The Nazirites are an unusual breed, and they have many rules that they must follow. Let’s take a look at what kind of people they are in Numbers 6:2-8.
“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.
“If any of the people, either men or women, take the special vow of a Nazirite, setting themselves apart to the Lord in a special way, they must give up wine and other alcoholic drinks. They must not use vinegar made from wine or from other alcoholic drinks, they must not drink fresh grape juice, and they must not eat grapes or raisins. As long as they are bound by their Nazirite vow, they are not allowed to eat or drink anything that comes from a grapevine—not even the grape seeds or skins.
“They must never cut their hair throughout the time of their vow, for they are holy and set apart to the Lord. Until the time of their vow has been fulfilled, they must let their hair grow long. And they must not go near a dead body during the entire period of their vow to the Lord. Even if the dead person is their own father, mother, brother, or sister, they must not defile themselves, for the hair on their head is the symbol of their separation to God. This requirement applies as long as they are set apart to the Lord.
Numbers 6:2-8 (NLT)
Verses 3 through 6 gives us the primary attributes of a Nazirite whether they be male or female:
- They are not only to abstain from strong drink, but they also cannot drink wine; in fact, they can’t even eat grapes or partake in any grape product. Grapes, in any form, are off limits.
- They are not to cut their hair during the time of their vow. And,
- They are prohibited from touching a dead body.
What we find in essence is that the Nazirite, using his vow and his following these three fundamental and straightforward requirements, is given a status EQUAL to the priests, though a Nazirite is NOT a priest. Of course over time as Tradition started to play a more and more prominent role in Judaism, rules started piling up on rules about the requirements for a Nazirite. And as one expects of manmade norms and doctrines the rules changed over time. So in various parts of the Bible, we’ll see some Nazirite prohibitions lifted, and others added; but these were NOT a God thing, they were a man thing.
Now two requirements of these three attributes listed in Numbers 6:3-8 are very similar to that of a priest. But if we look more closely the Nazirite requirement is somewhat more stringent than for the priest.
- A priest most certainly CAN drink wine and in fact does during some of the rituals, although drinking wine as a beverage was prohibited during the period just before he comes on duty or as he approaches the sanctuary.
- A Nazirite cannot drink wine at all, nor even sample the source of wine, grapes. Priests could not touch dead bodies, but they could tend to their deceased parents, grandparents, spouses and children.
Nazirites were not to come into contact with a corpse under any circumstance, and this included close family. So in some ways, the requirements upon the Nazirite even approached that of the High Priest.
In one-way the Nazirite had to do things in an opposite fashion to the priests: priests were not allowed to have long hair while Nazirites were not allowed ever to trim their hair. So the office of Nazirite was unique among the Israelites.
Why the prohibition against eating grapes?
As usual, we’re not directly told. But some Jewish scholars think they know why, and I must admit, it sounds pretty credible and fits the God patterns of the grapevine that often symbolizes Israel. The idea is that in every Sabbath year (every 7th year), the land of Israel is consecrated to the Lord and fields are not to be harvested, and the ground not plowed or weeds removed.
And, as concerns our study, vineyards are not to be tended. Not only must grapes be left on the vines to rot, but even the much necessary twice-yearly pruning of the grapevines suspended during the Sabbatical year, the year that the land was set apart and reserved for God.
So just as the Nazirite is set-apart and set-aside for God for a particular time, during that period the Nazirite symbolizes the quintessential purpose of Israel: holy and set apart for God. And the purpose of the Sabbath year is to express that holiness and set-apartness of Israel.
Therefore just as the grapevines are not to be touched and no grapes harvested during the Sabbatical year, so Nazirites are not to touch or eat grapes during the term of their vow (however long or short a period that is).
Which in essence is kind of like a specialized Sabbatical Year for the Nazirite?
In fact, the word Nazir (from which we get the word Nazirite) came to be used as the term to be used for pruning grapevines. So you see the close connection between the requirement for the Nazirites and the treatment of grapes and vines.
Mistaken Impressions About Nazirites
There are some wrong impressions about Nazirites, so let’s clear them up. Nazirites were not some weird hermits that went off to eat locusts and honey and live in the desert, like John the Baptist did. IF the Baptist WAS a Nazirite, the Locusts and Honey he ate, and the solitary life he led, were no part of it.
Nazirites had no particular food prohibitions apart from not eating grapes or grape products, and they still had to eat Kosher, as did all Hebrews. Further,
- They could marry, so celibacy was not a part of it.
- They wore regular clothing.
- They held regular jobs and worked at everyday crafts.
The thing that marked them as different, more than anything else, was the wild hair that came with time. Otherwise, they remained entirely part of regular Israeli society.
Tom Bradford has some serious doubts that John the Baptist was a Nazirite, and the Bible never calls him a Nazirite. The assumption that he was a Nazirite comes from his mother, Elizabeth, vowing that she would not drink wine while John was in her womb and that she would insist that John would never drink wine or strong drink.
The other assumption is because he was said to have long hair. Well, Nazirites weren’t the only Jews in that era to have wild or long hair or to abstain from wine or strong drink.
One well-known group who did the same thing was the Rechabites. We find mention of them in the book of Jeremiah, as Jeremiah takes some Rechabites to the Temple and offers them wine to drink but they decline on account of their family tradition that they supposedly descended for Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law.
And part of their culture included not growing grapes or even planting seeds of any kind and that they must live in tents. So while they abstained from grapes, it was simply family tradition stemming from an apparently unknown reason. Essentially they determined to live like the Bedouin, and other extra-biblical records indicate that they allowed their hair to grow long.
By John the Baptist’s day many traditions had erupted. Many groups and individuals were railing at the corrupt priesthood and the spiritless hollow faith that many were now practicing, and it leads to all kinds of strange cults and reactions.
Asceticism was on the rise, meaning that many Jews were forsaking the comforts of life and community and attempting to get closer to God through self-denial. The Essenes of Dead Sea Scroll fame were but one of these many groups and there is much evidence that John the Baptist at the very least had much contact with them, and probably was himself a regular member of the Essene community.
John, by all accounts, was an ascetic. He lived out in the wilderness and was apparently quite a strange individual. He ate a very restricted diet and wore sackcloth and never cut his hair. We would have found hundreds of individuals (and likely thousands) who were must like John in their appearance, for such was the persona of many of those who chose the ascetic lifestyle.
Another reason to doubt that John was a Nazirite is that he was already a Levite by ancestry. And by the Law of Moses, the office of Nazirite was not open to Levites, and this was not a disadvantage, though. Rather it was merely avoiding needless duplication.
Levites were already set apart for lifetime service to God, whether they were priests or just regular blue-collar Temple workers. John would have been a set-apart Levite no matter under what circumstances he was born.
The vow of John not drinking wine may have been more prophetic of Jesus announcing that He would not drink wine after His fateful Passover until He drank new wine with His disciples, more than an indication of perhaps being a Nazirite.
Now it may well be that PARTS of a kind of modified Nazirite vow were employed in different eras according to various practices and not always necessarily for the purpose as set out in Numbers 6. When one looks in the Talmud and the Mishna we find all sorts of differing rulings, coming from different Rabbis living in different times, about being a Nazirite.
Even Samson (in the book of Judges) who is described forthrightly as a Nazirite for life didn’t seem to pay much attention to the Nazirite restrictions of Numbers 6 OTHER than as concerned his hair. And he certainly did everything possible NOT to serve God until the last few moments of his life.
So we must be careful in assigning various biblical characters that would come centuries after the law of Numbers 6 with the title of Nazirite in the sense spoken of here in Torah. Abstaining from wine or strong drink was NOT the sure sign of a Nazirite, nor was wearing long hair.