In his contribution to Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible, Roy Gane examines the anomaly of the concluding purification rite performed by a Nazirite at the completion of his vow. Why would purification be needed? Some have suggested that the purification (hatt’at) desanctifies the Nazirite as he moves from a holy status to a lay status, but this is never the use of the hatt’at elsewhere. The notion, suggested by some, that the purification rite is an “empowerment” doesn’t work either.
Gane finds some help in N. Kiuchi’s (Purification Offering in the Priestly Literature Its Meaning and Function) observations about the parallels between the concluding rites of the Nazirite and the climax of the priestly ordination. Nazirites and priests offer the same sequence of offerings (purification, ascension, peace) and both rites deal with persons in sacred or quasi-sacred status: “Focusing on the inauguration ceremony in Lev 9, Kiuchi observes that the priests, who are already holy after their seven-day period of ordination (Exod 29; Lev 8), nevertheless need expiation/purification through a purification offering (Lev 9:8–11) because they approach YHWH. He concludes that similarly in Num 6, the already holy Nazirite ‘needs expiation/purification simply because he approaches God . . . ,’ not because he has committed any particular offense” (13).
Kiuchi is on the right track, but Gane claims that he doesn’t reckon sufficiently with the differences between the two rites:
“he fails to point out a crucial difference between Lev 9 and Num 6: whereas the priests approach YHWH as officiants, even when they are also the offerers, the Nazirite remains a layperson, who can only approach YHWH as an offerer. In spite of his super-sanctity, he needs a priest to officiate his sacrifices (13).
He also argues that Kiuchi deviates because he focuses on Leviticus 9 rather than on the rituals of Exodus 29/Leviticus 8: “it is the priestly consecration prescribed in Exod 29 and described in Lev 8 that presents the strongest parallels to the Nazirite’s ritual complex prescribed in Num 6. For one thing, in Exod 29 and Lev 8 the priests are only offerers, not also officiants; it is Moses who officiates. Moreover, the special offering of breads in a basket (Exod 29:2–3, 23–25, 32, 34; Lev 8:2, 26–28, 31–32) is strikingly similar to that of the Nazirite (Num 6:15, 17, 19–20). Unique to these two cases of celebrating consecration are baskets containing unleavened cakes and wafers, of which representative items are placed on the palms of the offerers with portions of animal sacrifices (ordination and well-being offerings, respectively) and raised by the officiants as elevation (tenufah) offerings dedicated to YHWH.”
From this angle, Gane suggests that the concluding rites of the Nazirite vow involve the Nazirite’s closest approach to Yahweh. Indeed, the sacrifice of hair on the altar is “as close as the Israelite cult comes to human sacrifice” (14). While “the Nazirite as a whole does not retain his Nazirite sanctity after his hair is burned up and his well-being and grain offerings are finished,” yet “for a brief, shining moment, the ceremony does seem to mark ‘the culminating point of the Naziritehood,’ to borrow Kiuchi’s phraseology.” In short, “the purification offering has a prerequisite function of purification within an overall process of ascending sanctity, as in the consecration of the priests, not the descending sanctity of desanctification” (15).
This shifts the accent of the Nazirite vow significantly. It is not simply that the Nazirite makes a vow, does his work, and then goes through rites to end the vow. Rather, he makes a vow, does his work, and then at the climax of that work ascends to Yahweh through purification, ascension, and peace. At that point, he can drink wine, but this is, in a sense, no ordinary wine-drinking; it is an “eschatological” wine-feast, coming at the completion of His labors. It is nearly (symbolically and ritually, though not literally) wine-drinking in the presence of God, something denied to the priests. This suggests that the Nazirite is not a quasi-priest, but rather a temporary super-priest, a priest who has arrived at the point of being qualified to sacrifice himself (= his hair) on the altar. He has become himself something of a sacrificial victim.
This sheds light on New Testament texts as well. Jesus takes a Nazirite vow at the Last Supper: “I will not drink the fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” With Gan’e view in mind, we can see that this follows the sequence of Naziritehood very strictly: Once He obediently completes His work as a “Nazarene,” Jesus draws near to the Father on the altar of the cross, so that He can feast with new wine in the kingdom.
This also sheds light on the scene in Revelation where the elders cast their crowns before the throne. They are Nazirites, casting down their hairy crowns because their work is completed, entering into the rest of the kingdom. The casting off of crowns is not so much an act of humility as of exaltation, for, like the Nazirite, the crowns cast before the throne ascend to Yahweh. The elders/angels were temporary priests, heavenly Nazirites, but now they make room for human beings, who will be priests and kings to God forever.