There isn’t really much to say about this chapter, I’m afraid. It’s a set of rules for people who wish to become Nazirites – the Nazirite vow being a special oath to dedicate one’s self to God for a certain length of time. For once, the vow is specified as being available for both men and women.

While a Nazirite, the individual is required to:

  • Abstain from wine or any other fermented drinks, or from drinking vinegar made from these. They also can’t have anything that grows on the vine, such as grape juice, grapes, or raisins. In fact, it’s specified that the prohibition against eating anything that comes from the vine even extends to the seeds and skins of grapes.
  • Abstain from cutting their hair – letting it grow for the length of the period of their vow.
  • Stay away from dead bodies. Even if a close relative dies, they can’t “make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them” (v.7).

Interestingly, it says that the reason they can’t go near a dead body is “because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head” (v.7). Later, we’re told that if someone happens to die in the Nazirite’s presence, it “defil[es] their hair” (v.9), so they must shave their head on the seventh day of a cleansing ritual. On the eighth day, they must sacrifice two doves or two young pigeons – one sin offering and one atonement because the Nazirite “sinned by being in the presence of a dead body” (v.11).

Joseph Hill, by Lois Cordelia, 2010

Joseph Hill, by Lois Cordelia, 2010

(Remember that we read in Leviticus 4 that a “sin” means something that someone has done unwittingly that makes the individual ritually impure. It does not appear to have the same connotations that the word has today.)

After the sacrifice on the eighth day, the Nazirite must reconsecrate their heads, make a guilt offering of a year-old male lamb, and pick up where they left off on their vow (minus the eight days of purification, which don’t count because their hair was dirty).

Once the period of their dedication is over, the Nazirite must go to the entrance of the tent of meeting and sacrifice a year-old male lamb (without defect, of course) as a burnt offering, a year-old female lamb (without defect) as a sin offering, a ram (without defect) as a fellowship offering, and a grain and drink offering, plus a basket of bread “made with the finest flour and without yeast – thick loaves with olive oil mixed in, and thin loaves brushed with olive oil” (v.15). And now I’m hungry.

Once the sacrifice is made, the Nazirite shaves off his hair, symbolizing the end of their dedication. The hair is then put in the sacrificial fire as a fellowship offering.

Some notes on the Nazirites

In trying to find contradictions in the Bible, The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible uses Numbers 6:3 as evidence for a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol. Of course, within context, it’s rather clear that this prohibition refers only to people who have taken a special vow – not to all people. In fact, once the period of the vow is over, “the Nazirite may drink wine” (v.20).

Over at A Skeptic’s Journey, we see the same mistake. Saying that Nazirites must abstain from alcohol and vinegar “implies that these are bad.” When reading that the Nazirites musn’t cut their hair, Skeptic’s Journey asks “why would a haircut be an evil thing?” But that’s not what’s being said at all. These things aren’t evil, they are easy, and abstaining is hard  – and in such a grape cultivation-based society, avoiding all products of the vine must have been something of a challenge. And in the case of the hair thing, it’s a way to visibly mark the individual as having made the vow, thereby giving them special status. The point is to put an artificial imposition on the life of the Nazirite which s/he can use to prove dedication. It has nothing to do with the forbidden behaviours being considered bad, sinful, evil, immoral, etc. (Though Skeptic’s Journey does raise an interesting point when he compares the prohibition against cutting hair to 1 Corinthians 11:14, in which Paul writes that it is shameful for a man to have long hair.)

Rastafarians consider themselves to be modern Nazirites. They believe that when Samson, a Nazirite we’ll be encounting later, is described as having “seven locks” of hair, the Bible is refering to dreadlocks. Hence the classic Rastafari look.

The Priestly Blessing

To finish off the chapter, God tells Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites with the following:

The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.

It may sound familiar to you if you’ve ever been to church – particularly one belonging to a more ritual-focused denomination like an Anglican church. Or it may sound familiar if you’ve ever played Civilization V.