of ancient Israel." —Carol Meyers, Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion, Duke University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195181142
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/18/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Niditch was educated at Harvard University and is Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College. Her previous books include Ancient Israelite Religion and War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence.

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