That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 1 Corinthians 11:10 ESV
Because of the angels – Sometimes when you have half a conversation in a letter from another culture and another time, you can barely figure out what the argument was all about. You have to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. The problem with this particular jigsaw puzzle is that all the pieces are the same color.
Paul writes about head covering. The very fact that he even broaches the subject tells us that something was happening in Corinth that raised the question about what men wear on their heads during worship. Interestingly, this isn’t about written Torah commands. As Paul says, it’s about traditions. But traditions are extremely powerful and often guide our behavior despite what the Scriptures actually say. So Paul provides some advice to this struggling assembly. First, he sets the proper relationship between the parties. Gilbert Bilezikian’s work makes it clear that “head” (kephale) in verse 3 is about origin, not authority. Yeshua as Creator is the source (origin) of Man. Man is the source (origin) of ishshah (woman – Genesis 2) and YHWH is the origin of Yeshua as Messiah (“This is my beloved Son”). Once Paul establishes this relationship, he turns to its implications for worship. According to Paul, if a man covers his head during worship, he disgraces his relationship to his own origin. This may seem strange to us because we don’t think in terms of the symbolic nature of heads or head coverings. But Paul does, and in Corinth this was apparently an important issue. Bilezikian suggests that the imagery is like Adam standing before God in the Garden. Uncovered. Naked. Transparent. For Paul, covering the head (a symbol of a man’s dependence on his Creator) is like Adam’s fig leaves. It becomes a sign of hidden agendas. No, says Paul, stand naked before your Creator, that is, completely transparent. Don’t put anything between you and Him that represents what happened in the Garden.
Then Paul tackles the question about women in worship. If a woman uncovers her head, she makes herself like the one “whose head is shaved.” Paul must have some particular cultural circumstance in mind since there is no Torah instruction about women shaving their heads. Even the Talmud does not require this. So the custom must have had something to do with Corinthian culture. There are two cultural traditions that may have been in place in Corinth. The first was the practice of shaving a woman’s head if she were caught in adultery. The second was the practice of shaving the heads of temple prostitutes. Obviously, either case would cast aspersions of the synagogue assembly in Corinth. Imagine how difficult it would be for a Gentile convert from either circumstance to come into the Messianic fellowship of Corinth. Paul simply says, “Cover your head,” and rather than single out those whose past was dishonorable by head covering, he suggests that all the women do the same. Now no one call tell the difference. Unity and equality prevail.
Paul provides further rationale about this issue with head covering in verses 7-10. While most congregations emphasize the first half of verse 7, few recognize the implications of the second half. The first half tells us that man is the glory of God. Therefore he should not hide this symbolic relationship with a head covering. Great! Men hold this up as if it endorses their importance. But consider the second half of the verse: “but the woman is the glory of man.” The analogy goes like this: God’s glory is man. Man’s glory is woman. So, who’s the final statement of full glory? Woman, of course. She incorporates all of Man’s glory which incorporates all of God’s glory. No wonder she is the last of God’s creative acts, the pinnacle of His work. She is the final, ultimate masterpiece. In fact, the Greek conjunction, de, could be read “and she is the glory.” The point is that this is not a comparison of relative worth. It is a statement about order of creation and representation of God’s handiwork. God’s glory shines through, step by step until the final design.
But just so we don’t jump to the feminist conclusion, Paul adds verse 8. What is the proper relationship between these two glory-exhibiting creations? Woman was created from man. In keeping with the Genesis 2 account, Paul corrects any tendency to assert that woman is in a higher position because she is the final figure of glory. No, says Paul, she might be last in the design effort but she is designed for the purpose of the ‘ezer kenegdo, the one who brings blessing to her man. Hers is not the role of tyrant but rather of servant. She is God’s glory-summary purposed to serve another (just like the way God acts, wouldn’t you say?).
Now we encounter a translation bias. The NASB translates verse 9 as “woman for man’s sake,” but the Greek text says nothing like this. ESV says “woman for man,” but that still isn’t right. The preposition is dia, usually translated “through.” Read as “through” it follows perfectly the Genesis 2 account. Man was not created through woman (although obviously every man since is born through woman) but woman was created through man.
Finally we encounter our strange verse. In the NASB, it begins with “therefore,” reminding us that what Paul says next is based on his prior argument. And what is the prior argument about? The argument is about what happens in public worship. Because of this prior argument about order and decorum in public worship, “a woman ought to have authority on her head.” Better read that again. Did you notice that the gloss, “a symbol of” has been removed from this reading? That’s right, it isn’t in the Greek text. The Greek text says that a woman ought to have exousian epi kephales. The NASB and ESV add the gloss “a symbol of.” But Paul isn’t thinking about symbols. Symbols were vehicles used to speak about worship. In the Corinthian culture, a man is uncovered in order to honor God’s name in worship. A woman covers in order not to dishonor God’s name in worship. But when it comes to authority, that rests on a woman’s head. And that is related to the angels.
What does Paul mean? When authority rests on someone’s head it means that the person acts on her own. She makes her own choices under her own power. Exousia is the power to act free from external restraint. It is the right of choice. Angels freely choose to worship YHWH. They continuously sing His praises, not because they are compelled to do so but because they desire to do so. So a woman with exousia on her head may choose the same and is allowed to do so through (again, dia) the exemplar of the angels. Women in worship may choose to celebrate His name, to honor Him and praise Him as they desire. They are not bound to the restrictions of the Corinthian culture when it comes to public worship.
It takes some serious additions and cultural extractions to interpret this verse as an endorsement of male hierarchy. It’s time to straighten out the glosses – because of the angels.
Topical Index: angels, angelos, worship, women, authority, 1 Corinthians 11:10