The Bible describes many ancient religious practices largely foreign to our own cultural practices. Notions of consecration, dedication, vows, holiness, and ritual cleanness are somewhat common in contemporary Christianity. But how well do we know the origin of this terminology and these practices? Take, for instance, the Nazirite vow. The Bible provides a detailed description of how any Israelite could dedicate a distinct period of time to the Lord. Samson was a lifelong example of this (Jdg 13). And perhaps Paul and some of his associates (cf. Acts 18:18; Acts 21:20–26), but any Israelite could have participated in this special period of consecration. Let’s learn more about the Nazirite vow from the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

Dedication Practices in the Ancient Near East

Vows among ancient Near Eastern cultures from Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Levant reflect the following pattern:

(1) The vow grows out of a situation of need or distress.

(2) The vow is made by a human to the gods.

(3) The vow is generally conditional in nature.

(4) A responsive votive offering is made publicly at a cultic place at the conclusion of the vow conditions.

The Nazirite vow includes abstaining from alcohol

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the LORD as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.

Numbers 6:1-4

Restrictions for the Nazirite are more stringent than those for the priest; the priest need only refrain from fermented beverage during his period of service in the sanctuary (Lev 10:9). A Nazirite must abstain from all vineyard products at all times, defined in detail down to the grape hulls, pits and even the vines.

In Nu 6:3 the intoxicant beverages are listed as “wine” (yayin) and “other fermented drink” (shekar). Wine was the most common form of grape beverage, produced in the late summer and early fall in ancient Israel in winepress installations and then stored in subterranean bell-shaped caves for fermentation.

The “other fermented drink” (shekar) has historically been translated as “beer” — a common Mesopotamian and Egyptian beverage made from barley known from inscriptions and carved or painted murals — or as “strong drink” (a grape by-product such as brandy). Shekar had an alcohol content of 20–60 percent in comparison to wine’s 12–14 percent. The emphasis here is total abstinence from anything associated with the vineyard, lending support to the interpretation of shekar as an intoxicating beverage produced from vineyard produce. However, it is not drunkenness that is the issue here, but rather grape drinks or products of any sort.

The Nazirite vow includes abstaining from cutting hair

During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, they may use no razor on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the LORD is over; they must let their hair grow long.

Numbers 6:5

The visible distinctiveness of allowing the hair to grow long and remain uncut for the duration of the vow (Nu 6:5) set the Nazirite apart from societal norms. In Mesopotamian and Mediterranean law codes, hair played a significant role in ritual and legal practices. In the Code of Hammurapi, cutting one’s hair was a form of punishment and humiliation for bringing a false accusation against another man’s wife in matters of property.

The Nazirite vow includes distancing oneself from dead bodies

Throughout the period of their dedication to the LORD, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the LORD.

Numbers 6:6-8

Touching or even coming into close proximity with a corpse was a common means of ritual contamination (6:6–8). To maintain the sanctity of a vow, a Nazirite could not participate in the standard ritual mourning for the dead, even a member of one’s own family. Nu 6:9–12 provides for accidental contamination, whereby the Nazirite removes the outward symbol of identification by shaving the hair and offering it to Yahweh at the conclusion of the period of uncleanness (6:18). Restriction also included the Levitically prohibited participation in ritual associated with the cult of the dead. The story of Samson implies that the restriction also applied to animal corpses since he withheld from his parents the knowledge that the honey he presented them was gathered from the carcass of a lion he had killed with his bare hands (Jdg 14:5–9).

The Conclusion of the Nazirite Vow

Numbers 6:13–21 describes what the Israelite must do when the time of their dedication has concluded. They must present five offerings before the Lord at the tent of meeting. The five offerings are the burnt, sin, fellowship, grain, and drink offerings. The final act of the Nazirite is to shave their hair and place it under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering.

Then at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the Nazirite must shave off the hair that symbolizes their dedication. They are to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering . . . This is the law of the Nazirite who vows offerings to the LORD in accordance with their dedication, in addition to whatever else they can afford. They must fulfill the vows they have made, according to the law of the Nazirite.

Numbers 6:18, 21

The evidence in the New Testament suggests Jesus was not a Nazirite. But it definitely is true to see elements of Nazirite dedication in his life. After all, who was more fully devoted to God than he?

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll —
I have come to do your will, my God.’”

Hebrews 10:5–7

Fill Out Your Understanding of the Bible’s Cultural Background

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