Nazirites are persons consecrated to God through a special vow. The basic text concerning the Nazirites (Heb. nāzîr, from the root nzr, to separate, closely related to ndr, to vow) is Nm 6.1–21, according to which they have a threefold obligation: to abstain from wine and all fermented drink (see Rechabites: Jer 35.5–8), to leave their hair uncut, and to avoid all contact with dead bodies. The first provision seems to be a reaction of Israel's nomad background against the agricultural life adopted in Canaan, seen as a corrupting influence, and the third is connected with ritual purity; the second provision is undoubtedly a very ancient practice, but one to which it is difficult to assign an explanation.
Although Nm 6.1–21 belongs to the priestly tradition (see priestly writers, pentateuchal), and is, therefore, a recent text, it is certain that it codifies a very ancient custom. The vow of the Nazirites is mentioned in several historical and prophetical texts of the Bible and seems to have taken different forms in the course of time. The earliest texts that speak of it, Jgs 13.4–5, 7, 13–14;16.17 (Samson), 1 Sm 1.11 (Samuel), and Am 2.11–12, present the consecration of the Nazirites as lifelong, and as resulting from a divine call. Of the three obligations of the Nazirites given in Nm 6.1–21 only the one concerning the hair is mentioned in the cases of Samuel (1 Sm 1.11) and Samson (Jgs 13.5)—though abstinence from wine is imposed on Samson's mother—and only the one concerning wine in Am 2.11–12. The practice of the Nazirite vow was certainly still known in the later period of the Old Testament (1 Mc 3.49–51) and in New Testament times; and it is mentioned in Josephus and in the Talmud. St. Paul made a vow of this kind at Cenchrae (Acts 18.18) and offered the prescribed sacrifices along with four others, at the Temple of Jerusalem (Acts 21.23–24). Some think that St. John the Baptist was also a Nazirite (Lk 1.15).
Nazirites are found, therefore, throughout Biblical history. One must see in this practice a particular manifestation of religious asceticism, and also, in the early period of Hebrew history, a symptom of the reaction of Yahwism against the Canaanite influence.
Bibliography: m. jastrow, "The Nazir Legislation," Journal of Biblical Literature 33 (1914) 266–285. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 466–467. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek (1618).
[a. l. barbieri]