נָזִיר‬ אֱלֹהִים‬‎ ‎‫

The Hebrew word “nazeer” (pardon my transliteration) means to be separated and held apart, and in the formulation “nazeer Elohim”, it means to be consecrated for the gods. There are several places where “nazeer” shows up in the Old Testament. In Numbers, God tells Moses about a vow for those (men and women) who would dedicate themselves to God and who would be called (in an English translation) “Nazirites”. The formulation in Numbers is “nazeer Lalhwah”. We know that Nazirites swear to not cut their hair, drink alcoholic beverages, or be near dead or unclean things. We can perceive that this was intended as a short-term activity performed by consenting adults, as there are both starting and finishing rites involved, including some complicated hand waving around the haircut. 

Because the hair of a Nazirite can get quite long, this presumably became a metaphor to describe uncut vines when used in the formulation “nazeer ihnehvey”, or literally sacred grapes. It’s interesting that such a metaphor could form when there aren’t actually very many Nazirites in the Old Testament, except for the stories of Samson in Judges, and Samuel, unless it was already a common vow. There were other traditional tales of Nazirites still present in commentary, and the idea of Nazirites was active in the early first century, so it’s safe to assume that this was a regular feature of Second Temple culture. 

Samson is really in more than one story in Judges, probably more like three, and it’s not clear they were constructed chronologically, so the first and last bits might not be as old as the middle, or something like that. The story starts in a manner befitting a prophet, with a barren wife who is visited by an angel and tells her of an upcoming son. This child is to be a Nazirite in the womb, and remains one until his death, so even his mother is required to follow the Nazirite rules of avoiding alcohol, death, and razors.

Although the next two stories are told sequentially, there’s more than enough similarity to mark these as two versions of the same tale. Samson fought against the Philistines at a time when they ruled over the Hebrews, so these are hero tales about a guy who was tormented by a manipulative Philistine woman and who takes his revenge by killing increasing numbers of Philistines. In the first tale, it is the daily weeping that takes its toll, causing Samson to share with his fiance the secret to the riddle he had given her brother and cousins. This was the occasion of much pointless bloodshed.

The second story tells of a much more sophisticated Samson, who has a named girlfriend this time, and who lies repeatedly instead of revealing his secret. Again, the emotional manipulation of a weeping woman causes his fortitude to sublimate directly into vapor. Here, the result of his foolhardy divulgence is his humiliation and death in the company of his hated Philistine enemies. In this story, as in the birth narrative, it is spelled out that Samson is a Nazirite, and that this is the source of both his great physical strength and tactical genius by which he is able to overcome any opponent. 

This first story has a riddle: “Out of the eater came something to eat, / And out of the strong came something sweet.” It also has the famous line about the ‘jaw-bone of an ass’: “With the jaw of an ass / I have slain a thousand men.” The second story has Deliliah in it, and the dramatic, destructive ending. Both stories are pretty consistent in that Samson defines toxic masculinity, depicted here as a muscle-bound moron with a bad habit of getting violent. The Philistines are the primary foil, so Samson becomes a metaphor in Hebrew culture for someone successfully fighting against brutal, foreign domination.

It’s not entirely clear that the writer(s) of the Samson stories had ever paid much attention (or had access) to the droning legalese of Numbers, because while Samson is identified as a Nazirite, he doesn’t really follow the rules. Samson also does a number of things that one would think a Nazirite would specifically not do. He kills a lion early in the tale with his bare hands (a la Heracles), which not only wasn’t kosher butchering, it left him in contact with a dead creature. He later returns and harvests honey from the corpse of the lion, sharing the sweets with his family: so, touching a dead body, and then eating something found in a dead body – all very unclean. 

If there is an implication that wild honey is, like mead, alcoholic, then that would be another error for a Nazirite. There is the wedding scene in the Delilah story in which it is likely Samson drank alcohol, but this is not clearly described. All of this makes his identity as a Nazirite a challenge to understand. In Amos, there is complaining that the Nazirites are given wine to drink, so perhaps the rules were originally more strict and became less so over time. At the same time, it’s apparent from the text that the gift of strength wasn’t an aspect of being a Nazirite, but was instead a boon granted specifically to Samson by God, and that being a Nazirite was the payment for that gift. 

It’s made more clear in Hebrew commentary why the Nazirite vow was undertaken. Most commonly, it was taken to assuage some sin or guilt as a short-term (1 to 6-month period) of exceptional devotion. Longer periods of devotion might be occasioned by gratitude for a positive result. Permanent (lifetime) Nazirites were not uncommon then, but since the destruction of the Temple and the elimination of the possibility of performing the sacrifices to end a vow, short-term Nazirites are no longer possible. During the Second Temple period, the High Priests were quite often Nazirites, at least while they were in office. This Nazirite vow is one reason why medieval images of Christ show him with long hair.