This morning in my Bible readings, I read a passage that reminded me of a question I’ve been meaning to chase down. The passage was 1 Samuel 9:2: “And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2 ESV).
Why does the Bible make such a big deal about the physical beauty of Saul? It isn’t something you’d expect the Holy Spirit to make mention of and yet, the topic comes up more frequently than you might imagine.
Why is that? What is the significance of physical beauty in the Bible?
There are approximately 24 beautiful people mentioned in the Bible. Their stories are various and diverse, but collectively those stories seem to make the following four points concerning the interesting issue of physical beauty.
1. Beauty Can Be Misleading
That seems to be the main point in the Saul narrative. Saul looks like a natural born leader; if you typed into a 3D printer everything you thought you wanted in a King, Saul would be the person that it printed. He was tall, manly and handsome! He was Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth and Dwayne Johnson all rolled into one. This made everyone believe that he was the King sent from God.
But he wasn’t.
When Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, blasphemed the God of Israel it ought to have been Saul who met him in single combat – he was after all a full head taller than any other man in the nation – but he wasn’t the leader that people thought he was. His beauty was deceptive; he was a much smaller man than he appeared.
When it came time to anoint his successor, God made that point very clear to the prophet Samuel. Samuel had been told that a son of Jesse would be the new king. When he saw Eliab – Jesse’s oldest – he assumed that the Lord’s anointed was before him. Eliab, like Saul, was something of a man mountain, but he was not the one that God had chosen. 1 Samuel 16:7 says:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV).
Beauty can be misleading. It sometimes makes us see things that aren’t there.
2. Beauty Can Be an Indication of Blessing
My devotions in 1 Samuel 9 this morning reminded me of something I had first thought of when reading Hebrews 11:23.
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict (Hebrews 11:23 ESV).
The physical beauty of Moses is mentioned 3 times in the Bible. That seems like overkill and that got me thinking: why does it matter that Moses was beautiful? How is that relevant? It turns out that a lot of people have thought about that over the ages. PE Hughes summarizes this way:
Chrysostom observes that the sight of their child’s fairness drew them on to faith by which they perceived that in a way which was more than natural he was the object of God’s grace; and Peter Lombard says that because of his exceptional beauty they believed that God intended to do some great thing through him.1
It appears that God made Moses shockingly beautiful in order to alert his parents to the blessing and favour that rested upon him. This gave them the courage to defy the edict of Pharaoh and to let their child live.
Physical beauty can be an indication of blessing.
That idea shows up again at the end of the Book of Job. Most conservative Bible scholars understand the epilogue in Job’s narrative to be both historically true and typologically true, meaning that it happened and that it points to a larger and more significant reality. God rewarded Job’s faithfulness through unspeakable tragedy by blessing him with a fruitful and happy retirement – that really happened! Typologically, Job’s retirement prefigures our eternal blessings in the coming kingdom of God. That makes what the Bible says about the daughters born to Job in his retirement all the more interesting: “And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers” (Job 42:15 ESV).
If our understanding of this passage is correct, it would seem to be teaching us that in the eternal kingdom of God, faithful people can expect to be rich and beautiful.
Thanks be to God!
3. Beauty Can Invite Unwanted Attention
Physical beauty is not an unmixed blessing on this side of the eternal kingdom. In the Bible, as I’m sure in contemporary society, it often invites unwanted attention. So it was in the lives of Sarah, Bathsheba and Tamar.
Abraham twice felt the need to lie about his relationship with Sarah because of her physical beauty. He believed that men would kill him in order to have her, and so he said that she was his sister. Bathsheba suffered rape and the murder of her husband at the hands of King David because of her physical beauty. Tamar likewise drew unwanted attention from her half brother Amnon. Her story is particularly tragic. The Bible says:
Absalom, David’s son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar. And after a time Amnon, David’s son, loved her. And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. (2 Samuel 13:1–2 ESV)
Try as he might, Amnon could not forget about Tamar. Eventually his lust overwhelmed him and he lured his half sister to his bedroom and raped her. This horrific event eventually led to a civil war and the near collapse of the covenant community.
None of that can be blamed on Tamar. She was the victim of unwanted attention because of her unusual beauty.
On this side of eternity, because of human lust and sin, beauty will sometimes be a curse.
4. Beauty Can Be Benign
Some people are described as beautiful in the Bible, but their beauty plays no significant role in the development of their story. One person in particular comes to mind: David.
The Bible says about David: “Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he.'” (1 Samuel 16:12 ESV)
That is absolutely fascinating!
If the problem with Saul was that he was so handsome that people assumed he was the King sent from God, then shouldn’t the King sent from God be ugly as a stump?
Apparently Saul’s beauty was not what disqualified him. It was what distracted people from seeing what disqualified him; the beauty itself was never the issue.
The fact that David is beautiful indicates that beauty in and of itself is benign! David’s beauty is a reminder not to dismiss people on the basis of their appearance. Some beautiful people are small on the inside, like Saul. But some are not. Some, like David, have a heart after God.
Beauty in the Bible is neither good nor bad. It can be a blessing, or it can be a curse. It can be a sign of favour, or it can mask significant flaws. The challenge is to learn to see people through the eyes of God. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV).
Help, Lord Jesus!
N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here.
 PE Hughes, A Commentary On The Epistle To The Hebrews. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 492.