Samson: What Kind of Nazirite Was He?
Among the various sections in parashat Naso (Num 4:21-7:89), the laws of the nazirite (nazir) stand out as the basis for the Sages’ choice of haftara (parallel prophetic reading), Judges 13. This chapter forms the opening of the Samson story and contains the prohibitions conveyed to Samson’s mother in order that he be a nazirite from birth. The similarities with the laws of Numbers 6:1-21 are clear. In addition, no other biblical unit features the ideas of the nazirite as prominently as the Samson story. Only this story involves a coherent extended narrative, detailing the life story of a nazirite.
The haftara, which covers only the first chapter of the story (Judg 13-16), ends at the beginning of Samson’s career, as if to remind us how much more there is. Indeed, Samson is the only named nazirite in the Bible. Most of the other uses of the term נזיר (Gen 49:26; Lev 25:5, 11; Deut 33:16; Lam 4:7) describe a more generic consecration. Amos 2:11-12 assumes that nazirites ought to abstain from alcohol, but these are only two verses in a longer oracle against improper behavior in Israel.
Comparing Samson with Numbers 6
A closer look at the laws of Numbers 6 and the story of Samson in Judges 13-16 reveals far more differences than similarities. Besides the use of the word נזיר, only the rules of cutting hair are shared between the two texts. Samson’s hair is the key to his role as deliverer of his people from the Philistines – the task for which he was consecrated. When his hair is cut, he is no longer able to deliver even himself from the enemy. It is only once his hair has begun to grow back (Judg 16:22; i.e., it is not being cut anymore) that he may ask for strength to bring the temple down (Judg 16:28-30). This is similar to the response to inadvertently coming into contact with a corpse, after which the person must shave the head twice before reconsecrating it by ceasing to shave (Num 6:9-12).
While both texts prohibit the consumption of alcohol, the prohibition in Judges is only incumbent upon Samson’s mother (Judg 13:4, 7, 14), not on the nazirite himself, as is the case in Numbers 6:3-4. Moreover, Samson’s feast (Judg 14:10) almost certainly included drinking, as the word “משתה” is derived from the root meaning to drink. Perhaps more significant to the story of Samson is that he kills many Philistines. He kills 30 Ashkelonians (Judg 14:19), some in revenge for the deaths of his wife-to-be and her father (Jud 15:8), and a thousand with the jawbone of an ass (Judg 15:15-16). This puts him in the presence of dead bodies, expressly in contradiction to the laws in Numbers (6:6-7).
More importantly for understanding the nazirite, however, Numbers 6:2 describes a person – איש או אשה (man or woman) – taking on the obligations of the status of a nazirite. This is described as an obligation of specified duration. The laws have provisions for when that duration is interrupted (6:9-12) and for when that duration is completed (6:13-20). Samson, on the other hand is to be a nazirite from the womb (Judg 13:5, 7); that is, for his whole life.
Moreover, when Manoah’s wife reports her meeting with the angel to her husband, she adds, “until the day of his death” עד יום מותו (Judg 13:7) foreshadowing that this story will end with his death. While it could be suggested that following the divine messenger’sinstructions was akin to a vow, the laws of Numbers 6 make no allowance for vow by proxy, or for a lifelong consecration.
Different Types of Nazirites: Mishnah
The Mishnah recognizes these differences and accommodates them as describing different types of nazirites – temporary, permanent, and those like Samson (m. Nazir 1:2). The Gemara (b. Nazir 4b) seeks to explore the ways in which Samson behaved in contradiction to the laws of Numbers either by suggesting contingencies in the story (he threw the jawbone at the Philistines without touching them) or exceptions to the laws (he was permitted to come into contact with the dead by tradition).
These explanations provide harmony where there seem to be contradictions, allowing us to reclaim Samson as a hero instead of a very troubling character. By accepting these midrashic views, we may see Samson as fully in line with the mitzvot of the Torah, despite the violence of his vocation. Reconciling Samson with the legal material may solve some problems while acknowledging the differences between the texts, but it does not explain these differences.
Samson as a Liminal Hero
The Samson story describes a liminal hero, sitting on the edge of what is acceptable and what is not. His behavior is troubling not only to modern readers but also to his own compatriots (Judg 14:3; 15:10-13). He is far from the ideal leader. He is violent and short-tempered; he is rather promiscuous and he wishes to marry outside his kin group. More than this, however, his consecration as a nazirite seems to weigh on him so heavily that he willingly reveals his secret to the enemy.
The beginning of his career is described as the spirit of the Lord beginning to trouble Samson, ותחל רוח ה’ לפעמו (Judg 13:25). Based on other passive uses of פעם, we may understand this ‘trouble’ as a loss of sleep (Cf.Pharaoh in Gen 41:8; Ps 77:5; and Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 2:1, 3). Only once he has revealed his secret is he able to be lulled to sleep (Judg 16:19) – the same time the Lord leaves him (Judg 16:20; perfect tense). For Samson, perhaps for nazirites in general, being a nazirite is not an easy thing to commit to.
This may be why the laws begin with the formula כי יפליא לנדר (Num 6:2), and why they insist that a person must choose this for herself or himself rather than being born into this status. The laws against alcohol intoxication may be understood similarly: if being a nazirite tends to make a person irritable, violent, or prone to troubling judgments, alcohol consumption would certainly increase that tendency.
The midrash makes a similar point about how much worse Samson would have been had he been permitted to drink (Bereshit Rabbah 10:16). The legal material does not exist merely to explain the story, nor does the story exist just to illustrate the laws; the relationship is much deeper than simple complementarity.
Origin of Nazirite Law
While laws may be written to establish the norms of a society, specific laws are only composed in response to known situations. No law will be written if there is not a concern that people will behave otherwise. The laws of Numbers 6 are, therefore, a response to the problems of being a nazirite. Even though most scholars date Numbers 6 – and the rest of the Priestly legislation with which it is generally associated – to the exilic or post-exilic period, and the Samson cycle is usually dated centuries earlier, there is no reason to assume that the author of Numbers 6 was familiar specifically with the other text. The concern for the author of Numbers 6 is not what to do if a person wants to consecrate him- or herself to the Lord, but how to limit the activities of the nazirite and the difficulties they cause.
Being consecrated to God as a nazirite is hard work – much harder, it seems, than the dedication that God requires from a “normal” person. This difficulty comes in the physical and mental pressures of whatever the job of a nazirite entails – what the nazirite actually does is not totally clear – but also in terms of the social pressures. Samson is liminal not just because he lives on the boundary between Israel and Philistia, but because he has been set apart from his own people.
Priests, a class of people also set apart from the rest of Israel, have a place where they can be among their peers. Places are set aside for the Levites, orphans, and widows, whose status distinguishes them. Nazirites are, it seems, very much alone. The guidelines of Numbers 6, then, provide a way to ease their trouble while maintaining the outlet for those who wish that level of consecration to God. Just as we can read the laws of skin disease from Leviticus 13:1-14:32 not as a way to exclude people with the slightest defects but as a way to include again those who would be shunned based on appearance, we can look at these laws as limiting the behavior that people would do anyway but perhaps to too great an extent.
These laws also preserve community in the face of potentially divisive situations. As someone separated from his people for a length of time, the nazirite is commanded to return to the community by offering a series of sacrifices at the sanctuary. The separation, however, is also social, so the laws also dictate the elimination of that visual element that may be at the core of the social separation: thus the hair must be shaved. In contrast to how Samson antagonized the Philistines to the detriment of the people of Judah, this demand for reassimilation shows the subservience of the nazirite’s consecration to the needs of the group.
Samson as the Impetus for Nazirite Laws
Following the traditional route, and trying to reconcile the two texts forces one to read the story of Samson as an exception to or a unique application of the laws of the nazirite found in Numbers. However, following the biblical-critical chronology, and reading Judges 13 as predating the Torah’s legislation of nazirite law, allows us to read the Torah’s laws as a response to the preexisting phenomenon of the nazirite, with the Samson story as an illustration of the old practice and the Torah’s law of the nazirite as a warning. The Samson story is not a reflection of the Torah law; it is the impetus for it.
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May 14, 2013
February 26, 2024
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Dr. Ely Levine holds a PhD in biblical studies and archaeology from Harvard University. He has taught at Villanova University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Luther College. He has participated in archaeological excavations in Italy and Israel, and is a member of the staff of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavation Project. Currently, Dr. Levine is Scholar-in-Residence and Ritual Coordinator at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania.
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