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Saturday, February 11, 2012

After that he may drink wine

The Nazarite vow is often mentioned as an example for abstinence today, because of its restriction of drinking wine and strong drink. The entire context of the Nazarite is a separation while under his vow from things that were otherwise allowable. In addition to wine and strong drink, the Nazarite was prohibited from grapes, raisins, grape juice (“liquor of the grape”, KJV), grape vinegar – in fact any product of the grapevine (“nothing that is made of the vine tree”, KJV). Separation from “all things grape” was not the only restriction, however. The Nazarite must not cut his hair but rather allow his locks to grow. He also could not touch a dead body, even an immediate member of his family. (Under the law even a priest could become unclean for the death of an immediate family member.) The Nazarite would fulfill the number of days of his vow (apparently determined by the one making the vow), make the proper offerings, “and after that the Nazarite may drink wine.” Here “may drink wine” is a figure of speech, a synecdoche in which “wine” stands for being released from the entire vow. Being released, they may drink wine, strong drink and the liquor of grapes; eat grapes, raisins, and other products of the grapevine. Restrictions concerning hair and dead bodies default to the regular customs prior the vow.

That the Nazarite was commanded to abstain from the consumption of wine and strong drink while under his vow shows that he normally drank (or could drink) these products. After the vow is completed the Nazarite “may drink wine.” This is clear to the casual observer (and the not so casual!). It allows for the use of wine as a beverage. The Nazarite vow is devastating to the case for prohibition, unless one can prove that wine and strong drink do not here stand for a fermented beverage of the vine tree. Interestingly, in his exhaustive work on wine in the Old Testament, Robert Teachout tries to blunt the effect of this by translating wine (
yayin) as “grape juice” in Numbers 6:20: “and afterward the Nazirite may drink grape juice.” Unless the release is only to “drink grape juice” the effort is nullified. The statement represents the fulfillment of the vow and return to normalcy. Teachout translates “wine and strong drink” (yayin and shekar) as “intoxicating wine” in verse 3. Is the Nazarite only released to drink grape juice, while remaining under all the other restrictions of the vow, or does Numbers 6:20 mean the Nazarite is released from the restrictions of the entire vow after its duration ends and offerings are made? The answer is obvious, and should give pause to the abstentionist and prohibitionist.

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