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Roy Gane on the Nazirite in Numbers 6

March 12, 2009

After my post earlier this week Why Does a Nazirite Need a Sin Offering? I was able to get a copy of  Roy Gane’s thoughts on the subject with a littel help from John Hobbins. Roy Gane puts forward an interesting argument for the reason behind the Nazirite vow in his article “The Function of the Nazirite’s Concluding Offering,” in Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible pp. 9-17.

Gane bases his understanding of the חטאת offering in Numbers 6:13-21 on analogy to the initiation of the priests in Lev 8. In both cases the sacrifice purifies the participant and makes them more holy to YHWH.

Before this sacrifice, he [the Nazirite] has already been holy from the beginning of his votive period. But after this, he is to shave his hair and put it on the fire under the well-being offering (Num 6:18), thereby relinquishing the token portion of himself that represents his separation to holy YHWH. The irrevocable and therefore permanent dedication of hair would consecrate the Nazirite, pars pro toto, to a higher level of holiness. This extraordinary votive gift of symbolic self-sacrifice to YHWH (cf. v. 2) is as close as the Israelite cult comes to human sacrifice. (p. 14)

This is a bold idea. Not only would it explain why the Nazirite has a purification offering right before giving up his/her vow, it would also answer the more fundamental question of what the heck a Nazirite vow was supposed to do. But, there’s a catch: it’s predicated on an understanding of hair rites that really doesn’t with the biblical understanding of these rites.

Saul Olyan has shown quite persuasively that hair rites (like the one found in Num 6:19) indicates a status change on the part of the participant;  see his article “What Do Shaving Rites Accomplish and What Do They Signal in Biblical Ritual Contexts?” JBL 124 (2005): 601-16. The understanding of the hair representing the individual pars pro toto is not found in biblical ritual texts; it’s been imported from other cultural contexts (ultimately going back to William Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites).

As such, Gane is able to explain one element at the cost of another. His understanding of the חטאת offering as the ultimate push of purification, based on analogy to the priestly consacration, is more in line with the offering’s use elsewhere than is Milgrom’s proposal. However, he then has to punt on what comes next by falling back on the idea of hair as self-offering.

In short, Gane’s theory both explicates and further problematizes the text for me.

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