The vow of a Nazarite.

December 7, 2014.

There is a concept that is put forth in Numbers 6 that is very interesting to me- the Nazarite vow. It would seem there are several instances in scripture that designate certain positions that take on a higher responsibility than the rest of the people, usually in the form of leadership. Such designations include priests of the Old Law, Nazarites (which seem to have even more responsibility than priests), prophets, teachers (ref. James 3:1), and the offices of deacons and elders. These offices go beyond the guidelines of Judaism and Christianity and are reserved only for certain people who decide they want (and have the ability) to dedicate themselves to the Lord in a higher capacity than what is necessary to be a faithful servant. Though these designations aren’t for everyone, I do think there is a lot we can learn from them, and I think it would be a wise choice to even emulate them at times, even if we are not considering serving our Lord in the capacity to its full extent. Today I want to take an in depth look at the vow of a Nazarite, what it required, some people who had taken the vow and lessons we can learn from it. I hope you enjoy this study as much as I think I am going to enjoy it.

Holy to the Lord: Consecration.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink.”
(Numbers 6:1-3a)

To begin, the point of the Nazarite vow was to separate oneself in devotion to the Lord. The Hebrew term for Nazarite is ‘nazir,’ meaning “to consecrate” and is derived from the root ‘nazar’ which means “to separate.” Consecration is not really a term we use as much in today’s language. Think of it as setting yourself aside to dedicate your life to something. In the case of the Nazarite, the dedication was to the Lord. Though the durations of this vow aren’t mentioned in this section (simply referring to a generic length), Jewish history and culture holds that the shortest amount of time that one could take the Nazarite vow was for thirty days. The vow could indeed last much longer than that, as most of the examples of Nazarites we have in scripture (more on this later) are lifelong vows.

The reason for the strict guidelines that were set out for this vow was due to the holy and righteous nature of God. Technically, before Christ came and shed His blood that we might be ransomed from our sins and stand blameless before God, sin still had a tight grip on man. The Jews would offer sacrifices year after year, but the Hebrew writes comments that the blood of bulls and goats never had the power to take away sins (ref. Heb. 10:4). So why then did they sacrifice? In obedience, for this was God’s plan for the people until His ultimate plan of redemption was carried out. I believe this is the same concept for the Nazarite. The Nazarite was to be holy and blameless before the Lord, so the way to accomplish this consecration was to lay down rules to protect against defilement. Since these rules came from the Lord, they were indeed able to separate one as dedicated to the Lord so long as the vow was kept. Let’s take a closer look at these guidelines and see if we can gleam some lessons from them.

Abstinence from alcohol.

When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.”
(Numbers 6:2b-4)

The first thing that a Nazarite was required to do was abstain from alcohol. I find it very interesting that this the first thing that God wanted someone who was dedicated to Him to do, for I believe it shows the evils that alcohol can play in our lives. It shows the clouding of judgement that a Nazarite would need to constantly avoid if he were to lead the people of God (though this didn’t really work for Samson…). But even beyond this, the vow required not only abstinence from alcohol itself, but even grape juice or grapes! It’s almost as if God is saying, “Don’t even go close to the stuff, for you are pure and holy.” Perhaps this was a prohibition put into place to protect against accidental consumption of alcohol, as they probably would not have had very good ways to preserve grape juice without it fermenting (at least a little bit). Thus, it would be conceivable that a Nazarite could accidentally drink wine when he or she thought that it was just grape juice. I don’t know if this was the actual reason this strict rule was set in place. Regardless, the point is that the Nazarite was to completely abstain from alcohol. I think we can take a lesson from this, seeing the benefits of abstinence.

But even with this, it is important to note that the Nazarite vow was something that one could take for a definite amount of time, and after a final sacrifice at the end, the Nazarite could then go back to the normal Jewish life, dropping this complete abstinence of wine.

“And after that the Nazirite may drink wine.”
(Numbers 6:20ff)

This was one of the ways that the Nazarite would separate themselves from the rest of the population, to live a life highly devoted to God.

No razor to come to the head: an outward sign.

“All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the Lord, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long.”
(Numbers 6:5)

When I first read through this section, I was somewhat confused as to the importance of not shaving the head. I have known that this was a part of the vow due to the vital role it plays in the story of Sampson, but I didn’t really know why, other than simply obedience to God. I’m not sure I still know why, but I did read something that made a lot of sense. One reason, perhaps even the main reason, that a Nazarite was not allowed to shave their head could be to show that they are under the vow. It was an outward sign that they were separated and devoted to God, a sign that their fellow brethren could see and recognize. When the vow was complete, they were to shave their head, which would indicate their status to the people. Incidentally, they were also to shave their head if they were defiled accidentally by touching a dead body. It seems that there is a strong link between the duration of the vow and the appearance of the one taking the vow.

I think this played an important role in John the Baptizer’s life, which we will discuss a bit later. When he came on the scene to prepare the way for the Lord, people could see his long hair and complete abstinence from wine. Though some still didn’t recognize who he was, many did. And many followed him, subsequently being led to Christ.

Pure and holy, undefiled.

“All the days that he separates himself to the Lord he shall not go near a dead body. Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.”
(Numbers 6:6-8)

If you know much about Levitical Law, you know that a rather easy way for anyone to become unclean was to touch a dead body, whether of a human or animal. There was also a process put in place to become clean again, since there were indeed times that one would need to touch a dead body, whether it was from hunting, or burying a loved one (read Numbers 19 for a better understanding of this). Priest held a higher responsibility in this in that they were not allowed to touch a dead body even to bury them, lest it be a very close relative (ref. Lev. 21). Nazarites (and chief priests) were not even allowed this provision. Even if their father, mother, brother or sister died, they were not allowed to touch the body, lest they become unclean. They had been set aside for the Lord, being called to be holy and clean.

The next point that I think we should bring out of this lesson, however, is the consequences of sin, even accidental sin, at least for the Nazarite vow. We have just seen that one under the Nazarite vow was to not touch a dead body, even of a close relative. But what if (yes, always a fun question) someone died suddenly right beside a Nazarite (such as in battle, or a homicide I suppose) and their body fell and touched them?

“And if any man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body. And he shall consecrate his head that same day and separate himself to the Lord for the days of his separation and bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering. But the previous period shall be void, because his separation was defiled.”
(Numbers 6:9-12)

The passage is quite clear that even though it was an accident, the Nazarite was still defiled and even had sinned! To us, that may not seem very fair. However, this was a serious vow, one that was not to be taken lightly. Taking a vow or an oath before God was/is always a serious manner. This is why James warns against it:

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
(James 5:12)

It is interesting to note here that sin was still sin even if it was an accident. Now, there was obviously a process set in place to take care of that sin and set things right, but there was still consequences (the first time period of the vow before coming unclean would be maid void).

Above and beyond.

“This is the law of the Nazirite. But if he vows an offering to the Lord above his Nazirite vow, as he can afford, in exact accordance with the vow that he takes, then he shall do in addition to the law of the Nazirite.”
(Numbers 6:21)

This is kind of an aside, but I find it interesting that even with the strict guidelines and rules of the Nazarite vow, one could still go above and beyond the vow and give even more to the Lord if he or she so chose. We can always do more for the Lord if we want to, but we must never bind such on other people as a necessity. This was a free will offering.

Examples of the Nazarite vow in scripture.

There are three well know people in the Bible who had taken the vow of the Nazarite. Interestingly, all three of these men were permanent Nazarites, meaning that their vow duration was their entire lifetime. Further, each of these three men were chosen to be Nazarites in some way before they were born. The first familiar Nazarite that we read about is Sampson.

“There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
(Judges 13:2-5)

Sampson was dedicated to the Lord by the Lord, so that he might deliver the children of Israel from the hand of the Philistines. You might think that since this was his plan, then he lived a godly life and the plan went very smoothly. However, if you know the story of Sampson, you know that this wasn’t the case. As I noted earlier, a Nazarite was to abstain from all alcohol, and in this manner his judgment should never be compromised.

Unfortunately for Sampson, he had another desire that clouded his judgment: love. Particularly the love of foreign women (which was Solomon’s problem as well), and even that of the Philistines, the enemies of God’s people. Ultimately, Delilah coaxed what gave Sampson his strength from him (we often say it was his hair, but really it was the fact that he was a Nazarite, and if he cut his hair, the vow would be broken and God would leave him) and told the Philistines to cut his hair. This disbanded the vow, and Sampson was captured and tortured. However, and giving homage to the notion that Sampson’s strength was in his covenant with the Lord, not just his hair, in the end he prayed that his strength would return one last time so that he might pull down the pillars to which he was chained and die with the Philistines in the resulting collapse of the building. God granted his prayer, and delivered Israel through Sampson as had been prophesied.

The second well known Nazarite was the prophet/judge/priest Samuel. The story of his dedication starts before he is born, with his barren mother, Hannah:

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
(I Samuel 1:9-11)

The Lord granted her wish, and she conceived and born a male child named Samuel. When he was weaned, she returned him to the house of the Lord to be dedicated to the Lord, as sort of an apprentice to Eli the priest. Samuel would go on to do many great things for the children of Israel, and unlike the story of Sampson, there is no indication that Samuel would break his vow as a Nazarite. Every indication is that he successfully kept the vow. But that doesn’t mean the people listened to him. It was through Samuel that the people begged for a king to rule over them, even though that was not the plan of God. Through consistent pleading, God gave them a king, but said it would turn out badly. And thus it did. Regardless, Samuel was a role model as a godly man of faith in the Lord.

Last, but certainly not least, was John the Baptizer. Just as with the other two, John was dedicated to the Lord even before he was born, and just as with Samuel, he was born to a woman who did not think she would have a child.

And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
(Luke 1:12-17)

John was a wild man, not in the sense that he was crazy, but in the sense that he literally live in the wild, eating locus and wild honey. Though it is not explicitly said that he was a Nazarite, the context implies that he was devoted from his birth, set aside to the Lord to prepare the way for the coming Christ. As noted earlier, the sign of not shaving his head was readily recognized by the people, as many came out to hear him preach, being baptized (thus why he get the name “the baptizer”) in repentance and becoming disciples of the one who had come in the spirit of Elijah. But not all saw him for who he was.

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
(Matthew 11:18-19)

John was a Nazarite, so he totally abstained from wine. The religious leaders said he had a demon. Jesus was not a Nazarite (He was from the town of Nazareth, called a Nazarene, and thus causing some confusion), so He was not under the regulation of abstaining from all wine. The religious leaders called Him a drunkard and a glutton. In other words, they were not going to see the truth no matter what, for they had already made up their minds on what the truth was. I pray that we can learn from their mistake, and seek truth regardless of our bias. It did not end well for the religious leaders who missed it, and it will not end well for us if we do the same.

There is another instance that would seem a Nazarite vow was taken in Acts 21, but I fear I have already exceeded the attention span of many, so I will leave that for you to study on your own. I find this topic fascinating and I think we can learn a lot from it and make application to our lives today in one way or another. I hope you have found this post helpful in your walk with Christ.

Suggested Daily Reading: Numbers 6, Judges 13, 16, I Samuel 1, Luke 1, Acts 21.

Be strong in the Lord.

-Walter

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