Paul’s understanding of order is further established in 1 Corinthians 11 in two very shocking ways (one we’ll cover now, and the other tomorrow).
For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor 11:6-10)
Did you catch that? Women must cover their heads because of the angels—a statement bound to confuse us if we’ve watered down what the Old Testament communicates and what intertestamental Jewish literature elaborated on. Paul is alluding here to a violation of creation order in Genesis that needs to be prevented from happening again: The interbreeding of the sons of God and human women as related to us in Noah’s time.
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. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (Ge 6:1-4)
The Jews of Jesus’ day believed this passage was saying exactly what it looks like it says. In a Jewish book called 1 Enoch the authors go into great detail about the times of Noah and how angels came to earth and procreated with humanity, creating an offspring of giants. Other interpretations of Genesis 6 water down or simply ignore the text, and furthermore, what the Jews in Jesus’ time were sure it was saying.
It is to the events of Genesis 6 that Paul is referring to here. Michael Heiser’s quick summation (drawn heavily from Loren Stuckenbruck’s work) puts Paul’s statement in view:
The covering for women was commended to protect women from sexual scandal in society and supernatural violation by angels. This dual rationale focused on social boundaries and sexual vulnerability, along with the precedent of angelic violation of women in the past. (1)
While it may sound strange to us, Paul was so intent on keeping things in order that he wanted Christians to live in a way that kept cosmological order from being disrupted. Angels and humans are not supposed to interbreed and we are to prevent such a thing from happening if it can somehow happen again. Therefore, a wife should have a symbol on their head to communicate to the angels, “I’m taken.” After all, the prior angels stumbled because they “saw that the daughters of man were attractive” (Gn 6:2).
Another scholar proposes that it may not necessarily be the fear that these angels will be seduced, but rather that there should be a hyper-sensitivity of purity in worship because angels were thought to be present in such services. In reflecting upon the traditions of the Qumran community, Scott M. Lewis S.J. points out that,
At Qumran…. there was a hyper-reverence and concern for purity in connection with the worship of the community for it was believed that angels were actually present during the worship (1QSa 2: 3-11; 1QM 7: 4-6). There are numerous references in the Dead Sea Scrolls that suggest a communion or intermingling between humans and angels/holy ones during the liturgy. The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400-407 Maskil) contain numerous allusions to ascent and intermingling during the celestial worship. (2)
But I feel that this proposal can only strengthen the other proposal. If angels were thought to be present at church, then women should remind them that they’re taken in light of their prior cosmological trespasses. After all, we have Biblical records of the Nephilim being present both before and after the flood (Gen 6:1-4, Num 13:33), so who knows if it could happen again?
So then, what? Should women still wear head coverings today? No. Because as it ends up, Paul’s culture had a strange and faulty understanding of what head coverings were protecting. More on that tomorrow.
Art by my sister-in-law, Alyssa Bradley of Whimsy Design and Illustration.
This is an excerpt from my chapter “Women in Ministry” in my book, The Rush and the Rest. A series on women and the church will continue every day this week here on my blog to help us cover many of the confusing passages that often oppress women.
1. Heiser, Michael S. Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers, and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ. 2017. Kindle Locations 2192-2194. Most of our studies on 1 Corinthians 11 comes directly from chapter 8 of this book.
2. M. Lewis, Scott. “‘Because of the Angels’: Paul and the Enochic Traditions.” The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions. Edited by Angela Kim Harkins et al. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2014, pp. 86-87.