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'If a man vow a vow unto Jehovah, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not profane his word; he shall do according to all that hath proceeded out of his mouth' (Num 30:2). These words establish the lawfulness of vows, define their character, and declare their inviolableness. At the outset a distinction is here made between a positive and a negative vow, an undertaking and a renunciation, a Neder and an Issar. In the former 'a man vowed a vow unto Jehovah'--that is, he consecrated unto Him some one or more persons or things, which he expressly designated; in the latter he 'swore an oath to bind his soul with a bond'--that is, he renounced the use of certain things binding himself to abstinence from them. The renunciation of the fruit of the vine would seem to place the Nazarite's vow in the class termed Issar. But, on the other hand, there was, as in the case of Samson and Samuel, also such positive dedication to the Lord, and such other provisions as seem to make the Nazarite's the vows of vows--that is, the full carrying out of the idea of a vow, alike in its positive and negative aspects--being, in fact, a voluntary and entire surrender unto Jehovah, such as, in its more general bearing, the Aaronic priesthood had been intended to express.
Man Can Only Vow His Own Things
It lies on the surface, that all vows were limited by higher obligations. A man could not have vowed anything that was not fairly his own; hence, according to the Mishnah, neither what of his fortune he owed to others, nor his widow's portion, nor yet what already of right belonged unto the Lord (Num 30:26-28); nor might he profane the temple by bringing to the altar the reward of sin or of unnatural crime (this is undoubtedly the meaning of the expression 'price of a dog' in Deut 23:18). Similarly, the Rabbinical law declared any vow of abstinence ipso facto invalid, if it interfered with the preservation of life or similar obligations, and it allowed divorce to a woman if her husband's vow curtailed her liberty or her rights. On this ground it was that Christ showed the profaneness of the traditional law, which virtually sanctioned transgression of the command to honor father and mother, by pronouncing over that by which they might have been profited the magic word Corban, which dedicated it to the Temple (Mark 7:11-13). In general, the Rabbinical ordinances convey the impression, on the one hand, of a desire to limit the obligation of vows, and, on the other, of extreme strictness where a vow had really been made. Thus a vow required to have been expressly spoken; yet if the words used had been even intentionally so chosen as afterwards to open a way of escape, or were such as connected themselves with the common form of a vow, they conveyed its obligations. In all such cases goods might be distrained to secure the performance of the vow; the law, however, providing that the recusant was to be allowed to retain food for a month, a year's clothing, his beds and bedding, and, if an artisan, his necessary tools. In the case of women, a father or husband had the right to annul a vow, provided he did so immediately on hearing it (Num 30:3-8). All persons vowed unto the Lord had to be redeemed according to a certain scale; which, in the case of the poor, was to be so lowered as to bring it within reach of their means (Lev 27:2-8). *
* The Mishnah declares that this scale was only applicable, if express reference had been made to it in the vow; otherwise the price of redemption was, what the person would have fetched if sold in the market as a slave.
Such 'beasts' 'whereof men bring an offering,' went to the altar; all others, as well as any other thing dedicated, were to be valued by the priest, and might be redeemed on payment of the price, together with one-fifth additional, or else were sold for behoof of the Temple treasury (Lev 27:11-27). How carefully the law guarded against all profanity, or from the attempt to make merit out of what should have been the free outgoing of believing hearts, appears from Deuteronomy 23:22-24, Leviticus 27:9, 10, and such statements as Proverbs 20:25. As Scriptural instances of vows, we may mention that of Jacob (Gen 28:20), the rash vow of Jephthah (Judg 11:30,31), the vow of Hannah (1 Sam 1:11), the pretended vow of Absalom (2 Sam 15:7,8), and the vows of the sailors who cast Jonah overboard (Jonah 1:16). On the other hand, it will be understood how readily, in times of religious declension, vows might be turned from their proper object to purposes contrary to the Divine mind. *
* In general the later legislation of the Rabbis was intended to discourage vows, on account of their frequent abuse (Nedar, i., iii., ix.). It was declared that only evil- doers bound themselves in this manner, while the pious gave of their own free-will. Where a vow affected the interests of others, every endeavor was to be made, to get him who had made it to seek absolution from its obligations, which might be had from one 'sage,' or from three persons, in the presence of him who had been affected by the vow. Further particulars are beyond our present scope.
Carelessness in Later Times
In the latter times of the Temple such vows, made either thoughtlessly, or from Pharisaical motives, became painfully frequent, and called forth protests on the part of those who viewed them in a more reverent and earnest spirit. Thus it is said, that the high-priest, Simeon the Just--to whom tradition ascribes so much that is good and noble--declared that he had uniformly refused, except in one instance, to partake of the trespass-offering of Nazarites, since such vows were so often made rashly, and the sacrifice was afterwards offered reluctantly, not with pious intent. A fair youth, with beautiful hair, had presented himself for such a vow, with whom the high-priest had expostulated: 'My son, what could have induced thee to destroy such splendid hair?' To which the youth replied: 'I fed my father's flock, and as I was about to draw water for it from a brook, I saw my wraith, and the evil spirit seized and would have destroyed me (probably by vanity). Then I exclaimed: Miserable fool, why boastest thou in a possession which does not belong to thee, who art so soon to be the portion of maggots and worms? By the Temple! I cut off my hair, to devote it to God.' 'Upon this,' said Simeon, 'I rose and kissed him on the forehead, saying, Oh that many in Israel were like thee! Thou hast truly, and in the spirit of the Law, made this vow according to the will of God.'
That great abuses crept in appears even from the large numbers who took them. Thus the Talmud records that, in the days of King Jannai no fewer than 300 Nazarites presented themselves before Simeon, the son of Shetach. Moreover, a sort of traffic in good works, like that in the Romish Church before the Reformation, was carried on. It was considered meritorious to 'be at charges' for poor Nazarites, and to defray the expenses of their sacrifices. King Agrippa, on arriving at Jerusalem, seems to have done this to conciliate popular favor (Jos. Antiq. xix. 6. 1). A far holier motive than this influenced St. Paul (Acts 21:23, etc.), when, to remove the prejudices of Jewish Christians, he was 'at charges' for four poor Christian Nazarites, and joined them, as it were, in their vow by taking upon himself some of its obligations, as, indeed, he was allowed to do by the traditional law.
1. The law concerning the Nazarite vow (Num 6) seems to imply, that it had been an institution already existing at the time of Moses, which was only further defined and regulated by him. The name, as well as its special obligations, indicate its higher bearing. For the term Nasir is evidently derived from nazar, to separate, and 'the vow of a Nazarite' was to separate himself unto Jehovah (Num 6:2). Hence the Nazarite was 'holy unto Jehovah' (Num 6:8). In the sense of separation the term Nasir was applied to Joseph (Gen 44:26; comp. Deut 32:16), and so the root is frequently used. But, besides separation and holiness, we have also here the idea of royal priesthood, since the word Nezer is applied to 'the holy crown upon the mitre' of the high-priest (Exo 29:6; 34:30; Lev 8:9), and 'the crown of the anointing oil' (Lev 21:12), as also, in a secondary sense, to the royal crown (2 Sam 1:10; 2 Kings 11:12; Zech 9:16). *
* The learned writer of the article 'Nazarite' in Kitto's Encycl. regards the meaning 'diadem' as the fundamental one, following in this the somewhat unsafe critical guidance of Saalschutz, Mos. Recht. p. 158. In proof, he appeals to the circumstance that the 'undressed vine' of the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year is designated by the term 'Nazir' in Leviticus 25:5, 11. But evidently the uncut, untrimmed vine of those years derived its designation from the Nazarite with his untrimmed hair, and not vice versa. Some of the Rabbis have imagined that the vine had grown in Paradise, and that somehow the Nazarite's abstinence from its fruit was connected with the paradisiacal state, and with our fall.
We have, therefore, in the Nazarite, the three ideas of separation, holiness, and the crown of the royal priesthood, all closely connected. With this agree the threefold obligations incumbent on a Nazarite. He was to be not only a priest, but one in a higher and more intense sense, since he became such by personal consecration instead of by mere bodily descent. If the priest was to abstain from wine during his actual ministration in the sanctuary, the Nazarite must during the whole period of his vow refrain from all that belongs to the fruit of the vine, 'from the kernels even to the husk' (Num 6:3,4). a priest was to avoid all defilement from the dead, except in the case of his nearest relatives, but the Nazarite, like the high-priest (Lev 21:11), was to ignore in that respect even father and mother, brother and sister (Num 6:7). Nay more, if unwittingly he had become so defiled, the time of his vow which had already elapsed was to count for nothing; after the usual seven days purification (Num 19:11,12), he was to cut off his hair, which, in that case, was buried, not burnt, and on the eighth day to bring two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, the one for a sin-, the other for a burnt-offering, with a lamb of the first year for a trespass-offering; after which he had to commence his Nazarite vow anew. Lastly, if the high-priest wore 'the holy Nezer upon the mitre,' the Nazarite was not to cut his hair, which was 'the Nezer of his God upon his head' (Num 6:7). And this use of the word Nezer, as applied to the high- priest's crown, as well as to the separation unto holiness of the Nazarite, casts additional light alike upon the object of the priesthood and the character of the Nazarite vow.
The Mishnah Regulations
According to the Mishnah (tractate Nazir), all epithets of, or allusions to, the Nazarite vow, carried its obligation. Thus if one said, 'I will be it! or, I will be a beautiful one!'--with reference to the long hair--or made any similar allusion, he had legally taken upon him the vow. If taken for an indefinite period, or without express declaration of the time, the vow lasted for thirty days, which was the shortest possible time for a Nazarite. There were, however, 'perpetual Nazarites,' the Mishnah distinguishing between an ordinary 'perpetual Nazarite' and a 'Samson-Nazarite.' Both were 'for life,' but the former was allowed occasionally to shorten his hair, after which he brought the three sacrifices. He could also be defiled by the dead, in which case he had to undergo the prescribed purification. But as Samson had not been allowed under any circumstances to poll his hair, and as he evidently had come into contact with death without afterwards undergoing any ceremonial (Judg 14:8, 15:15), so the Samson-Nazarite might neither shorten his hair, nor could he be defiled by the dead. However, practically such a question probably never arose, and the distinction was no doubt merely made to meet an exegetical necessity to the Jews,--that of vindicating the conduct of Samson! As already stated, another might undertake part or the whole of the charges of a Nazarite, and thus share in his vow. A father, but not a mother, might make a Nazarite vow for a son, while he was under the legal age of thirteen. The Mishnah (Naz. vi.) discusses at great length the three things interdicted to a Nazarite: 'defilement, cutting the hair, and whatever proceedeth from the vine.' Any wilful trespass in these respects, provided the Nazarite had been expressly warned, carried the punishment of stripes, and that for every individual act of which he had been so warned.