So far we’ve seen that — when Moses counted the Israelite men — the Israelites had become a great nation, just as the Lord had promised Abraham. We’ve also read about their camp and how they were to arrange their tents in a square around the tabernacle. We’ve also read about the Levites who were to assist the priests by setting up and taking down the tabernacle and transporting it from place to place on their journey to the Promised Land; and they also assisted the priests by guarding the tabernacle and by preventing anything unclean from coming into the presence of the Lord.
And then last week we read the instructions in chapter 5 about what should happen whenever the people in the camp sinned against one another or when they were suspected of having sinned against one another.
And we’ve seen how each of these things points in one way or another to the good news of the gospel and to the hope God gives us of everlasting life in his glorious presence in the new creation to come. So, just as the Lord blessed and multiplied the Israelites so that they became a great nation, so he’s now building his church on the earth through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and in the end, the number of the redeemed around his throne in heaven will be a great multitude, too many to count.
Their camp, arranged in a square, was an earthly representation of the church in glory, because in Revelation 21 we’re told that the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the glorified church, is also a square. The Levites were to guard the purity of the tabernacle so that nothing unclean could enter it; and in Revelation 21 and 22 we’re told that nothing unclean will enter heaven; however, through faith in the Saviour, sinners can be washed and cleansed so that they’re able to look forward to coming into the Lord’s presence forever.
Although many of the things we read in Numbers seem strange to us, nevertheless God gave these instructions to reveal the good news of the gospel and the hope we have in Christ. And the instructions from chapter 5 about paying compensation to those they wronged speak of Christ who has made up to God for our sins. And the instructions about what to do if a man suspected that his wife was unfaithful point to the good news that though we — the members of the church, which is the bride of Christ — are unfaithful to him, nevertheless through faith we’re cleansed and made holy forever.
Today we come to chapter 6 and to the instructions about the Nazirites. You’ll perhaps remember that Samson in the book of Judges was a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth. It’s possible that Samuel the prophet was also a Nazirite, because before he was born, his mother vowed that no razor would ever be used on his head; and after he was born, his mother brought him to the temple and declared that for his whole life he shall be given over to the Lord. And in Acts 21 we read about some men who were among the believers in Jerusalem and who went to the temple to observe a purification rite and to shave their heads. So, it’s possible that they too had vowed to become a Nazirite for a time.
In the chapter before us, we have an introduction in verses 1 and 2; a list of prohibitions in verses 3 to 8; instructions in verses 9 to 12 about what to do if a Nazirite was defiled; and instructions in verses 13 to 20 about what to do when the period of the vow was completed; and then there’s the conclusion in verse 21.
Verses 1 and 2
From the introduction in verses 1 and 2 we learn that these instructions about the Nazirite vow come from the Lord. Any man or any woman who desires to do so could make a special vow. What kind of special vow? Well, the text tells us: it’s a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazirite. As we’ll see, the idea of separation is important; in fact, the word Nazirite means ‘to separate’ or ‘to dedicate’. So, this is someone who wanted to separate himself or herself from the rest of the people out of dedication to the Lord. If you glance down to verse 4 — where it says ‘As long as he is a Nazirite’ — you’ll see that normally it was a temporary separation. However, in the case of Samson, and perhaps Samuel, it could also be for life.
Verses 3 to 8
What did being a Nazirite entail? Those who made this special vow were prohibited from three things for the length of their vow. Firstly, they were prohibited from drinking wine or other fermented drinks That’s what verses 3 and 4 are about. But not just wine and fermented drinks; it was anything related to them: so no vinegar; no grape juice; no grapes; no raisins which are dried grapes. As long as the person remained a Nazirite, he or she must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine: not even the seeds or skins.
Next they were prohibited from cutting their hair. That’s what verse 5 is about. So, during the entire period of their vow of separation, no razor may be used on their heads. Growing their hair long was a visible sign of their holiness or separation to the Lord.
And thirdly, they were prohibited from going near a dead body. That’s what verses 6 to 8 are about. Even if their own parents were to die, or their brother or sister were to die, Nazirites must not go near, because that would only make them ceremonially unclean. And that was hard, because normally it was the duty of a close relative to prepare a dead body for burial.
As long as the vow lasted, they weren’t to drink wine; they weren’t to cut their hair; they weren’t to go near a dead body. Now, those rules for the Nazirite are similar to the rules for the priest and High Priest. According to Leviticus 10, priest were not allowed to drink wine while serving in the tabernacle. According to Leviticus 21, priests were not allowed to shave their heads or beards. And according to the same chapter, the High Priest was not allowed to go near a dead body, even if it was his father or mother. And so, it seems that the Nazirite vow was a way for a lay man or woman to become a kind of temporary priest. So, for a time, they would separate themselves from normal activities to devote themselves to the Lord the way a priest did. However, it should be remembered that the Nazirite could not serve in the tabernacle; that form of service was restricted to the priests alone.
Verses 9 to 12
In verses 9 to 12 there are instructions on what to do if someone died suddenly in the presence of the Nazirite, causing the Nazirite to become defiled. You’ll see that they must shave their head and bring offerings to the Lord. And then, they must dedicate themselves to the Lord again for the same period as before; after all, they had made a vow to the Lord and were obligated to keep it. Furthermore, none of the previous days count; they must start again. One of the commentators records the case of a woman who had almost completed seven years of a Nazirite vow when she was defiled; and therefore she had to keep the vow for a further seven years. That was the law.
Verses 13 to 20
In verses 13 to 20 we have instructions about what to do when the period of the vow has ended. And you’ll see that it involved bringing offerings to the Lord at the tabernacle. At the same time, the Nazirite should shave their head and burn the hair at the altar. After this — now that the vow of separation vow is complete — the person was once again permitted to drink wine.
According to verse 21, the Nazirite could bring other offerings to the Lord, depending on what they could afford. And the people were reminded that the Nazirites must fulfil their vows, because making a vow to the Lord was a solemn and binding act.
Those are the rules for Nazirites. The most famous Nazirite in the Bible is Samson. However, in many ways he was not a good example, because he failed to follow these rules. So, Nazirites were forbidden from going near a dead body; but one day Samson saw the body of the lion he killed and he went up to it and saw the honey inside; and he scooped the honey out of that dead body. In other words, instead of staying away, he went near. Nazirites were forbidden from cutting their hair, but, of course, Samson is famous for letting Delilah and the Philistines cut his hair. And Nazirites were forbidden from drinking wine: but we read how Samson went to Timnah, where he met his future wife; then a few verses later in the passage, we read about the vineyards in Timnah. That causes some commentators to think that while he was in Timnah, he drank wine. Samson was a Nazirite, but he failed to keep his vow to the Lord.
However, in another way he was a very good example of a Nazirite. At the heart of the Nazirite vow is the idea of separation. The special vow of the Nazirite was a vow of separation; and the prohibitions about wine and using a razor and going near a dead body were signs that this person had chosen to separate himself from the rest of the people. So, while others were drinking, the Nazirite alone was not. While others appeared with neat hair, the Nazirite alone did not. While others attended funerals and mourned for their dead, the Nazirite alone did not. The Nazirite stood apart, separate, alone; he was set apart.
And that was Samson’s existence, because whereas the other judges we read about in the book of Judges were surrounded by people to help them, Samson was alone. Ehud, the left-handed judge, blew a trumpet and summoned an army to help him. Deborah went with Barak’s army to defeat the Canaanites. Gideon’s army was too large and needed to be reduced. But Samson faced the Philistines alone. And so he remained a Nazirite for the whole of his life, set apart from others to serve the Lord by himself until the day he died, when all by himself he destroyed the Philistines and saved his people.
That was Samson’s existence; and it was our Lord’s existence, because for the whole of his life, he was set apart to serve his Father here on earth. And he was set apart in various ways, because he alone was without sin; and he alone was wholehearted devoted to serving his Father in heaven; and he alone prayed in Gethsemane; and he alone stood trial before the Sandrehin and Pilate; and he alone went to the cross to die for sinners. He alone was able to save us; and he saved us all by himself. He was set apart.
Samson and the rest of the Nazirites were set apart from the rest of the Israelites; and therefore they point us to Christ, who was set apart and who, by himself, went to the cross and died for us.
Just like everything else in the book of Numbers, what we read here speaks to us of Christ and the good news of the gospel and the hope we have of everlasting life in the presence of the Lord. Through the Nazirites, God was revealing the coming of Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world and the only one who can save us and bring us to God, because he alone was without sin and yet he alone died for sinners.
And he gives us his Spirit to set us apart from an unbelieving world so that we might serve our heavenly Father all the days of our life.