The book of Numbers is the book of wilderness wanderings. In Numbers 5-6, Moses is given directives about some who should be separated from the camp because they are defiled, and some who could be separated because they want to be dedicated to the Lord. One group—the defiled—is separated physically, the other—the Nazarite—is separated spiritually. Though most Christians are aware that there was such a thing as a Nazarite vow, few know any details.
What is a Nazarite?
When Jacob speaks a word of prophetic blessing on his children in Genesis 49, he says this about Joseph, “The blessings of your father have surpassed the blessings of my ancestors Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; May they be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers” (Genesis 49:26, NASB95). The interesting phrase is “on the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers.” You may know that one of the unique characteristics of someone under a Nazarite vow was that he did not cut his hair. Of more interest, is that “distinguished” is the Hebrew word nazir. Someone who was nazir was, of course, a nazir-ite. So, a Nazirite was literally one who was “distinguished.”
The word has another meaning into which it is often translated, and the meaning gives further understanding of the Nazirite. Leviticus 25:5 speaks of the Sabbatical year in which the land was to lay in rest, and says, “‘Your harvest’s aftergrowth you shall not reap, and your grapes of untrimmed vines you shall not gather; the land shall have a sabbatical year.” Here, the word nazir is translated untrimmed. With the untrimmed hair and the distinguished service of the Nazirite, both meanings of the word are fulfilled in the Nazarite vow. In fact, Jacob prays that the blessings of his ancestors would be “on the crown of the head of the one untrimmed/distinguished among his brothers.”
Most students of the Word know that a Nazarite was forbidden alcoholic beverage and haircuts, but little more. The hair was to be nazir; that is, untrimmed. In addition, the Nazarite (who could be male or female), was to avoid grapes and grape juice of any kind, vinegar, dead bodies, and possibly even the mourning process itself. Numbers 6 is the most definitive statement on the Nazarite vow found in the Bible, and it tells us that the Nazarite, “…shall not make himself unclean for his father or for his mother, for his brother or for his sister, when they die, because his separation to God is on his head.” (Numbers 6:7, NASB95). This sounds much like the instruction of Jesus to the would-be disciple who said, “first, let me go bury my father.”
If Paul says that long hair is a disgrace to a man (1 Corinthians 11:14), why would the Nazirite do that which is disgraceful? I believe it was an act of humility. Paul’s teaching about hair and head coverings in 1 Corinthians is about authority. In it, he says that a woman’s head is to be covered (with the authority of her husband or father), but a man’s head is not to be covered since he is the representative of God in his family. For the Nazirite, however, he was to take the disgrace of submission upon his head.
However, it is likely that most Nazirites never came to the point of hippie style hair. Except for Samson, we have no clear examples of life-long Nazirite vows. While John the Baptist could have been under such a vow, we do not know for sure, and there are other reasons he could have been alcohol-free and seemingly “untrimmed.” The length of a Nazirite vow is not mentioned in the Bible, but Jewish literature tells us that the average length of such a vow was 30 days, and on rare occasions, a man would take a 60-day vow. In a 30-day timeframe, a man’s hair would begin to get long, but not Samson-like.
Someone under the Nazarite vow really only had one purpose, and it is found in these words: “‘All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord” (Numbers 6:8, NASB95).
This was a vow of becoming untrimmed by the world, unhindered by the world’s pleasures, and undeterred from the Lord’s service. The High Priest was to be Holy to the Lord at all times, but a Nazirite could come into this holy dedication by choice, for a time, and serve a holy purpose.
The Conclusion of the Vow
As previously mentioned, except for Samson, a Nazirite vow was only for a time. According to Jewish Rabbinical teaching, the vow was typically for 30 to 60 days. After this time, the Nazirite fulfilled the following obligations—
- Offering a male lamb without defect for a burnt offering. This signified the totality of his commitment.
- Offering a ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering. This sin offering was for unintentional sin that may have been committed, and was only effective with a corresponding confession of the sin.
- Offering a ram without defect for a peace offering. This offering, eaten together with the Priest, showed the restoration of relationships after the time of separation.
- Offering a grain and drink offering. This offering signified the humanity of the Nazirite and foreshadowed the Messiah.
- Shave the head completely, and burn the dedicated hair on the altar. This was a dramatic means of showing that the time of the vow was complete.
- The Nazirite was instructed to drink wine. In Jewish life, the symbolism of wine is rich, speaking of the bounty of God. The drinking of wine did not have the same cultural issues as in our modern day.
Should we take Nazirite Vows today?
First, it would be impossible for anyone, Jew or Gentile, to perform the requirements of the Nazirite vow today because they simply could not bring the sacrifices required to complete the vow. These sacrifices were expensive for the Nazirite, and showed the strength of commitment on the part of the one taking the vow.
Second, even if we could fulfill the obligations of the vow, the Christian today should always remember that we are free from the law through our redemption in Christ, the ultimate sacrifice. To obligate yourself to the Jewish Law is to fail to recognize the mystery of the church.
Third, while there are aspects of the Nazirite vow that can be emulated in the life of a Christian, I fear that the monk-style escape from society is more a religion of asceticism than of godly devotion. The Christian life in the New Testament is an active life. I would applaud one who took a personal retreat for Bible study and spiritual growth. I have great fears of modern contemplative spirituality, however. If the Nazirite vow was taken today, I fear that it would be filled with so-called Christian mysticism and would be more new-age than Biblical.
Dedicate yourself to be holy unto the Lord as a believer, active in your church, engaged with your society, and always willing to sacrifice time, talents, and treasure for the Lord’s Work.
Dr. Randy White is Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Katy and the daily Bible teacher on the Word for the World radio program. To join his mailing list, click here.