In the process of determining whether a wife is faithful to her husband, the priest was to uncover the woman's head.

And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering. (Numbers 5:18)

In the New Testament Paul raised the issue with the Corinthian church about women and uncovered heads.

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head, but every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head... (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)

Is Paul referring to a Jewish, Levitical custom (Law), or to a local Corinthian social custom? Does Numbers shed any light on an answer? And does this admonition have any relevance to the modern church congregations, domestic or foreign, evangelical or progressive?

  • 1
    Corinth was a Roman colony, so the issue of head covering in 1 Corinthians 11 should be interpreted within the context of Roman culture. Do a quick research on Head covering amongst ancient Roman women to see a clear connection. Commented Feb 6 at 22:20
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    "The costume of the matron signified her modesty and chastity, her pudicitia. It consisted of her distinctive dress, the woollen stola, which was worn over a tunic; the protective woollen bands which dressed her hair; and the woollen palla or mantle, which was used to veil her head when she went out in public." Commented Feb 6 at 22:26
  • Culture Shock? Considering that Paul was raised Roman and Hebrew, would he suffer culture shock, if he were alive today, when seeing not only women in society without coverings (except Muslims), and many, many churches with women sans head-covering (excluding Romanian, Catholic, Orthodox)?
    – ray grant
    Commented Feb 6 at 22:41

2 Answers 2


Reach a bit farther for some context. Paul gets clearer a few verses later:

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

along with:

if a woman has long hair, it is her glory

There's something going on here that we miss because the link back to the Old Testament is a bit obscure. Here's where we find the two concepts from the above quotes:

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.

Working backwards, start with the word in bold: attractive. In the ancient near east, as is still the case in many cultures today, a woman's long hair was considered part of her beauty. When robes were the common dress, long hair was the most obvious aspect of her beauty because it was so visible; even braided and wound in a stack on the head it stood out -- there are even references to such an arrangement as a woman's crown, which is likely where Paul gets the idea of long hair as a woman's "glory". He also mentions angels; assuming angels are looking down from heaven a woman's hair is definitely her most obvious feature.

But why does he mention angels? Look at the passage above, from Genesis 6: the term "the sons of God" is בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים (b'nay elohim), a term that is also found in the book of Job, and in Job it's plain that the "sons of God" are angels (including "the Adversary"). So Genesis 6 is telling us that angels saw women and found them beautiful, and we know that this beauty included long hair.

So how does praying with her head uncovered "dishonor" a woman's head? From the foregoing, we can say that at least a part of Paul's thinking was that it does so because it is in essence offering a temptation to angels, something that had a bad outcome back in Genesis. And that's not just a casual connection, either, since when someone prays or prophesies they are calling for the attention of heaven.

All this rather leaves the passage from Numbers sort of high and dry since the context there is suspicion of adultery, but Paul's words aren't at all related to sexual misconduct.

There's one more aspect here that is even less obvious, indeed only appears if one knows the culture. Paul says something that makes modern readers wonder if he's a bit loony:

Does not nature itself teach

The probable idea behind this is that a woman's hair was regarded as having a sexual aspect, so a woman flaunting her hair was regarded as immoral.

In short, no, Numbers 5 isn't related to 1 Corinthians 11 and thus sheds no light on it.


The precedents for covering or uncovering the head in the OT are these:

  • Num 5:18 - After the priest has the woman stand before the LORD, he is to uncover the woman's head [ie, unbind her hair] and place in her hands the grain offering of memorial, which is the grain offering for jealousy. The priest is to hold the bitter water that brings a curse.
  • Lev 10:6 - And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not uncover your heads [ie, unbind the hair and let it hang loose], and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the LORD has kindled.
  • Lev 21;10 - The priest who is highest among his brothers, who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not uncover his head [ie, let his hair hang loose] or tear his garments.

Note that all these are discussing completely different situations involving the sanctuary/temple ministration as distinct from ordinary street clothing, ie, the modesty custom that Paul describes 1 Cor 11:2-16. Therefore, I see no real connection between the two.

Indeed, if the two are connected, the Paul is contracting the Torah law by saying that men should have uncovered heads as priest of the home.

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