In Israel, this week’s parashah is Naso, Numbers 4:21–7:89.* Among the various issues covered in Naso are the regulations concerning the Nazarite vow, which could be taken by either a male or female.
Speak to Bnei-Yisrael and say to them: Any man or woman who desires to vow a Nazirite vow to be separate for ADONAI, is to abstain from wine and any other fermented drink. He is not to drink any vinegar made from wine or any fermented drink, or any grape juice, or eat grapes or raisins. (Numbers 6:2–3)
Notice that nothing is said about the reason a person might choose to undertake this vow. We are only told that
All the days of his separation, he (or she) is to be consecrated to ADONAI. (Numbers 6:8)
Another thing we are not told about the Nazarite vow is the duration of the vow. According to rabbinic tradition, the vow is only for thirty days, but this is only tradition. The vow depends upon the one entering it (Numbers 6:2). The choice is solely upon the one desiring to take the vow. The aspect of choice is important to recognize as there were at least two, possibly three individuals in the Tanakh who were under a Nazarite vow not by their own choice but by others.
We encounter the first two in the haftarah for Naso, Judges 13:2–25, the angelic calling of Samson,
For behold, you will conceive and bear a son. Let no razor come upon his head, for the boy will be a Nazirite to God from the womb. He will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:5)
In our familiarity with the calling of Samson, we often miss the calling of his soon-to-be no longer barren mother to this special vow, at least during her pregnancy.
Then the angel of ADONAI appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold now, you are barren and have not borne children, but you will conceive and bear a son. Now, therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink or eat any unclean thing.” … The angel of ADONAI said to Manoah, “Let the woman abstain from all that I mentioned to her. She should not eat anything that comes from the grapevine or drink wine or strong drink or eat any unclean thing. She must observe all that I commanded her.” (Judges 13:3–4 & 13–14)
Apparently, neither Samson nor his mother had a choice; the choice was made for them by the angelic visitor. The difference lies in the length of the vow; Samson’s mother was only under the vow until Samson’s birth, while Samson’s Nazarite vow was to be “from the womb to the day of his death” (Judges 13:7). Also, the reason for the mother’s vow is not stated while Samson’s Nazarite vow is clear —“He will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). It can be said that Samson’s mother was not under a Nazarite vow as nothing is said about her hair or her avoidance of contact with a corpse. But then again, nothing was said about Samson’s avoidance of corpse contact – but he was specifically called a Nazarite from the womb.
Another well-known individual who had no choice in taking a Nazarite vow is Samuel. Hannah, a wife of Elkanah, was another barren woman who desperately desired a child.
While her soul was bitter, she prayed to ADONAI and wept. So she made a vow and said, “ADONAI-Tzva’ot, if You will indeed look upon the affliction of Your handmaid, remember me and not forget Your handmaid, but grant Your handmaid a son, then I will give him to ADONAI all the days of his life and no razor will ever touch his head.” (1 Samuel 1:10-11)
Once again, nothing is said about the child’s abstinence from wine or any other fermented drink or product made from grapes. Nor was there any mention of the need to abstain from contact with a corpse. However, the “no razor” verbiage and then the total dedication to the service of HaShem (1 Samuel 1:22), makes it clear that Samuel would be a Nazarite from birth.
John the Baptizer is one more notable individual in Scripture who was considered a Nazarite from birth. This time it was not the soon-to-be no longer barren mother who received an angelic visitation but her husband, Zechariah, a kohen who entered the Holy Place to offer incense on the altar.
Zechariah was in turmoil when he saw the angel, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to your son, and you will name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. He will be great before ADONAI, and he should not drink wine and intoxicating beverages, but he will be filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh just out of his mother’s womb. Many of Bnei-Yisrael will turn to ADONAI their God. (Luke 1:12-16)
This time nothing is said about the child’s avoidance of the razor or the need to avoid contact with a corpse, but Zechariah is told emphatically that his son, John, “should not drink wine and intoxicating beverages” and that John would be set apart for the service of HaShem as “he would be filled with the Ruach ha-Kodesh just out of his mother’s womb.”
One of the reasons I share this history lesson about three men, seemingly Nazarites, is to show that just because one was called from birth to serve HaShem, the individual has the choice whether or not to walk in obedience to that calling. Of the three men, Samson’s life choices were less than honorable – though interestingly HaShem’s power continued to flow through him, even returning to him after all seemed lost due to his shearing by Delilah (Judges 16:16-17). In the end, HaShem honored Samson’s prayer and brought judgment on the Philistines and their false god Dagon through Samson’s last act that brought down Dagon’s temple and killed over three hundred Philistine lords as well as Samson (Judges 16:28-30). Another thing to notice is that while John lived a somewhat ascetic lifestyle, there is no indication that this was Samuel’s practice, and it certainly was not Samson’s. Both of these men remained an active part of their community—separated to the service of HaShem but not set apart from the people.
Intriguingly, there are two other men, who while not called Nazarites, were called to serve HaShem before they were even born. First is Jeremiah, whom HaShem called when he was yet a boy,
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I set you apart—I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5).
Then there is Sha’ul who described his situation thusly,
But when He (HaShem) who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me… (Galatians 1.15-16)
Both Jeremiah and Sha’ul had to choose whether or not to walk in their calling, separated to the service of HaShem, or not. Some people have specific callings upon their lives from Hashem, some from the womb others later in life. For some, like Samson, Samuel, and John, their life paths were laid out for them from the very beginning. Others like Jeremiah and Sha’ul may have been “set apart” in the womb but did not “receive the call that required a choice until later in their lives. And then there are still others, probably many of us, who for whatever reason, make a choice to be separated for service later in life.
Today, the choice to become a Nazarite according to Numbers 6 is no longer an option since there is no longer a priesthood or Temple to bring the vow to its conclusion. However, it is still possible to be like Jeremiah or Sha’ul and choose to serve HaShem when one recognizes the call. Equally, like the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6, one could choose to separate themselves to HaShem’s service. The key today, whether called from birth or a personal choice to serve HaShem, is to complete the work that one has begun. Sha’ul told the Yeshua followers in Corinth,
“But now finish doing it, so that just as there was an eagerness to be willing, so also to finish it, out of what you have.” (2 Corinthians 8:11)
In other words, if we desire to set ourselves apart for service or ministry unto HaShem, we need to follow through with it, completing the work or calling that was started. Sha’ul followed his exhortation to the Corinthians with these words to the Philippians,
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the Day of Messiah Yeshua. (Philippians 1:6)
In other words, when we choose to serve ADONAI, he will work with us to perform that which we started to do in service to him and to others.
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!
* All Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.