Christianity 201

October 2, 2017

The Old Testament on Jewelry: Principles Behind the Rules

This is an excerpt from a book by Rachel Held Evans, an author who is accused of great theological liberalism, none of which manifested itself at least in this particular book. What I found instead, in the four paragraphs which follow my introduction, was a tremendous insight into the principles behind the rules.

I was greatly enlightened on this subject by a booklet published by InterVarsity Press (IVP) in 1981, What’s Right? What’s Wrong by Donald E. DeGraaf (sadly out of print, with no e-Book edition or Google Books file, nor can I find my copy.) In it he talks about the difference between rules and principles. A rule applies to one group of people, or people in one particular place, or at one particular time. A principle applies to all people in all places at all times. Rules derive from principles.

So when God gives his people rules — especially in Leviticus, but also in today’s text in Isaiah — God has His reasons. Sometimes we need to spend longer in the text to see what His intentions are. We’ll let Rachel pick it up from here…


In his list of God’s grievances against Israel and his warnings of Jerusalem’s imminent destruction, the prophet Isaiah wrote:

16 The LORD says, “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles. 17 Therefore the Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion; the LORD will make their scalps bald.” 18 In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, 19 the earrings and bracelets and veils, 20 the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, 21 the signet rings and nose rings, 22 the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses 23 and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls. – Isaiah 3: 16-23

At first glance, this passage would suggest that Westboro Baptist Church has it wrong: what God really hates is accessories. But the larger context reveals that what so troubled Isaiah and his fellow prophets was the blatant materialism among Israel’s rich to the neglect and disenfranchisement of its poor.

In biblical times, gold jewelry signified wealth, and although several of the Bible’s heroines wore it (Genesis 24:22-31; Song of Songs 1:10-11), jewelry was far more commonly associated with excess and idol worship (Genesis 35:2-4; Exodus 32; 33:4; Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 7:18-20; 16:9-15; Hosea 2:13). This sentiment carries over into the New Testament, where both Paul in his letter to Timothy and Peter in his letter to the churches of Asia Minor discouraged women from wearing gold jewelry and pearls in the context of a Christian community that prioritized simplicity and charity.

In fact, it seems that most of the Bible’s instructions regarding modesty find their context in warnings about materialism, not sexuality… a pattern that has gone largely unnoticed by the red-faced preacher population. I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring that my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices.

Some conservative religious communities, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, continue to forbid women to wear any sort of jewelry at all. Others simply discourage excess. I’m a bit of a jewelry fanatic — not so much of the gold and pearl variety, but of the beads and hemp variety — so I figured it would be a healthy exercise in self-discipline to ditch my necklaces, bracelets, and rings for Lent. I wore only my wedding band, not my engagement ring, and I avoided the items in Isaiah’s list: bangles, headbands, earrings, bracelets, anklets, sashes, perfume, charms, rings, nose rings, fine robes, capes, shawls, and, of course, tiaras.

~A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans (Thomas Nelson, 2012) pp 127-8

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