Head­covering: Freedom and Justice vs. Liturgy and Power­Play

Bojidar Marinov

Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: ,

Assigned Reading:
 – Paul and Gender, by Cynthia Long Westfall


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Welcome to Episode 65 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes I will try to fix a gap in my teaching for the last 20 years. That gap is the interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:2-16: Paul’s injunction about women’s head-covering in the church. When I say gap, I don’t mean that I had taught a fallacious interpretation of the passage. As a matter of fact, I had no interpretation at all. I had been asked many times about my interpretation, especially by women, and especially by women who are sensitive about abuse of power in the church. But I always replied that I hadn’t gotten to that passage yet. I had nothing to say. I knew all the official interpretations – especially the so-called “Reformed” ones, by respected Reformed preachers. I couldn’t buy into any of them, though. All of them seemed quite out of character for Paul in his other epistles, and even in that same epistle of 1 Corinthians. All of them seemed to interpret the text quite out of the context: these several chapters of 1 Corinthians treat the topic of the church as one body, with everyone in it, male or female, equal in honor and dignity, and all these interpretations – even by the most respectable Reformed theologians and preachers, seemed to take this passage out of context and interpret it as if half of the church – the women, had lower honor and dignity. In addition, there was nothing ethical or judicial in the interpretations I was hearing: they were all focused on the liturgical trappings of head-covering as if they were the real thing; and I knew from both Biblical common sense and from experience that women can outwardly cover their heads and yet despise their husbands, and other women could never put on any covering and yet were pious and orderly in their conduct. Thus, head-covering certainly doesn’t correspond to the reality these preachers and theologians wanted to ascribe to it. And as far as I am concerned, when you interpret a passage for me, you better give me the ethical/judicial reality behind it that I can apply today, or I don’t buy into your interpretation. An interpretation that confuses liturgical symbols with ethical/judicial reality is not my cup of tea, thank you very much. I am a Reconstructionist; I need to know what covenantal issues are behind the passage. Symbolism is fine and nice, but symbolism is not real theology. Tell me what the passage says to justice and righteousness, and tell it in ways that account for both the historical context and the clear and precise grammatical meaning. 

Speaking of historical context and grammatical meaning, we have all adopted the claim that the historical-grammatical method is the best “conservative” method for interpreting the Bible. That is, the method that looks at the grammatical structure of the text and its direct and plain meaning, and then at the historical context and what the text would have meant for its contemporary readers. And then, of course, the interpreter, after he has discovered the grammatical meaning and the historical meaning in context, may try to discover what ethical/judicial application there is in that text for us today, of if there is such modern application at all. This is where I have my doubts about the historical-grammatical method: While the concept is good, it has been used by modern Reformed churchmen not to really interpret texts but to interpret covenant applications away. I have listened to tons of lectures and sermon where the preacher, claiming to be “sola scriptura,” conservative, Reformed, expository, and whatnot, takes a Biblical passage and builds a long, boring, pseudo-intellectual treatise on it, going into excruciating detail about alleged historical facts and context (most of them imaginary or anachronistic), only to leave his listeners with no modern application, or with false application, or with an “application” that in reality denies any real application. Modern so-called “Reformed” preachers have done this to the Law of God, to the mandate of engaging in issues of justice (politics), to the current validity of the gifts of the Spirit, to Biblical texts that refute modern concepts of ecclesiology and church government, etc. In general, because of this use of the historical-grammatical method for such massive abuse of preaching and leadership in the churches today, I am somewhat suspicious of its real worth. Perhaps I would make it only an element, and the real method should be ethical/judicial, that is, if the interpretation is correct historically/grammatically, but there is no ethical/judicial application for today, or if that application is contrary to the grand Biblical framework of ethics and justice, then the interpretation must be considered false by default. Put it in a different way, as a method, the historical/grammatical approach tends to fragment theology and Biblical knowledge into small unconnected parts of useless intellectual information. In order for it to work, it must be part of another method, one that by default looks at the Bible as a complete picture of covenantal, ethical/judicial system, and only use historical and grammatical information to place the pieces of the puzzle in their places. The historical/grammatical approach is not a consistent system in itself; it needs systematic organizing, and it must come from another method. Otherwise, it is simply used to interpret away modern applications of Biblical truths. 

Anyway, my goal here is not to give a total breakdown of the historical-grammatical method. But I do remember a rather ironic occurrence related to it and the passage in 1 Cor. 11. A little over 10 years ago, when we attended a well-known Reformed church, the Sunday school one Sunday morning was devoted to the historical-grammatical method. (Now, I will never understand why, in the modern “Reformed” churches, the Sunday school is where real deep – relatively deep, of course – theology is taught, while the main sermon is at the level of complete morons, reaching sometimes as high as second grade in the government school. My only suspicion is that the so-called “Reformed” seminaries have become proficient in cranking out moron after moron to man the pulpits.) The elder who was teaching had the reputation of very well prepared theologically, he had read tons of those fat theological books with tons of Greek and Latin words and quotes from dead Germans, so he certainly knew what he was talking about. He explained the historical-grammatical method perfectly well and yet simple enough for all of us to understand it, gave a few small examples, and finally turned the mike over to us for question. A lady of the audience almost ran to the mike and asked the first question, which also turned out to be the last, because the answer exhausted our remaining time: “Can you give us an example by applying the historical-grammatical method to 1 Cor. 11:2-16, the passage about head-covering for women?” What happened next was not surprising to me: The elder in question took back the mike and talked for another 10 minutes . . . without getting even close to giving an answer to the question. We just heard another lecture – or mini-lecture – on the historical-grammatical method, but e didn’t hear how it applied specifically to the passage in 1 Cor. 11. The time was then out, and we were dismissed to prepare for the real service. Now, I understand why he was reluctant to reply: His seminary had only taught him to use the method to explain or interpret away Biblical passages, like the Law of God, the gifts of the Spirit, the Great Commission, etc., and he could do those without any effort. The problem is, the passage in 1 Cor. 11 is a cherished one by modern churchmen, for it is an issue of power to them, and they don’t want to explain or interpret that one away. That one has to stay and be applied as it is, without any regard to historical or grammatical context; the only context must be the power games played in the modern churches, of which the gender games are a significant part. So, he couldn’t apply the historical-grammatical method to this specific passage without engendering doubts about its application today. That’s why he steered clear of it. 

You may want to disagree with my assumptions about his motives – although, I think I have had enough encounters with churchmen and am familiar enough with their religion of power to both discern their motives and predict their behavior in such circumstances. But what you can’t disagree with is that we still don’t have a true historical-grammatical interpretation of the passage under question. Every single sermon you will hear will be based on the same anachronistic assumptions: about the psychology of the women in the Corinthian church, about the psychology of the men in the Corinthian church, about the gender norms in the Greco-Roman society, about the meaning of the head-covering vis-à-vis the issue of authority, etc. “Anachronistic” means “out of time,” that is, all Reformed preachers and theologians apply to the text their modern norms and stereotypes and interpretations of symbols, instead of trying to view the text through the eyes of 1st century Romans or Greeks. In addition, the Greek text contains several grammatical and logical problems for the modern dominant interpretations of it, and yet, for all the claims of modern Reformed scholars, none of them has ever tried to resolve them, or at least comment on their problematic nature for their interpretation of the text. As a whole, we don’t have any reliable covenantal interpretation of the text in 1 Cor. 11:2-16. 

I didn’t have one either, for I didn’t know much about certain aspects of the Greco-Roman culture. Until recently, when a dear friend of mine sent me a book by Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender, where, in the first chapter, the author takes a detailed historical look at these details in the classical society of the 1st century, and provides the needed historical context for the correct Biblical interpretation of the text. After reading her book, I am convinced we now have what we need to construct a true ethical/judicial interpretation of Paul’s intention. Please, bear with me. I don’t claim this is the final interpretation of this text, and I don’t claim I can develop such final interpretation. But I do think that this is a good start for developing something much better than what Reformed theologians have offered us so far. Semper reformanda. 

Let me read the passage in question to you all: 

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. 

I am surely not going to have the time to cover all the little details in the passage. But I at least will try to cover the whole picture behind it. The historical-grammatical picture, I mean. 

The common modern interpretation, given by a number of supposedly Reformed commentators, takes this passage to be a sort of rant against feminism. To start with, what laid as the foundation for the passage is the belief that in the early church and in the society, the head-covering signified a “symbol of authority” over one’s head – an assumption that has never been proven by any commentator, but used only axiomatically. I mean, after all, if our modern culture understands head-covering as a “symbol of authority” over the woman’s head, surely the Greco-Roman culture would have had the same understanding, right? Then the assumption is that the Corinthian church must have had a number of women who refused to wear that symbol of authority over them when they were at church, and thus must have revealed themselves as rebels against authority. So the apostle in these verses decided to straighten it out and, speaking to those women, he commands them to wear head-covering as a symbol of their submission to men, or, otherwise, they better shave their heads. That’s the way the passage is read today, and that’s the way many commentaries read it. It is read as an injunction to women to submit. In short, the passage is interpreted as an issue of liturgy (symbolic meaning of clothes) and power (submission of women to men and establishing men’s superiority in the church). So, there, Paul must be speaking against feminism in that passage. 

The problem is, there are several grammatical problem with this interpretation, problem that are always avoided by the commentators. The first and most important one is the fact that the Greek text doesn’t say that the woman should have a symbol of authority over her or over her head. The direct Greek reading of the text has nothing about “symbol,” and the preposition is not “over” but “on.” The Greek epi signifies not indirect contact, as if the authority is someone else’s and is over her, but plain and direct possessive. That is, grammatically, the verse must be read, “the woman must have authority on her,” which means her authority displayed publicly, not someone else’s authority symbolized by her clothing. 

Another problem is the mention of angels. Why are angels mentioned at all, and why are they mentioned in relation to that alleged symbol of authority the woman has to have over her head? What, angels feel uneasy when a woman claims authority? Perhaps even blush in embarrassment? Well they better get used to it, because earlier in that same epistle, 1 Cor. 6:3, Paul says that the saints – which includes both male and female – will judge angels. Why would Paul mention angels, if all he means to tell women to symbolize submission? 

Another problem – may be not as major but surely indicative, is the gender of the words “anyone” and “contentious” in verse 16: In Greek, both words have gender, and it is masculine. That is, if any man wants to be contentious, not any woman. If Paul was speaking to women, his use of masculine would be grammatically awkward in Greek. It rather sounds like he has a bone to pick not with the women in the church but with the men. 

Yet another problem is the fact that the words translated “we have no other practice,” in Greek are actually, “we have no such practice.” What is the practice they don’t have, and what churches of God is Paul speaking about? 

To this we need to add some problems related to the Biblical context. I already mentioned the fact that is the passage was a command to women to assume a lower status in the church by symbolizing submission, this is in contradiction with the larger context of 1 Cor. 9-14. The greater passage actually speaks of the opposite, that in the church as one body, all are equal in standing before God, and there is no hierarchy between genders. Even the instructions about maintaining order in the assembly in ch. 14 mention nothing of church hierarchy: Paul could have instructed the elders to restore discipline when prophets get out of hand, but he doesn’t do such a thing, his instructions are to all worshipers. We also have the fact that in the Bible, the head-covering doesn’t necessarily signify submission to authority. For example, in Genesis 38:15, Judah assumed that Tamar was a harlot, because she had a veil over her head. If the veil was automatically a symbol of submission to authority, this verse doesn’t make any sense. Etc, etc. There are a number of other problems with the dominant interpretation of the passage in 1 Corinthians, and I won’t have the time to mention them all. 

What is more important is that none of these has ever been addressed by modern Reformed theologians and preachers. The dominant interpretation is taken for granted, and so carved into the minds of their listeners – mainly because there is no alternative to it – that the theologians can get away with overlooking the problems with it. No one asks any questions anyway, so why bother, if everyone accepts it? Perhaps some woman may ask a question about the historical-grammatical method applied – like the one I witnessed – but hardly anyone would even notice that no answer was given. The dominant interpretation wins by default, whether it is true or not, and whether the grammar and the historical context support it or not. 

But all these problems with the dominant interpretation fade when compared to the greatest problem, namely, the historical context of the time. And specifically, the cultural and legal norms of the Greco-Roman society, specifically about the head-covering and its meaning in the society. Let me state this greatest problem directly, and then I will develop it further, to show how a complete different and even opposite interpretation of Paul’s intentions is forced upon us by the text, when read in the context of 1st century Corinth. Ready for it? Here it is: 

In the Greco-Roman society, the veil or the head-covering did NOT symbolize submission to authority. Exactly the opposite: it indicated possession of authority by the one wearing the veil, while an uncovered head was an indicator for lack of authority or submission. 

The veil in the Classical society was limited, by custom, and even by law, to the upper classes in the society. It was a cultural privilege to wear it, and eventually was made a legal privilege. Only women of higher rank were allowed to wear a veil or a head covering. Women of lower ranks, slave women, prostitutes, etc., were by law prohibited from wearing a veil. Their heads were supposed to remain uncovered as a symbol of their submission to authority. Yes, you heard that right: it was an uncovered head that was a symbol of submission, not a covered head. Thus, Paul couldn’t be talking about women covering their heads as a symbol of submission to authority, for in the Greco-Roman culture of Corinth (a Greek city populated by Roman citizens) such connection would be not only not understood, but would be completely opposite to the cultural norms and to the expectations of his readers. Not only that, but Paul wouldn’t even have to command the women to cover their heads: they would do it gladly, on their own accord, for covering their heads would be a declaration of higher social status, not lower. Thus, it is absolutely absurd to imagine that rebellious, authoritarian women in the church in Corinth would be refusing to cover their heads; if anything, a rebellious woman who desires to establish her own authority would do exactly the opposite: she would cover her head and face as a statement that she is a woman of authority and she is outside the control and authority of anyone around her. 

It is this simple historical fact that completely destroys the modern anti-feminist interpretations of 1 Cor. 11:2-16. If we apply the historical-grammatical method, the grammatical part of it creates doubts about the validity of that interpretation. But the historical part destroys it completely. Paul commanding the women to have their heads covered would be the modern equivalent of commanding women to only wear the priciest and most beautiful clothes, and have tons of jewelry on them every time they go to church – otherwise, if they just go in plain clothes and no make up and no jewelry, they would be “rebellious.” Head-covering was an indication of social status, and it was legally banned for the women of the lower classes. Every woman in Corinth at the time would want to be free to have head-covering all the time. Only some were legally allowed to have it. 

The reason for this is the view of men and women the Roman society had. It had no law of sexual morality; marriage was considered a divine institution only for the upper classes. Even there, chastity was expected of the wives but not of the husbands. The husbands were pretty much free to take sexual advantage of any woman of lower rank or unprotected by an authority. Just like in the slave society in the American South where it was an established custom that the slave owners would take sexual advantage of their female slaves, all the while expecting their wives to maintain a Christian view of chastity. In such a society, only women of higher rank and authority are out of bounds, and in the Roman society, such rank and authority was signified by a veil or a head covering. The women who were expected to be sexually available were supposed to keep their heads uncovered. For the men in the society, it was an issue of power: the veil was a limit to their power, and therefore where they could legally exercise their power, the veil was legally banned. 

A similar situation was present in Islam. We think today that the veil there is a symbol of submission. The reality is, for the women, it is a symbol of authority. In the first years of the Muslim religion, Mohammed decreed that all women should be veiled; the reason was that his soldiers harassed and sometimes abused women who were in public. His soldiers protested against the rule; they wanted women to go around with uncovered heads, as a symbol of submission. Eventually, a deal was struck between Mohammed and his soldiers, in which slave girls and other women of low rank were not allowed to be veiled. The privilege was reserved only for married women of higher rank. The same situation persisted in the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. Since the hijab and the burka were rather inconvenient for work in the field, a woman wearing them declared that she was a woman of means and authority, because she didn’t have to work like a commoner. 

In the Roman Empire, the Roman Law actually made a a difference between rape of a woman of higher rank and of a woman of lower rank. Raping a woman of lower rank was not a crime, and the blame was usually thrown on the woman – modern Shariah took that concept straight from the Roman Law. When it comes to raping a woman of higher rank, some rules in the Roman Law specifically prescribed that if the woman was dressed as lower class – that is, with her head uncovered – this would put corrections on the guilt of the rapist, and may be even get him off the hook, because it is assumed that he must have thought the woman was sexually available for abuse, because she had no veil. 

This significance of the veil worked for the men, too. The Roman men prayed to their gods and performed their religious sacrifices with veils over their heads; check out, for example that well-known statue of the veiled Augustus as a religious leader (pontifex maximus). But a pagan doesn’t approach his gods with a symbol of submission; the principle of communicating with pagan gods is opposite to the principle of communicating with the God of the Bible. A pagan worshiper approaches his gods as a man of authority approaches another man of authority; the prayer and the sacrifice are not ones of submission but of bargaining between men of equal power. The pagan gods don’t speak to the lowest in the culture; they only speak to men in power. And the veil was such a symbol of power on the heads of the Roman pagan priests, and subsequently, the emperors as priests. Among the Tuareg tribes in the North African desert, it is the men who are veiled as a symbol of authority, while the women are not veiled. The principle extended into medieval Europe, and even as late as the 20th century a man standing in the presence of his superiors was expected to remove his hat as a symbol of deference. (“My hat is off to you,” remember that expression?) Only a few chosen men coming from families of power had the privilege to remain with their hats on in the presence of the French kings. We can bring in even more historical examples, but the main point must be understood: the head covering was a privilege, not a burden, and certainly not a symbol of submission in the Roman Empire. It makes no sense to declare that rebellious women would refuse to wear it. And therefore, it makes no sense to believe that Paul was really addressing some rebellious, feminist women. Such a thought is absurd. 

Then who was Paul addressing? Obviously, the men in the church. The men in the church who wanted to keep the women from covering their heads. 

The Christian teaching brought a radical change in the cultural views concerning gender and the views of men and women in the society. In Christ, there was no higher rank and lower rank; all were the same rank. In fact, that very same chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians speaks of that problem when Paul covers the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Some come earlier and eat all of the food,  others come later. Why. Well, some are rich and can afford to come earlier. Others are workers and can’t come until after the work day is over. By telling them that they have to wait for each other, and eat together, Paul basically destroyed the meaningfulness of any rank and class distinctions in the church. 

Combined with the sexual ethics of Christianity, this would mean that women of lower social status would rank equal to women of higher social status. Put it bluntly, there was to be no more sexual availability of women based on their status, and symbolized by their lack of covering. It is to be expected that ij the church, even the converted prostitutes would want to have their heads covered, as a symbol of their newly acquired authority as priests of God in Christ. This is where the line about the angels is explained: the head covering ascribes a status of authority to all women, and since the angels are to be judged by all the saints (including women) and since they are serving spirits to those who inherit salvation (including women), then no woman should be in the Lord’s assembly stripped of her authority. 

But the Greco-Roman society was a society based on the ethics of power, not on the power of ethics. The laws were made so as to establish the power relationships in the society; the Roman society was very close to some modern power-based societies like the Mafia or the bureaucratic-military institutions of today. The men in the church of Corinth were all from pagan background, and it would be natural that the customs and habits of the power-based society would still be alive in their hearts. Such men would object to all women covering their heads in the church. Even if they had no intention to claim that the women should be sexually available, they would still insist that the law is the law, and therefore women who are banned from covering their heads in public shouldn’t cover their heads in the church either. 

But Paul’s position is clear: by insisting that some women shouldn’t cover their heads, you are disgracing them. More than that, you are degrading them based on the cultural stereotypes and the legal rules of the pagan society around you; you may as well shave their heads. If you are not allowing them the authority they have in Christ to be fully manifested in the Church, you are declaring them second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God. And there is no such thing as a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God; women are just as valuable, and honored, and clothed with authority as you, powerful men. Even those women of lower rank, the weakest members of your society which worships power and despises weakness. In fact, specifically those women of lower rank, for it is in the least of the least that the power of Christ is made manifest. So, cease trying to limit the liberty of these women; let them have – as a principle of justice in the Kingdom of God – the symbol of authority on their heads. Not a symbol of someone else’s authority over them, but the symbol of their own authority before the world and even before the angels. 

And any man wants to fight about it, Paul says, we in Israel, and the churches of God in the Jewish diaspora, we have no such custom about veiling, either way. The issue is not one you men should be fighting about. There are more important things. 

There are other issue to be covered as well, but we won’t have the time. My purpose was to cover only the issue of women’s covering ans submission, as imagined by modern “Reformed” commentators. Let’s look at a summary of this interpretation: 

First, the modern dominant interpretation is that the passage is a criticism and an antidote to feminism in the church. Paul commands the women in the church to cover their heads when they pray or prophecy, because a head covering is a symbol of authority over them. 

Second, such interpretation is not supported by the grammatical reading of the text. There is no mention of “authority over” women, and grammatical structures show that Paul was speaking to the men in the church, not to the women. 

Third, contextual Biblical criticism of the text shows that such interpretation is inconsistent with the context of the larger passage, and is even inconsistent with other places in the Bible. 

Fourth, in the Greco-Roman society, a veil was not a symbol of “authority over,” but of “authority on,” that is, authority residing and belonging to the one wearing the veil. Women of lower rank were forbidden from covering their heads. 

Fifth, men in the church in Corinth wanted to continue these practices of cultural domination over these weakest members of the society, banning them from covering their heads in the church, which would signify that they now have power and authority. 

Sixth, Paul comes to the defense of these women and tells the men in the church that such laws and customs degrade women so badly that they are equivalent to shaving their heads. Therefore, Paul says, women are to pray with their heads covered, because of the angels, that is, to judicially declare their authority in Christ, in the Kingdom of God. 

And, seventh, Paul tells the men who want to be contentious: the churches in Israel (“of God”) have no such custom. There, the women are free and have authority. 

The customs of our own society today are quite different from those of the Roman society, of course. The veil is no longer a symbol of power and authority; it is rather a symbol of submission. But Paul didn’t speak in this passage to impose on the women a symbol of submission in the church – if he had such a thing in mind, he would be insisting that all women should go uncovered in the church. Paul’s intent was to free the women to declare to the world and to the angels their newfound authority in Christ. The ethical/judicial meaning of Paul’s words was, “Give those women the freedom to exercise their authority in the way they believe is best for them. Don’t impose your pagan rules of power in the church. That power-based world is dead, it is over, and it will soon disappear. We have a world where all those who inherit salvation have authority, and must be let free under God.” 

The conclusion, therefore, is, that those theologians today who use these verses to impose a rule on the women to wear a head covering as a symbol of their submission, actually go straight against the teaching of Paul. While the specific physical symbol is the same, the head covering, the cultural interpretations between Paul’s time and our own time are diametrically opposite to each other. And therefore, arguing for preserving the same symbol is arguing against Paul’s meaning of the text. Or, to put it bluntly, if our theology today insists on forcing women to exhibit submission in the church, then such theology is certainly not Biblical, and not Pauline. It is a false theology, and should be eradicated from our churches. 

The book I will recommend this week is the one I mentioned above: Paul and Gender, by Cynthia Long Westfall. I am not fully familiar with the author, and I have the suspicion that I won’t probably agree with all of her theological positions. But in this book. I can say, she presents herself as faithful to a conservative interpretation of the Bible, free of higher criticism or other liberal tricks, taking the Bible as the inerrant Word of God which is the foundation for all knowledge, reasoning, and wisdom. 

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