Early in the history of Israel, God established the Nazarites as a unique category of people. They were totally devoted to his service (Num. 6).
Nazarites took a vow of total separation from the community for a short time (or occasionally, for life). They became a living reminder to the Israelites of their call to be set apart from the pagan culture around them.
The creed of the Nazarite began with a vow taken by the individual, or by the parents before the birth of a child. The vow had four elements:
- First, a Nazarite was to abstain from wine, fermented drink, or any product of the grapevine (Num. 6:3, 4). Such a person would be odd in a culture where fresh water was scarce.
- Second, a Nazarite must allow his hair to grow and not use a razor (Num. 6:5). The appearance of this unshaven separatist would have created a stir wherever he went, even in a society in which beards were common.
- Third, the Nazarite must avoid dead bodies (Num. 6:6, 7). Some scholars believe this referred to human bodies. Others believe it referred to any dead body. In a meat-eating society, a vegetarian would be unusual.
- Finally, Nazarites completely consecrated and set apart their lives for the service of God (Num. 6:8). Their devotion to God encouraged the Israelites to be faithful, despite the seductive value system of its pagan neighbors.
A separate court for the Nazarites was contained within the Women's Court in the Jerusalem Temple. The Chamber of the Nazarites allowed them to continue their separation from the community during worship. It was here that the Nazarites could take their vows of separation, or terminate their vows and have their hair cut. This facility prevented contact with anyone who was ceremonially unclean.
Both Samson (Judg. 13:5) and Samuel (1 Sam. 1:27-28) were Nazarites in Old Testament times. Samson tried to be God's instrument without separating himself from the Philistines. As a result, he failed and broke all of his vows. He killed a lion with his bare hands (thus touching a dead body). He attended a drinking party as the guest of honor. And he allowed Delilah to cut his hair.
Each time, God's strength left him, leaving him weak. Only when Samson finally acknowledged God as the source of his strength was he able to defeat the Philistines, but he lost his life in the process (Judg. 16:28-30).
John the Baptist may also have been a Nazarite (Luke 1:15-17). He subsisted on a diet of locusts and honey, wore a camel skin robe, had uncut hair, and avoided drinking wine (the usual beverage of the culture). These characteristics highlighted his total devotion to God and his message of the coming Messiah.