People who wanted to commit themselves entirely to God could take the Nazirite vow. In Moses’ day, a personal vow was as binding as a written contract. It was one thing to say you would do something, but it was serious when you made a solemn promise to do it. For as little as 30 days or as long as a lifetime this vow could be taken. It was voluntary, with one exception – parents could take the vow of their young children, making them Nazirites for life. The vow included three distinct restrictions:
- The person must abstain from wine and fermented drink;
- The hair could not be cut, and the beard could not be shaved;
- Touching a dead body was prohibited.
The purpose of the Nazirite vow was to rise a group of leaders devoted wholly to God. Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist were probably Nazirites for life.
Some claim Jesus was a Nazarite, but I see no evidence to support that notion, and every reason to say He was not. The main reason Jesus is sometimes called a Nazarite is faulty Christian tradition born out of an error that is still prevalent: and the error is that a Nazarite and a Nazarene are the same things. Jesus IS called a Nazarene because that’s what people who lived in Nazareth called Him in his hometown. But, Nazareth had nothing directly to do with Nazarites.
The Law of the Nazirite
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When either a man or woman consecrates an offering to take the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord,
Numbers 6:1-2 (NKJV)
In the first couple of verses, we discover the first important attribute of a Nazarite: one becomes a Nazarite by taking a vow. The second important characteristic is that both men AND women could become Nazarites. The office of the Nazarite, of who could be one, and how long of a term a person could remain a Nazarite, and what their obligations and duties were, and so on, evolved over the centuries.
Let me use that comment as a reminder that what we read in the Bible is the truth, but that doesn’t mean that everything that happens in it is God-approved. For instance, we read of the Israelites building a Golden Calf, and then worshipping it.
The story is true: but did God approve of this?
Of course not. It wasn’t a Godly thing with the Golden Calf fiasco. Now, that particular apostasy was spoken of in the Scripture as wrong, and terrible consequences were meted out to those who participated in the making and worshipping of the Bull idol, so it’s not tough for any reader to know that evil was occurring.
At other times in the Word, however, we’ll read about some event, but little or no mention of whether this was necessarily a good thing or bad that went on. We’re left to discern whether it was good or bad according to our understanding of the Torah. In other words, it is assumed from our knowing God and His commandments, and from our reading the context of the story, whether the point of the story is to commend a good act, or to decry a bad one.
So what a Nazarite was and what a Nazarite did was not the same a few hundred years after it’s establishment as it was when given to Moses. What we read here in Numbers doesn’t match the way a Nazarite operated in Samson’s day, nor later in Samuel’s day, nor later still in St. Paul’s day. That is NOT because God changed things…it’s because MEN changed things.
In Numbers 5 where we dealt with the water-ordeal of the suspected adulterous wife, a God-ordained command, I told you that shortly after the death of Christ a very influential Rabbi declared that the practice of this Law of God was to end.
Now was this rabbinical decision a reflection that God was changing something, abolishing one of His Laws, and using a man to do it?
No, this was a man changing something due to particular circumstances of the times that greatly troubled him.
Did the Rabbi do this with evil intent?
No! In fact from an earthly perspective and maybe even in a sense from a heavenly viewpoint, he did the right thing. For the whole matter of dealing with adultery had become twisted and perverse.
Men were passed over, and women persecuted for no other reason than men just got tired of their current wives; and by declaring that they suspected that their wives were unfaithful, they could get a quick divorce and be congratulated for their piety by the Jewish religious authority to boot. In other words, the laws of adultery had become a legitimized fraud.
A similar line of evolution of practice and custom occurred with the office of the Nazarite.
You see there were two basic kinds of Nazarites:
- Perpetual, and
- For life.
Perpetual, despite the name, referred to a Nazarite, who took a vow for a specified period, and then was a Nazarite no more after the time limit was up.
A Nazarite For Life meant just that: he was born as a Nazarite and would die as a Nazarite, meaning that it was his MOTHER that made him a Nazarite while still in the womb.
The thing is there is no such commandment of God in the Scriptures that establishes the office of Nazarite For Life. We’ll read about it, but that just means that the practice existed, not that it was a God-ordained practice.
What gets established here in Numbers 6 is the law of the perpetual Nazarite, which means that this person is a Nazarite only for a time and usually for a particular purpose. The Nazarite referred to in Numbers 6 is temporary. There appears to be no Biblical contemplation at all for a Nazarite For Life.
One real question might be, why would someone want to become a Nazarite in the first place?
The answer is general that someone would swear an oath to God that if God would grant some special favor to them such as to cure them of a disease, or restore their wealth, or give that woman a son, or save them from an enemy, etc. Then in return, they would turn their lives over to God for service to Him, for a time. Now, it didn’t take long before a person offering to become a Nazarite became as casual as making it part of a bet.
For instance: “If that guy over there isn’t at least 7 feet tall, I’ll be a Nazarite”. We learn from Jewish records that sometimes priests would preside over the sacrificial offerings of hundreds of Nazarites at a time; so many people were doing it. We see Paul, in the N.T. book of Acts, joining with four men who must have in some way violated their Nazarite vows, and so had to be purified.
Obviously this is about 4 Nazarites, and equally as obvious to the person who knows Torah (which the New Testament assumes its readers do) that this specifically concerns four men during the period of their Nazarite vow.
We are aware of this because what we see them doing is entering a seven day period of purification that involves purchasing the proper sacrifices AND having one’s head shaved. While shaving one’s head was also the procedure at the END of the Nazirite vow period, a 7-day period of purification was NOT required so far as we know.
Paul also told us that he had HIS head shaved and went through the purification procedures right along with these men, Paul had undertaken the vow of a Nazarite. Joining others in purification rituals just to show sympathy or as some act of unity was not contemplated, let alone permitted, this was deadly serious business. What I’m saying is that this wasn’t some bald head show that Paul was putting on.
And part of the reason James had Paul do this was because Paul was going to be walking around Jerusalem with a bald head; a sure sign that he had undergone a Nazarite ritual. Everyone knew what that bald head meant, and so he’d be a walking billboard to the effect that Paul followed the Laws of Moses.
Probably a good analogy as to what a Nazarite amounted to be that they were the monks and nuns, so to speak, of the Hebrew religion. Unlike the Levite Priests who were born into lifelong service to God, a Nazarite was just any ordinary Israelite who made a personal choice; he or she volunteered to dedicate himself wholly to God and unto His service for a specified period.
But Biblically speaking, a person set apart for service to God WAS a priest. So did becoming a Nazarite mean that person had become a priest?
Generally no. A priest had to come from a very particular bloodline that descended from Aaron. By all appearances, it seems intended that the God-ordained establishment of the office of the Nazarite EXCLUDED Levites from taking the Nazarite vow.
By the opening statement, this is implied in verse 1, which is “….Tell the people of Israel…..”. Levites were counted no longer among “the people of Israel”. They had just gone through an entirely separate census and set aside, and later we’ll find they don’t even get their territory in the Promised Land. As of now if the Levites were to be a part of this Nazarite office, God should have said, ” tell the people of Israel, and tell the sons of Aaron…” or something like that.
Now we will find implications later on in the Bible, outside of the Torah, that some Levites DID take on the vow of a Nazarite. Why they would do that is mysterious. Probably another of those non-God ordained changes we discussed that occurred sort of spontaneously in Hebrew society. Or it was that some tribes observed the Law and others didn’t, or it was that non-priest Levites (ordinary Levites that weren’t allowed to be priests) were allowed to make Nazarite vows to be more priest-like.
Holman Old Testament Commentary
NLT Chronological Life Application Study Bible