Remember where we are in Numbers as we resume our studies in this part of the Torah, the Law of Moses. Preparations are being made for the people of Israel to leave Mt. Sinai, where they have remained for more than a year, to make their way to the Promised Land. A census has been taken to assess the fighting strength of the nation; the camp has been organized for movement and rest; the responsibilities of the Levites, who would move the sanctuary, have been assigned; and now attention is being paid to the holiness of the people. Their hope for success depended upon the Lord’s presence with them and that presence in turn depended upon their being and remaining a holy people before him. They must be holy because the living God among them is holy. Chapter five included various representative regulations designed to serve that holiness of the people. Now we move to the regulation concerning the Nazirite vow, another aspect of Israel’s holiness and, again, one that bears directly on our circumstances today, just as every single part of the teaching of Numbers has and so obviously to this point.
What we have in what follows are three separate sections. First, in vv. 1-8, the obligations of a Nazirite vow are listed. In vv. 9-12 we are given the ritual procedure to be followed if the period of the Nazirite vow is interrupted by the person’s unintentional contamination by a corpse, and, finally, in vv. 13-21 the ritual procedure by which the vow was terminated.
The fact that the accent falls on these two features of the vow – possible interruptions by unintentional defilement and the proper method of concluding the vow – indicate that the vow was already a very well known thing in Israel and only certain aspects of it are now being legislated or regulated. These concerns also tie the passage to what has gone before, the purification legislation of chapter 5. [Cole, 120]
- The fact that the vow was to be taken by both men and women indicates that it was a spiritual exercise widely practiced among the people of Israel. That is, this was a practice for everyone. There is evidence from Jesus’ day that women often took this vow. The length of the period of the vow is here unspecified; apparently it could be for any length of time the person chose. The rabbis later made it easier by restricting it to thirty days in most cases. [Mishnah, Naz. 1:3]
The Hebrew verb from which Nazirite comes means “to separate or consecrate oneself.” It has nothing to do, by the way, with the word Nazarene, a completely different root and word. The idea, in context, is to devote oneself by this special means to sanctification or holiness before God, to set oneself apart to holy things.
As with so much else in Israelite ritual life, the making of vows of this kind was commonplace in ANE religious life. A vow similar to this has been found in a number of different peoples from the same historical period. But, as always, such a practice is here given a new context in the Law of Moses, a new motivation, and a new form.
- The priest was also forbidden to drink wine or any other intoxicating beverage, but only while he was serving in the sanctuary. The Nazirite could not drink such drinks at any time during the entire period of the vow. Nor could he or she even eat the grapes from which such drinks are produced. “Any other fermented drink” probably refers to beer which was also in common use in the ANE. Canaan was celebrated for its wine in the ANE so this would be a vow of considerable point and sacrifice once Israel had entered the Promised Land and taken possession of it. Vinegar was the cheaper wine drunk by the poor.
- During the period of the vow the hair could be neither cut nor trimmed. This was not required of the priests but priests were forbidden to shave their heads or trim their beards so there is some likeness to priestly holiness here as well. Compare this with Lev. 21:5. Evidence of the ritual use of hair in the ANE comes from various sources. The hair, of course, is part of oneself, a part that can be given to the gods, and for both men and women hair is some sign of vitality and life force. So think of the hair as representing the life and power of this consecrated human being, the one part of it that could eventually be taken off and given to God. Nothing is to interfere with thatlife force for the length of the vow.
- In this matter the Nazirite was like the High Priest who was likewise forbidden to draw near even to the dead bodies of his own family. These similarities between the obligations of a priest and of a Nazirite help us to see what is going on here: a special holiness is being sought and obtained by the taking of this vow, the kind of special holiness that enabled priests to function near to the sanctuary and so to the presence of God. We have already seen that this is the point of the ceremonial impurity that attaches to the dead body: death violates the nature of God as the Living One and the source and giver of all life. Here the matter of not cutting the hair seems to be even more important to mention than that of not drinking intoxicants or touching the dead. That may be due to the fact that pagan customs included shaving the head as part of burial rites and so there would have been a special temptation to do that in such a case. [Ashley, 143] It may also be another aspect of the public nature of this vow. Everyone would know and could see that the man or woman was not trimming his or her hair, even at such a sacred time as that of a death in the family. The Nazirite could always be recognized by his or her appearance. [Milgrom, 356] In the case of both Samson and Samuel who lived as life-long Nazirites at the command of the Lord (in Samson’s case, of course, lived very inconsistently as a Nazirite) attention is drawn primarily to this same fact: that their hair was never cut (Judg. 16:17; 1 Sam. 1:11).
- The “suddenly” indicates the accidental character of the defilement. [Ashley, 144]
- In other words, if the man or woman who has begun the period of consecration required by the Nazirite vow is however accidentally contaminated or defiled by the presence of death, he or she must start over again after ritual purification. The days spent in the keeping of the vow before the defilement did not count. Once again, notice that it is the hair that gets the special emphasis. It was the most public part of the vow-keeping. It had to be cut off and the growing begun again.
As so often in the Law of Moses, the requirement is given in the generality but with little specification. For example, how near to a corpse must a Nazirite have been in order to be defiled? We are not told. It was precisely to answer such questions that the rabbis took the fateful step of attempting to define the exact requirements of each law, a process that inevitably took the attention away from the real purpose and burden of the law and placed it instead on the details of the regulation.
- In any case, the sacrifices were also public acts and a reminder that there was something public about the Nazirite vow. People knew it had been made and would know if it had been kept.
At the end of the vow the rituals culminate in a peace offering, symbolic of joy and fellowship with God.
- This “smorgasbord of offerings” [Duguid, 81] represents a complete reconsecration of the person’s life to the covenant and to his relationship with Yahweh: the whole range of offerings by which that relationship was preserved, sustained and renewed.
- Because the hair is holy it must be destroyed there in the sanctuary. Otherwise it might be defiled in some way and defile the person accordingly, but by burning it, it was also in this final way offered up to God.
- The “waving” seems to be a ritual gesture by which the gifts of the one bringing the sacrifices are symbolically transferred to the Lord. [Milgrom, 50]
- The last stipulation seems to indicate that a man or woman may have vowed to give the Lord more than was technically required by the vow, more than the minimum in other words. In that case he or she must fulfill all the promises that were made. The rabbis later deduced from this verse that if the man or woman making the vow was too poor to provide the required offerings the community could defray the expense. [Milgrom, 50] If you remember, the Apostle Paul underwrote the costs of such sacrifices for several men, as we read in Acts 21:23-24, a passage that, by the way, indicates that early Jewish Christians continued to make Nazirite vows. Paul did himself apparently, as we read in Acts 18:18 he cut off his hair because of a vow he had taken. That was no doubt the termination of a Nazirite vow he had made.
Why would a man or a woman make such a vow as is described in these verses? Great men in biblical history had such vows made for them, such as Samson and John the Baptist, and perhaps Samuel, though it is not ever said explicitly that Samuel was a Nazirite and some details of his life suggest that he was not. But these were men who were set apart to do great things for God and the Nazirite separation was indicative of their special calling. But other men, even other great men, made such vows temporarily for reasons of their own. The Apostle Paul was such a man, but there were, no doubt, many men and women like him throughout biblical history. Why did they take such a vow to abstain from the product of the vineyard, to keep away from the dead under any and all conditions, and to let their hair grow? The Bible doesn’t explicitly answer that question but we may, I think, safely conclude from so much else in Holy Scripture that a person took that vow for one of several reasons. The Lord had blessed them in some unusual and important way and they wanted to express their devotion and gratitude and did so by making this Nazirite vow to a life that demonstrated their desire to be holy before him, a vow that demonstrated a special concern for holiness, God’s holiness and theirs. Or, they had come to feel deeply their love for God and devotion to his cause and took the vow as a way of expressing and even deepening their commitment. Or, they had sinned and dishonored the Lord in some way and wanted to do more than simply ask for forgiveness. They wanted to demonstrate their loyalty, the loyalty they had abused, and what better way to do that than by making a Nazirite vow and keeping it.
When in verse 2 we read that it was a “special vow,” we are being told not only that it was voluntary, a vow that did not have to be made – a vow has been defined as a promise that does not have to be made, but once made must be kept – but also that it was something above and beyond the ordinary run of a believer’s life. It was what a believer did in Israel when he or she felt – as all believers do from time to time – that he must, she must do something for the Lord. I have felt that way and I know that you have as well and such a feeling, such a conviction leads to action and an action that, if not the Nazirite vow per se, is always something like it in motive and nature and form.
The wonderful humanity of the Bible is on display here; the richly human form of real holiness and godliness. The Nazirite was no monk. This is not the beginnings of Christian monasticism. The Nazirite did not drink wine for the period of his vow but he ate whatever he wanted to. He continued to live his ordinary life. She continued to keep her friends and to do the work that was her daily life. Nazirites did not abstain from the sexual life; they did not separate themselves from society or even their families. Life in most respects continued as before. Only in a few respects, though important and definite, was life different.
And so the Christian life even when it is lived at the highest level and at the greatest devotion. Jesus himself was certainly a consecrated man who denied himself many worldly pleasures for the sake of his devotion to God and the fulfillment of his calling; but he enjoyed food and drink to the point that he exposed himself to the accusations of his enemies that he was a drunk and a glutton. There is in true godliness a turning away from the pleasures of the world, even the most pure of those pleasures. But there is also an enjoyment of those same pleasures. There is in true godliness both self-denial and the embrace of life, both the refusal of pleasure and its enjoyment. The trick of real godliness is to do both, not one or the other, and the temporary nature of the Nazirite vow, the fact that it is but for a time, is a demonstration of the fact that true holiness combines both of these things together at once in a genuinely godly life—the refusal of pleasure for the Lord’s sake and the embrace of it for his sake.
But clearly in this vow the emphasis falls on the practice of self-denial. Jesus said, remember, that if anyone wanted to be his disciple he must deny himself and that is precisely what the Nazirite vow was an opportunity to do: deny oneself for the highest spiritual purposes in ways that had the approval of the law of God. All three of the features of the vow indicate this.
The not cutting of the hair was not some form of 1960s rebellion. We don’t have some anticipated hippiedom here. The last thing the 1960s were about was self-denial! The hair here represents the life force of the body. I have been told that hair continues to grow for a little while even after death. The growth of hair is so much a proof of life that the momentum of life signified by the growth of hair, as it were, continues even after death. Don’t scoff. In the modern world the billions of dollars that are spent on hair restoration products for men are some proof of the fact that a great many people feel precisely the same way about hair today. They get its symbolic value! Hair is a person’s life, a person’s power and in this way, the way of the Nazirite vow, he or she dedicated that life, that power to the Lord; made a gift of it as it were, offered it to him as it were. They refused to allow it to be cut or shorn in any way so long as it belonged especially to Yahweh; which is another way of saying so long as I belong in this special way to Yahweh. No matter that leaving it uncut and untrimmed meant he or she didn’t look as good as ordinarily he or she would. We feel the self-denial in that, don’t we? We care about how we look and appear to others and to forget that for the Lord’s sake is very much an act of self-denial.
Wine was both the symbol of joy in the ANE (which is one of the great reasons for its frequent mention in the Bible) and a means to that joy. In a hard world like this one a glass of good wine is a tonic, a counterpoise to human weariness and pain and sorrow. Or, so I’m told. Not liking wine, I admit that I have a greater difficulty than some of you entering into the spirit of all of this. In any case, one does not practice self-denial by refusing to eat or drink what one doesn’t like or want anyway. In my family there are always jokes before Lent about giving up Brussels sprouts or squash for the Lenten season. There would be no self-denial in my giving up coffee or wine for Lent because I never drink them anyway and don’t enjoy them when for any reason I am required to do so. But for most people, especially most people in the ANE, to do without wine was to do without one of the things that really pleased their palate and gave them joy. Wine was the drink of happy people, the drink of the feast, and so to forsake it was directly to turn one’s back on a real pleasure of life.
And the care and concern not to be in the presence of the dead, even one’s own loved ones when they had died, was a ritual turning away from death to life and represented a very serious dedication to ritual purity before God. Even a heart-breaking inconvenience, such as the inability to participate in the mourning of and the funeral of one’s own parents or siblings or husband or wife would not stand in the way of this commitment to be pure before God. Remember what the Lord Jesus said – who was no doubt alluding to this very Nazirite vow when he said it – “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” [Matt. 8:22] That would be no small sacrifice for any of us!
Now, this vow of self-denial and consecration enabled a man or woman to put hands and feet to his or her devotion to the Lord, to his or her thanksgiving, to the longings of his or her heart for a life especially pleasing to God. Do we not think that it was this sort of motivation that must have led Paul in the midst of the busyness of his missionary life and work to make such a vow? It must have been inconvenient, he was always being offered wine, he was always being asked to come and speak at a funeral. He needed to care about how he appeared to other people. To begin with he wasn’t a particularly good looking man from all we know and unkempt hair would be no help in gathering an audience. Then to end that vow as Paul did by cutting his hair and as multitudes of serious-minded believers must have done in the generations before him made him an obvious target of speculation and rumor in that largely Gentile world, unfamiliar with Jewish vows as it was. But all of that notwithstanding, he took the vow and kept it. And for what purpose?
When Thomas Shepard – the early New England Puritan preacher and one of the founders of Harvard – tells us in his journal that “I kept a private fast for the conquest of my pride,” [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 116-126] was he not doing precisely the same thing that the Nazirite did. He was demonstrating to the Lord the seriousness of his moral purpose, he was consecrating himself to a holy life before God, he wanted to be more holy than he was and so in these outward ways he laid hold of a greater and deeper holiness, and he was training himself to be godly by bringing his desires under the control of his spiritual convictions. He did that by training himself. By denying himself perfectly good and desirable things, such as wine, he moderated his desires and brought them increasingly under the control of his higher nature.
In his classic book The Life of God in the Soul of Man, published in 1739 and instrumental in the conversion of George Whitefield the great 18th century preacher, Henry Scougal makes this point about self-denial. [106-107] He could just as well be describing the Nazirite vow. “We should do with ourselves what parents do with their children, who cross their wills in many little indifferent things, to make them manageable and submissive in more considerable instances.” We make our appetites more moderate by accustoming them to frequent refusals. In other words, we train ourselves to be godly, to say “No!” to the sinful temptations of life by saying “No” to ourselves in regard to a wide range of perfectly proper things so that our “No” saying spiritual muscle gets so strong that we can say “No!” to whatever we must if God would honored in our lives.
No doubt there is much of this self-denial that ought to remain entirely private, just as Thomas Shepard’s fast. No doubt much of the Nazirite’s consecration was known to only a few loved ones and friends and much of the experience of keeping that vow must have been entirely private. But there is also a great need for a more public witness of this higher, deeper, further consecration to God. That is the burden of the uncut hair. The Nazirites were a public reminder to Israel of the holiness to which all the people were called. There is a powerful witness borne by such devotion. You have felt it as I have in the presence of people who seem devoted to the Lord in an unusually passionate and unqualified way. The likeness of the obligations of the vow to that of the obligations of the priesthood indicated that every Israelite is to be as committed to the life of faith and holiness as a priest, as committed to the presence and service of God as a man whose work was in the sanctuary of God every day. There is a difference between clergy and laity in the Bible, but the difference is not to lie in some greater devotion to God and holiness on the part of one group or another. That devotion is what they are to have in common and so Israel is said to have been a kingdom of priests. In the 17th century they called ministers “divines” because they were supposed to know and care about divine things more than most. But every Christian is supposed to be a divine in that respect. The life of God, the divine life in him or her was and is to be the first object of their care and commitment.
I’ve told many of you before of the missionary I met in Scotland who took every other cup of tea without sugar though, after years of doing this, he still did not like tea without sugar. It was his way of surrendering his life to the Lord, a constant reminder to himself that this is what he was about, and refusing to be subject to his desires for ordinary things or allowing himself ever to be in a situation in which he would be unwilling to give some service to the kingdom of God because if giving it he would be unable to indulge some pleasure that he greatly enjoyed. It was an exercise in self-denial. It was the practice of godliness in the modern sense of practice, doing it over and over again so that one can do it when it counts. Many of us know men and women who left this country to serve the Lord elsewhere even when it was obvious to them and to others that because of the great distance and the cost of travel in those days they would not, when that time came as it must, be able to comfort and console their parents as they lay dying. And church history tells many tales of men and women who literally worked themselves into an early grave on behalf of the Gospel. They consecrated their life-force, not their hair symbolically, but the actual life-force of which the hair was a symbol, to the Lord and they held nothing back. And every man or woman with Christian blood in his or her veins knows very well that there should be something of all of that in his or her life, something that others can see, something that demonstrates real, unqualified consecration to God.
We live however in a day when there is less and less of this throughout the entire church. There is a great danger that the sin of Amos’ contemporaries will soon be reproduced in the modern evangelical church! In Amos 2:11-12 the prophet accused his contemporaries in these words:
“I…raised up prophets from among your sons and Nazirites from among your young men. Is this not true, people of Israel? declares the Lord. But you made the Nazirites drink wine…”
That is, you told these young men who had an instinct for a higher and deeper life before God not to bother. You pooh-poohed their commitment to self-denial. It offended you because you weren’t interested in making such commitments or offering such a consecration to God yourself and so you convinced them not to undertake such a radical discipleship themselves. You taught them to think that they could live a sufficiently godly life without taking such radical steps, without the pain and the hardship of Nazirite self-denial. Godliness – the zeal for it, the thirst for it, the determination to have it – I say the passion for godliness that is expressed in the practice of the Nazirite vow will always offend a moderating, accommodating, compromising, worldly church.
So here is the challenge of this text for us in our self-regarding, comfortable, indulgent world. You say, because you are a Christian, that Christ is more important to you than your pleasures: wine or food or entertainment or anything. Really? Prove it. And if you are not willing to prove it in some demonstrable way – for your sake, for the sake of others, and for the Lord’s sake supremely – why not? Is the Lord not worth it? Is salvation not worth it? Do you want only such a Christian life such as can be lived with little or no effort?
Are you really willing to be separated from the realm of sin and death, to give your life-force to God without reservation? Are you really? Prove it. If you are a Christian surely you have from time to time felt the desire to prove it. Well, prove it. Undertake the same sort of self-denial the Nazirite did and do so for the same reason. Are you willing to offer to the Lord your life in some way that others in our world – others perhaps among your Christian friends, even your family – will certainly find over-zealous, fanatical, akin to refusing to attend the funeral of your mother or father. Are you really willing? Prove it. And if you aren’t really willing to take such steps – such steps as the godly have taken before you through the ages of Christian devotion – why not?
President Jimmy Carter once reminisced about his interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover, the founder of the nuclear navy. Carter as you remember was a navy officer before his political life. Rickover used to interview every officer, from ensign on up – who had volunteered and been approved to serve on a nuclear submarine. This interview was the stuff of navy legend, a terrifying hour or two that those who suffered through it would talk about in hushed tones for the rest of their lives. Those who had gone through the ordeal recommended that a young man choose a few subjects he knew a lot about and be prepared to talk to the Admiral about those. Carter chose renaissance art, naval gunnery, and a few others. But after an hour he found himself in a cold sweat. The Admiral knew more about all of those subjects that he ever would. As the interview wound down, with Carter wondering what sort of impression he had made, Admiral Rickover asked him a question.
“Where did you stand in your graduating class at the Academy?” “Sir,” came the reply, “Proudly I finished 56th out of a class of 820.” Then another question: “Did you do your best?” Carter was about to say, “Yes, Sir, I did!” But caught himself, thought that presumptuous, and said instead, “Well sir, sometimes I did and sometimes I did not.” “So,” Admiral Rickover replied, “You are saying that you did not do your best.” “Well, yes sir; I guess that is right.”
As he swiveled his chair, signaling that the interview was over, Rickover asked, “Why not?”
Let no one take our crown in the proclamation of the grace of God, but let no one speak more forcefully either of the duty and the obligation of a Christian man or woman to be all he or she can be and should be for his or for her God and Savior. There is a sacrifice to be made, there is a goal to be sought with might and main, there is to be a determination that no one and nothing can weaken or cause to flag. There are things in our lives that need to be rooted out. There are things in our lives that need to be put in and we are to let nothing stand in the way. We love God because he first loved us. We boast in nothing but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. But, we will, come what may, put on holiness in the fear of the Lord; we will not be deterred from growing up as high in godliness as we can by God’s grace and our own concentrated effort. And one principal way in which this is done, in which this has always been done, is to take steps to put that godliness into practice in ways that matter, to embody it in specific commitments before the Lord.
A vow is a promise you do not have to make; but once you have made it you must keep it. Serious Christians know that; you must keep your vows. And yet serious Christians make those vows and those commitments anyway because they know that this is a biblically approved, a divinely ordered way of taking great steps forward and upward in everything that is pleasing to God.