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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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NAZIRITE (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] Nazarite ). The primary meaning of the Heb. verb nâzar is to separate. Hence the nâzîr is ‘the separated,’ ‘consecrated,’ ‘devoted.’ Joseph is ‘the Nazirite,’ i.e ., the consecrated prince, among his brethren ( Genesis 49:26 ); the nobles of Jerusalem bear the same title ( Lamentations 4:7 ); the untrimmed vine, whose branches recall the long hair of the Nazirite proper, is called ‘thy Nazirite’ ( Leviticus 25:5; Leviticus 25:11 ). But, above all, the name belongs to a class of persons devoted by a special vow to Jahweh ( Amos 2:11 f., Judges 13:5; Judges 16:17 , Numbers 6:1-27 , Sir 46:13 , 1Ma 3:49-53 ). According to Judges 13:1-25 and Numbers 6:1-27 , the details of outward observance covered by the vow were: (1) abstinence from the fruit of the vine, (2) leaving the hair uncut, (3) avoidance of contact with the dead, and (4) of all unclean food.

Opinions differ as to whether the abstinence from wine or the untrimmed hair was the more important. Amos 2:11 f. mentions only the former. 1 Samuel 1:11 , on the other band, refers only to the latter (the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] ‘and he shall drink no wine or strong drink’ being an interpolation). If we look outside the OT, we see that among the ancients generally the hair was regarded as so important an outcome of the physical life as to be a fit offering to the deity, and a means of initiating or restoring communion with Him. There is evidence for this from Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and, in recent times, even among the Maoris. This, then, seems to have been the original observance. If Amos 2:11 f. does not mention it, the reason is that the most attractive temptation was found in the wine. Judges 13:7 states that Samson’s mother was bidden to abstain, but the same is not affirmed of Samson himself; all the stress, in his case, is laid on the hair being untouched ( Judges 16:17 ). Numbers 6:3-4 puts the abstinence first, but even here the significance of the other point appears in the directions for the ceremonial shaving and oblation of the hair ( Numbers 6:18 ). The vine stood for the culture and civilization of Canaan, and was specially associated with the worship of the nature-gods. Hence it was a point of honour with the zealots of Jahweh to turn away from it utterly. The luxury and immorality connected with a more advanced civilization threatened the simplicity of Israel’s life and faith. Martial devotion coalesced with the ascetic spirit to produce such men as Jonadab, son of Rechab, who resembled the Nazirites very closely ( 2 Kings 10:15 , Jeremiah 35:6 f.).

The Nazirite vow was originally a life-long obligation. Young and enthusiastic men were moved by the Spirit of God to take it up, as others were inspired to be prophets, and it was an offence against Him to tempt them to break it (Amos 2:11 f.). Women were divinely bidden to devote their promised offspring ( Judges 13:7 ). Others prayed for children and promised that they should then be consecrated to this service ( 1 Samuel 1:11; it is noteworthy that in the Heb. and Syr. of Sir 46:13 , Samuel is expressly called a Nazirite). In course of time, however, a great change came over the purpose and spirit of the institution. The vow was now taken to gain some personal end protection on a journey, deliverance from sickness, etc. Women, too, became Nazirites. And the restrictions were only for a certain period. Numbers 6:1-27 represents this stage, but the information which it gives needs supplementing. For instance, it fails to prescribe the manner in which the vow should be entered on. The Talmud asserts that this was done in private, and was binding if one simply said, ‘Behold, I am a Nazirite,’ or repeated after another, ‘I also become one’ ( Nazir , i. 3, iii. 1, iv. 1). Numbers 6:1-27 does not determine the length of these temporary vows. Here, again, a rule had to be made, and it was decided that the person himself might fix the period; otherwise, it should be thirty days ( Nazir , i. 3, iii. 1; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] BJ II. xv. 1). In case of accidental defilement, the Nazirite had to undergo seven days’ purification, cut off his hair on the seventh day and have it buried ( Temura , vi. 4), on the eighth day bring two turtle-doves or two young pigeons, one for a sin-, one for a burnt-offering, as well as a lamb for a guilt-offering, and thus begin the course of his vow afresh (cf. Nazir , iii. 6; Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant . XX. ii. 5). At the expiration of the time he was brought to the door of the sanctuary, with a he-lamb for a burnt-offering, a ewe-lamb for a sin-offering, a ram for a peace-offering, ten unleavened cakes and ten unleavened wafers anointed with oil, a meat-offering, and a drink-offering. When the sacrifices had been offered his hair was shaved and he put it in the fire which was under the peace-offering, or under the caldron in which the latter was boiled ( Nazir , vi. 8). Then a wave-offering was made, consisting of the sodden shoulder of the ram, a cake, and a wafer. The fat was then salted and burned on the altar, and the breast and the foreleg were eaten by the priests, who also ate the waved cake and the boiled shoulder; the rest of the bread and meat belonged to the offerer (Maimonides, Hilchoth Maase ha-Corbanoth , ix. 9 11). A free-will offering followed ( Numbers 6:21 ). In the second Temple there was a chamber in the S.E. corner of the women’s court, where the Nazirites boiled their peace-offerings, cut off their hair and cast it into the caldron.

The following historical notices are of some interest: (1) 1Ma 3:49-53 enables us to realize the importance which came to be attached to the punctilious performance of every one of the ceremonies. Just before the battle of Emmaus, the Nazirites, being shut out of Jerusalem, could not offer the concluding sacrifices there. Evidently this was regarded as a serious public calamity. (2) The important tractate of the Talmud entitled Berakhoth tells a story of slightly later date than the above, which illustrates the ingenuity which the Rabbis displayed in finding reasons for releasing from their vows persons who had rashly undertaken them (vii. 2). (3) John the Baptist has been claimed as a Nazirite, but this is doubtful; we read nothing about his hair being untouched. (4) A custom grew up for wealthy people to provide the requisite sacrifices for their poorer brethren. Thus, when Agrippa came from Rome to Jerusalem to enter on his kingdom, ‘he offered many sacrifices of thanksgiving; wherefore also he ordered that many of the Nazirites should have their heads shaven’ (Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant . XIX. vi. 1). This throws light on Acts 21:23-26 . (5) Eusebius ( HE ii. 23) appears to represent James the Just as a lifelong Nazirite: ‘He was holy from his mother’s womb. Wine and strong drink he drank not, neither did he eat flesh. A razor passed not over his head.’ But the further statement that he alone was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies is so improbable as to lessen our confidence in the narrator.

John Taylor.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nazirite'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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