God’s Word for You
Numbers 6:1-4 The Nazirite (Part 1)
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 24, 2021
The Nazirite Vow
6 The Lord told Moses to speak to the Israelites and tell them these things: 2 When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate oneself to the LORD, 3 he is to abstain from wine and beer. He may not drink vinegar made from wine or beer. He may not drink any grape juice. He may not eat fresh grapes or raisins. 4 During his entire separation, he is not to eat anything at all that comes from the grapevine, from the seeds to the skins.
The word Nazirite comes from the Hebrew nezer “uncut, separate.” It is similar to the word “vow” in verse 2, which is neder, but it means to make oneself separate. It is probably not related to the name of the city of Nazareth.
Almost all Nazirite vows were temporary, typically a month or so. Luther says that this was “for a certain length of time, just as Paul shaved his head at Cenchrea, as Acts 18:18 says, and those who did this were Nazirites for one or two months at the pleasure of the individual” (LW 8:305). There are a few rare cases of a Nazirite vow being imposed on a person for life. This is clear in the case of Samson, where the angel commands his mother: “No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite” (Judges 13:5). Hannah made the vow for her son Samuel as well (1 Samuel 1:11), and we would agree that John the Baptist was a Nazirite for life based on Luke 1:15.
The vow was available to both men and women, as our text specifically says ish ‘o ishah, “a man or a woman.” I make the point here because many translations have been moving toward more inclusive language such as “brothers and sisters” where the text only says adelphoi “brothers.” Often this is an appropriate translating choice, but in some cases the choice actually contradicts points of Scriptural doctrine, such as in Philippians 1:14. But as we will see later in the book, a woman’s vow was subject to the approval of her father or husband (Numbers 30:5,8,11). She could make such a vow, but with the approval of the head of the household.
There were three parts to the Nazirite’s vow while it was being kept, like the three legs of a stool: abstain from wine, abstain from cutting the hair, and keeping separate from dead bodies. At the end of the vow, there were seven points to be remembered in the sacrifice. We will touch on each of these as they are described.
Here, the first leg is described in detail: Abstaining from fermented drink. Distilled alcohol is a modern invention. In Biblical times there was only wine, beer, and mead, and mead was a European drink that doesn’t appear in the Scriptures at all. Moses makes it clear, however, that the elements of wine, grapes, raisins, grape seeds, and even grape skins, were to be avoided. Alcohol by itself is not a sinful commodity. “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish” (Proverbs 31:6). Yet intoxicating drinks (and drugs) so easily lead to sinful actions and abuse that the very first time wine is mentioned in the Bible it is already being abused. This is the account of Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:20-27) that even led to the curse of Noah’s grandson Canaan and all his descendants. “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).
The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his son, John the Baptist, “is never to take wine or fermented drink” (Luke 1:15), and Jesus also said that John came “neither eating bread nor drinking wine” (Luke 7:33). A poor student of the Bible might try to say that the “bread” part of that statement is a reference to the way that grain alcohol is made, but the fact is that distilled alcohol was not really invented (or discovered) until the 12th or 13th century A.D. One of the marks of the sinfulness of Israel in later times was when Nazirites were forced to drink wine and break their vows (Amos 2:11-12).
The point of avoiding everything to do with grapes showed that the vow was not only about having a clear mind, but about an entire abstinence in obedience to God. The other two legs of the vow, regarding the hair and avoiding dead bodies, are examined more thoroughly in the verses that follow. As we will see, the vow of the Nazirite closely followed the restrictions given to the priests, but most especially the High Priest.
God was not creating a new office in this passage, but he was regulating something that was already in place. The Lord took the vow of holy separation and established it for however long a person wished to carry it. In practical terms, there were three types:
- one’s entire life from birth to death
- the rest of one’s life from the point of taking the vow
- for a limited time of any duration
Our service to God is in one sense identical with that of the Nazirite: it is voluntary. God does not require from any of us any particular service or form of service. Ministers are bound to a particular service by virtue of their call; teachers respond to a similar call. There are examples in the Bible of people making rash, unwise vows (Jephthah, Judges 11:30-31), and false vows (Absalom, 2 Samuel 15:7-8). The Lord wanted to give his people in Moses’ day a way to make a vow that would please him, but we should be careful about vows. “Fear the Lord,” God says, “serve him only, and take your oaths in his name only” (Deuteronomy 6:13). Also: “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Numbers 30:2). Over the course of many centuries, young people were and still are led to rash vows they think will be in service to the Lord when the only vows they should be making are marriage vows. Instead, there are girls who have a love for Christ who throw away the chance to be ideal wives and mothers by making a vow that is never commanded or even mentioned in God’s word. There are men who want to give themselves to the office of the ministry, but who have tied themselves to a church that demands celibacy for those who are not suited to celibacy. A man who might become a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather, and still serve the Lord in the pulpit, falls instead into needless temptations and horrific sins and shame all in the name of a lie and a mistake. But a mistake that is ancient is no less a mistake.
Let the words of Moses’ servant Joshua, Israel’s leader, guide you: “Love the LORD your God, walk in all his ways, obey his commands, hold fast to him and serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5). Serve the Lord from a willing heart, a heart of thanks, and a heart of joy.
Pastor Timothy Smith