No doubt many folk will be surprised at an article on this subject. After all, if they feel that it does not fit into a serious website like this, because nothing is found in the Bible that gives it some spiritual value, I give them all reason. But the motive is that, despite its apparent irrelevance, the treatment given to this natural feature of men has been taken seriously over time not only by human religions, but unfortunately also by some Christian churches throughout the ages, even without biblical support.
As God made everything good in the beginning, we can accept it as true that God created man with a beard, but when making woman from one of his ribs, He preferred to leave her without one. Despite the loss of genetic information through the millennia, that feature has been retained in the vast majority of their descendants. If there was a spiritual meaning or lesson in the beard we do not know, because we cannot find any in the Bible.
The first mention of the beard in the word of God is in Genesis 41:14: "Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him quickly out of the dungeon; and he shaved, changed his clothing, and came to Pharaoh." This tells us that Joseph had a beard, but shaved it to present himself before the king of the Egyptians. Perhaps the study of Antiquities can enlighten us here: in their ancient monuments, the Egyptians did not have a beard, but their enemies are seen with beards. The Egyptians wore short hair and shaved for the sake of hygiene, including avoiding lice. So Joseph shaved and changed into adequate clothing to present himself before Pharaoh.
Like other people, Israelites used beards, and so risked skin diseases and parasites. The law of Moses therefore taught how they should be cured: "... on the seventh day he shall shave all the hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows—all his hair he shall shave off. He shall wash his clothes and wash his body in water, and he shall be clean.” (Leviticus 14: 9) The Egyptians were right in their precaution...
But the law did not prohibit the use of a beard, so much so that we read further on: "You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard… They (the priests) shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards… nor make any cuttings in their flesh.” (Leviticus 19:27, 21:5). These prohibitions had in view the customs of the pagan Canaanite priests who as a class distinguished themselves from the rest of their people in this way.
David, the man “whose heart was loyal to the LORD his God" (1 Kings 15: 3), wore a beard as all other men of his time (1 Samuel 21:13). The high priest's beard was such that the precious oil of his anointing run down his beard on the edge of his garments (Psalm 133:2). Men were ashamed if they had no beard (2 Samuel 10:5), and not to look after it, to shave or pluck it was a sign of great bitterness (2 Samuel 19:24, Ezra 9:3, Isaiah 15:2, 50:6, Jeremiah 41:5, 48:37); do this to others was punishment (1 Chronicles 19:4, Isaiah 7:20). Ezekiel wore a beard, and the Lord commanded him to shave it off with a knife or razor, together with his hair, to illustrate a prophecy (Ezekiel 5:1). The Gospels tell us many things about the habits of the times in which they were written, but neither they nor the Epistles or prophecies of the New Testament touch on the subject of "beard". We have to go back to a prophecy of Isaiah to discover that the Lord Jesus also had a beard like all Israelites of His time (Isaiah 50:6), and it was plucked as part of His martyrdom and shame.
Throughout history, men with grown facial hair have been attributed with qualities like wisdom, virility, manliness, or a higher status; but it has also been an indication of lack of cleanliness and loss of refinement.
Alexander the Great introduced the custom of shaving in Europe. It is reported that he forced all men of his army to shave their beards so that enemies could not hold them to cut their throats. The custom of shaving was introduced in the Roman Empire by the great general Scipio Africanus in the third century before Christ. It continued until the beginning of the second century after Christ, when the emperor Hadrian led the fashion of using beards. But Emperor Constantine reintroduced it, and when he made himself “Pontifex Maximus” of the church in Rome and others he subdued, the fashion caught on among the “Christianised" people of his empire. After that, in Europe there were constant variations and more sophisticated ways to cut the beard, shape the whiskers and goatees, but among Oriental people outside major cities, the use of the beard has prevailed even until now. Currently, among Muslims, a large and disordered beard is a sign of piety, for such is that of sheikhs, and even if a Christian has one, they consider him pious and religious. On the other hand, many Christians living among them are reducing or shaving their beards to show that they are not Muslims.
Modern Mormon men are strongly encouraged to shave completely, in accordance with the requirements of the code of honour of their education system. Young people entering their obligatory missionary service are prohibited from letting their facial hair grow.
Through the history of Christianity, the attitude towards beards has been surprisingly varied and it somewhat reflects the degree of misunderstanding that different groups have of genuine spiritual values. For example:
Most "Protestant" churches consider the use of the beard as a free choice of each member and many great real Christian teachers of the past, such as W E Vine, wore full beards; C H Spurgeon not only sported a luxuriant beard, but reportedly encouraged other men of his church to let their beards grow because "it is a very natural habit, Biblical, manly and beneficial”.
Returning to biblical teaching, the general principle that must guide us was given by the apostle Paul to resolve what is suitable for the believer: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things" (Philippians 4: 8).
The use or not of a beard really is a matter for the free choice of each member of a congregation. He must consider whether the way he shows himself is consistent with his Christian testimony, which must glorify Christ alone and not his own vanity, and be careful not to stand out as if he belonged to an incongruous group that distinguish themselves by the use – or not – of their beard in a certain way. It is not for the local church to establish rules over something the Bible is silent about.
R David Jones