Lesson 3: Chapters 5-6
Holiness Among the People

Lord of Righteousness,
We are consecrated in our service to You like the vow of service offered by the lifetime Nazirite.  We are bound by our Baptismal and Confirmation vows to serve You throughout our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But, unlike the Nazirite, we do not fear ritual defilement.  Jesus has purified us by His precious blood and freed us from bounds of defilement from sin and death.  The sign of our consecration is not the length of our hair or abstaining from wine.  The sign of our consecration is our participation in the sacrifice of the Mass and in receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior.  Guide us, Lord, in our study of ritual purity and consecration in the Sinai Covenant and give us the courage and conviction to fulfill the vows we have made to You for a lifetime of service.  We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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For it is I, Yahweh, who am your God.  You have been sanctified and have become holy because I am holy: do not defile yourselves ... Yes, it is I, Yahweh, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God: you must therefore be holy because I am holy.
Leviticus 11:44-45

Be consecrated to me, for I, Yahweh, am holy, and I shall set you apart from all these peoples, for you to be mine.
Leviticus 20:26

Chapters 3-4 defined the duties of the chief priests and affirmed that the priesthood was to be firmly rooted in the family of Aaron and the descendants of his sons Eleazar and Ithamar (Ex 29:9; Num 3:10).   Chapters 3-4 also defined the identity and the duties of the three clans of the Levites who were to serve the chief priests and the Sanctuary as lesser ministers (Num 3:7-8).  Three previous events in Israel's history led to God's selection of the Levites as the servants of His chief priests and the lesser ministers of His Sanctuary:

  1. God fulfilled Jacob/Israel's prophetic judgment against his son Levi and his tribe who, along with their descendants, were rejected from participation in the inheritance of the Promised Land because of unjust violence against the people of Shechem (Gen 34:25-31; 49:5-6). 
  2. The Levites consecrated themselves to God by suppressing the revolt of the Golden Calf, an event that marked a decisive change in Israel's relationship with Yahweh in the Sinai Covenant (Ex 32:26-29).  Consecrated in the blood of their brother Israelites, God became their inheritance (Num 18:20-24).
  3. Previously, God claimed every Israelite first-born son and all the male animals redeemed under the "sign" of the blood on the night of the tenth plague when death "passed over" the Israelite first-born males (Ex 11:4-7; 12:1-34).  But God relinquished His claim to the service of the first-born sons of Israel after the revolt of the Golden Calf. 

As a reward for the Levites faithfulness and loyalty in suppressing the revolt, God chose the tribe of Levi to serve Him in place of the first-born sons (Ex 32:29; Num 3:11-13; 8:17-19).

In Chapter 5 the focus now turns from the commitment and holiness of the priests and the Levites to the commitment and holiness of the individual Israelites.  Not only are the chief priests and Levitical ministers to be totally devoted in their service to God, but the entire community must be entirely committed to living out the commands and prohibitions of the Sinai Covenant.  As in the Sacrament of Matrimony, the relationship between God and Israel in the Sinai Covenant was not a linear relationship but a triangular relationship with God at the apex of the triangle and Israel at each of the two angels at the base. Israel was not only united to God through the Law, which she agreed to live by in order to be a holy people, but Israel's relationship with God under the Law also depended on their relationship with each other within the covenant community, as Jon Levenson puts it "as vassals of the same suzerain" (Levenson, Sinai & Zion, page 53):


God claimed sovereignty over all nations and all peoples of the earth, but Israel enjoyed a special status among those other nations (Lev 20:27).  Only Israel is identified as "my people," the "personal possession" of Yahweh who is Israel's God (Ex 3:7; 5:1; 19:5; Lev 11:44; etc.)-in Leviticus 11:44 God emphatically declares: For it is I, Yahweh, who am your God, followed by the command you must therefore be holy because I am holy (Lev 11:45)The command to be sanctified and to be holy because the Israelites belong to Yahweh, a holy God, is repeated at least ten times in the Pentateuch (Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; Num 15:40; Dt 7:6; 14:2, 21b; 26:19; 28:9).  It is God's holy covenant name, YHWH (Yahweh) that connects God with both the Patriarchs and Moses (Gen 15:2; Ex 6:2-3).(2)

The various laws mentioned in Numbers Chapter 5 are the enforcement of the laws that concerned the necessity for maintaining ritual holiness (defined as that which is "clean" as opposed to that which is "unclean") within the camp that surrounded the holy dwelling place of Yahweh. The Israelites must maintain a state of holiness within the camp that surrounds the Sanctuary for Yahweh to continue to dwell in the midst of His people (Num 5:3; Dt 23:15/14).

The desert Sanctuary's link to the Sanctuary in Eden is a key to understanding the necessity for the purity laws.  Israel was created to worship God in the holy desert Sanctuary just as man was created to worship God in the holy earthly Sanctuary in Eden.  The observance of ritual purity within the camp of Israel was not a vague notion of unacceptability within the covenant community.  Uncleanness meant one had been contaminated by sin in the world, which made one unsuitable for worship or sacrifice.  Uncleanness/sin meant separation from the earthly Sanctuary in the same way Adam and Eve's sin/uncleanness resulted in their separation from the Edenic Sanctuary (Gen 3:22-23; Lev 12:4).  But the Law provided the means for restoration to the Sanctuary and to unity with the covenant community through the observance of the ritual of the cleansing purity rites combined with the ritual of expiation of sin through blood sacrifice.  In the regulations for ritual purity, God identified the "clean" or "good" for His "new creation," Israel, just as He did in the first Creation event (Gen 1:4, 10, 13, 18, 21, 25, 31; 2:16-18).(1)

The three examples of ritual defilement mentioned in Chapter 5 are covered in Leviticus chapters 11-15 and in the Holiness Code found in Leviticus 17-25.  That each case of defilement required the expulsion of the "unclean" person from the camp identifies the seriousness of those states of uncleanness.

Chapter 5: Purification of the Camp

Why did he command these men, and lepers, and those with gonorrhea, to dwell outside the camp?  He teaches us great things from small things.  For if one who touches a dead body is unclean, so much the more is one who kills a man, because he incurs blood guilt.  And if a leper is unclean, so much the more is one who perpetrates various forms of iniquity.  And through the condemnation of one with gonorrhea, adultery is condemned.  For if an involuntary act is abominable, so much more is an act committed deliberately.
Bishop Theodoret of Cry (c. 393-466) Questions on Numbers 8

For Yahweh your God goes [walks] about the inside of your camp to guard you and put your enemies at your mercy.  Your camp must therefore be a holy place; Yahweh must not see anything indecent there or he will desert you.
Deuteronomy 23:15/14

Numbers 5:1-4: Enforcing the Ritual Purity Laws

1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 2 'Order the Israelites to expel from the camp all those suffering from a contagious skin-disease or from a discharge, or who have become unclean by touching a corpse.  3 Whether a man or woman, you will expel them; you will expel them from the camp, so that they do not pollute their encampments, in the heart of which I dwell.'  4 The Israelites did so: they expelled them from the camp.  The Israelites did as Yahweh had told Moses. 

Question: What three conditions required the unclean person to live outside the camp?

  1. Contagious skin diseases
  2. Contagious sexual diseases
  3. Becoming ritually impure by contact with a corpse

In each of the three cases the cause of uncleanness was sin, whether personal sin as in the case of contracting a sexual disease through adultery or the innocent victim of another's sexual sin and pollution by the curse of death; all are the result of the sin of Adam and Eve through which death and disease entered into the world: For God did not make Death, he takes no pleasure in destroying the living.  To exist-for this he created all things; the creatures of the world have health in them, in them is no fatal poison ... (Wis 1:13-14).  Ritual uncleanness rendered the person unfit to approach God in the Sanctuary or to live within the camp of God that surrounded it.  Outside the camp was neutral ground.  The camp was also neutral ground but it differed with the rest of the world in one respect-the camp surrounded the holy Sanctuary and was within the contamination range of that which must remain sacred and holy (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 33).

The first two "unclean" conditions refer to contagious diseases that could contaminate the camp and threaten the sanctity of the Sanctuary.  It was the duty of the chief priests, acting as "spiritual" public health inspectors, to determine if a person's skin condition was contagious (Lev 13).  They did not provide a cure (except in the case of an impure dwelling); instead they determined one's fitness to continue to live within the camp and to participate in worship at the Sanctuary.  Contagious sexual diseases also required separation from the camp until the person was cured.  Normal discharges, like a woman's monthly bloody discharge, did not require separation from the community.  The menstruating woman remained in a state of ritual impurity and was quarantined within the community for a period of seven days or until the flow of blood ceased (Lev 15:19-30; JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 33). 

For the sake of maintaining the ritual purity of the camp, those with contagious skin diseases or contagious sexual diseases were forced to live outside the camp.  They were not excommunicated from the covenant people and could continue to travel with the tribes but they could not participate in worship within the Sanctuary and must always keep a distance from the body of the community.  If the person was cured or recovered from the contagious disease he/she was examined by a priest who then performed the necessary purity ritual.  After a seven day purification process the person was allowed to return to camp and to the worship in the Sanctuary on the eighth day (see Lev 14:1-32).

Question: Why did coming in contact with a dead person's body require a period of separation and ritual cleansing (a topic that will be discussed in Chapter 19)?  See Wis 2:23-24.
Answer: Contamination by a corpse required separation because death was the ultimate affront to God's plan for man's continued relationship with the Divine.  Man was created to be an immortal being that lived in communion with his creator.  After the Fall man retained his immortal soul but his body was subject to corruption and death.

Man was not created to be a victim of death: For God created human beings to be immortal, he made them as an image of his own nature; Death came into the world only through the Devil's envy, as those who belong to him find to their cost (Wis 2:23-24).  Question: What is the nature of death that Satan brought into the world through Adam's sin?  What was God's remedy for the devastating effect of death?  See Wis 1:13; Rom 5:12 and CCC 400-403, 413, 1007-10, and 1018-19.
Answer: The death which Satan introduced into the world is spiritual death-the separation of man from the grace of an eternally intimate relationship with God.  Physical death is its costly penal consequence, but by His sacrifice Christ has transformed the curse of physical death.

Tertullian wrote that through Jesus Christ "the flesh is the hinge of salvation" (De resurrectione carnis 8,2).  Jesus Christ has transformed the curse of death into an eternal blessing and the gateway to heaven.  All human beings are subject to death; however, in the case of those who have been justified by grace, death loses its penal character, becoming merely a consequence of sin in the world and an entrance into eternal life (CCC 1010-14, 1020, and 1027).  In the case of Jesus and His mother, who were both born without sin, death was not a punishment for sin or a consequence of sin, but because they were both fully human, death was natural for them.

In the case of defilement by contact with death, the expulsion from the camp of God was only temporary. 

Question: Under what conditions was the person defiled by death allowed to return to the camp?  See Num 19:11-16.
Answer: The person had to undergo ritual purification for a period of seven days.

Question: Why was a chief priest forbidden to become unclean by contact with a corpse unless it was a close relative but a high priest was forbidden to even touch the dead body of his father or mother?  Lev 21:1-4; 10-12.
Answer: The chief priests had to maintain a state of ritual purity in order to serve in the Sanctuary.  The seven-day purification period took them away from that service and therefore contact with a dead body was only allowed in the case of the death of the closest family members (with the exception of a married sister who became a member of her husband's family).  As for the high priest, his continual presence in the Sanctuary was absolutely necessary.  For the sake of the entire community, he could not forgo his duties even in the event of the death of his parents or children.

Numbers 5:5-8: Additional Rules Concerning the Sin of Reparation ('asham) in the Case of a Previous False Oath

5 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 6 'Speak to the Israelites: "If a man or woman commits any of the sins by which people break faith with Yahweh, that person incurs guilt.  7 The person must confess the sin committed and restore in full the amount owed, with one-fifth added.  Payment is to be made to the person wronged.  8 If, however, the latter has no relation to whom restitution can be made, the restitution due to Yahweh reverts to the priest, apart from the ram of expiation with which the priest makes expiation for the guilty party. 9 For of everything the Israelites consecrate and bring to the priest he has a right to the portion set aside.  10 Whatever anyone consecrates is that person's own; whatever is given to the priest belongs to the priest."'

In this particular case the 'asham sin of reparation is described as a crime of ma'al, a Hebrew word that is usually used for the sacrilege that is the misappropriation of sacred property or a sin against what is holy, like an oath in God's name (Levine, Numbers, page 186).

Question: There is a case of intentional appropriation of what is deemed sacred property in the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:1 when he kept the spoils of war that were Yahweh's property under the curse of destruction (herem).  What happened to Achan?  Did the sin of one man in claiming sacred property put the entire community in peril?  See Josh 7:22-26; 22:20.
Answer: He was executed.  Yes.

In Leviticus chapter 5 the Law provided a way out for someone who inadvertently misappropriated sacred property or the property of a fellow Israelite.  The person was allowed to make full restitution plus pay a penalty of 20 percent of the loss incurred.  Examples of the penalty for defrauding fellow covenant members are detailed in Leviticus 5:20-26.  When a covenant member had defrauded a covenant brother or sister, that person had both sinned against his fellow Israelite and broken faith with God (Lev 5:21/:6:2).  In such cases the sin could be amended by making reparation for the amount defrauded plus an additional 20 percent, paid to the offended covenant member (5:24/6:5).  After the reparation was made, the sinner then brought the priest an unblemished ram as a sacrifice of expiation and his sin was forgiven. 

This section addresses the case where a person has defrauded his fellow Israelite in the past and got away with the crime by swearing falsely that he was innocent.  Without further proof there was no way to prosecute the sinner and recover the property rights of the fellow Israelite. This addition to the Law provided the incentive to come forward and to acknowledge the crime.  The instruction in this passage supplements the commands for a sin of reparation in Leviticus in two ways:

  1. If the offending party finally came forward after the defrauded person had died and there was no surviving kin, the reparation fee was given to the officiating priest.
  2. The reparation must be preceded by confession in which the sinner acknowledged the sin by confessing the crime and by accepting the blame in the same way confession was be made for other sin sacrifices classified as hattat (see Lev 4:1-5;13 and the lesson in the Leviticus study on Chapter 4).

According to the Law, only sins of inadvertence can be forgiven (Lev 4:13, 22, 27; 4:15, 17; Num 15:27-31).  Deliberate sins, which are brazen offenses against God, are publishable by exile or death (cf. Num 15:30-31; Jer 5:2-3; Zech 5:4; Mal 3:5).  In the example given in this passage, someone who has wronged God by misappropriating sacred property or defrauded a fellow Israelite and wronged God by falsely swearing his innocence could still come forward to acknowledge his guilt years later even though it is obvious that his crime could hardly be an unintentional sin.  In Leviticus confession is required in cases in which the sin against God is permitted to be expiated by sacrifice (cf. Lev 5:1-4; 16:21).  In this case of sin compounded by false oath swearing, in order to be forgiven the guilty party must:

  1. Come forward to confess his guilt to the priest for both the initial misappropriation of goods and for his subsequent false oath.
  2. He made restitution plus 20 percent which was paid to the person wronged or his heirs.  If there were no heirs the repatriation fee went to God who gave it to His priests.
  3. After fulfilling these obligations, he brought a ram as a sacrifice of expiation, and the priest forgave his sin.

Question: In this passage, what seems to meditate the penalty of the deliberate sin?
Answer: In this case the suggestion is that even if one has deliberately offended God by defrauding a fellow Israelite, his deliberate sin is reduced to an inadvertency and qualifies for sacrificial expiation if the sinner exhibits genuine remorse and acknowledges his sin by confession and submission to the prescribed reparation penalty. 

For the sake of a repentant sinner, God will compromise His justice and render mercy by reducing the crime from a deliberate act punishable by death to an inadvertent sin, expiable by sacrifice.  The passage concludes by affirming that the officiating priest received a portion of the meat of the sacrificial victim in return for performing the expiatory rites (see Lev 7:7). Verse 9 refers to additional donations of food items which the offerer may donate to the priest of his choice.  Nonperishable donations were kept by the Sanctuary and could not become the property of any individual priest (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 36).

But what happens when a person's conscience does not prompt confession and repentance and there are reasons to suspect a personal has violated the Law and is putting the community at risk?  The next case concerns suspected adultery.  Adultery was a capital punishment crime (Lev 20:10), but according to the Law no one could be condemned to death on the testimony of a single witness (Num 35:30).  Where there was serious suspicion of the crime of adultery, there was an alternative procedure in trial by ordeal that was intended to solve the dilemma for the family and the community.

Numbers 5:11-31 records a ritual used when a possible false oath concerning one's state of ritual purity, or rather impurity, might affect the sanctity of the Sanctuary.

Numbers 5:11-14: Part I in Cases of Suspicion of Defilement: Presenting the Case

11 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 12 'Speak to the Israelites and say: "If anyone has a wife who goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 if some other man sleeps with the woman without the husband's knowledge, and she secretly makes herself unclean, without any witness against her, and without anyone catching her in the act; 14 if, then, a spirit of suspicion comes over the husband and makes him suspicious of the wife who has disgraced herself, or again is this spirit of suspicion comes over him and makes him suspicious of his wife even when she is innocent ...

This case deals with a wife who was suspected of conjugal infidelity without proof or two or more witnesses to testify that the crime of adultery had been committed.  This passage is not addressing ritual defilement that can occur in cases of normal marital relations (Lev 15:18), but addresses the suspected death penalty sin of adultery (Ex 20:14; Lev 20:10).

Presumably the woman has already sworn her innocence, but the husband is still suspicious of her guilt.

Question: Having no proof of her guilt, what is the husband's only recourse?
Answer:  His only recourse is to take his wife to the priests at the Sanctuary to test her truthfulness by forcing her to submit to an ordeal.

Numbers 5:15-26: Part II in Cases of Suspicion: Oath, Sacrifice and Ordeal

15 the man will bring his wife before the priest, and on her behalf make an offering of one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal.  He will not pour oil over it or put incense on it, because this is a cereal offering for a case of suspicion, a memorial offering to recall guilt to mind. 

16 "The priest will then bring the woman forward and place her before Yahweh.  17 The priest will then take fresh water in an earthen jar, and on the water throw dust that he has taken from the floor of the Dwelling.  18 After he has placed the woman before Yahweh, he will unbind her hair and put the commemorative cereal offering (that is, the cereal offering for a case of suspicion) into her hands.  In his own hands the priest will hold the water of bitterness and cursing.  19 The priest will then put the woman on oath.  He will say to her: If it is not true that a man has slept with you, that you have gone astray and made yourself unclean while under your husband's authority, may this water of bitterness and cursing do you no harm.  20 But if it is true that you have gone astray while under your husband's authority, that you have made yourself unclean and that a man other than your husband has slept with you ... 21 Here the priest will impose an imprecatory oath on the woman.  He will say to her: ... May Yahweh make you the object of your people's execration and curses, by making your sexual organs shrivel and your belly swell!  22 May this water of cursing entering your bowels, make your belly swell and your sexual organs shrivel!  To which the woman will reply: Amen! Amen!  23 Having written these curses on a scroll and washed them off in the water of bitterness, 24 the priest will make the woman drink the water of bitterness and cursing; when the water of cursing enters into her, it will become bitter.  25 The priest will then take the cereal offering for a case of suspicion from the woman's hands, and hold it up before Yahweh with a gesture of offering, and so carry it up to the altar.  26 He will take a handful of it as a memorial and burn it on the altar. After this, he will make the woman drink the water. 

Numbers 5:17: The priest will then take fresh water in an earthen jar and on the water throw dust that he has taken from the floor of the Dwelling.  The literal text reads "sacred/holy water" (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page, 357), probably taken from the consecrated laver in the Sanctuary courtyard (Ex 30:17-21). An earthen ware jar was also required in the purification ritual of a person healed of a contagious skin disease (Lev 14:5).  If an earthen ware vessel became contaminated it could not be reused but had to be broken (Lev 6:21; 11:33) and it is likely that the vessel used in this case was then broken because of the association with impurity. 

Josephus wrote that the dust was taken from within the Temple, in this case the Tabernacle; the ground of a sacred area was regarded as having great potency for warding off evil or causing it.  Josephus also wrote that if the woman was innocent she immediately conceived and bore a healthy child but if guilty she died (Antiquities, 3.11.6 [272]). 

Numbers 5:18: After he has placed the woman before Yahweh, he will unbind her hair and put the commemorative cereal offering (that is, the cereal offering for a case of suspicion) into her hands.  A better translation is to "uncover her head" (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 357). 

Question: What was the significance of uncovering her head?  See Leviticus 10:6; 13:45; 21:10 in which the literal translation is to "uncover the head" in 10:6 and 13:45 and "his head shall not be uncovered" in 21:10.
Answer: To uncover the head was a sign of mourning (Lev 10:6; 21:10) or disgrace, as in the case of a leper (Lev 13:45). 

The grain offering of her husband was placed in her hands because it now became her sacrifice even though her husband brought it.  The principle is that the sacrifice has an effect on the one who offers it (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 40).  The priest will elevate the grain offering (verse 25) to bring it to the attention of God before placing it on the altar. 

Question: What are the various steps in the first part of this bizarre ritual?

  1. The woman will stand before the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard.
  2. The priest will mix fresh water with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle.
  3. The priest will then uncover the woman's head and place her husband's cereal offering in her hands while he holds the water of bitterness and cursing.
  4. The priest will then put the woman under oath, to which she will reply "Amen" twice.
  5. The woman is given the water to hold, to which has been added her accused sin, written on paper with ink that has been washed off into the water.
  6. The priest then takes the cereal offering from her hands, elevates it to God and carries the offering up to the altar.
  7. A handful of the grain offers is burnt on the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard.
  8. The accused woman is made to drink the water.

Numbers 5:21b-22: ... May Yahweh make you the object of your people's execration and curses, by making your sexual organs shrivel and your belly swell!   May this water of cursing entering your bowels, make your belly swell and your sexual organs shrivel!  To which the woman will reply: Amen! Amen!  Notice the reverse chiastic pattern in the curse: "your sexual organs shrivel and your belly swell" in verse 21b followed by "your belly swell and your sexual organs shrivel!" in verse 22. 

The woman's double "amen" confirms her acceptance of the curse.  This is the first time the word "amen" appears in Scripture.  The double amen is used in the Old Testament as a solemn affirmation (Ps 41:14; 72:19; 89:53) and as acceptance of a curse (Dt 27:15-26; Neh 5:13) and in an acknowledgement of guilt (Neh 8:6).  Jesus uses the double "amen" as an affirmation numerous times in the Gospels.(3)

Numbers 5:23-24: Having written these curses on a scroll and washed them off in the water of bitterness, 24 the priest will make the woman drink the water of bitterness and cursing; when the water of cursing enters into her, it will become bitter.  Adding the offense of which the woman is accused to the water has the psychological effect of the addition of the specific curse for the crime.

The woman stands before the altar to offer up her oath to God.  The grain offering of the husband is barley flour.  Barley was much cheaper than wheat (2 Kng 7:1).  Barley was a staple of the poor (Rt 2:17) and was used as food for animals (1 Kng 5:8).  The usual grain offering is fine wheat flour (see Lev chapter 2).  As in the purification grain offering of the poor (Lev 5:11), neither olive oil or incense was added to the grain offering, both of which were associated with joy (Ps 104:15) and this was not a joyful occasion.

It is curious that the grain offering is described as a "remembrance" offering.  Elsewhere in Scripture a remembrance offering is always for the benefit of the offerer, but it this case the texts adds the clause that is, the cereal offering for a case of suspicion.  Perhaps the grain offering is intended to benefit the husband in his appeal to God to help him find the truth and to be reconciled to it.

Numbers 5:27-31: Part III: The Conclusion

27 After he has made her drink it, if it is true that she has made herself unclean and been unfaithful to her husband, the water of cursing then entering into her will indeed be bitter: her belly will swell and her sexual organs shrivel, and she will be an object of execration to her people.  28 But if she has not made herself unclean, but is clean, then she will go unscathed and will bear children.  29 Such is the ritual in cases of suspicion, when a woman has gone astray and made herself unclean while under her husband's authority, 30 or when a spirit of suspicion has come over a man and made him suspicious of his wife.  When a husband brings such a woman before Yahweh, the priest will apply this ritual to her in full.  31 The husband will be guiltless, but the woman will bear the consequences of her guilt."'

If the woman is guilty, the curse is that she will be forever infertile and unable to bear children.  She will also be held in contempt by the community.  If she is found to be innocent, her reputation is restored.  In either case, her fate rests with God and the community is to take no further action against her.

Question: What is the purpose of the ritual?
Answer: The purpose of this ritual is to place a powerful psychological tool in the hands of the priests to reveal the truth and to either bring justice to the husband or to exonerate a woman unjustly accused.  In either case, the final result is restored peace to the community.

Chapter 6: The Nazirite Vow

The Angel of Yahweh appeared to this woman and said to her, 'You are barren and have had no child, but you are going to conceive and give birth to a son.  From now on, take great care.  Drink no wine or fermented liquor, and eat nothing unclean. For you are going to conceive and give birth to a son.  No razor is to touch his head, for the boy is to be God's nazirite from his mother's womb; and he will start rescuing Israel from the power of the Philistines.' 
Judges 13:3-5

The priesthood and the lesser ministers of the tribe of Levi were dedicated to the Lord's service by heredity.  But what about the ordinary layperson, the men and woman who believed they were called to God's service?  Holiness and service were not the sole prerogatives of the priests and Levites.  Yahweh made a provision for ordinary men and women in the "Nazirite Vow" so that all the members of the covenant community could commit themselves wholly to God by entering into a state of complete devotion to God's service, even being called to service from their mother's womb. 

The Hebrew root n-z-r means "separate oneself," and when the word is used of one who whose separation is for God the word then implies sanctification (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 44). The word nazir is most often translated as "consecrate" or "dedicate" (The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, page 634). The institution of the Nazirite, the one consecrated to God, existed prior to the covenant formation at Mt. Sinai. Joseph son of Jacob is said to be a Nazirite (Gen 49:26; Dt 33:16)). The instructions that Moses received at Sinai were intended to regulate the practice of the Nazirite vow within the Sinai Covenant.

Question: Can you name two other Nazirites in the Old Testament in addition to Joseph?  What made their Nazirite vows unusual?  See Judg 13:5-7, 14; 16:17; 1 Sam 1:11.
Answer: Samson and the prophet Samuel.  Both men were dedicated from their mother's wombs for lifetime service.

Numbers 6:1-8: Conditions of the Nazirite Vow

1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 2 'Speak to the Israelites and say: "If a man or woman wishes to make a vow, the nazirite vow, to vow himself to Yahweh, 3 he will abstain from wine and fermented liquor, he will not drink vinegar derived from one or the other, he will not drink grape-juice or eat grapes, be they fresh or dried. 4 For the duration of his vow he will eat nothing that comes from the vine, not even juice of unripe grapes or skins of grapes.  5 As long as he is bound by his vow, no razor will touch his head; until the time for which he has vowed himself to Yahweh is completed, he remains consecrated and will let his hair grow freely.  6 For the entire period of his vow to Yahweh, he will not go near a corpse, 7 he will not make himself unclean for his father, or his mother, or his brother or his sister, should they die, since on his head he carries his vow to his God.  8 Throughout the whole of his vow he is a person consecrated to Yahweh.

A man or a woman could take a Nazirite vow for a specific reason for at least the period of a month or for a lifetime (Mishnah: Nazir 1:3). When the Jerusalem Temple is completed, there will be a special chamber set aside for the Nazirites to assemble on the southeast side of the Court of the Women (Mishnah: Middot 2:4).  There the Nazirites cooked their communion sacrifices and ate the sacred meal. 

Question: What three abstentions were the signs of a Nazirite's vow?

  1. Abstention from wine or any fermented liquor, vinegar from fermented liquor, and grapes in general (verses 3-4)
  2. Abstention from cutting one's hair (verse 5)
  3. Avoiding contact with a dead person (verse 6-7)

The first abstention from wine or strong drink signified that the Nazirite denied himself a life of ease.  Abstention from fermented liquor was also part of the prevention necessary to avoid neglecting God's Law (Prov 31:4-5).  Drinking fermented beverages could impair one's judgment in discerning what is "clean and unclean" (Lev 10:10).

Question: Can you think of three examples in the Pentateuch where the abuse of strong drink was the cause of a failure in holiness that had disastrous results?  Gen 9:20-27; 19:32-38; Lev 10:1-11; Num 22:1-3; Dt 23:3.

  1. Such neglect or rather outright disregard for the Law may be the case in the Sanctuary violation of Aaron's two elder sons recorded in Leviticus 10:1-3.  After the tragedy of their actions and God's divine judgment, priests were forbidden to partake of wine during their service in the Sanctuary (Lev 10:8-11). 
  1. Noah got drunk in his tent and his intoxicated state allowed his son Ham to take advantage of him, causing the subsequent curse of the descendants of Ham's son Canaan and their disinheritance.
  1. Lot's drunkenness led to an incestuous union with his two daughters who produced Israel's enemies the Ammonites and Moabites.

In the second abstention, the Nazirite's long hair was a symbol of his dedication to God and a sign that his strength came from allowing God's divine power to act in his life.    The third abstention was to avoid ritual defilement from contact with the dead.  Such a defilement lasted a week and prevented the Nazirite from continuing in his vow.  Like the priests (Lev 21:1-2, 10-11), the Nazirite was to avoid anything that caused service to Yahweh to be suspended.

Numbers 6:9-12: A Nazirite Contaminated by Death

9 "If anyone suddenly dies near him, making his vowed hair unclean, he will shave his head on the day he is purified, he will shave his head on the seventh day.  10 On the eighth day, he will bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  11 The priest will offer one as a sacrifice for sin, and the other as a burnt offering and will then perform for the person the rite of expiation for the pollution which he has contracted from the corpse.  He will consecrate his head that same day; 12 he will vow himself to Yahweh for the period of his nazirite, and will bring a male yearling lamb as a sacrifice of reparation.  The time already spent will not count, since his head had become unclean.

Provision was made for when the circumstances of life temporarily suspended the Nazirite's vow, like having someone die in his/her presence.

Question: What provision was made for an emergency situation when the Nazirite had to break the vow?  See verses 9-12 and Numbers 19.
Answer: The Nazirite will undergo the ritual purification associated with coming into contact with a dead person and will shave his head on the last day of the purification process.  On the eighth day he will bring his sin sacrifice (that is a purification offering = hatta't), a whole burnt gift offering, and a sacrifice of reparation to the Sanctuary where he will be re-consecrated and begin his length of service anew.

Numbers 6:13-21: The Ritual of a Completed Nazirite Vow

13 "This is the ritual for the nazirite on the day when his period of vow is completed.  He will be led to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, 14 bringing his offering to Yahweh: an unblemished male yearling lamb as a burnt offering, an unblemished yearling ewe lamb as a sacrifice for sin, an unblemished ram as a peace offering, 15 and a basket of unleavened loaves made of fine flour mixed with oil, and of unleavened wafers spread with oil, with the cereal offerings and libations appropriate to them.  16 The priest, having brought all this before Yahweh, will offer the nazirite's sin sacrifice and burnt offerings.  17 The latter will then offer the ram as a communion sacrifice with the basket of unleavened bread, and the priest will offer the accompanying cereal offering and libation.  18 The nazirite will then shave off his vowed hair at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and, taking the locks of his vowed head, he will put them in the fire of the communion sacrifice.  19 The priest will take the shoulder of the ram, as soon as it is cooked, with an unleavened wafer, and put them into the hands of the nazirite once he has shaved off his hair.  20 With these he will make the gesture of offering before Yahweh; as it is a holy thing, it reverts to the priest, in addition to the forequarter that has been presented and the thigh that has been set aside.  After this, the nazirite may drink wine.  21 Such is the ritual for the nazirite.  If, besides his hair, he has also vowed a personal offering to Yahweh, he will (apart form anything else that his means allow) fulfil the vow that he has made, in addition to what the ritual prescribes for his hair."'

This passage records the ceremony for the fulfillment of a vow for a temporary Nazirite.

Question: What sacrifices and offerings does the Nazirite bring at the completion of the term of his vow?  The "sin offering" is a purification offering (see Lev chapter 4).

The priest's portion of the communion ram and the basket of unleavened cakes are presented by the priest in an elevation offering, after which the Nazirite may drink wine.   

Numbers 6:17: The latter will then offer the ram as a communion sacrifice with the basket of unleavened bread, and the priest will offer the accompanying cereal offering and libation.  Only the fat of the ram is burnt on the altar.  The meat of this sacrifice belonged to the worshiper.  The accompanying cereal offering and wine libation are part of the communion sacrifice (see Lev 7:11-17/7:1-7 and Lev 22:21).  The rest of the meat will be cooked in pots in front of the Tabernacle for the communion meal (Lev 8:31; 1 Sam 2:13; Ez 46:24).  The cakes of bread are not offered on the altar fire but are also eaten by the priest and the Nazirite together with the Nazirite's family and friends in the communion meal.  The purpose of their presentation in the elevation is to sanctify them. The Nazirite's hair is holy and must be destroyed by fire to prevent it from being defiled.  The hair was burned not in the altar fire but in the hearth set up to boil the communion sacrifice in pots (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 49).

In Acts 21:23-26 St. James, Bishop of Jerusalem, asked St. Paul to sponsor four men who are under a Nazirite vow, paying all their expenses as a sign of good will to the Jewish community.  In obedience to the Bishop, St. Paul honored his request and accompanied the men to the Temple, even though it was quite an expensive gesture and Paul understood that Temple worship was no longer part of the New Covenant faith.  Under the Old Covenant the Nazirite could only cut his hair in the ceremony in front of the altar in the Sanctuary/Temple.  St. Paul completed a vow to God at Cenchreae in Greece and cut his hair off there (Acts 18:18).(4)

The Command to give the Priestly Blessing

Excavating a burial cave on the slope of the Hinnon Valley near Jerusalem in 1979, archaeologist Gabi Barkay discovered two small silver scroll amulets that dated to the 7th century BC.  When they were unrolled both scrolls contained the same priestly prayer recorded in this passage-word for word!  This is the most ancient record of Sacred Scripture every discovered.

Numbers 6:24-27: The Priestly Blessing

22 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 23 'Speak to Aaron and his sons and say: "this is how you must bless the Israelites.  You will say:

24 May Yahweh bless you and keep you. 

25 May Yahweh let his face shine on you and be gracious to you. 

26 May Yahweh show you his face and bring you peace." 

27 This is how they must call down my name on the Israelites, and then I shall bless them.'

The blessing is presented in the singular (verses 24-26), blessing Israel as one covenant people, but the framework that surrounds the actual blessing in verses 23 and 27 is in the plural.

Question: How many times is God's holy covenant name invoked in the prayer?
Answer: Three times, which Christians see as another subtle revelation of the Triune nature of God prior to the Advent of Christ.

The first part of each line of the blessing invokes the movement of God's gift toward His people while the second part of each line names His activity on their behalf.

Question: Name the three gifts and three actions.

Yahweh's Gifts Yahweh's Actions
Line #1: Bless Keep/protect (samar)
Line #2: Shine Be gracious
Line #3: Show (bestow) Bring peace

His blessing results in protection, His shining face results in grace; His favor results in peace (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 51). Not only is the blessing that God's face will shine upon the faithful covenant member, radiating His Divine grace, but that the face of the faithful worshiper will reflect the glory of God as Moses' shinning face reflected God's glory after his encounters with Yahweh in the Tent of Meeting (Ex 34:29). The rabbis and the Mishnah identify this blessing as being recited at the conclusion of the morning and afternoon Tamid liturgical services (Mishnah: Tamid 7:2; also see Sir 50:21).

Question for group discussion: 

Just as Israel's relationship to God as the "bride of Yahweh" was a triangular relationship, so is the Sacrament of Matrimony a triangular relationship.  Discuss the dynamics of that sacramental relationship and how a married couple can best express their connection to each other and to God in their faith journey together.



1. In the observance of the ritual purity laws that helped to define a holy people, there was no distinction according to wealth or status, male or female in the application of the laws.  The only differences in status according to wealth under the laws of the Sinai Covenant occurred in circumstance that took into account what one was economically able to offer in sacrifice, ensuring that participation in the covenant did not become an economic burden (Lev 4:3, 13-14, 22, 27-28, 5:7, 11).

2. Dr. Robert Vasholz notes that Exodus 6:2-3 should be translated: I am Yahweh.  To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai; by my name, Yahweh, I indeed made myself known to them.  His argument is that in English translations the particle that is translated as a negative should be translated as an emphatic particle (Vasholz, Leviticus, page 132, note 5).  Dr. Vasholz's argument makes sense in the context of Sacred Scripture.  It is God's holy covenant name, YHWH (Yahweh) that connects God with both the Patriarchs and Moses.  In Genesis chapter twelve, where God first called Abraham, the passage in Hebrew uses His covenant name: Yahweh said to Abram, 'Leave your country...' (Gen 12:1).  God's covenant name is rendered LORD in many English translations, but the literally Hebrew text has the Tetragrammaton: YHWH.   Later, prior to the covenant formation ritual, Abraham addressed God as "Lord Yahweh" in the Hebrew text (Gen 15:2), and Abraham named the site where God provided the substitute sacrifice of a ram for his son Isaac: "Yahweh provides" (Gen 22:14).  The covenant name YHWH (usually translated Yahweh by 20th and 21st centaury scholars) is the most frequently used name for God in the Book of Genesis and it is, in fact, the most frequently used name for God in the Old Testament (about 6,800 times).

3. In Scripture "amen" means "truly" or "so be it", but the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) indicates that "Amen" is a Hebrew acrostic formed from the Hebrew words El Melech Ne'eman, "God is a trustworthy King" (The Jewish Book of Why, vol. I, page 53).  In the book of Revelation, Jesus is called the "Amen", referring to the Christ as "God the trustworthy King" in Rev 3:14.

4. Two famous Nazirites who were contemporaries of St. Paul were Queen Helena of Adiabene, a Gentile convert to the Old Covenant faith and St. James, the first Christian bishop of Jerusalem (Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, page 129; Mishnah: Nazir 3:6D; Eusebius, Church History, fragments from Hegesippus' Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church, Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 8, page 762Also see: Eusebius, Church History, 2.23.5 quoted in The Early Church Fathers volume I page 79.  St. John the Baptist was not a Nazirite because he was a priest and a Nazirite vow of service was not necessary for him.  He was consecrated to God's service from his mother's womb and was not to drink wine because his service to the Lord extended from beyond the Temple, but he was not commanded to abstain from cutting his hair (Lk 1:14-15). See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 6.6.6 and 19.6.1; Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, “Nazirites” page 67f (68 Queen Helena), 75, 129, 148n.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references:

Numbers 5:2 and 6:6: CCC 400-403, 413, 1007-14, 1018-20, 1027