Monday, April 07, 2008

Jewish Ascetics?: Numbers 6

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

In Numbers 6, God creates the Nazirites, who are basically ancient analogues of the Rastafari: no alcohol, no spending time in the presence of corpses, no cutting of hair. This is done to symbolize a special period of "separation to the Lord." Unsurprisingly, the pro-priest editors of Numbers specify that when this period is over he has to give the priests a lamb (two actually, but one is burned), a ram, grain, drinks, and bread. Presumably this is to make up for all the food he would have paid to the priests during the time he had devoted himself to God alone. In addition, the Nazirite's hair itself becomes an offering to God, and when you end your time as a Nazirite, you have to shave and then burn the hair.

The Nazirite practice is an intriguing one: it's raised out of nowhere and then drops out again near the end of the chapter. It's also deliberately flaunted later on by the story of Samson, who despite being a sworn Nazirite, routinely does all the things a Nazirite shouldn't do - he touches dead bodies, he drinks, and eventually gets his hair cut off. It's kind of unclear, but given that you can't be near dead people, presumably you implicitly have to renounce violence too, at least lethal violence. If you break this rule, you have to present extra birds to the temple, shave your head, and start all over.

The Nazirite protocol seems to provide a minimal counter to the carefully constructed social hierarchy of Exodus, Leviticus, and now Numbers. Every Nazirite, God specifies, is "holy"; he is "separated" from society so that he may be dedicated to God. Usually only the priests get this level of holiness, though it seems this is entirely an individual holiness - it doesn't confer upon you the right to act like a priest by marching into the porta-temple and eating people's sacrifices.

Also, God actually specifies that anyone - man or woman - can be a Nazirite. It is a vow which may be made by anyone who wants to give it.

This is worth mentioning because so far there have only been two incidents in the entire history of Israel where an act of free service was voluntarily offered to all people: the Nazirite vow and the donations to the construction of the porta-temple.