Nose rings: A Biblical Symbol of Modesty

Snippet from Bailey's book showing woman
wearing shnaf nose ring.
One of my favorite books I stumbled upon last year was Clinton Bailey's, Bedouin Culture in the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Bailey is a world leading authority on the modern Bedouin living in biblical lands, and his book examines how its culture sheds light on things modern people are inclined to find strange in the Old Testament. As Bailey writes, "Bedouin culture goes back 4,500 years. Owing to the unchangeability of desert conditions, this culture remained largely unchanged and is recognizable in the Bible."

The following is an interesting portion from his book: Women in the biblical world wore nose rings as a symbol of sexual modesty (pgs. 61-3):

“Nose rings play a role in the modesty of women, about which the Bedouin are zealous. …[F]ar-reaching obligations to, and burdens upon, clansmen are weighty—too weighty to be borne for people not of their blood. Thus, the possibility of an outsider implanting strange seed in their wives is something that Bedouin are ardent to avoid... 
...In their society, modesty primarily consists of covering the mouth, since the mouth is physiologically suggestive of the vagina. Hence, just as a Bedouin term for the vagina is fur'a (lit. opening or ravine), so an unveiled woman, her mouth exposed, is called a far'a, a word using the same radicals as the Arabic image. Indeed, further to draw attention away from her mouth, a Bedouin woman, though veiled, wears a nose ring above the mouth veil; and to highlight its diversionary purpose, it is deliberately termed an “embellishment” (shnaf).

In the Bible, therefore, it is not surprising that the patriarch Abraham’s servant, on his mission to find a bride for his master’s son Isaac, put a ring on Rebecca’s nose (Gen. 24:47) for her to wear and attract attention while keeping her mouth covered, out of consideration for her modesty. Veiling as a rule of feminine reserve was also apparently familiar to Rebecca, who, upon spotting Isaac after her long return journey to the Negev with his father’s servant, was careful to “put on her veil and cover herself” (Gen. 24:65)."

When I read this, I was immediately reminded of the evangelical head covering movement--modern Christians that argue on the basis of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 that women should return to veiling themselves.

All you conservative Christian girls trying to be "biblically modest" should go get your body mods now. It's what Jesus wants. 😝 


  1. Great post Ben! How do you respond to the arguments raised in favor of the head covering movement?

    1. I believe Paul advised the Corinthian church to embrace this cultural norm along with long hair for women because he, along with the rest of the educated Hellenistic world believed hair length was associated with fertility in women.

      I have a section in my book about this that relates to this article:
      MARTIN, TROY W. "Περιβόλαιον as "Testicle" in 1 Corinthians 11:15: A Response to Mark Goodacre." Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 2 (2013): 453-65.

      Since head covering as a cultural expression of sexual modesty was ultimately based on now disproven science, there is no reason to continue it.

    2. What if it is a sign of fertility? What if it is a signal of healthy reproductive value in women, and also increases attraction from men on average which would therefore increase male fertility?

      "Reproductive value, like fertility, is not a quality that can be directly ascertained in humans. Our ancestors had two primary sets of observable cues that were probabilistically correlated with reproductive value—features of physical appearance and manifest behavior. One set of cues is made up of those correlated with relative youth. A young female of age 17, for example, has higher reproductive value than a woman of 27, 37, or 47, since she has many more years of future reproduction. This logic leads to an evolution-based theory of female beauty and a cogent array of specific empirical predictions. The theory of beauty, first articulated by Symons (1979) and subsequently elaborated by Buss (1987), Buss & Schmitt (1993), and many others, is graphically depicted in Figure 1. This theory of female beauty has been confirmed by independent investigators (for a review, see Sugiyama 2005). Empirically verified cues linking reproductive value and beauty include the length and quality of women’s hair; ..."

    3. I think Paul's passage reflected a universal norm for pious 2nd temple jews & christians in antiquity: a woman's hair should only be seen by the husband and blood relatives. Islam merely COPIED this ethical tradition from premedieval christianity (& Judaism). Tertullian writing less than two centuries later notes very PRECISELY that his
      CONTEMPORARY christian community in the city of Corinth were keeping to this ethical tradition (which today is now unfortunately know to be peculiar to Islam), and that Paul had cautioned them less than 2 centuries prior to avoid deviating from the Judeochristian tradition of exposing the female hair for the view of male non-relatives. This practice of hair concealment from males outside the immediate family was consistently universal in judaism from the 2nd temple period through the medieval period until the modern days of liberalization; christian ethics from the 1st century down to the pre-mordern period also frowned at exposure of the female hair to the male eye.
      I strongly believe that true christianity ought to continue with this ethic in obedience to Paul's caution against deviation from it in 1 Corinthians

  2. I have also read Troy Martin's work, but have arrived to conclusions that Paul taught from a cultural norm rather than from a falsely derived scientific view. The veil served (at least partly) much the same purpose as the modern wedding ring. An obvious social form of non verbal language. My conclusions are more akin to the woman's hair being an extension of her sexuality, rather than serving as a quasi sexual organ, though there was some implication of that as in the role of a temple worker. Even Israelite male priests were to wear under garments to cover their privates.
    The secondary function of the veil as well as long hair on women is an acknowledgment and submission to the patriarchal social construct.

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