Numbers 6:1–21: the law for the Nazirite

Introduction

The word Torah or Law is best understood as “instruction” or “teaching.”[1] The book of Numbers stands right in the middle of the transition from Sinai and, through the 40 years, into the promised land. It begins with instructions for Israel that are to keep them separate from the nations. In the middle of that section falls “the law for the Nazirite.”[2] The Nazirites were people separated for a special season to the Lord. The Nazirite laws fall into the broad category of ceremonial and more specifically into the category of symbolic. In commanding abstinence from grapes, hair cutting, and dead things, with high penalties for failure, the Nazirite laws show that during the time the Nazirite is set apart, they are a symbol of something unseen but vitally important. It is reasonable to think that some people over the years thought of these voluntary vows as a way of bargaining with God; however, for the most part, they were a respected way to show a selfless devotion to God. The Christian must understand these laws as first showing the great importance God places on his people showing his glory to the world by being set apart to him in their love for him.

Determine the context of the passage

Numbers in the Pentateuch

The book of Numbers stands out in the Pentateuch as the transition book. The context of the book of Numbers is transitory as it details the important items that happened between the failure of the people to believe God, resulting in 40 years of wilderness wandering, and their return to the Jordan where Joshua would lead them into the land. The book itself is made up of contrasts between the relation of God in the law, covenant, and the failure of the people considering the light of revelation they had been shown. As R.C. Sproul put it, in the book of Numbers, “[h]uman failures are clearly portrayed and contrasted with the wise measures of the ever-faithful God.”[3]

Within Numbers

            The book of Number is easily divided into four sections. Chapters 1-10 are pre-wilderness instructions, chapters 11-21 are the wilderness travels, chapters 22-25 are the Balaam debacle, and finally chapters 26-36 are preparation for the entry into the promised land.[4] Numbers 6:1–21 sits almost directly in the middle of the wilderness instructions chronologically; the text says that these instructions are given “in the wilderness of Sinai”[5] before the Israelites moved to the Jorden and prepared to enter the land. The chronological point is important to understand that the people had not yet failed in entering the promised land, meaning that when they were given this instruction, they understood them to be about how they would function going forward. The section begins with a census of the people, and proceeds to instruction on Levites, camp arrangement, high priest duties, dealing with the unclean, adultery, Nazirites, and tabernacle maintenance. The necessity for the instructions on camp arrangement proved to be far more timely than anyone at the time knew, because of the 40-year journey ahead.

Genre

            The passage identifies itself as is law[6], but more on that later. Here it is important to note that law passages come with a context of their own. They are distinct from narrative or wisdom texts in that they are instructions of some sort for the carrying out of life as God’s people. The connotation of the law passage is that it is an ongoing instruction that will apply in some way to God’s people and sometimes even more broadly than that.

Identify the kind of law(s) involved

Vogt provides several subcategories for identifying different laws in order to better interpret them.[7] The top three categories are civil, ceremonial, or moral laws. Underneath these categories, the laws can be farther broken down into criminal, case, family, sacrificial, symbolic, sacred calendar, and compassionate. The laws in Numbers 6:1–21 for the “the vow of a Nazirite”[8] are best categorized as ceremonial and symbolic. The large category of ceremonial is appropriate because these instructions are about ritual separation. The instructions include the descriptor that they are for when a person “separates himself to the Lord.”[9]  The symbolic natural of the laws is evident in that many of the forbidden items like wine and being near the dead are not forbidden to those not under the vow. If they were moral or civil considerations, they would have been forbidden to all. The vow and the ritualistic laws are symbolic then of something other. de Hemmer Gudme, puts it this way, “… the performance of the ritual creates and maintains conventions which are representative of this ritual’s semantic universe.”[10] What Gudme is getting at is that the person that would undergo this vow did so in order to affirm something, or be a symbol of something beyond the seen both for themselves and those watching. Furthermore, the Hebrew conjunction כִֽי־, which is often translated if, is used throughout the Pentateuch when the following phrase is a condition or life event. In this Numbers 6:1-21 text this conjunction is used four times with each time detailing with a condition related to the Nazirite’s state. It is again reasonable to conclude that the instructions in this section, because they are conditioned upon the state of the individual as a Nazirite, are not partially moral or civil, but ceremonial in nature.

Determine the nature of the legal requirement

The vow of the Nazirite is a, יַפְלִא֙a לִנְדֹּר֙special vow. The word יַפְלִא֙ means to do something wonderful; to be too difficult; to be unusual.[11] In this case, the context implies unusual is the best translation. The unusual acts are to avoid anything related to grapes, cutting one’s hair and anything dead. Wenham put it this way, “[n]egatively the Nazirites were separated from wine, grape products and dead bodies. Positively they were separated to the Lord.”[12] The commands are started in both the positive form, indicated be the word גַּדֵּ֥ל which means to grow great.[13] This can be thought about as to have successes. Verses 1-8 focus on the positive instructions and verses 9-12 are negative. The word כִֽי־ is used to indicate is a negative. The implication of the negative requirements is that, should the negative happen, the vow maker must start the process again after a period of cleansing. It is important to note that the major cleansing requirement was expected for even the smallest breach of the Nazirite’s vow. In Leviticus 11 the cleansing for a minor event of touching the dead was a washing and they “shall be unclean until the evening.”[14] However, when a Nazirite touched the dead the ritual was a major cleansing requiring 7 days, washing, and a burnt offering, sin offering, peace offering, and grain/drink offerings. Clearly, the legal requirement for the Nazirite was higher because, as Gudme had pointed out, they are a public representation of something unseen. This required holiness was profoundly respected, the Mishnah “Helene the Queen… [who] at the end of the seven years she was made unclean”[15] in her Nazirite vow and had to serve another 7 years.

Describe the purpose of the law in Israel

As the story of Helene the Queen underscores the vow was taken very seriously by those in the subsequent years of the Israelite nationality and even extending into the New Testament story. Since no one was obligated to make the vow of the Nazirites, except perhaps someone like Samson or Samuel, the motivation behind why one would take the vow are very telling for how the ritual applied in Israel. In many instances, a vow was made on a condition. For example, the story of Helene the Queen indicates that she said, “If my son comes home from war whole and in one piece, I shall be a Nazir for seven years.”[16] It seems as if the vow was viewed as an offering to show God the seriousness of one’s request. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, made a similar vow when she said to the Lord, if He “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.”[17] In both cases of Helene the Queen and Hannah, the LORD answered their prayers and the vows were fulfilled. Cartledge points out that “[c]onditional vows were not unique to Israel” in this time.”[18] Indeed, Cartledge goes on to explain that almost all other systems of worship in that day had some form of promissory vow where the vow maker would spend time in service of a god in return for a favor. It is not unseasonable to assume the Israelites had similar understandings of the Nazir[19] vow; however, given the nature of the covenant and the context within the book of Numbers, which time and time again showed God’s favor to an Israel that failed in their duties, Cartledge’s conclusion that the intended purpose within the ceremonial law was for the Nazirite Vows to be “unconditional promises of unselfish devotion.”[20]

Identify applicability of the purpose in a contemporary context

Unselfish devotion is a principle found throughout the Christian corpus in the New Testament. Jesus’ call to love God and people,[21] to lay one’s life down for others,[22] to take up a cross and follow[23] are all examples of selfless devotion. Kirk points out that Paul even after writing a text like Galatians still seems to keep his vows.[24] Kirk jumps to the conclusion that Paul intended his viewers to see some deeper “sociopolitical” purpose for the practice of the Nazirite vow and therefore the Torah as a whole.[25] It is not reasonable to ascribe such intent to Paul’s actions. What can be reasonably said is that Paul did not view the practice of the Nazirite vow outside the scope of what he could do as a Christian.

Throughout the later years the later Christians often connected the idea of asceticism and the Jewish Nazirite. Lahav makes a compelling case that “the idealized image of the Jewish Nazirite was picked up and developed by the early Christian writers, Jerome in particular, to legitimize the practices of contemporary asceticism.”[26] However, perhaps the most applicable use for the Law is what Wilson called “ethical principles of Jesus and the early Christians.”[27] When Peter wrote, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”[28] he is speaking of a people set apart. The word translated holy “ἅγιον” (hagion) means “holy, set apart, consecrated, dedicated, saints.”[29] It is the same root word used in the Septuagint translation in Numbers 6:2[30] when referring to the one who “separate himself to the Lord.”[31] In Numbers the strenuous way in which the Nazirite must maintain the separation of his vow translated into the Christian application is summed up in another passage of the Pentateuch. That is, “‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”[32] The Nazirite law shows the Christian how serious it is to be close to God and that, as Jesus said, the world knows him by seeing the Christians actions.[33] After all, who is closer to God than his family?[34]

Conclusion

Indeed, God’s church is intended to show God’s glory. When viewing the Old Testament, especially the ceremonial instructions, the reader must see the principles embedded in the actions. In the case of the Nazirite laws, some may see them as a bargaining tool with God, others as an excuse to remove their responsibility to be in the world, and still others as instructions how to show selfless love to God. Selfless love and separation are the core of the principles in the Nazirite laws and that is how they apply to the modern Christian. James exhorted the believers to “keep oneself unstained from the world.”[35] This is the core principle of Nazirite laws, the Christian is to aspire to live in such a manner that shows them to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.”[36]

 

[1] Peter T. Vogt. 2009. Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel. 26

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 6:13.

[3]. R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 197.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 1:1.

[6]. Numbers 6:21, ESV.

[7]. Peter T. Vogt. 2009. Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel. 138-139.

[8]. Numbers 6:1, ESV.

[9]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 6:2.

[10]. Katrine Anne de Hemmer Gudme. “How Should We Read Hebrew Bible Ritual Texts? A Ritualistic Reading of The Law of the Nazirite (Num 6,1-21).” SJOT: Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament23, no. 1 (May 2009): 64–84. doi:10.1080/09018320902853772.

[11]. The Lexham Analytical Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).

[12]. Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 97–98.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 11:39.

[15]. Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 435.

[16]. Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 435.

[17]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Sa 1:11.

[18]. Cartledge, Tony W. “Were Nazirite Vows Unconditional.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51, no. 3 (July 1989): 417.

[19]. Transliteration of the Hebrew word for Nazirite.

[20]. Cartledge, Tony W. “Were Nazirite Vows Unconditional.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51, no. 3 (July 1989): 422.

[21]. Matthew 22:37-39.

[22]. John 15:13.

[23]. Luke 9:23.

[24] Alexander N. Kirk. “Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission.” Themelios 42, no. 1 (April 2017): 173–75.

[25] Ibid, 173.

[26]. LAHAV, RINA. 2018. “Christian Asceticism as Seen through the Image of the Jewish Nazirite in Jerome.” Archa Verbi 15 (15): 9.

[27]. Wilson, Alistair I. “Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics.” Themelios 27, no. 2 (Spr 2002): 69.

[28]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Pe 2:9.

[29]. “Holiness,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

[30]. Henry Barclay Swete. The Old Testament in Greek: According to the Septuagint. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1909.

[31]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 6:2.

[32]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 10:3.

[33]. John 13:35.

[34]. Ephesians 1:5.

[35]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jas 1:27.

[36]. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 2:15.

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