Commentary on Numbers 6:1-21

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses: 2 “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them, ‘When either a man or a woman takes a special vow, to take a vow as a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD, 3 he must separate himself from wine and strong drink, he must drink neither vinegar made from wine nor vinegar made from strong drink, nor may he drink any juice of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or raisins. 4 All the days of his separation he must not eat anything that is produced by the grapevine, from seed to skin.

A Nazirite (Hebrew nazir means “one restricted, set apart”) is a layperson who vows to give up certain things and live in a state of holiness (6:2, 5-9, 12) for a specific period of time (6:4-5). This passage does not describe lifelong Nazirites such as Samson or (possibly) Samuel (Judg 13:3-7; 16:17; 1 Sam 1:11 LXX).

The language of the text reflects that Naziritism was an existing institution, in that the concept of a nazir is assumed as known to the reader, and thus the purpose of this pericope is to delineate the guidelines and regulate the practice. The present text offers no indication of the impetus for entering into the vow other than personal desire for consecration. Yet the biblical and Near Eastern examples evidence an expanded purpose for the Nazirite vow as well as for other classes of vows.

Vows from the context of the culture of the ancient Near East have been examined by T. Cartledge in Vows in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Ugaritic vows suggest the following pattern: (1) the vow grows out of a situation of need or distress, (2) is made by a human to the gods, (3) generally is conditional in nature, and (4) a responsive votive offering is offered publicly at a shrine at some point during or at the completion of the vow conditions. Vows in the Hebrew Bible reflect close parallels in form and general content with those of the Old Testament world.1

By including women among those who undertook the Nazirite vow, our legislation suggests that the temporary Nazirite was a widespread phenomenon. This is amply attested for the period of the end of the Second Temple (e.g., 1 Macc. 3:49, Josephus, Ant. 19.6.1). We even learn of Nazirite women in the Diaspora (Mish. Naz. 3:6, 5:4), some by name, for example: Queen Helena of Adiabne (Mish. Naz. 3:6), Berenice, sister of King Agrippa II (Josephus, Wars 2.313), and Miriam the Tadmorite (Mish. Naz. 6:11). The great numbers of Nazirites can be inferred from the aforementioned text (TJ Ber. 11b) that records the appearance of hundreds of Nazirites simultaneously before R. Simeon ben Shetaḥ (1st cent. B.C.E.). Some of the early Christians were also Nazirites (Acts 21:23-24).2

The first thing the Nazirite gives up is alcohol. Hebrew homets (“vinegar”) is wine turned sour. Just as Israel’s priests cannot consume alcohol at the Tent of Meeting (Lev 10:9; Ezek 44:21) neither can the Nazirite consume alcohol at any time during his vow. On top of this, the Nazirite cannot consume any grape products. The rationale behind the prohibition of all grape products is debated. Jacob Milgrom writes:

What is of interest is the law that the Nazirite could not partake of the grape even in a nonfermented state. Behind this prohibition may lie an ancient ban deriving from nomadic society in which the vine was considered the symbol of the corruption of sedentary life (cf. Noah’s drunkenness in the wake of cultivating the vine, Gen. 9:20-21 and the nomadic Rechabites who eschewed both the building of a house and the planting of a vine, Jer. 35:6-11). It is probably not coincidental that the nomadic Nabateans and the pre-Islamic Arabs were also forbidden to use wine and that the Roman high priest, the Flamen Dialis, was prohibited not only from drinking wine but even from touching the vine.3

Timothy Ashley says:

It is not possible to recapture the rationale behind the prohibition of grape products. The Nazirites were asked for a higher level of consecration in this matter than the priests. Many scholars have seen this prohibition as a rejection of the evils of sedentary life in Canaan, which was known for its viticulture. Scholars often interpret the prohibition this way because of their assumption that the Nazirite office reflected in Num. 6 is a later, post-conquest phenomenon. But one can as easily see it as God’s preparation of these people to live in a Canaanite culture as a different (i.e., a holy) people. The norm, not only in Canaan but elsewhere, was to drink wine and eat grapes. The Nazirites were marked out as special people, consecrated to Yahweh only; they were not to conform to the norms of everyday life. The same basic reason may lie behind the other two prohibitions.4

5 “‘All the days of the vow of his separation no razor may be used on his head until the time is fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD. He will be holy, and he must let the locks of hair on his head grow long.

Israel’s high priest is not to let his hair grow long (Lev 21:10; Ezek 44:20) but the Nazirite must let his hair grow long. This is somewhat unexpected since the Nazirite is to follow the behavior of the high priest when it comes to alcohol consumption (6:3-4) and corpse defilement (6:6-8). Perhaps the Nazirite is to grow out his hair because the priesthood is a hereditary class and not one that can be chosen by just any Israelite. Or, perhaps, the hair is an outward symbol of the holiness expected of the Nazirite.

It is interesting that both the high priest’s diadem and the Nazirite’s hair are called nēzer (lit., “consecration”). Both the diadem and the hair are special marks of the wearer’s consecration to Yahweh.5

That the Nazirite’s uncut hair is more significant than his other two characteristics is indicated in verse 7; it is the sole reason cited for abstaining from corpse contamination. Also it is the only characteristic common to both the temporary Nazirite, legislated here, and the lifelong Nazirite, discussed in the biblical narratives. Indeed, of both Samson and Samuel it is expressly specified that they did not cut their hair: “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb” (Judg. 16:17); “no razor shall ever touch his head” (1 Sam. 1:11). In other contexts, the word nazir takes on the figurative meaning of an untrimmed vine (Lev. 25:5, 11), again indicating that the Nazirite’s distinctive trait is his uncut hair.6

6 “‘All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he must not contact a dead body. 7 He must not defile himself even for his father or his mother or his brother or his sister if they die, because the separation for his God is on his head. 8 All the days of his separation he must be holy to the LORD.

A corpse causes ritual impurity for those who come into contact with it. Israelite priests are forbidden contact with the dead except for their closest relatives (Lev 21:1-4). The Nazirite, like the high priest (Lev 21:11), cannot come into contact with any corpse. The phrase “the separation for his God is on his head” refers to the long hair of the Nazirite. “The sense is that one whose grown hair was dedicated or restricted to God ought not to be defiled by contact with the dead; that one’s hair, allowed to grow loose in the fulfillment of a vow made to God, should not be so defiled.”7

The third prohibition, corpse contamination, distinguishes the temporary from the lifelong Nazirite. Samson clearly defiled himself with the dead (Judg. 14:9, 19; 15:8, 15) and so did Samuel (1 Sam. 15:33). That they were not bound by such a prohibition can be inferred from the instruction of the angel to Samson’s mother. She is enjoined to eschew forbidden food (Judg. 13:14), but nothing is said about contracting impurity from the dead, which, according to the priestly code, would have automatically defiled her embryo (cf. Num. 19:22). Here, we must assume that the lifelong Nazirite was subject to the same law as the priest, for whom corpse contamination only suspended his priesthood for a prescribed period of impurity (seven days, as for a layman, inferred from Lev. 22:4) but did not cancel it. The rabbis resolved this discrepancy by presupposing a less observant Samsonite type of Nazirite alongside of a lifelong Nazirite; the latter was required to bring a purification offering, but the former was not (Mish. Naz. 1:2).8

9 “‘If anyone dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, then he must shave his head on the day of his purification – on the seventh day he must shave it. 10 On the eighth day he is to bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest, to the entrance to the tent of meeting. 11 Then the priest will offer one for a purification offering and the other as a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because of his transgression in regard to the corpse. So he must reconsecrate his head on that day. 12 He must rededicate to the LORD the days of his separation and bring a male lamb in its first year as a reparation offering, but the former days will not be counted because his separation was defiled.

Verses 9-12 address the case of accidental corpse defilement. Touching a corpse normally rendered a person unclean for seven days (Num 19:11-12). The ordinary lay Israelite could be cleansed by washing with the mixture of water and the ashes of the red heifer (Num 19). The Nazirite has to perform additional rituals for his failure (this failure should not be understood as a sin despite the NET translation using “transgression” in v 11). On the seventh day he has to shave his head to indicate the vow is over but, since he is defiled, he does not burn the hair on the altar (cf. 6:18). One bird is a purification offering for the defilement and the other bird is a burnt offering for the re-dedication. These birds were the most inexpensive animal offerings (Lev 5:7-8; 12:8). The ram is a reparation offering. The reparation offering follows the Nazirite’s reconsecration of his hair and renewal of his vow.

This break is unprecedented, for in every other biblical rite the prescribed sacrifices follow each other without interruption. In this case, the act of reconsecration could have taken place before or after the sacrificial service. Why was it put before the reparation offering? The answer is to be found in the unchangeable procedure for all reparation offerings: Before the offender can look for expiation through his sacrifice, he must repay the sanctuary for the desecrated sanctum (cf. Lev. 5:14-16). The purpose of the ritual order is clear: The sanctum must be restored before God’s forgiveness may be sought. The same sacrificial principles are invoked for the contaminated Nazirite. Before his reparation offering can be acceptable to God he must replace the desecrated sancta–the consecrated hair that has been shaven and the preceding Nazirite period that has been canceled. Total restitution has been rendered only after he reconsecrates his new hair and renews his vow; then, and only then, can the priest proceed with the reparation offering in the hope of achieving divine forgiveness.9

None of the previous period of time counts towards the fulfillment of the vow. The Nazirite must start over. According to the Mishnah (Mish. Naz. 3:6), Queen Helena had almost completed seven years of a Nazirite vow when she was defiled and therefore had to keep it for another seven years.

13 “‘Now this is the law of the Nazirite: When the days of his separation are fulfilled, he must be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 14 and he must present his offering to the LORD: one male lamb in its first year without blemish for a burnt offering, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish for a purification offering, one ram without blemish for a peace offering, 15 and a basket of bread made without yeast, cakes of fine flour mixed with olive oil, wafers made without yeast and smeared with olive oil, and their grain offering and their drink offerings.

On the completion of the vow, the Nazirite has to offer the same range of sacrifices as Aaron did at his ordination. This is another connection between the holiness of the Nazirite and the high priest.

The requirement for a purification offering presents an enigma. The Nazirite has successfully completed his vow. Had he contaminated the sanctuary by some major impurity, his Naziriteship would have been aborted, as in the previously mentioned case. Had he incurred some impurity or wrongdoing unknowingly, he could not have brought a purification offering, which requires awareness of the offense. It is Ramban (followed by Abravanel) who points to the most likely answer: his self-removal from the sacred to the profane realm requires sacrificial expiation. This expiation cannot be fulfilled by the reparation offering that is imposed only for illegitimate desanctification–the Nazirite’s desanctification is perfectly legitimate. His sacred status more resembles that of property dedicated to the sanctuary and then desanctified, that is, redeemed, by a monetary fine (cf. Lev. 27:14-33). The use of the purification offering for this purpose is nonetheless unique.10

An . . . illuminating comparison with the temporary Nazirite is the land dedicated to the sanctuary (Lev. 27:16). Naziriteship and the dedication of land to the sanctuary are both votive dedications (Lev. 27:16; Num. 6:2) that are in force for limited periods, the land reverting to its owner on the Jubilee and the Nazirite reverting to his lay status upon the termination of his vow (Lev. 27:21, by implication; Num. 6:13). In both cases the period of dedication can be terminated earlier: the Nazirite’s by contamination (Num. 6:9-12), the land’s by redemption (Lev. 27:16-19). In the case of premature desanctification, a penalty is exacted: The Nazirite pays a reparation offering, ʾasham, to the sanctuary, and the owner of the land pays an additional one-fifth of the redemption price to the sanctuary. If the dedication period is completed, no desanctification penalty is incurred. True, the Nazirite offers up an array of sacrifices together with his hair (Num. 6:13-20), but the sacrifices are mainly for thanksgiving, and the hair, which may not be desanctified, must be burned. Similarly, dedicated land (so the text of Lev. 27:22-24 implies) reverts to its original owner on the Jubilee without cost.11

16 “‘Then the priest must present all these before the LORD and offer his purification offering and his burnt offering. 17 Then he must offer the ram as a peace offering to the LORD, with the basket of bread made without yeast; the priest must also offer his grain offering and his drink offering.

The basket of bread is presented for sanctification but not sacrificed. The bread is eaten by the priest and Nazirite (v 19; cf. Lev 7:11-15).

The order of the sacrifices is different in vv. 14–15 and vv. 16–17. This variance reflects not a conflation of sources, but, as A. F. Rainey saw, two different purposes. The text as a whole fits into the genre of what he called “descriptive-administrative” texts. In his study of Lev. 6–7 (Eng. 6:8–7:38), Rainey pointed out that the texts are framed by tôrâ statements (Lev. 6:2 [Eng. 9]; 7:37), much as the text here is (vv. 13, 21). The order of the sacrifices in this kind of text is not procedural but logical, beginning with the whole burnt offering because it belongs wholly to God (i.e., it is consumed on the altar), and ending with the peace offerings because they are shared by the worshipers.

Inserted into the administrative text is one that gives the procedural order (vv. 16–17), beginning with the purification offering, to deal with impurities that have been brought into the sanctuary and so on. Even these verses do not deal with the precise description of the rituals; rather they preserve the order for administration of the rituals.12

18 “‘Then the Nazirite must shave his consecrated head at the entrance to the tent of meeting and must take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire where the peace offering is burning.

Timothy Ashley notes:

Scholars debate whether this ritual is another offering to God (i.e., the Nazirite offers the special mark of consecration on the altar along with the peace offering), or whether it simply gets rid of something holy, hence dangerous (i.e., it marks a step in the process of desacralization). Since no ceremony is described, it is probable that the latter is the case.13

R. Dennis Cole believes:

The hair was burned so as not to defile that which had been consecrated in the vow and hence in the burning was rendered totally unto God, the true source and possessor of holiness.14

Jacob Milgrom agrees:

Because the hair is holy (vv. 5, 7) even after it is shaved, it must be destroyed by fire. Its destruction prevents it from being defiled. In this respect, it resembles the uneaten portion of the well-being offering, which similarly must be burnt (Lev. 7:17; 19:6) because it is holy (Lev. 19:8).15

19 And the priest must take the boiled shoulder of the ram, one cake made without yeast from the basket, and one wafer made without yeast, and put them on the hands of the Nazirite after he has shaved his consecrated head; 20 then the priest must wave them as a wave offering before the LORD; it is a holy portion for the priest, together with the breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the raised offering. After this the Nazirite may drink wine.’

The peace offering was the only animal sacrifice in which the worshipper enjoyed a share of the meat. The priest usually received the breast and the thigh (20). The breast was waved, traditionally supposed to mean a ritual side-to-side motion, and the thigh was offered (AV heaved), an up-and-down action. But on this occasion the shoulder of the ram and two cakes (19) were waved as well and donated to the priest, who thus received an extra part of the lamb for his own consumption (cf. Deut. 18:3). This departure from normal practice is no doubt significant: the Nazirite gives more of the peace offering than usual, thereby asserting once again in a different way that the vow involves an extra degree of consecration to God’s service.16

21 “This is the law of the Nazirite who vows to the LORD his offering according to his separation, as well as whatever else he can provide. Thus he must fulfill his vow that he makes, according to the law of his separation.”

The phrase “as well as whatever else he can provide” indicates that the Nazirite vow could include extra commitments not mentioned here. Such commitments also had to be fulfilled before a Nazirite could be released from his vow (cf. Num 30:3; Deut 23:22). Verses 2-20 set out the minimum requirements of a Nazirite vow.

Comment

It is clear that the rabbis frowned upon the Nazirite state both because of its ascetic tendencies, which they opposed (cf. Ned. 9a-10a; Taʾan. 11a), and because it had degenerated through use in wagers. One might say, “I’ll be a Nazirite if that man is not so-and-so” (Mish. Naz. 5:5-7). “Simon the Just [High Priest ca. 300 B.C.E.] said: In the whole of my life, I ate of the reparation offering of a defiled Nazirite [only once]. This man came to me from the south country, had beauteous eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls. I asked him: Why, my son, did you resolve to destroy such wonderful hair? He answered: In my native town, I was my father’s shepherd, and, on going down to draw water from the well, I used to gaze at my reflection [in its waters]. Then my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to compass my ruin and so I said to it, ‘Base wretch! Why do you plume yourself on a world that is not your own, for your latter end is with worms and maggots. By the [Temple] service, [I swear] I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven!’ Then I rose, and kissed him upon his head, and said to him: ‘May there be many Nazirites like you in Israel’ ” (Naz. 4b). This story resembles that of the familiar Narcissus (Ovid, Metamorphosis 30.402ff.) but sharply contrasts with it in its spirituality. But it must be remembered that it is precisely its exceptional nature that caused it to be remembered by the rabbis; the Nazirites of their time could not claim such virtue. “Simon the Just was of the opinion that people make the Nazirite vow in a fit of temper [i.e., impetuously, flippantly]; and since they vow in a fit of temper they will ultimately come to regret it” (Num. R. 10:7).17

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 3567-3576 
  2. Milgrom 1990, 358 
  3. Milgrom 1990, 356 
  4. Ashley 1993, 142 
  5. Ashley 1993, 143 
  6. Milgrom 1990, 45 
  7. Levine 2008, 222 
  8. Milgrom 1990, 357 
  9. Milgrom 1990, 47 
  10. Milgrom 1990, 48 
  11. Milgrom 1990, 355-356 
  12. Ashley 1993, 145–146 
  13. Ashley 1993, 148 
  14. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 3709-3710 
  15. Milgrom 1990, 49 
  16. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1533-1539 
  17. Milgrom 1990, 358 
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