The text of Leviticus 19:27,
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.
seems difficult to understand when read in isolation. However, the case for understanding this as something pagans did, particularly as part of their mourning practices is very strong.
First let’s look at it in context of the immediately surrounding verses.
[v 26] You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.
These were both the practices of the pagan cults surrounding them in Canaan, so we have an association established here. Then in verse 28 we read,
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the LORD.
So there we have mourning rituals. So far we have a case, but not necessarily a convincing one, however, the tide changes when we note Leviticus 21,
…Speak to the priests…and say to them, no one shall make himself unclean for the dead…except for his closest relatives…(v5) They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God.
And look what the preceding verses say, corresponding precisely to the verses preceding our pertinent passage in chapter 19!
A man or woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. (20:27)
So what we have here is double confirmation. The issues of sorcery/fortune telling, pagan worship, and pagan mourning, all activities of the pagan priests are connected, and the command not to “mar the edges of your beard, and not to make bald patches/round off the hair on your temples are connected both to 1. pagan rituals and, specifically 2. mourning rituals, or perhaps the cutting or marring or pulling in an effort to elicit response for purposes of telling fortunes/getting a message from the pagan deity (we see an example of this practiced in 1 Kings 20:28).
When we then add in the evidence of Isaiah 15:2-3 where we have Moab in mourning:
“He has gone…to the high places to weep…on every head is baldness; every beard is shorn;”
of Jeremiah 9:17-25:
“…call for the mourning women to come…teach your daughters a lament, and each to her neighbor a dirge. For death has come…the dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon the open field……behold the days are coming…when I will punish…all those who …cut the corners of their hair….”
and Jeremiah 48:37-38:
“For every head is shaved and every beard cut off. On all the hands are gashes, and around the waist is sackcloth. On all the housetops of Moab in in the squares there is nothing but lamentation, for I have broken Moab like a vessel for which no one cares, declares the Lord.”
I’d say it is pretty conclusive that the command regarding not cutting your beard and not “rounding off” or “making bald patches” pertains to pagan mourning rituals and not to every day fashion practice.
We might show the comparison like follows:
|“round off the hair on your temples”||“make bald patches on their heads”||“every head is shaved”|
|“mar the edges of your beard”||“shave off the edges of your beard”||“every beard cut off”|
|“not make any cuts on the body for the dead”||“nor make any cuts on their body”||“on all the hands are gashes”|
Since American mourning rituals rarely involve cutting or tearing hair or beard, how shall we apply this command not to mourn like the pagans? The most obvious application is we should not tear our hair, nor cut ourselves in our sadness. Perhaps more applicable to us, however, is that we should do the opposite, let’s dress up for a funeral, let’s celebrate the life, the purpose, and the future of those who have died. What other ideas do you have for how we can apply this command?