There has for quite some time been an argument over what 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is discussing. It is quite clear that this passage instructs women to cover their heads. The real contention is this: is the Holy Spirit here through Paul commanding that women cover their heads with a literal cloth veiling over their natural covering of hair, or is the instruction rather that women grow their hair long that it may be a covering? My goal in this study is to further illuminate our understanding of what the covering is in these passages by studying other passages in the Bible that discuss covering the head and the status of a woman’s hair. I am invoking the “law of first mention” as a study tool; that is, I am going to use the Old Testament as a guide to interpret the New Testament. Please note that this is by no means exhaustive, but I have chosen a sufficient number of passages from different categories to expound the meaning of that word; I am not intentionally leaving anything out but for the sake of brevity I am not including every example, only sufficient examples to understand the way the word is used in that type of passage. With that in mind, please attempt to have an open mind about what I am bringing forth. Let’s start from “ground zero.” The Bible was written with Genesis, and we should start there.
The first place in the Bible where the word “cover” is used is Genesis 7:19.
And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.
It is evident that this covering is an all-encompassing covering. The waters of the flood covered every square inch of land upon the earth. Nothing was left uncovered or dry. The word translated “covered” here is כּסה (English transliteration kasah), which means “to plump, that is, fill up hollows; by implication to cover (for clothing or secrecy): - clad self, close, clothe, conceal, cover (self), (flee to) hide, overwhelm.” The image here is that the water filled in the valleys and the hills like a blanket covers an entire bed, including indentations and pillows (and the occasional cat!).
There are several other instances where the word “cover” is used to describe the flood and other miracles (such as the plagues of Egypt), but one is sufficient since they are all the same Hebrew word, and since we are studying headcovering and not the flood or other historical events (not that the latter is unimportant!). The same word is also used in Psalm 32:1, and I believe we would all agree that our sins are wholly covered under the blood of Jesus our Lord!
Let’s look at the first place where the word “cover” is used to describe clothing.
Genesis 9:23: And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
We all know the story: Noah was drunk and naked (in the Bible, “naked” does not always mean that a person is completely without clothes—remember that Peter was “naked” on the ship? He wasn’t completely undressed but rather improperly dressed—it can mean either completely undressed or improperly dressed. So Noah might have been completely naked, but more than likely he was just missing some clothing.), and Ham discovered his father’s nakedness. He told his brothers, who in this verse without looking at their father covered him properly.
The Hebrew word here is the same word (kasah), implying that Shem and Japheth pulled the covering up over every part of their father’s nakedness.
Let’s look at the first example of covering being used to describe a woman.
Genesis 24:65 For she had said unto the servant, What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, It is my master: therefore she took a vail, and covered herself.
The Hebrew word for vail here is צעיף, transliterated into English as tsaeef. The word means simply a veil, but is from a root word that means “to wrap over.” Once more, the word for “covered” is the same Hebrew word (kasah). So the image here is of Rebekah taking her shawl and “wrapping it over” herself. (see footnote 1 for a side note on this passage). It was clearly a veil separate from her head and her hair.
Let’s look at another example of covering with a woman.
Genesis 38:14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.
This passage uses the same Hebrew words as the last passage. This passage is slightly different, in that it is clear that Tamar covered her face (look at the next verse). Once more, though, she wholly covered (with a literal cloth veiling) her hair and her face, her beauty and her identity, that she would not be known by Judah.
Let’s look at one more example of women and covering.
Isaiah 47:1-3 Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers. Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen: I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man.
God here is saying to rebellious Babylon, “I am going to shame you because of your transgressions, and the way in which I am going to shame you is that I am going to make you naked.” Yes, this passage is a metaphor, but it is a metaphor that would have been understood within Hebrew and Babylonian societies for the reason that the literal actions described would be shameful for a woman to have happen to her.
The word translated “uncover” in this passage is גּלה, or gahlaw. It means to make nude (especially in a disgraceful sense). Its further implication is to dishonor, to discover the glory of, to destroy the honor of, or to uncover the shame of someone. God says here to uncover a woman’s hair, her legs, and her thighs is shameful, dishonorable nakedness.
Isaiah 3:16-24 shows how women also used this covering, meant to be a symbol of modesty, as an excuse for wantonness and for playing the harlot. The Lord in this passage is talking about the shame of Zion, both as a nation and I believe in the lives of individual women; therefore, this passage is both metaphorical and literal.
Moreover the LORD saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the LORD will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings, and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.
Those are some strong words! The daughters of Zion had discarded their God-given beauty for wantonness, just as Israel discarded the Covenant for idolatry. Rather than wearing a simple, modest dress and head shawl, these women wore fancy clothing and jewelry, and made their headcoverings a display and a glory to them. We ought to meditate on these Scriptures and think on how God views outward adornment (although this is another topic that I will write on later, Lord willing).
It is clear in the Old Testament that the custom formed for women to cover their heads (and bodies) out of modesty with literal clothing, and by Isaiah’s day it was shameful to go about with hair, legs, or thighs—the beauty of a woman--exposed. What is interesting, though, is that most of the passages in the Old Testament that discuss covering the head refer to men (while most of the modern debate is about women…think about that for a bit. Why is the fact of men uncovering their heads not a significant part of this debate when it is a huge issue in Jewish circles?). Let’s explore some of those passages.
The first passage that describes covering involving a man is the case of the leper in Leviticus 13:45.
And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.
The context of this passage describes a man with leprosy on his head or his forehead, which caused his hair to fall out entirely or partly. A man would have naturally tried to cover that shame up with a shawl, but this passage describes the priest uncovering the man’s head to expose his leprosy.
The word translated “bare” is פּרע or parah, which means “to uncover or to make bare.” It is interesting here that parah has the same essential meaning as gahlaw in Isaiah, except that parah has no sense of being a shameful uncovering. This means that the uncovered man’s head was not nudity like in Isaiah, but rather an uncovering as a proclamation of that man’s status. Note that the man is not shaving his head here, but rather merely uncovering his head (the man would be foolish to shave his head, since his hair could prove that he does not have leprosy!)
Several passages of Scripture discuss men covering their heads.
2 Samuel 15:30 And David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot: and all the people that was with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.
Esther 6:12 And Mordecai came again to the king's gate. But Haman hasted to his house mourning, and having his head covered.
Jeremiah 14:3-4 And their nobles have sent their little ones to the waters: they came to the pits, and found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads. Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth, the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads.
The common thread of these passages is that a man covered his head in the Old Testament out of shame and mourning. There was also a commandment that the priests entering into the temple wear a bonnet before the Lord.
Exodus 28:40 And for Aaron's sons thou shalt make coats, and thou shalt make for them girdles, and bonnets shalt thou make for them, for glory and for beauty.
It is my opinion that these bonnets were the beginning of the custom of Jewish men covering their heads with a kippah, and also later the reason why Roman Catholic priests (cardinals, etc) wear bonnets (though this is in disobedience to 1 Corinthians 11:1-16; This stems from the false teaching of Augustine that the Old Covenant—that is, the physical Old Kingdom--is to be lived out by the church. That is a completely separate topic, however, and beyond the scope of this study.)
What can we conclude from this? In the Old Testament, men covered their heads out of a sense of shame or mourning. The priests were also called to cover their heads both out of a sense of mourning (since after all the priests were going to atone for the sins of Israel), though like the other garments of the priest their bonnets were beautiful. Women on the other hand wore veils to cover their beauty and their identity. It is plain and obvious that men wore a literal cloth on their heads, and that women covered with a literal cloth covering.
Let’s enter into the New Testament. A study of the New Testament will show that the only passage in which the words “cover” and “head” coincide is in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. There are, however, a few times where the English word “cover” is used in other contexts in the New Testament.
Matthew 8:24 And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep.
The Greek word here translated “covered” is καλύπτω, or kalupto. This word means simply “to cover,” though not wholly. The image is that the waves were splashing up and over the ship, although the ship was not brought under water.
Matthew 10:26 (repeated in Luke 12:2) Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.
This word “covered” is also kalupto. It is a very rich meditation to think how we as sinful humans attempt to cover our own sin, but as the word implies, we can never cover it fully—only the Lord’s own blood can do that!
Mark 14:65 And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.
The word here is περικαλύπτω, or perikalupto. The word means literally “to cover all around,” or to cover the surface of something entirely like with a blindfold. You can imagine how the soldiers must have covered up our Lord’s face with their hands.
Luke 8:16 No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light.
Again the word here is kalupto. Jesus is saying here that we shouldn’t cover up the glory of God even partly—we should let His light shine out from us fully, in all its glory!
Luke 23:30 Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
What is interesting is that once more the word “cover” is kalupto. I would imagine that a hill falling upon a man would be an entire covering, but the Lord can see through that pile of dust into the man’s never-dying soul!
1 Peter 4:8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
Do you know what that word translated “cover” is? It’s kalupto! That word that means to cover incompletely! What Peter is discussing here is that we should have love toward one another and forgive each other in love (because that love will blind us toward others’ transgressions toward us). Yet our love for each other does not erase others’ sins, and even God’s love toward us does not erase our sins if we do not turn to Him in repentance, and if He does not forgive us. Think on that for a while, and praise the Lord for His salvation if He has and is saving you!
This brings us to 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Before we delve into this passage, I’d like to define all of the words thus far used in conjunction with covering as a recap.
kasah--to cover in entirety
taseef--to wrap over like a veil
gahlaw--to uncover shamefully
parah--to uncover or make bare
Peri—all around the edges, as in perimeter
Kata—entirely, the whole of a thing
Kalupto—to cover incompletely
Katakalupto would then mean to cover completely. Kasah is the direct equivalent of katakalupto. One new word used in 1 Corinthians 11 is bolaion, which means something that is cast about. The word bolaion is used as parabolaion (meaning something cast about something else) in the parts of the passage where hair is discussed; in every other place, the word is katakalupto. Do keep this in mind, because it is important that the hair is represented as parabolaion and the other “covering” is represented as katakalupto.
I am going to go through the verses 1 Corinthians 11 that discuss covering and hair, replacing the words “cover” and also interpreting some of the passage in the light of their Greek meaning. This is not because the Bible’s presentation of this passage is deficient—it is not!—but rather because doing this can clarify some of the issues that have been contended over.
Every man praying or prophesying, having something on his head that covers it continually brings dishonor to his head. But every woman that continues to pray or continues to prophesy who does not have the entirety of her head—that is, the area where her hair is that can be grasped--covered continually brings dishonor to her head: it is just as shameful as if she were bald. For if the woman will not entirely cover her head, her head should be shaved: but since it is shameful for a woman to be baldheaded, the woman should entirely cover her head. For a man indeed ought to have his head completely bare, forasmuch as he is the likeness and representative of God on earth: but the woman is the one who draws attention to the man and is a symbol of man’s power and authority. For this cause ought the woman to have a token of the man’s delegated control to her on her head, because of the angels. Use your reasoning: is it comely that a woman pray unto God without her head entirely covered, without that symbol of the veiling of man’s authority in God’s presence? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, which is cast down his body, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long flowing tresses, cast down her body, it will bring attention to her: for God gave woman her hair to be cast about her body (as Eve was given hair in the Garden before the Fall and before God clothed them with clothing).
I think that interpreting the passage in the light of the Greek words clears up the misunderstandings about verses 14-16. It is clear that the hair was given from God as a covering before the Fall (God was concerned about headship even when man was naked!), and then clothing (including a woman’s cloth headcovering) was given after the Fall. The relationship between God, man, and woman was perfect in Eden, but when sin entered in, the relationship was severed, and man’s nakedness was uncovered. He rose up in pride against God, seeking his own authority in disobeying the Lord’s commandment. Thus now that Christ has come to restore us to God, we should seek to hide man’s authority and his pride. As a symbol of this, man should uncover his head (the symbol of God’s glory) and woman should cover her head (the symbol of man’s glory and her own glory). A woman’s hair, therefore, is not the covering that this passage is introducing. Rather, it is a natural symbol of submission that in the light of the Fall should be covered by a voluntary symbol of submission. That really opens this passage up to such deep levels, doesn’t it?
Love in Christ,
1. This passage for some is a point of contention. They argue that since Rebekah was not wearing a covering at all times, that whatever the covering is in the New Testament does not need to be worn at all times. The answer to this is that in the Old Testament, there was no broad commandment for women to veil their heads in any way (with hair or with a literal cloth veiling). What Rebekah did was a reflection of the culture in which she lived where there was no teaching from the Bible on covering. Women covered before men out of modesty (the exceptions would be before family and before eunuchs). In the New Testament, the cultural practice of women covering their heads (though it was not a universal practice among any cultural group to whom Paul was writing) was imbued with spiritual significance and made universal and timeless.