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Two modern translations of the Bible render 2 Kings 1:8 differently:

They answered him, “He was a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” [NASB, bold added]

They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” [ESV, bold added]

The KJV, NKJV, HCSB, and NET all side with the NASB. But the NIV and NABRE are comparable to the ESV. The difference seems non-trivial, considering the commonly made connection between this passage and Matthew 3:4, in which John the Baptist wears hairy clothing, and is not said to be hairy himself.

Why the disagreement? Given the split in modern editions it seems unlikely that this is due to a difference between the Received Text and Critical Text. So what's the issue? Where was Elijah's hair?

12

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אִישׁ בַּ֣עַל שֵׂעָ֔ר וְאֵזוֹר עוֹר אָזוּר בְּמָתְנָיו

The Hebrew of interest here is baʿal śēʿār, a "lord of hair". This falls into the use of baʿal described in HALOT 4, s.v. בַּעַל:1

status word: בַּעַל indicates the owner of an object which embodies his manner, his character or his occupation

The use of the term "owner" seems to indicate that the "object" may be more likely a garment than a physical attribute, but the examples provided often involve attributes rather than items. Some are abstract:

בַּ׳ חֲלֹֹמוֹת dreamer (someone who possesses the gift of dreaming and the interpretation of dreams.... Gen 37:19

That is, a "lord of dreams". And again:

בַּ׳ כָּנָף winged Pr 1:17, בַּ׳ כְּנָפַים which has wings Qoh 10:20

Here (in Proverbs and Qohelet) we have close parallels to 2 Kings 1:8: "lord of wing(s)" (translated "bird" and "winged creature", respectively). The "owner" is clearly one with this physical attribute. Daniel 8:6, 20 also give "a lord of horns", i.e. one with horns. By analogy with these passages and others, Mordechai Cogan says that the phrase can "only mean 'hairy man,' not a 'hairy coat/hair-shirt'".2 He goes on to point out:

While Elijah was known to have worn a mantle (see 1 Kgs 19:13, 19; 2 Kgs 2:8, 13, 14), perhaps even a hairy one (cf. Zech 13:4), apparently it was first in intertestamental tradition that the hairy coat became associated exclusively with him.


1. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner. A Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Trans. M. E. J. Richardson. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

2. Mordechai Cogan, II Kings (AYB), New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 26.

  • +1 Also do you think there is any significance that Elijah is described as baʿal śēʿār as his identifying characteristic given the context of stopping the messengers Ahaziah sent to inquire of ba'al-zebub? – Revelation Lad Jan 23 '17 at 20:38
  • Possibly. The commentaries I looked at didn't mention it, although the ESV Study Bible (Iain Provan) does. Regardless, I don't see this as helping much with the question of garment vs. attribute in v. 8, since Baal-zebub doesn't easily fall into either category. – Susan Jan 24 '17 at 5:15
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The Hebrew text of 2 Kings 1:8 states,

ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר וְאֵזוֹר עוֹר אָזוּר בְּמָתְנָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֵלִיָּה הַתִּשְׁבִּי הוּא

The English phrase “hairy man” occurs one other time in Gen. 27:11 wherein Esau is described as an אִישׁ שָׂעִר (ʾîš śāʿir)—“a hairy man,” while his brother Jacob is described as אִישׁ חָלָק (ʾîš ḥālāq)—“a smooth man.” However, in 2 Kings 1:8, rather than אִישׁ שָׂעִר, the Hebrew text states different: אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר (ʾîš baʿal śēʿār)—“a man, an owner of hair,” with the inclusion of the noun בַּעַל (baʿal), meaning “owner, possessor, master,” and rather than the adjective שָׂעִר (śāʿir)—“hairy,” it has the noun שֵׂעָר (śēʿār)—“hair.”

Concerning the word בַּעַל, HALOT provides one definition as “owner of an object” and lists 2 Kings 1:8 under that definition, which seems to suggest that they interpret it as though Elijah owned a hairy garment.1 On the other hand, Gesenius interprets the phrase אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר as “a hairy man” in his entry on בַּעַל (baʿal),2 yet in his entry on שֵׂעָר (śēʿār), he elaborates, saying, “אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר a rough, hairy man, i.e. wearing a hairy mantle, 2 Ki. 1:8.”3

In his commentary on 2 Kings 1:8, Carl Friedrich Keil wrote,4

The servants described the prophet according to his outward appearance, which in a man of character is a reflection of his inner man, as אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר, vir pilosus, hirsutus. This does not mean a man with a luxuriant growth of hair, but refers to the hairy dress, i.e., the garment made of sheep-skin or goat-skin or coarse camel-hair, which was wrapped round his body; the אַדֶּרֶת (2 Kings 2:8; 1 Kings 19:13), or אַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר (Zech. 13:4, cf. Matt. 3:4, Heb. 11:37), which was worn by the prophets, not as mere ascetics, but as preachers of repentance, the rough garment denoting the severity of the divine judgments upon the effeminate nation, which revelled in luxuriance and worldly lust. And this was also in keeping with “the leather girdle,” אֵזֹור עֹור, ζώνη δερματίνη (Matt. 3:4), whereas the ordinary girdle was of cotton or linen, and often very costly.

This seems to satisfy the idea that Elijah both possessed a hairy garment, and was himself hairy, though his hairiness was due to the hairy garment with which he wrapped himself, not that he was naturally hirsute.


References

Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm. Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Trans. Tregelles, Samuel Prideaux. London: Bagster, 1860.

Keil, Carl Friedrich. Commentary on the Old Testament. 1900. Reprint. Trans. Harper, Andrew; Martin, James; Taylor, Sophia. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Koehler, Ludwig; Baumgartner, Walter. A Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Trans. Richardson, M. E. J. Ed. Baumgartner, Walter; Stamm, Johann Jakob. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Footnotes

1 p. 143. If this be the case, then שֵׂעָר (“hair”) is likely being used to represent a אַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר (“garment of hair”) (cp. Zec. 13:4) via metonymy.
2 p. 131
3 p. 793
4 p. 202

  • 1
    That's interesting. It seems to be the case that the older interpretation was consistently with you (ESV is following RSV which follows KJV here), whereas the two newer commentaries I looked at leaned the other direction. Anyway, nice to have both perspectives represented, +1! – Susan Jan 23 '17 at 18:39
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    "On the other hand, Gesenius interprets the phrase אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר as 'a hairy man.'” You might want to reconsider that statement. Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (1860): "אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר a rough hairy man, i. e. wearing a hairy mantle, 2 Ki. 1:8." – Bʀɪᴀɴ Jan 23 '17 at 20:02
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    +1 Also do you think there is any significance that Elijah is described as baʿal śēʿār as his identifying characteristic given the context of stopping the messengers Ahaziah sent to inquire of ba'al-zebub? – Revelation Lad Jan 23 '17 at 20:38
  • @RevelationLad—Not really. I’d say that was purely coincidental (imo). – user862 Jan 23 '17 at 22:32
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    @SimplyaChristian - Also interesting is that it appears his earlier lexicons (1828 / 1832) did not include the clause "i. e. wearing a hairy mantle." in the entry for שֵׂעָר. – Bʀɪᴀɴ Jan 24 '17 at 0:48

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