The Nazarite Vow in Numbers 6:20

The Nazarite Vow in Numbers 6:20 – I was recently challenged to give an explanation of Numbers 6:20. I’ll post my response here. Let me know if I missed anything or if you have additional info.
The Nazarite Vow – The Nazarite vow was taken by an individual in order to demonstrate separation, devotion, and consecration to God. The vow was comprised of three specific prohibitions.

Word of the Week by Justin Breeden - The Nazarite Vow in Numbers 6:20

The Nazarite Vow in Numbers 6:20

The Nazarite Vow was comprised of three specific prohibitions.

  1. The use of shekar and/or grape products.
  2. The cutting one’s hair.
  3. Coming near to a dead body.

For the purpose of this study I will focus only on the first prohibition.
The Orthodox Jewish Bible’s translation of Numbers 6:3-4 OJB emphasizes the specific Hebrew terms used: Numbers 6:3-4 OJB He shall separate himself from yayin and shekhar (fermented drink), and shall drink no chometz (vinegar) of yayin, or chometz of shekhar, neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat moist grapes, or dried (i.e., raisins). 4 Kol hayamim of his nazir (vow as a nazir) shall he eat nothing that is made of the gefen hayayin, from the seeds even to the grape-skins.

Here is a list of the products that are prohibited by the Nazarite Vow:

  1. Yayin and shekar
  2. Chometz of yayin/ shekar)
  3. Grape juice (‛ênâb mishrâh)
  4. Moist grapes
  5. Dried grapes
  6. Any product made from the grape vine (gefen hayayin)
  7. Seeds
  8. Skins

Yayin In Verse 3 יַיִן

In verse 3, does the word yayin יַיִן (Strong’s H3196) (wine) refer to fermented or unfermented grape juice? In context, the word yayin seems to clearly refer to fermented grape juice. Why? 1.)First of all, because yayin is a generic term that can refer to either a fermented or an unfermented drink and the author of the text intended to refer to both products in one sentence, he clarifies his intended meaning of y ayin by contrasting it with a phrase that can only refer to the unfermented juice of the grape, namely ‛ênâb mishrâh. 2.)Secondly, the word yayin is paired with the word shekar, which is a term most often used to refer to a fermented drink (though not always). When this type of construction, known as a hendiadys, is used, both terms refer to the same type of substance. On page 155 of his book, Ancient Wine and the Bible, David Brumbelow comments on this construction writing, “When yayin and shekar are paired, they signify the same thing, both referring to alcoholic drink or both referring to nonalcoholic drink.” Therefore, I would assert that the term yayin used in verse 3 refers to the fermented juice of the grape.

The Intention of the 1st Prohibition

Was the extent of the intention of the first prohibition merely to keep the vower from becoming intoxicated from fermented produce? I would answer no. Why? While I could mention other reasons, perhaps the clearest and most obvious is the prohibition of the consumption of dried grapes (raisins) which contain absolutely no intoxicating properties whatsoever. Therefore, I would contend that the purpose of the prohibition was to demonstrate that the Nazarite’s enjoyment came from the Lord rather than from any earthly product – the Creator rather than the creature. The Pulpit Bible Commentary notes, “There was, of course, no peculiar merit and advantage in abstaining from the grape itself. The abstinence was simply a sign indicating a desire to rise above the common pleasures of men.”

Again, the Orthodox Jewish Bible’s translation of Numbers 6:20 will allow us to see the specific Hebrew terminology used: Numbers 6:20 OJB And the kohen shall wave them for a wave offering before Hashem; this is kodesh for the kohen, with the breast of the wave offering and thigh of the terumah (raisedup presentation); and after that the Nazir may drink yayin.
Yayin In Verse 20 – If the word yayin refers to fermented grape juice in verse 3, does this not also mean that it refers to fermented grape juice in verse 20? My assertion is that it does not. Why?

1. The Meaning of Yayin

The term yayin is a word that can have different meanings depending on the way in which it is used. In fact, Numbers 6:3-4 is a great example that this is true. How so? We remember that earlier in our study of verse 3, we established that yayin was used to refer to the fermented juice of the grape. Now, in verse 4, we see that the word takes on a completely different meaning. Here the Nazarite is told that he is not to eat anything that comes from the ‘gefen hayayin’ (Strong’s H3196). This phrase is translated by the KJV as “vine tree” and the NASB as “grape vine”. Therefore, we see that meaning of yayin has changed in a single verse from fermented grape juice to the grape itself. With this in mind, we must acknowledge that the way in which one understands the meaning of the word yayin in verse 20 will be greatly impacted by the definitional presupposition that one brings to the interpretive table.

2. The Lack of Shekar

One of the reasons we concluded that yayin referred to the fermented juice of the grape in verse 3 was because it was paired with the word shekar. However, in verse 20 we see that the word shekar is conspicuously lacking. If the author intended to convey that the Nazarite was now released to partake of intoxicating drinks, he could have used the phraseology of verse 3 that would have clearly indicated such – “the Nazarite may drink yayin and shekar” – but he did not. On the other hand, we could ask why the writer not state that the Nazarite was now free to return to ‛ênâb mishrâh? To answer this, we should note that It is interesting that this phrase is found only once in Scripture – in Numbers 6:3 – seemingly used as a special circumstance phrase to demonstrate the contrast between fermented and unfermented grape juice there. Since no contrast is being made in verse 20, yayin is a perfectly acceptable term to use to refer to unfermented grape juice instead of ‛ênâb mishrâh – the meaning being that the Nazarite was now free to drink the unfermented juice of the grape and more generally the proper usage of the grape products.

3. Religious Ceremony

We should also recognize that verses 13-21 are given in the context of the religious ceremony performed at the end of the period of the Nazarites vow. Since Scripture is clear that fermented yayin is not permitted in religious ceremony (Leviticus 10:8-9) then it would be proper to interpret yayin here as unfermented.

4. Scripture as a Whole

In my study of Scripture and alcohol, I am swayed by the evidence that the Bible refers to two substances as wine – namely a fermented product and an unfermented product. God blesses and approves the usage of the unfermented product and condemns the usage of the fermented product.

In closing

I will humbly and readily admit this is one of the more challenging passages of Scripture for the two-wine theorist. However, I have prayerfully and studiously attempted to give a reasoned explanation of my interpretation of the passage. Again, I am convicted that the weight of Scriptural evidence is on the side of the abstinent two-wine position. However, I believe that many genuine Christians hold to the permitted but not wise or moderation positions. In any case, all genuine Christians should vehemently oppose drunkenness and affirm with the apostle Paul“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NASB

Let me know if I missed anything or if you have additional info.

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Justin Breeden
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About the Author

Author: Justin Breeden

I am Justin Breeden. My wife, Stacy, and I live in Dandrdige, TN. Currently the pastor of French Broad Church of the Brethren. Previously I served as Pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Knoxville, TN for two and a half years. I am studying the Two Wine Theory. Regarding my faith, I praise God that the Lord Jesus Christ was pleased to save me by His grace during the summer of 2006 at the age of 22.

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