Nazirite, Nazarite

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

I. Definition

A. Origin. 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).

B. 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.


2. Dedication. 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).

II. 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).

A. Negative restraints

1. 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).

2. 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).

3. 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).

B. 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).

III. Subsequent history


B. 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).

C. 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).

D. 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).

Bibliography 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.

Article 2

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