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NAZIRITE, NAZARITE (năz'ĭ-rīt, năz'a-rīt, Heb. nāzîr; connected with nadhar, to vow, hence, people of the vow, i.e., dedicated or consecrated). An Israelite who consecrated himself or herself and took a vow of separation and self-imposed abstinence for the purpose of some special service.

I. Origin. The question whether the concept of the Nazirite was indigenous to Israel has often been asked. It would appear that the practice of separation for religious purposes is very ancient and is shared by a number of peoples. In Israel, however, it assumed unique proportions. Its regulatory laws are laid down in Num.6.1-Num.6.23. There were two different types of Naziritism, the temporary and the perpetual, of which the first type was far more common. In fact, we know of only three of the latter class: Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist.

II. Distinguishing Traits. The three principal marks that distinguished the Nazirite were (1) a renunciation of wine and all products of the vine, including grapes; (2) prohibition of the use of the razor; and (3) avoidance of contact with a dead body. The OT nowhere explains why these three areas of prohibition were chosen as giving expression to the Nazirites' positive “separation to the Lord ” (Num.6.2), but there are some fairly obvious, even if speculative, lines of thought. Abstention from wine could point to the renunciation of earthly joys in order to find all joy in the Lord. Allowing the hair to grow must surely symbolize the dedication of personal strength and vitality to the Lord—at the end of the period of the vow the hair was shaved and cast into the fire of sacrifice (Num.6.18); not, however, the fire of the burnt offering (that is, dedication holding nothing back), but of the fellowship (or peace) offering, for he has been walking in fellowship with the Lord with all his strength all the days of the separation. The avoidance of contact with the dead symbolizes the primacy of his relationship to the Lord: no duty to mankind can take its place. It should be noted that he was not expected to withdraw from society, that is, to live a monastic type of life, nor to become a celibate. The question has been raised whether the Recabites of Jer.35.1-Jer.35.19 were included within the Nazirite classification. It appears, however, that the Recabites had more the status of a (Hebrew) nomadic group, since they were not merely forbidden to drink wine but also to refrain from owning real estate. They lived in tents (Jer.35.7, Jer.35.10).

III. Nazirites in the NT. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, was a Nazirite from birth (Luke.1.15). The connection between John the Baptist and the Qumran community is rather tenuous, nor can it be proved that the men of Qumran were all Nazirites. The case of Paul and Naziritism has frequently elicited discussion. Although it cannot be established that the apostle assumed such vow, it is certain that he did assume the expenses of those who did (Acts.21.23f.). The court of Herod Agrippa supported a large number of Nazirites, according to Josephus.

IV. Reason for Assuming the Vow. The reasons for taking a Nazirite vow were numerous. A vow might be assumed by a parent before the birth of a child; by one in some sort of distress or trouble; or by a woman suspected by her husband of unfaithfulness in their marriage relationship until the suspicion could be removed. Women and slaves could take vows only if sanctioned by their husbands or masters.

The period of time for the Nazirite vow was anywhere from thirty days to a whole lifetime. During the Maccabean days, a number of Jews became Nazirites as a matter of protest against the Hellenistic practices and demands of Antiochus Epiphanes.

V. Nazirites and the Prophets. There is only one clear-cut mention of the Nazirites by the prophets. The prophet Amos (Acts.2.11-Acts.2.12) voices a complaint of the Lord against the children of Israel that he had given to Israel the prophets and the Nazirites as spiritual instructors and examples, but that the people had given wine to the Nazirites and had offered inducements to the prophets to refrain from prophesying.——JFG

NAZIRITE, NAZARITE (KJV), năz’ ə rīt, năz’a rīt (נָזִ֔יר, withheld). A member of a Heb. religious class, specially dedicated to God.



The authorization for Nazirites appears in Numbers 6:1-21 and was divinely revealed, through Moses, shortly before Israel’s departure from Mt. Sinai in May, 1445 b.c. (Num 10:11; cf. Exod 40:17).

Votive nature.

The Nazirite concept is that of a vow (q.v.), “a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord” (Num 6:2). If vows be classified as voluntary obligations, either of dedication or of abstinence (J. B. Payne, Theology of the Older Testament, 430), then the Nazirites’ situation falls primarily into the latter category.



Yet the vine that is treated with abstinence is also, in a sense, dedicated “to the Lord” (Lev 25:4); similarly, while the vows made by a Nazirite himself were those of abstinence, the vows of another person, e.g., of a parent in committing a child to the Nazirite life, represent dedication (cf. Judg 13:5). The dedicated person could thus also speak of himself as “a Nazirite to God” (16:17).

Original characteristics

The Nazirite, as envisioned in the Pentateuch, was one who separated himself for a limited period of time to a high-priestly sort of life: “He is holy to the Lord” (Num 6:8).

Negative restraints

From the dead.

Naziritism meant the avoidance of ceremonial defilement, esp. from touching a dead body (vv. 6, 7; cf., for the high priest, Lev 21:1). In cases of accidental contact with the dead, provision was made for purification (Num 6:9-12); but the person had to begin his Nazirite period over again: the former days were “void” (v. 12).

From wine.

Abstinence was specified from wine and other שֵׁכָר, H8911, strong drink or beer (KB; 972). This was not simply because of problems of ministerial intoxication (cf., for the priests, Lev 10:9, 10) because fresh grapes, raisins, grape juice, vinegar, and even grape seeds were equally prohibited (Num 6:3, 4). The grapes prob. stood as a symbol for all the temptations of the settled life of Canaan; cf. the vow of the Rechabites, q.v. (Jer 35:6, 7).

From shaving.

The cutting of one’s hair was also forbidden (Num 6:5), as a concrete symbol of unimpaired strength; cf. the נָזִ֔יר, vines (Lev 25:11). When the specified period was accomplished, the Nazirite would present burnt-, sin-, peace-, meal-, and drink-offerings at the sanctuary. While the priest performed the sacrifice, the Nazirite would shave the hair of his head and “put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offering” (Num 6:18). Upon such fulfillment he was again free, e.g., to drink wine (v. 20; cf. 1 Macc 3:49).

Positive purposes.

Even as vows in general consisted of promises made to God, often on condition of His granting certain specified petitions, so the Nazirite vow and the service for God that it entailed seems often to have followed upon divine bestowals of particular, requested blessings, e.g., Hannah’s prayer for a male child (1 Sam 1:11). The subject of the vow was responsible, first to make himself available for use by God, and finally to discharge the prescribed sacrificial worship. Nazirites could be women (Num 6:2) or even slaves, but their vows and service had then to be sanctioned by their husbands or masters (cf. 30:6-8). God’s purpose in establishing the Nazirite group was to raise up within Israel a class of devoted spiritual leaders, to whom He in turn would grant special powers, filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15), and in this respect similar to the class of the prophets (Amos 2:11).

Subsequent history

Exceptional Nazirites.

Rest of the OT.

Subsequent references to Nazirites are few. The prophet Amos, c. 760 b.c., criticized N Israel for perverting the Nazirites, whom Yahweh had raised up, with wine (Amos 2:12). Jeremiah lamented Judah’s former נְזִרִ֑ים, as “purer than snow, whiter than milk” (Lam 4:7), though the term may indicate nobles (ASV, Th. Laetsch, Bib. Com. Jer, 397; but cf. IB, VI:31).

New Testament.

Jesus was a Nazarene, q.v. (Matt 2:23) but not a Nazirite, as was John the Baptist, to whom He stood in contrast (11:18, 19). On his second missionary journey [when Paul was “at Cenchreae] he cut his hair for he had a vow” (Acts 18:18), indicating his accomplishment of a Nazirite period. This in turn explains his eagerness to return to Pal., where the other rites of the discharge of his vow would then be performed at the Temple. Later he assumed the heavy expense of purifying four other men that had such vows on them (21:23, 24). Josephus mentions a large number of Nazirites sponsored by Herod Agrippa I (Antiq. XIX. 6. 1). Later Heb. tradition fixed the minimum period for a Nazirite at thirty days (Mishna, Nazir).

Critical reconstruction.

Biblical criticism produces a history of Nazirites that differs markedly from the Scripture’s own teaching, as outlined above. The fundamental misconception of the negative critics stems from Wellhausen’s evolutionary reconstruction of the Pentateuch, q.v. Its theory assigns Numbers 6, with its Nazirite legislation, to “P,” the Priestly Code (ILOT, 61), and hence to the end of Israelitish history (exilic or later) instead of its beginning (so even J. D. Douglas, NBD, 872). The life-long Nazirites, e.g. Samson and Samuel, are thus held to serve as the earlier norm, while the Mosaic concepts of Naziritism for a limited period, of the important place of multiplied sacrifice in the discharge of the vow, of abstinence from wine and ritual defilement, or even the very idea of the Nazirites as subjects of a vow, are relegated to the status of later accretions. Instead, the Nazirite is seen but as a sacred, “charismatic” warrior, appearing spontaneously, subject to ecstatic behavior, and at times indistinguishable from the primitive sort of prophet, Even the ruthless Absalom—note his long hair (!)—can be regarded as a Nazirite (G. B. Gray, JTS, I [1900], 206). The “later” Pentateuchal laws are then said to have perverted Naziritism into a votive performance of ritualistic duties. Such, however, was a mark only of NT Pharisaism when, as Josephus related, “It is usual for those who had been either afflicted with a distemper, or with other distresses, to make vows; and for thirty days before they are to offer their sacrifices, to abstain from wine, and to shave the hair of their head” (War, II. 15. 1). Bernice, q.v., the incestuous sister-wife of Herod Agrippa II (cf. Acts 25:13), could undertake such a vow (Jos., loc. cit.); and it could be done merely for a bet (Mishna, Nazir, V, 5).


On associated theories of negative criticism: G. B. Gray, “The Nazirite,” JTS, I (1900), 201-211; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT (1961), I:303-306; IDB, III:526, 527.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(nazir, connected with nadhar, "to vow"; nazeir, nazeiraios, as also various words indicating "holiness" or "devotion"; the King James Version, Nazarite):

1. Antiquity and Origin

2. Conditions of the Vow

3. Initiation

4. Restoration

5. Completion and Release

6. Semi-sacerdotal Character

7. Nazirites for Life

8. Samson’s Case

9. Samuel’s Case

10. Token of Divine Favor

11. Did Not Form Communities

12. Among Early Christians

13. Parallels among Other Peoples

The root-meaning of the word in Hebrew as well as the various Greek translations indicates the Nazirite as "a consecrated one" or "a devotee." In the circumstances of an ordinary vow, men consecrated some material possession, but the Nazirite consecrated himself or herself, and took a vow of separation and self-imposed discipline for the purpose of some special service, and the fact of the vow was indicated by special signs of abstinence. The chief Old Testament passages are Jud 13:5-7; 16:17; Nu 6; Am 2:11,12; compare Sirach 46:13 (Hebrew); 1 Macc 3:49-52.

1. Antiquity and Origin:

The question has been raised as to whether the Nazirite vow was of native or foreign origin in Israel.The idea of special separation, however, seems in all ages to have appealed to men of a particular temperament, and we find something of the kind in many countries and always linked with special abstinence of some kind; and from all that is said in the Pentateuch we should infer that the custom was already ancient in Israel and that Mosaism regulated it, bringing it into line with the general system of religious observance and under the cognizance of the Aaronic priests. The critics assign the section dealing with this matter (Nu 6:1-21) to the Priestly Code (P), and give it a late date, but there cannot be the least doubt that the institution itself was early. It seems not unlikely that on the settlement in Canaan, when the Israelites, having failed to overcome the native population, began to mix freely with them, the local worship, full of tempting Dionysiac elements, brought forth this religious protest in favor of Israel’s ancient and simpler way of living, and as a protection against luxury in settling nomads. It is worthy of note that among the Semites vine-growing and wine-drinking have ever been considered foreign to their traditional nomadic mode of life. It was in this same protest that the Rechabites, who were at least akin to the Nazirites, went still farther in refusing even in Canaan to abandon the nomadic state.

See Rechabites.

2. Conditions of the Vow:

The Pentateuch, then, makes provision for the Nazirite vow being taken by either men or women, though the Old Testament does not record a single instance of a female Nazirite. Further, it provides only for the taking of the vow for a limited time, that is, for the case of the "Nazirite of days." No period of duration is mentioned in the Old Testament, but the Mishna, in dealing with the subject, prescribes a period of 30 days, while a double period of 60 or even a triple one of 100 days might be entered on. The conditions of Naziritism entailed:

(1) the strictest abstinence from wine and from every product of the vine;

(2) the keeping of the hair uncut and the beard untouched by a razor;

(3) the prohibition to touch a dead body; and

(4) prohibition of unclean food (Jud 13:5-7; Nu 6).

3. Initiation:

The ceremonial of initiation is not recorded, the Pentateuch treating it as well known. The Talmud tells us that it was only necessary for one to express the wish that he might be a Nazirite. A formal vow was, however, taken; and from the form of renewal of the vow, when by any means it was accidentally broken, we may judge that the head was also shorn on initiation and the hair allowed to grow during the whole period of the vow.

4. Restoration:

The accidental violation of the vow just mentioned entailed upon the devotee the beginning of the whole matter anew and the serving of the whole period. This was entered on by the ceremonial of restoration, in the undergoing of which the Nazirite shaved his head, presented two turtle-doves or two young pigeons for sin and burnt offerings, and re-consecrated himself before the priest, further presenting a lamb for a trespass offering (Nu 6:9-12).

5. Completion and Release:

When the period of separation was complete, the ceremonial of release had to be gone through. It consisted of the presentation of burnt, sin and peace offerings with their accompaniments as detailed in Nu 6:13-21, the shaving of the head and the burning of the hair of the head of separation, after which the Nazirite returned to ordinary life.

6. Semi-sacerdotal Character:

The consecration of the Nazirite in some ways resembled that of the priests, and similar words are used of both in Le 21:12 and Nu 6:17, the priest’s vow being even designated nezer. It opened up the way for any Israelite to do special service on something like semi-sacerdotal lines. The priest, like the Nazirite, dared not come into contact with the dead (Le 21:1), dared not touch wine during the period of service (Le 10:9), and, further, long hair was an ancient priestly custom (Eze 44:20).

7. Nazirites for Life:

The only "Nazirites for life" that we know by name are Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist, but to these Jewish tradition adds Absalom in virtue of his long hair. We know of no one voluntarily taking the vow for life, all the cases recorded being those of parents dedicating their children. In rabbinical times, the father but not the mother might vow for the child, and an interesting case of this kind is mentioned in the dedication of Rabbi Chanena by his father in the presence of Rabban Gamaliel (Nazir, 29b).

8. Samson’s Case:

Samson is distinctly named a Nazirite in Jud 13:7 and 16:17, but it has been objected that his case does not conform to the regulations in the Pentateuch. It is said that he must have partaken of wine when he made a feast for his friends, but that does not follow and would not be so understood, say, in a Moslem country today. It is further urged that in connection with his fighting he must have come into contact with many dead men, and that he took honey from the carcass of the lion. To us these objections seem hypercritical. Fighting was specially implied in his vow (Jud 13:5), and the remains of the lion would be buy a dry skeleton and not even so defiling as the ass’s jawbone, to which the critics do not object.

9. Samuel’s Case:

Samuel is nowhere in the Old Testament called a Nazirite, the name being first applied to him in Sirach 46:13 (Hebrew), but the restrictions of his dedication seem to imply that he was. Wellhausen denies that it is implied in 1Sa 1:11 that he was either a Nathin ("a gift, (one) `given’ unto Yahweh"; compare Nu 3:9; 18:6) or a Nazirite. In the Hebrew text the mother’s vow mentions only the uncut hair, and first in Septuagint is there added that he should not drink wine or strong drink, but this is one of the cases where we should not regard silence as final evidence. Rather it is to be regarded that the visible sign only is mentioned, the whole contents of the vow being implied.

10. Token of Divine Favor:

It is very likely that Nazirites became numerous in Israel in periods of great religious or political excitement, and in Jud 5:2 we may paraphrase, `For the long-haired champions in Israel.’ That they should be raised up was considered a special token of God’s favor to Israel, and the tempting of them to break their vow by drinking wine was considered an aggravated sin (Am 2:11,12). At the time of the captivity they were looked upon as a vanished glory in Israel (La 4:7 margin), but they reappeared in later history.

11. Did Not Form Communities:

So far as we can discover, there is no indication that they formed guilds or settled communities like the "Sons of the Prophets." In some sense the Essenes may have continued the tradition, and James, the Lord’s brother (Euseb., HE, II, xxiii, 3, following Hegesippus), and also Banns, tutor of Josephus (Vita, 2), who is probably the same as the Buni mentioned as a disciple of Jesus in Sanhedrin 43a, were devotees of a kind resembling Nazirites. Berenice’s vow was also manifestly that of the Nazirite (Josephus, B J, II, xv, 1).

12. Among Early Christians:

The case of John the Baptist is quite certain, and it was probably the means of introducing the custom among the early Christians. It was clearly a Nazirite’s vow which Paul took, "having shorn his head in Cenchrea" (Ac 18:18), and which he completed at Jerusalem with other Christians similarly placed (Ac 21:23).

As the expenses of release were heavy for poor men, such were at times aided in this matter by their richer brethren. Thus, Agrippa, on his return from Rome, assisted many Nazirites (Josephus, Ant., XIX, vi, 1), and Paul was also at charges with others (Ac 21:23).

We come across something of the same kind in many countries, and we find special abstinence always emphasized. Thus we meet with a class of "votaries" as early as the days of Hammurabi, and his code devotes quite a number of sections to them. Among other restrictions they were prohibited from even entering a wineshop (Sect, 110).

13. Parallels among Other Peoples:

Then we are familiar with the hierodouloi of the Greeks, and the Vestal Virgins of the Romans. The word nezir also appears in Syriac and was applied to the maidens devoted to the service of Belthis. In the East, too, there have always been individuals and societies of ascetics who were practically Nazirites, and the modern dervish in nearly every way resembles him, while it is worthy of record in this connection that the Moslem (an abstainer by creed) while under the vow of pilgrimage neither cuts his hair nor pares his nails till the completion of his vow in Mecca.

W. M. Christie