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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Numbers 6

Verses 1-27

NAZARITISM: THE BLESSING OF AARON

Numbers 6:1-27

1. THE custom of Nazaritism, which tended to form a semi-religious caste, is obscure in its origin. The cases of Samson and Samuel imply that before birth some were bound in terms of this vow by their parents. In the passage before us nothing whatever is said as to the reasons which the law recognised for the practice of Nazaritism. We may believe, however, that it was from the first, like many votive customs, distinctly religious. One who had been delivered from some danger or restored to health might adopt this method of showing his thankfulness to God. It is impossible to connect Nazaritism with any sacerdotal duty. A man under the vow had no function, no privilege, that in the least approached that of the priest. Nor can we trace any parallel between the Nazarite rule and that of the fakirs of India or the dervishes of Egypt and Arabia, whose poverty is their mark of consecration. There is, however, some resemblance to the vow of the Arab pilgrim, who, on his way to the holy place, must not cut or dress his hair, and must abstain from bloodshed. The prophet Amos {; Amos 2:11} claims that God had raised up young men to be Nazarites, and he places their influence almost on a level with that of the prophets as a means of blessing to the people. We may believe, therefore, that they helped both morality and religion; and the conditions of their vow seem to have given them fine bodily health and personal appearance.

When the Nazarite vow was undertaken for a term, say thirty, sixty, or a hundred days, the law assumed its religious character, prescribed the conditions to be observed, the means of removing accidental defilement, and the ceremonies to be performed when the period of separation closed. Any man might devote himself without appealing to the priest or going through any religious rite; and in general his own conscience was depended on to make him rigidly attentive to his vow. There was to be no monastic association of Nazarites, no formal watch kept over their conduct. They mingled with others in ordinary life, and went about their business as at other times. But the unshorn hair distinguished them; they felt that the eye of God as well as the eyes of men were upon them, and walked warily under the sense of their pledge. The discharge which had to be given by the priest was a further check; it would have been withheld if any charge of laxity had been made against the Nazarite. The ceremonies of release were of a kind fitted to attract general attention.

The modern pledge of abstinence bears in various points resemblance to the Nazarite vow. We can easily believe that indulgence in strong drink was one of the principal sins against which Nazaritism testified. And as in ancient Israel that body of abstainers from the fruit of the vine, honorably known as a caste, acknowledged by the Divine law, formed a constant check on intemperance, so the existence of a large class among ourselves, bound to abstinence, aids most effectually in restraining the drinking customs of the present age. When we add to the approval of Nazaritism which is before us here the fact that priests in the discharge of their ministry were required to forego the use of wine, the sanction of Hebrew legislation on its moral side may certainly be claimed for the total abstinence pledge. No doubt the circumstances differ greatly. Wine was the common beverage in Palestine. It was in general so slightly intoxicating that the use of it brought little temptation. But our distilled liquors and fermented drinks are so strongly alcoholic, so dangerous to health and morals, that the argument for abstinence is now immensely greater than it was among the Hebrews. Not only as an example of self-restraint, but as a safeguard against constant peril, the pledge of abstinence deservedly enjoys the sanction of the Churches of Christ.

On the other hand, the pledge of the total abstainer, like the vow of the Nazarite, carries with it a certain moral danger. One who, having come voluntarily under such a pledge, allows himself to break it suffers a serious loss of spiritual power. The abstainer, like the Nazarite, is his own witness, his own judge. But if his pledge has been sacredly undertaken, solemnly made, any breach of it is an offence to conscience, a denial of obligation to God which must react on the will and life. It was not by using strong drink that Samson broke his vow of Nazaritism, but in a far less serious manner - by allowing his hair to be cut off. Still his case is an instructive parable.The Spirit of the Lord passed from him; he became weak as other men, the prey of his enemies. The man who has come under the bond of total abstinence, especially in a religious way, and breaks it, becomes weaker than others. To confess his fault and resume his resolution may not lift him up again. The will is less capable, the sense of sacredness less imperative and potent.

It is hard to say why the peculiar defilement caused by touching a dead body or being present at a death is that alone on which special attention is fixed in the Nazarite law. {Numbers 6:9 ff.} One would have expected the other offence of using wine to be dealt with rather than mere accidents, so to speak. We can see that the law as it stands is one of many that must have preceded the prophetic period. If Amos, for example, had influenced the nature of the legislation regarding Nazaritism, it would have been in the direction of making drunkenness rather than ceremonial uncleanness a special point in the statutes. From beginning to end of his prophecy he makes no distinct reference to ceremonial defilement. But injustice, intemperance, disaffection to Jehovah, are constantly and vehemently denounced. Hosea, again, does refer to unclean food, the necessity of eating which would be part of Israel’s punishment in exile. But he too, unless in this casual reference, is a moralist-cares nothing, -so far as his language goes, for the contact with dead bodies or any other ceremonial defilement. Judging a Nazarite, he would certainly have regarded sobriety and purity of life as the tests of consecration-drunkenness and neglect of God as the sins that deserved punishment. Hosea’s condemnation of Israel is: "They have left off to take heed to Jehovah. Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the understanding." In Ezekiel, whose schemes of worship and of priestly work are declared to have been the origin of the Priests’ Code, the same tendency is to be found. He has a passage regarding unclean foods, which assumes the existence of statutes on the subject. But as a legislator he is not concerned with ceremonial transgressions, the defilement caused by dead bodies, and the like. Take into account the whole of his prophecy, and it will be seen that the new heart and the right spirit are for Ezekiel the main things, and the worship of the temple he describes is to be that of a people not ceremonially consecrated, but spiritually pure, and so in moral unity with God. He adopts the old forms of worship along with the priesthood, but his desire is to give the ritual an ethical basis and aim.

The statute which applies to the discharge of the Nazarite from his rule {; Numbers 6:13-21} is exceedingly detailed, and contains provisions which on the whole seem fitted to deter rather than encourage the vow. The Nazarite could not escape from obligation as he had entered upon it, without priestly intervention and mediation. He had to offer an oblation, -one he-lamb of the first year for a burnt offering; one ewe-lamb of the first year for a sin offering; and for peace offerings a ram, with a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mingled with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil; and meal offerings and drink offerings. These had to be presented by the priest in the prescribed manner. In addition to the possible cost of repeated cleansings which might be needful during the period of separation, the expense of those offerings must have been to many in a humble station almost prohibitory. We cannot help concluding that under this law, at whatever time it prevailed, Nazaritism became the privilege of the more wealthy. Those who took the vow under the appointed conditions must have formed a kind of puritan aristocracy.

The final ceremonies included burning of the hair, which was carefully removed at the door of the tent of meeting. It was to be consumed in the fire under the peace offering, the idea being that the obligation of the vow and perhaps its sanctity had been identified with the flowing locks. The last rite of all was similar to that used in the consecration of priests. The sodden shoulder of the ram, an unleavened cake, and an unleavened wafer were to be placed on the hands of the Nazarite, and waved for a wave offering before the Lord-thereafter, with other parts of the sacrifice, falling to the priest. After that the man might drink wine, perhaps in a formal way at the close of the ceremonies.

To explain this elaborate ritual of discharge it has been affirmed that the idea of the vow "culminated in the sacrificial festival which terminated the consecration, and in this attained to its fullest manifestation." If this were so, ritualism was indeed predominant. To make such the underlying thought is to declare that the abstinence of the Nazarite from strong drink and dainties, to which a moralist would attach most importance, was in the eye of the law nothing compared to the symbolic feasting with God and the sacerdotal functions of the final ceremony. Far more readily would we assume that the ritual of the discharge.was superfluously added to the ancient law at a time when the hierarchy was in the zenith of its power. But, as we have already seen, the final rites were of a kind fitted to direct public attention to the vow, and may have had their use chiefly in preventing any careless profession of Nazaritism, tending to bring it into contempt.

One other question still demands consideration: What was meant by the "sin offering" which had to be presented by the Nazarite when he had unintentionally incurred uncleanness, and the sin offering which had to be offered at the time of his discharge-what, in short, was the idea of sin to which this oblation corresponded? The case of the Nazarite is peculiarly instructive, for the point to be considered is seen here entirely free from complications. The Nazarite does not undertake the obligation of his vow as an acknowledgment of wrong he has done, nor does he place himself under any moral disadvantage by assuming it. There is no reason why in becoming a Nazarite or ceasing to be a Nazarite he should appear as a transgressor; rather is he honouring God by what he does. Suppose he has been present at a death which has unexpectedly taken place-that involves no moral fault by which a man’s conscience should be burdened. Deliberately to touch a dead body might, under the law, have brought the sense of wrongdoing; but to be casually in a defiled house could not. Yet an atonement was necessary. {Numbers 6:11} It is expressly said that a sin offering and a burnt offering must be presented to "make atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the dead." And again, when he has kept the terms of his vow to the last, honouring Jehovah by his devotion, commending morality by his abstinence, maintaining more rigidly than other Israelites the idea of consecration to Jehovah, he cannot be released from his obligation till a sin offering is made for him. There is no moral offence to be expiated. Rather, to judge in an ordinary human way, he has carried obedience farther than his fellow-Israelites.

The whole circumstances show that the sin-offering has no reference to moral pollution. The idea is not that of removing a shadow from the conscience, but taking away a taint of the flesh, or, in certain cases, of the mind which has become aware of some occult injury. A clear division was made between the moral and the immoral; and it was assumed that all Israelites were keeping the moral commandments of the law. Then moral persons were divided into those who were clean and those who were unclean; and the ceremonial law alone determined the conditions of undefiled and acceptable life. If the law declared that a sin offering was necessary, it meant not that there had been immorality, but that some specified or unspecified taint lay upon a man. No doubt there were principles according to which the law was framed. But they might not be apparent; and no man could claim to have them explained. Now with regard to Nazaritism, the idea was that of a vivid and pure form of life to which a man might attain if he would discipline himself. And it seems to have been understood that in returning from this to the common life of the race an apology, so to speak, had to be made to Jehovah and to religion. The higher range of life during the term of separation was peculiarly sensitive to invasions of earthly circumstance, and especially of the defilement caused by death; and for anything of this sort there was needed more than apology, more than trespass offering. The Nazarite going back to ordinary life was regarded in more senses than one as a sinner. The conditions of his vow had been difficult to keep, and, presumably, had been broken.. He was all the more under the suspicion of defilement that he had undertaken special obligations of purity. A peculiar form of mysticism is involved here, an effort of humanity to reach transcendental holiness. And the law seemed to give up each experiment with a sigh. In the story of Samson we have only the popular pictorial elements of Nazaritism. The statutes convey hints of deeper thought and feeling.

Generally speaking the whole system of purification enjoined by the ceremonial Jaw, the constant succession of cleansings and sacrifices, must have appeared to be arbitrary. But it would be a mistake to suppose that there was no esoteric meaning, no purpose beyond that of keeping up the sense of religious duty and the need of mediation. Some intangible defilement seems to have been associated with everything mundane, everything human. The aim was to represent sanctity of a transcendent kind, the nature of which no words could express, for which the shedding of blood alone supplied a sufficiently impressive symbol.

2. The blessing which the priests were commissioned to pronounce on the people {; Numbers 6:24-26} was in the following terms:

"Jehovah bless thee. and keep thee: Jehovah make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace."

By means of this threefold benediction the name of Jehovah was to be put upon the children of Israel-that is to say, their consecration to Him as His accepted flock and their enjoyment of His covenant grace were to be signified. In a sense the invocation of this blessing was the highest function of the priest: he became the channel of spiritual endowment in which the whole nation shared. It is a striking fact that the distinctive ideas conveyed in the three portions of the blessing-Preservation, Enlightenment, Peace - bear a relation, by no means fanciful, to the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. First are invoked the providential care and favour of God, as Ruler of the universe, Arbiter among the nations, Source of creaturely life, Upholder of human existence. Israel as a whole, and each individual Israelite as a member of the sacred community, should in terms of the covenant enjoy the guardianship of the Almighty. The idea is expanded in Psalms 121:1-8:

"Jehovah is thy keeper: Jehovah is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, Nor the moon by night. Jehovah shall keep thee from all evil; He shall keep thy soul. Jehovah shall keep thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and for evermore."

And in almost every Psalm the theme of Divine preservation is touched on either in thanksgiving, prayer, or exultant hope.

"For God will save Zion. and build the cities of Judah; And they shall abide there, and have it in possession. The seed also of His servants shall inherit it; And they that love His name shall dwell therein."

Often sorely pressed by the nations around, their land made the battle-field of empires, the Hebrews could comfort themselves with the assurance that Jehovah of Hosts was with them, that the God of Jacob was their refuge. And each son of Abraham had his own portion in the blessing.

"I will say of Jehovah He is my refuge and my fortress, My God in whom I trust."

The keynote of joyful confidence in the unseen King was struck in the benediction which, pronounced by Aaron and by the high-priests after him, associated Israel’s safety with obedience to all the laws and forms of religion.

The second member of the blessing indicates under the figure of the shining of Jehovah’s face the revelation of enlightening truth. Here are implied the unfolding of God’s character, the kindly disclosure of His will in promise and prophecy, the opening to the minds of men of those high and abiding laws that govern their destiny. There is a forth-shining of the Divine countenance which troubles and dismays the human heart: "The face of the Lord is against them that do evil." But here is denoted that gracious radiance which came to its fulness in Christ. And of this Divine shining Jacob Boehme writes: "As the sun in the visible world ruleth over evil and good, and with its light and power and all whatsoever itself is, is present everywhere, and penetrates every being, and yet in its image-like [symbolic] form doth not withdraw again to itself with its efflux, but wholly giveth itself into every being, and yet ever remaineth whole, and nothing of its being goeth away therewith: thus also it is to be understood concerning Christ’s power and office which ruleth in the inward spiritual world visibly, and in the outward world invisibly, and thoroughly penetrateth the faithful man’s soul, spirit, and heart And as the sun worketh through and through a herb so that the herb becometh solar (or filled with the virtue of the sun, and as it were so converted by the sun that it becometh wholly of the nature of the sun): so Christ ruleth in the resigned will in soul and body over all evil inclinations, over Satan’s introduced lust, and generateth the man to be a new heavenly creature and wholly floweth into him."

For the Hebrew people that shining of the face of God became spiritual and potent for salvation less through the law, the priesthood, and the ritual, than through psalm and prophecy. Of the revelation of the law Paul says, "The ministration of death written and engraven on stones came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look steadfastly upon the face of Moses, for the glory of his face." With such holy and awful brightness did God appear in the law, that Moses had to cover his face from which the splendour was reflected. But the psalmist. pressing towards the light with fine spiritual boldness and humility, could say, "When Thou saidst, Seek ye My face; my heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek"; {; Psalms 27:8} "and again, Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved." {Psalms 80:7} And in an oracle of Isaiah, {; Isaiah 54:8} Jehovah says, "In overflowing wrath I hid My face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness shall I have mercy on thee."

In the third clause of the benediction the peace of God, that calm of mind, conscience, and life which accompanies salvation, is invoked. From the trouble and sorrow and tumult of existence, from the fear of hostile power, from evil influences seen and unseen, the Divine hand will give salvation. It seems indeed to be the meaning that the gracious regard of God is enough. Are His people in affliction and anxiety? Jehovah’s look will deliver them. They will feet calmly safe as if a shield were interposed between them and the keen arrows of jealousy and hatred. "In covert of Thy presence shalt Thou hide them from the plottings of man: Thou shalt keep them secretly m a pavilion from the strife of tongues." Their tranquillity is described by Isaiah: "In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression, for thou shalt not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near thee no weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness which is of Me, saith the Lord."

The peace of the human soul is not, however, entirely provided for by the assurance of Divine protection from hostile force. A man is not in perfect tranquillity because he belongs to a nation or a church defended by omnipotence. His own troubles and fears are the main causes of unrest. And the Spirit of God, who cleanses and renews the soul, is the true Peace-giver. "To win true peace a man needs to feel himself directed, pardoned, and sustained by a supreme power, to feel himself in the right road, at the point where God would have him to be-in order with God and the universe." In his heart the note of harmony must be struck deep and true, in profound reconciliation and unity with God. With this in view the oracles of Ezekiel connect renewal and peace. "I will put My Spirit in you, and ye shall live I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them and I will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore."

The protection of God the Father, the grace and truth of the Son, the comfort and peace of the Spirit-were these, then, implied in Israel’s religion and included in this blessing of Aaron? Germinally, at least, they were. The strain of unity running through the Old and New Testaments is heard here and in the innumerable passages that may be grouped along with the threefold benediction. The work of Christ, as Revealer and Saviour, did not begin when He appeared in the flesh. As the Divine Word He spoke by every prophet and through the priest to the silent congregations age after age. Nor did the dispensation of the Spirit arise on the world like a new light on that day of Pentecost when the disciples of Christ were gathered in their upper chamber and the tongues of fire were seen. There were those even in the old Hebrew days on whom the Spirit was poured from on high, with whom "judgment dwelt in the wilderness, and righteousness in the fruitful field: and the work of righteousness was peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever." He who is our peace came in the appointed time to fill with eternal meaning the old benedictions, and set our assurance on the immovable rock of His own sacrifice and power.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/numbers-6.html.