We are down to the final 4 weeks of the semester. It’s hard for me to believe that in a few weeks, my stay in Jerusalem will be over. While I look forward to getting home, part of me wants to add a few more weeks to the stay—or at least slow down the clock. There are so many things I want to do and see that I ‘ve not been able to get to. I am doing my best to soak in as much as I can in the short time remaining.
This is the time in the semester when writing papers becomes the priority. Midterms are completed and Finals are a bit too far off to worry about (except Hebrew. We worry about Hebrew every day). We’ve had a brief break in classes due to the Physical Settings students being on their field study trip to Jordan. So, I’ve taken the time to get research done for my two remaining papers.
One of my classes examines how the early church fathers (pre-325 CE) interpreted the Old Testament compared to how the Jewish rabbis of the same period looked at it. What we are finding is that there are far more similarities than most people would think. It’s also been interesting to see how the “western” church from Rome distanced itself from Jewish thought more rapidly than the “eastern” church did. This was due in large part to the Greco-Roman influences of the culture and the fact that they were not interacting with Jews on a regular basis, like those in the eastern church were. I’ve started to develop a greater respect and appreciation for our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters.
For my research paper, I am examining how the early church fathers interpreted the passage in Numbers 6 that detailed the Nazirite vow as compared to how the rabbis of the time interpreted it. For those of you that are not asleep at this point, I am probably dangerously close to losing your interest altogether. I know, it’s a pretty nerdy topic. I’ll admit, the whole Nazirite vow thing is pretty weird. What’s interesting, is that the rabbis seem to think it’s a bit odd too.
What is a Nazirite?
The requirements of a Nazirite in Numbers 6 are pretty straightforward:
Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When either men or women make a special vow, the vow of a nazirite, to separate themselves to the LORD, they shall separate themselves from wine and strong drink; they shall drink no wine vinegar or other vinegar, and shall not drink any grape juice or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All their days as nazirites they shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.
All the days of their nazirite vow no razor shall come upon the head; until the time is completed for which they separate themselves to the LORD, they shall be holy; they shall let the locks of the head grow long.
All the days that they separate themselves to the LORD they shall not go near a corpse. Even if their father or mother, brother or sister, should die, they may not defile themselves; because their consecration to God is upon the head. All their days as nazirites they are holy to the LORD. (Num. 6:2-8, NRSV)
There are only a few Nazirites mentioned in the Bible. Samuel and John the Baptist were lifelong Nazirites. The rabbis taught that David’s son, Absalom, was also a Nazirite. Contrary to what some claim, Jesus was not a Nazirite. He was from the town of Nazareth and was therefore called a Nazarene, not a Nazirite. Yet the most famous Nazirite, the one that everyone knows about is The Myth. The Man. The Legend. Samson!
Anyone that has ever set foot in a Sunday school or Vacation Bible School has heard the story of Samson with his incredible strength and flowing locks of hair. We’ve made him into a Biblical superhero. He goes around killing Philistines and falling in love with the wrong women. His feats of strength were the stuff of legend. I’ll admit, it’s a great way to keep the kid’s attention—especially if you have a long-winded preacher. Unfortunately, Samson was not a superhero. His time as a judge was a disaster. He failed in every respect to live into the calling God had given him. If you want to read about this, I highly recommend my friend, Brad Gray’s book: Make Your Mark. He does a great job examining Samson’s life in detail and uncovering meaning for our lives today.
In Hebrew, the word used for these people is “Nazir.” It comes from the Hebrew root nzr, which means to separate or abstain. As seen from the text above, there are some restrictions required of people that take this vow:
- No wine or anything from the vine
- no vinegar, grapes, raisins, grape juice, grape jelly, grape pop tarts, grape chewing gum, etc..
- Don’t drink it, eat it, touch it or even get close to it.
- Don’t cut your hair.
- Stay away from dead bodies—even if it’s a parent or sibling.
Yeah, apparently the rabbis thought it was weird too. In good rabbinic fashion, they began to examine this passage and ask questions. One question they asked was: ‘why does this passage show up in the Bible where it does?’ In other words, what is going on before and after it in the Text? Well, the section before it deals with regulations for people that have broken faith with one another. This included doing harm to someone. Just before it, there is a whole section on dealing with accusations of adultery—specifically a wife accused of adultery. Immediately after the section on Nazirites was where God instructed Aaron (the High Priest) how to bless the people (The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make His face to shine upon you…).
So, why is the Nazirite vow sandwiched between these two passages? For the rabbis, everything in scripture was placed where it was with Divine intentionality. If God put these passages next to each other, then it must be for a specific reason. He must be communicating something “in the white space” between the Text. What they began to tease out the Text was actually pretty interesting.
Dedicated to God
Not too long after the Israelites left Egypt, God told Moses to set apart the entire tribe of Levi. They were not to be given an allotment of land. They were to serve as the priests. Moses’ brother Aaron and his male descendants would serve as the High Priest. In fact, the book of Joshua says, “but to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the LORD God of Israel is their inheritance” (Josh. 13:33). In effect, this entire tribe had taken a vow to the LORD. This vow came with certain obligations and restrictions as well as perks. Nobody else could serve in a priestly capacity.
Well, in the interest of being inclusive, suppose someone that wasn’t a Levite wanted to devote themselves to God? They could not be a priest, but what about devoting themselves in other ways? According to the rabbis, that was the purpose of the Nazirite vow. It was the means by which a non-Levite could voluntarily devote themselves to God. The rabbis came to this understanding based upon what immediately followed the Nazirite instructions. Numbers 6:23 says, “Thus you shall bless the Israelites.” In context, this was taken from God’s instructions to Aaron about giving the priestly blessing over Israel. Yet, because of its close proximity to the Nazirite text, they made the connection that a person who voluntarily devoted himself to God was a blessing to Israel.
So why all the weird restrictions? Well, the rabbis taught that the priests were to abstain from wine before giving the Priestly Blessing so as to ensure that they didn’t mess it up. Also, they believed that wine led to lowered inhibitions that could enable someone to fall into adultery or other sinful behavior (hence the passage just before the Nazirite text about adultery). Apparently, the rabbis thought long hair was unattractive, so by not cutting their hair a Nazirite became repulsive, thereby reducing their chances to fall prey to the lust of the flesh.
What’s really interesting is that the Nazirite restrictions regarding dead bodies were also required for one other person: the High Priest. Nobody else had those restrictions about dead bodies. Sure, if you came into contact with a dead body, there were required purification rituals. But to forbid someone from even attending to the funeral of their parent was only given twice in scripture: for the Nazirite and for the High Priest.
Why Have Nazirites?
In light of this, I think it shows something really special about this passage. Devotion and service to God was not limited to the priestly tribe of Levi. Anyone (man, woman, slave or free) with the desire, could devote themselves to God. As the rabbis interpreted it, God had a special place in his heart for anyone who voluntarily devoted themselves to His service. He thought so much of their devotion that in certain respects he put them on the same level as the High Priest.
What I think is really cool about this is that God didn’t limit service to him only to the defined priestly class. He set up a mechanism whereby anyone with the desire could devote themselves. He seems to indicate that people who took on this responsibility—even for a short period of time—were as highly esteemed as if they were the High Priest of Israel. The requirements of this vow were designed to be a sign and a blessing to all the people of Israel.
So, what about Samson? He was set apart as a Nazirite from before his birth. He really didn’t have a choice and he failed pretty miserably. It seems that the entire account of his life is about him breaking his vow over and over again. Well, the rabbis had an answer for this too. Here is what they said:
The Holy One, blessed be He, foresaw that Samson would go wherever his eyes led him, and He therefore admonished him to be a nazirite; that he should not drink wine, because wine leads to lewdness. Now, if while he was a nazirite he went wherever his eyes directed him, surely, had he been drinking, there would have never been any remedy for him at all, by reason of his headstrong pursuit after lewdness. (Numbers Rabbah X.5)
In other words, if you think Samson was not a good Nazirite, imagine what sort of person he would have been if he wasn’t one! God’s choice to make him a Nazirite was to protect him from doing even more harm to himself and Israel. So, in effect, Samson and all of Israel was blessed by the fact that he was a terrible a Nazirite.
You are free to agree or disagree with that assessment—the rabbis would certainly encourage the debate. But, it makes me wonder how God might place things in our lives—whether they be obstacles, hardships, handicaps or other limitations purely for our own protection and to enable us to bless others. Perhaps without these restrictions we would not live into the calling that God has for us.
I wonder if this is similar to what Paul discussed in 2 Corinthians 12. He writes about having a “thorn in the flesh” that tormented him. He seemed view this as an unproductive limitation on his ministry. He said he prayed three times for God to remove it. The answer to his prayer? “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9).
I’m not sure I’ve fully processed the practical and theological implications of that. I don’t think that all the bad things that happen to us are God’s will. I don’t think that holds water theologically. Yet, I do take comfort in the reminder that God has our best interests at heart—even when life seems to throw a bunch of “junk” at us.
Are there limitations/restrictions that God has put in your life that have ultimately resulted in you being a better person for His greater glory? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. I, for one, am still trying to figure it out.