Plucking Jesus’s beard. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 December 2019

Isaiah 50.6.

Jesus fulfills a lot of Old Testament scriptures, and this advent I wanna look at the ones he particularly fulfilled from Isaiah.

Some of them explicitly refer to Jesus, ’cause a future Messiah, a savior, a suffering servant, a King of kings, is precisely who Isaiah was writing about. But some of ’em actually aren’t about Jesus. They’re either about humanity in general, Israelis in general, or even Isaiah himself. But because the same or similar events happened to Jesus, he fulfilled them. His experiences fleshes out these verses. That’s what fulfillment in the bible actually means: Not that Jesus did as predicted, but that Jesus reflects these ideas better, sometimes, than the original ideas.

So today’s passage is one of those reflections. It’s not about Jesus; it’s explicitly about Isaiah himself. About how, as a prophet, he gets crapped on.

Isaiah 50.4-9 KWL
4 The LORD my Master gave me an educated tongue so I might know to say a timely word to the weary.
He wakes me every morning; he wakes up my ear so I can hear like an educated man.
5 The LORD my Master opens my ear, and I won’t rebel or backslide.
6 I gave my back to those who’d beat it, my jaw to those who’d strike it.
I didn’t hide my face from disgrace… and spit.
7 The LORD my Master helps me, so I’m not confused;
so I steady my face like a flint, and I know I won’t be disappointed.
8 He who justifies me is near. Who wants to fight me? Stand up together!
Who’s my lord who justifies me? Have him approach!
9 Look, the LORD my Master helps me; who’s making trouble for me?
They’ll wear out like moth-eaten clothing.

If you believe “prophet” is a title which gets people acclaim and honor, you don’t know any real prophets. Or you might, but you don’t know them; you don’t really see what they go through. Actually hearing and sharing from God means you’re gonna get pushback.

Usually from people who only want a prophet to tell them happy thoughts. Who have their own ideas about who God is (and make him a lot like them), and don’t wanna hear otherwise. Who certainly don’t wanna hear God correct and rebuke the hypocrisy and sin of those who claim to follow him.

Less often, and usually from outside our own churches, we get pushback from people who prefer the idea God doesn’t talk anymore. A number of people like to condemn any and all prophecy, and claim only preaching is a form prophecy—and they’re preachers, so they’re prophets, so listen to them, and no one else. It’s a professional jealousy thing.

Isaiah dealt with both types. And since ancient Israel had no such thing as freedom of speech, Isaiah had to suffer consequences for anything he said. No, not prison; they’d just cane you. Usually without trial: The mob would just whack you with their walking sticks. Or punch you in the jaw.

Polishing the jaw.

Isaiah said he had to “steady my face like a flint.” I’ve heard many a preacher use this phrase to talk about how they’re psyching themselves into doing something difficult. They don’t always know why they’re steadying their face like flint; they think it has to do with having a stony, emotionless expression. Like you don’t want anybody to know about your inner turmoil. You’re controlling your emotions; you’re being gentle.

Nope, it’s not about emotional control. It’s about getting ready to take a punch. You hit flint. Before matches and lighters were invented, people would strike flint to make a spark and start a fire. Since Israelis lit a fire nearly every day (but not Sabbath), they hit flint all the time… and Isaiah was getting ready to take lots of punches. It came with the job. Prophets got beaten.

Properly מֹֽרְטִ֑יםלְ/l’mortím, means “to smooth, to polish.” We still have this euphemism in English: “Polishing the jaw” means to punch it. Probably smacking it so often, it’s hairless from all the friction.

But over the centuries, verse 6 came to be translated thisaway:

Isaiah 50.6 KJV
I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

Traditional passion plays like to depict Jesus getting abused, so we can watch and appreciate his suffering, and feel bad for him. And one of the depictions includes people ripping tufts of hair out of Jesus’s beard. Ouch!

But it’s not found in the gospels. At all. It comes from Isaiah. From this part of Isaiah. Interpreters figure “smoothing” means exfoliation, means making someone hairless. And how d’you do that? Not shaving, like you’d think. From plucking. Yeah, it’s a stretch of interpretation, but it fits the passion plays, so Christians don’t question it any.

Jesus likely has a beard. First-century Pharisees encouraged it, so as to obey the command to not cut your beard’s edges. Lv 19.27 But for certain ritual vows, you shaved. And some Jews stayed shaved, as a way to stand out… though some of ’em likely just didn’t like beards, and were looking for a good religious excuse to not have one. Since Jesus didn’t bother to interpret the Law like a Pharisee, he may not have cared about keeping a beard, or shaving, for the same reasons Pharisees did. Still, it’s likely he’d usually have one… and after certain times of fasting were over, it’s likely he shaved himself clean. (Yep. Unlike Christian art, there’s no reason Jesus’s facial hair would’ve been static.)

Anyway. Those who claim, “Jesus does so have a beard; it’s in the bible!”: It’s actually not. And “Jesus had his hair pulled out; it’s in the bible!”: Still not.

But yes, Jesus fulfilled this scripture. ’Cause like Isaiah, he he got beaten too. He suffered too. People didn’t wanna hear him, didn’t like how he described God, and took it out on him violently. Opposition is part of the prophet’s job description. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Scriptures for Advent.