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King David Was a Red Head

by David Yeagley · January 12, 2010 · 24 Comments ·

King David was a lad! The famous Jewish king was, in the most Irish sense, a lad. It may come as a surprise to many, perhaps an unwelcome surprise, but, red hair is an ancient Jewish tradition. It began with the grandson of Abraham, Esau, twin brother of Jacob.

At the birth of the two brothers, “the first came out red, all over like a hairy garment.” (Genesis 25:25.) “And they called his name Esau. In Biblical Hebrew, עשו(‘é-sâv) means rough, to the touch, referencing the thick hair. It almost sounds like a case of hypertrichosis, or perhaps hirsutism. Superstition of course associated this malady with lycanthropy, or the werewolf condition. Esau, we must observe, was said to be a great hunter.

To our knowledge, there is no other Mesopotamian tale, myth, or god, which features red hair. The Greek poet Xenophanes (ca. 570-475 BC) described the Thracian people as blue-eyed, with red hair, but that’s half a millennium after the text of Samuel (depicting David as a red head), and depending on when one dates the text Genesis, nearly a millennium later. Of course, to take Genesis to be reality, Esau’s time would have been somewhere in the 19th century BC. Homer’s Iliad describes Menelaus and Achilles as red headed, but this is only 8th century BC.


Laura, with her babies. Ain’t it a beaut!

In modern times, red haired hypertrichosis was featured in portraits of Georg Hoefnegel in the late 16th century AD. He painted the family of Petrus Gonsalvus of the Canary Islands. Gonsalvus had come to Paris, for social refinement. His case was temporarily studied by Dr. Felix Plater in Basel. Gonsalvus had two children, both of whom inherited his condition (and were portrayed by Hoefnegel as well).


Petrus Gonsalvus, a later portrait. First
Hoefnegel sketches date back to 1582.

Red hair results from a recessive gene, certainly, melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), to be graphic about it, on chromosome 16. The pigment pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive colour. It comes through an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance.

Esau also came to be called Edom, or ‘rosey,’ ruddy or reddish–because he craved some red pottage (lentils) his brother had cooked. The descendants of Esau are named in Genesis 36. They dwelt to the southeast of Palestine, or Cana’an.

David was born about 1030 BC. He was “ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to” (I Samuel 16:12). Ruddy means more than a rosey-cheeked boy. The Hebrew is ארמים (‘admônîy), meaning red, or reddish, of the hair or complexion. Clearly, David was a spectacular specimen. Something odd, or perhaps even freakish. Certainly, he stood out. (Perhaps this is part of the reason his family had hidden him away out in the sheep fields. When we are introduced to him, he is but eight or nine years old.)

Even today, but 1 to 2% of the human population has red hair. It is an anomaly. It is usually associated with the Celtic peoples, particularly the Irish. Linguistically, least, this includes the Gauls. Now, considering the red heads found among the mummies of the Takla Makan desert of western China, we have to say, this Celtic race got around!


Red headed woman, ca. 1000 BC, Takla Makan tombs,
discovered in the late 1980′s.

The white race is understood to have descended from Noah’s son, Shem (see, Genesis 10:22-32). Of course, the term “Semite” is derived from the name Shem. A “shemite” would be a descendant of Noah’s son Shem, as opposed to the other two sons, Japeth and Ham (traditionally understood to have fathered the Mogoloid and Negroid races respectively).

Now, we can’t say the Irish are Jewish, but, we might say that the ancient Hebrews were the originators of red hair. It happened in them first, as far as any records anywhere show. The argument of red hair is a powerful one, but, as far as I know, has not been used to support the ‘anti-Semitic’ notion that the Celts are the true Hebrew people, and the people Hitler tossed in the ovens were some mistaken pretenders. This business is better known as the Khazar theory, rejected by today’s Jews, of course.

We can’t say for sure that the Irish are the real Jews, but, we can say that the real Jews ‘invented’ red hair. The latter is a lot more likely. Until anthropologists, mythologists, and scholars can find evidence that red hair was distinguished first in some ancient culture other than Hebrew, the Jews have it. Red hair belongs to the grandson of Abraham, Esau.

And to think, Baruch Halpern’s eminent work, David’s Secret Demons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), the most current scholarship on the text of Samuel, doesn’t even mention the red hair! (See, pp. 18, 19.)

Posted by David Yeagley · January 12, 2010 · 11:28 am CT · ·

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24 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Thrasymachus // Jan 12, 2010 at 3:28 pm   

    Are you fully convinced that all modern Jews are the precise same people as the ancient Israelites? They may be — I simply think that most modern Jews are very mixed, racially speaking. Also Jesus talks about those who “say they are Jews and are not.” Who was Jesus speaking of?

    Benjamin Freedman thought that modern Jews were not Old Testament Jews.

  • 2 Thrasymachus // Jan 12, 2010 at 3:36 pm   

    It does seem to me, though, that the Jews and the Arabs are first cousins.

  • 3 David Yeagley // Jan 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm   

    Frankly, I’m not really sure who the Arabs are. I’ve written on the subject. Are the Arabs Arab?. There is a modern “Muslim” association with the descendants of Ishmael (quasi-legitimate son of Abram and house servant Hagar). It is assumed that Arabs are descendants of Ishmael. I find very little common evidence of this. It is all assumed. I know that centuries ago, perhaps millennia, the Biblical places names of the lands surrounding Cana’an were all changed.

    The point is, red hair is a nigh unanswerable argument–for something or another!

    But, your anti-Ashkenazy position–does that include the Sephardim? What do you do with them?

  • 4 Thrasymachus // Jan 12, 2010 at 5:34 pm   

    My understanding has been that the Sephardim are descendants of the true Jews of the Old Testament.

    It is just that Arab culture seems “semitic” and I’ve never heard any Jew deny that Arabs were fellow-semites.

  • 5 Thrasymachus // Jan 12, 2010 at 5:35 pm   

    But I also believe that Jews are only a part of ancient Israel — either the tribe of Judah, or of the Kingdom of Judah. I do not see how Jews can account for all twelve (actually there were 13) tribes of Ancient Israel.

  • 6 beakerkin // Jan 12, 2010 at 6:29 pm   

    My take is slightly different. Look at the words
    for soil, red and earth in Hebrew. i am not a linguist, but I see this as a shade of brown.

  • 7 David Yeagley // Jan 13, 2010 at 12:05 am   

    Brown is a shade of red. Primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. Brown is orange (red-yellow) and green (yellow-blue).

    adam means rosey, ruddy. As a verb, means to show blood (in the face). Adam was a Red Man! How’s that?! The first man was an Indian. (Maybe even Comanche!)

    Seriously, adam is the only “earth” word that depicts color. Eretz (land) does not. Dust, ground (aphar) does not. Only adam

  • 8 David Yeagley // Jan 13, 2010 at 10:05 am   

    The Hebrew word for “red” is more interesting. The first English translations of Hebrew ( into “red” is in reference to the Red Sea. That word also refers to “flag,” or “reed,” or red weed. The word soof is used throughout the Old Testament for “red” sea, and is apparently used only thusly. All the passages in Leviticus about “reddish” sores or skin conditions use the word adam.

  • 9 johnnymac // Jan 13, 2010 at 7:23 pm   

    My late mother was a red head. But neither myself, my four other brothers and two sisters had red hair. We were all jet black or dark brown. Other extended family members used to kid us about being ”the dark Irish”, a reference to the supposed to survivors of the Spanish Armada who were said to have swam ashore onto the Ole Emerald Isle. From what I understand however the gene that produces red hair is dying out from generation to generation and in some 200 years or so will be gone from the human gene pool. My wife is a red head and yes, if you’ve ever heard the old wives tale about red-headed women having a temper, its true. :-)

  • 10 David Yeagley // Jan 13, 2010 at 8:52 pm   

    I wonder what the genetic marker for that is? I’ve heard this all my life, and seen it. It’s really special. The moods. The strengths.

    I remember a particularly calm, rational guy in college, Bob Axelrod, a red-headed Jew. Really nice guy. Another Jew (from Chicago) asked him, “Bob, How did you get red hair?” Bob said, “Well, somewhere down along the line, somebody got out of line…”

    But, see, it wasn’t true. I didn’t know enough to say anything back then, or I would have. I say anyone who does have red hair has some distant link to the grandson of Abraham!

  • 11 John Sandusky // Jan 13, 2010 at 9:13 pm   

    Your argument is not convincing, Sir.

    Unbeknownst to yourself, you could be making an argument saying David’s ancestors are from the far-north-regions.

    “Red hair is the rarest natural hair colour in humans. The pale skin associated with red hair may be of advantage in far-northern climates where sunlight is scarce. Studies by Bodmer and Cavalli-Sforza (1976) hypothesized that lighter skin pigmentation prevents rickets in colder latitudes by encouraging higher levels of Vitamin D production and also allows the individual to retain heat better than someone with darker skin.” (Bodmer WF, Cavalli-Sforza LL.Genetics, evolution and man. San Francisco:WH Freeman; 1976.)

    “Harding et al. (2000) proposed that red hair was not the result of positive selection but rather occurs due to a lack of negative selection. In Africa, for example, red hair is selected against because high levels of sun would be harmful to fair skin. However, in Northern Europe this does not happen, so redheads come about through genetic drift.

    Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago.” (Harding, Rosalind M. et al. (April 2000). “Evidence for Variable Selective Pressures at MC1R”. American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (4): 1351–1361. doi:10.1086/302863. PMID 10733465)

    The odds of red heads originating in the Middle East are slim to none. Perhaps the red heads their dyed their hair and their children’s hair as Muhammad did.

    “Red is the preferred dyeing colour in Islam. It is reported that the Prophet Muhammad used to dye his hair red using Henna. Henna or Hina is a flowering plant which traditionally has been used to dye hair red. There are no side effects to this. Al-Bukhari related in his Sahih, from ‘Uthman b. ‘Abd-Allah b. Mawhab: We went to Umm Salma, and she brought out for us some of the hair of the Messenger of Allah, and lo, it was dyed with henna and indigo.” (Bukhari, Libas, 66) And in the four sunan, from the Prophet, it is related that he said, ‘The best you can use for changing the colour of white hair are henna and katam.’ (Tirmidhi, Libas, 20). In the two books of the Sahih, from Anas, it is quoted that Abu Bakr used hair dye of both henna and katam. (Muslim, Fada’il, 100)” (Ibn Qayyim; 259) (Katam is a plant from Yemen which produces a reddish-black dye).” ( In The Name Of Allah Muhammad’s Appearance).

  • 12 Thrasymachus // Jan 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm   

    My brother’s daughter had blazing red hair, and his wife (the girl’s mother) was an American Indian. You could see only European in this fair-skinned, blue-eyed, red-haired little girl.

    I have also seen redheads among the French, as a certain portion of the native French population is Celtic. My family is Scottish-French (both Celtic in our case) plus German-English.

  • 13 Thrasymachus // Jan 13, 2010 at 11:24 pm   

    There have been other redheads among my cousins, plus blonds.

    And in my case, my eyes were very blue until I was about eight or nine, when they changed to green! Ah! I wish I had a good book on genetics! There is much I need to learn.

  • 14 John Sandusky // Jan 13, 2010 at 11:43 pm   

    “Oh David boy,

    the pipes, the pipes are calling
    From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
    The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling
    ‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.
    But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow ‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow

    Oh David boy, oh King David, I love you so.”

    “Oy vey!” “Au Gewalt!”

  • 15 David Yeagley // Jan 14, 2010 at 9:19 am   

    JS, explain the Eskimo. Don’t just cut and paste theories from Wikipedia. By the way, is that the same Cavalli that did sexual studies on the Italians back in the ’70′s? Nah, I think that was Caletti. Sorry. In any case, remember “Adam” was a red man. God is Red, as DeLoria says!

  • 16 David Yeagley // Jan 14, 2010 at 9:21 am   

    Thras, red hair is something that occurs only the Caucasian race. This color variety is something I pointed out a long time ago when I said, “superior beauty is in the white race.” Or, something like that. I was refering to the variety. The rest of us are all dark, black, brown, etc. “A beastly bore,” I said! All in good fun.

  • 17 David Yeagley // Jan 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm   

    Red headed kid lost in Haiti.

    The 13-year-old from a Viriginia Catholic school was on his first trip (with an uncle). The earthquake hit when he landed in Porto Prince.

    Shouldn’t be hard to find, if he’s around. Or if not. This is so sad.

    EDITED That would be Port-au-Prince. I guess I was thinking of porta-potties…

  • 18 John Sandusky // Jan 14, 2010 at 4:45 pm   

    “JS, explain the Eskimo.”

    The Inuit people have not had the same time to evolve with their environment that the Northern European people have.

    Also their genetic ancestry makes it slightly more difficult to evolve a recessive trait (red hair) compared to that of the European. Inuit people descend from a later migration of Mongolian (and probably Pacific Islander) that had already been limited genetically to almost exclusively dominate traits, dark hair dark eyes, by natural selection or mate selection or something. The genetic pool for the Inuit people is much smaller than it was for the Northern European people, condensed even further by geographic isolation and social prohibitions.

    Most geneticists believe that the Native Americans descended from a handful of Migrants literally.

  • 19 David Yeagley // Jan 14, 2010 at 5:05 pm   

    Mongolians live in a much colder environment than most Europeans, and furthermore, you also have to explain why the Mesopotamians and Mediteranneans are “dark.” They get a lot more sun than the Laplanders. I don’t think sun or environment has anything to do with pigmentation.

  • 20 John Sandusky // Jan 14, 2010 at 7:03 pm   

    Dark skin evolved to prevent low folate levels since they lived in sun-rich Africa. When humans migrated to less sun-intensive regions in the north, low vitamin D3 levels became a problem and light skin color re-emerged. Sexual selection and diet may have played a part in the evolution of skin tone diversity, as well.
    http://pages.globetrotter.net/peter_frost61z/European-skin-color.htm

    The Inuit and Yupik are special cases: even though they live in an extremely sun-poor environment, they have retained their relatively dark skin. This can be explained by the fact that their traditional fish-based diet provides plenty of vitamin D

    The Mongolian environment has a large variety of features. The northern part of the country is covered by forest mountain ranges and the southern part by desert, desert steppe, and steppe areas with low mountains. The western part is dominated by high snow-capped mountains and glaciers and the eastern part by vast plains and wild heaths.

    Most of the Mongolian population evolved in the warmer areas and not the colder.

  • 21 David Yeagley // Jan 14, 2010 at 7:42 pm   

    This is a kindergarten lesson, for which I am duly offended. But, you tend to condescend on a regular basis, I’m afraid. This is so evident when you make up “facts,” which may or may not be available on Wikipedia.

    You obviously know nothing about the Mongolians. Or even the Eskimo diet.

    I stand by the obvious. Skin color has nothing to do with environment or diet. Your grade school evolution theory is insulting to anyone with objective reasoning powers.

    Of course, I don’t believe in evolution, at least not in the big picture. So, our conversation ends here.

  • 22 Tsu-Nami // Jan 15, 2010 at 9:49 am   

    I wonder what other purpose this ever-repeated drooling over redheads has but offending Indian women? Where is that gross Gross when we need her?

  • 23 David Yeagley // Jan 15, 2010 at 11:14 am   

    Ever-repeated drooling? Come about, mate! Be a sport.

  • 24 Shreves // Apr 22, 2012 at 9:42 pm   

    King David was not a Red Head, he was a Negro, so-called white people have mutated gene recessive gene a damage stock of people. Christ would not come out of mutated people but from the original stock of Adam. wooly black hair, brown eyes, burnt brass – brown skin.

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