A hairy man in the wilderness
The ancient vow
As Matthew describes John, he stresses both his appearance and his diet. In the First Century, John became the latest in a succession of men whom God called to a radical level of consecration, These men capitalised upon an ancient vow through which they acquired sufficient spiritual stature to openly criticise the leaders of their priestly cast. However, in doing so they gained a distinctive appearance that became the hallmark of a prophet. Yet, John’s appearance was about more than just a lifestyle. Both his clothing and his diet provided prophetic signs that pointed to the process in which he was engaged.
At the announcement of John’s birth to his father, Zacharias, the angel’s command to abstain from wine and beer echoed the events accompanying Samson’s birth and the requirement for him to follow a Nazirite lifestyle (Luke 1:15, cf. Judg 13:4). On this latter occasion, the angel did not have to spell out the full requirements, for the scriptural connotations were clear enough and a priest could be expected to fill in the gaps. In Samson’s case, his Nazirite lifestyle conferred the power to begin the liberation of Israel from the Philistines and, whilst John’s task may have been a different one, the command was again a matter of ensuring he carried sufficient spiritual authority for his God-given role.
Exceeding God’s expectations of a high priest
The section of Numbers that deals with the Nazirite vow focuses on the Levites, but the vow clearly conferred a priest-like status. The sacrifices offered upon its fulfilment resemble those at the inauguration of the priesthood (see Appendix N). Moreover, the Nazirite received a dedicated portion of the peace offering, just like a priest. However, the Nazirite vow went beyond the basic requirements of priesthood. As the one following such a vow demonstrated the capacity for consecration beyond that required of the High Priest, it was reasonable to grant them service in a priestly role. Priests lived under specific restrictions that intensified with the priest’s level of consecration. Hence, it originally appears to have functioned as a route by which aspiring Levites could enter service in priestly roles such as judge or teacher.
The Law forbade priests in general from drinking wine when on duty at the sanctuary, defiling themselves for all but their closest relatives and using extreme expressions of grief, such as shaving bald spots in their hair and slashing their body (Lev 10:9-10, 21:1-3). However, the High Priest faced tougher restrictions, he could never drink wine because he was always in the Sanctuary, could not approach a dead body, even of a loved one, and was not to so much as dishevel his hair in mourning (Lev 21:10-12)1. The Nazirite vow took the special restrictions upon the High Priest and intensified them yet further. Thus, the abstinence from wine becomes abstinence from any grape product and not dishevelling the hair for mourning becomes not trimming the hair at any time (Num 6:3-7). Similarly, the high priests embargo on approaching any dead person intensifies to avoiding even the sudden death of a person next to you2.
God had promised to be with Aaron’s mouth, so any who occupied that post could expect to prophesy (Exod 4:15, cf. John 11:49-51). This ability to prophecy came with the Spirit that was upon leaders, like Moses and Aaron and, with God’s assistance, they could delegate it (Num 11:24-25). However, those who exceeded the High Priests level of consecration could reasonably expect to circumvent the need for delegation and receive that privilege directly. Thus, when the leadership fell from grace, the Nazirite vow kept open a route to receiving the Spirit of prophecy and becoming a mouthpiece for God. The hairiness of the Nazirite conferred upon those who undertook the vow the ability to intervene on God’s behalf and to challenge problems at the highest level in Israelite society.
The difference it made
The account of Samson focuses upon the outcome of forsaking a Nazirite vow, as one by one Samson is tempted to compromise each element of his enhanced consecration. Through wild honey from a corpse, his own pre-nuptial drinking party (Judg 14:10) and the allure of a woman, he eventually allows that temptation to subvert his purpose.
The sub-plot of Sampson’s story is the liberation of Israel from Philistine control, a process that Samson’s lack of consecration left him unable to complete, even though he eventually gave his life for that cause. It would fall to Samuel to complete the task that Samson had begun (1 Samuel 7:1-14). Both men were, like John, children of promise, the clear angelic decree that announced Samson’s conception being equivalent to the uncomprehending assurance of Aaron’s heir, Eli, that Hannah’s prayer would be answered. That Samuel was to resume Samson’s task, suggests that we should find profound significance in Hannah’s response, to Eli’s suggestion that she is drunk (1 Sam 1:15), with its hint echoes of the command to abstain from wine and beer. Then, come the time for solid food, Samuel’s transfer to the sanctuary (1 Sam 1:23, 1 Sam 3:3) ensured that he would eat only clean foods and avoid contact with dead bodies. Although the scriptures fail to mention Samuel’s hair, a Nazirite lifestyle is nevertheless implied, both by the features of his earlier life, but also by the fact that he finished Samson’s task (1 Sam 7:3-14).
The similarities in the preparation of Samson and Samuel invite a comparison of the two men’s lives. Although the Lord conferred upon Samson both the wisdom to pose riddles and the strength to defeat his enemies, he applied them primarily for personal gratification, confounding others and settling scores, until that is he came to his senses in the temple of Dagon. By contrast, as Samuel applied himself to serving the interests of God most High, the Lord defeated his enemies before him. Samuel’s early days spent serving in the House of the Lord lead to success, whilst Samson’s failures leave him serving his latter days in foreign captivity. The contrast between them echoes something of that between Abram as he was before he entered the service of God most High and Abraham as he became afterwards. Between Samson’s failure and Samuel’s success lay the judgement of Gibeah, the pivotal moment when Israel chose to pluck out that part which flirted with disobedience and thereby regained its strength. What Samson began, Samuel completed with the re-establishment of a priest-king after the order of Melchizedek that enabled the cleansing of the land. With Samuel, the hairy man’s ability to intervene had come to the fore.
Hairy men and their hairy garments
The cultural association of hairiness with the Nazirite vow was strong enough to suggest that another ‘hairy man’ who intervened to resolve the problem of an unclean land, John’s forerunner Elijah, had also taken such a vow. King Ahaziah was able to recognise the prophet simply from the description that he was ‘a hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist’ (2 Kngs 1:8, NKJV). Like Samuel, God charged Elijah with the task of anointing kings (1 Kngs 19:15-16), even if he would eventually delegate that task to Elisha (2 Kngs 8:8-15, 9:1-10).
Long after God carried Elijah heavenward, leaving Elisha to pick up his mantel (2 Kgs 2:11-14), the prophet Zechariah would blend the image of Elijah’s hairiness with Jacob’s deceptive mimicry of Esau’s hairy skin (Zech 13:4, Gen 25:25). As he announced the restoration of cleanliness to his unclean land, he declared that prophets would no longer don a hairy garment in order to deceive. Zechariah’s analogy suggests that individuals were reinterpreting the scriptures to bypass the original holiness implications of being a ‘hairy man’, taking the observation that Elisha received Elijah’s cloak along with his prophetic role and capitalising upon the concept of a ‘prophetic mantel’. These false prophets were claiming Elijah’s authority because they looked the part rather than because they had seen heaven opened. Like Jacob, they were donning hairy garments and claiming to be someone they were not. For Zechariah to deliver such criticisms, he was presumably genuinely hairy himself.
Zechariah’s use of Jacob’s deception suggests we ought to see, in the comparison of Esau’s hairiness with Jacob’s smooth skin (Gen 27:11), both a portent of Esau’s subsequent oversight of Israel and a reference back to Adam’s covering (Gen 3:21). Esau’s natural covering resembled that of a goat and the hide of the sacrificial animal of a leader was that of a goat (Lev 4:22-23). The same was true of David’s commissioning offering (1 Sam 16:20). It therefore seems that a natural hairy covering, such as the Nazirite’s hair, could serve as a priestly garment, just as well as one obtained by sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor 11:15). Again, this feature would be useful should the official priestly hierarchy become corrupt.
Zechariah’s words confirm that the hairy cloak, adopted by his wolves in goat’s clothing, was emblematic of any prophet, true or false. Thus, the first century finds the apocryphal Martyrdom of Isaiah projecting this back upon Isaiah, Joel and Habakkuk (Mart Isa 2:7-10) as it describes them driven, along with many others, to retreat into the wilderness where, being naked, ‘they were all clothed with garments of hair, and they were all prophets’3.
An upgrade in authority
Samuel, Elijah and Zechariah, all ministered the spiritual changes required to release their lands from the grip of apostasy. Moreover, the generic role of ‘prophet like Moses’ often involved criticising kings and priests. Therein lies the reason why such prophets had to be ‘hairy men’. For, within the cultic hierarchy of Israel, there was a tight link between level of consecration and ability to minister4. For those called to be prophets the Nazirite vow provided an approved way to upgrade their status, step outside the bounds of their caste and address the highest in the land. Thus, John, by consecrating himself more than a high priest, could speak authoritatively to his fellow priests, without the need to do so under the authority of a corrupt priesthood. He could also follow in the footsteps of Samuel and Elijah as a kingmaker.
A prophetic diet in a clean place
By requiring abstinence from wine, the angel who appeared to John’s father inferred that this latter day child of promise was to become a ‘hairy man’. However, for John that raised all manner of lifestyle issues. Even to hint at such a regime was to imply that he would need to take extreme care concerning his personal cleanliness. However, the uncleanness of a nation that shed the blood of its own children was like that of a menstruating woman and its corporate behaviour reduced its people to living corpses. Their presence made the land unclean in a vicious cycle that affected those who lived upon it. Moreover, contact with them tainted anything that was capable of becoming unclean, people, clothing and foodstuffs (Hag 2:11-13, Lev 11:31-36, 22:4, cf. Ezek 4:13).
Radical measures were required for John the Baptist to maintain his cleanliness. Thus, although John adopted the symbolic uniform of a prophet, he used camel’s hair, which he could gather directly from the ground during the wild camels spring moult5. As the Lord called for Elijah to declare a drought and precipitate famine He led Elijah out to hide in the wilderness at Cherith (1 Kgs 17:1-18:2). Similarly, in the time of Jeremiah, the Rechabites decision to shun city life and live in tents appears related to the cleanliness of the land, for they, like John, were to abstain from wine (Jer 35:1-11).
Like Moses, Elijah and the Rechabites, John shunned the man-fashioned ground. He went into the Judean Wilderness, an uncultivated empty place, untouched by the curses of Moab (Luke 1:80)6. This place of outlaws, void of human authority, was incapable of becoming unclean and so incapable of transmitting uncleanliness. In the wilderness, only direct contact could transfer corruption and that was much easier to avoid than contact with the ground. At Cherith unclean scavenging birds (ravens) supplied Elijah’s need for food that, despite its mode of delivery, was by definition clean because God told him to eat it (cf. Acts 11:8). Similarly, John ate the uncontaminated food that God provided, in his case the wild honey and Locusts (Lev 11:22) that he could scavenge7. However, John’s garb and diet were more than just attempts at cleanliness, they also acted as prophetic signs. John’s behaviour reminds us of the time when Israel dwelt in the uninhabited places and enjoy a right relationship with their God (Deut 32:10-13)8. At that time, God fed them what they found in the field and honey from the rock (i.e. wild honey). In the wilderness Israel listened obediently and they shunned the idolatry that would later pollute their land (Deut 32:11-12). Moreover, his food and attire testified to God’s willingness to take the unclean occupants of the wilderness and produce something clean. Locusts were set apart from a group of unclean animals (the swarming things) and, like Isaiah 34’s animals, declared clean by God. John resembled the locusts that he eat, a clean priest set apart amongst an unclean priesthood. Furthermore, both wild honey and camel’s hair were, somewhat exceptionally, considered clean products resulting from the natural activity of unclean animals (m. Bekh. 1:2 H states the normal rule, but m. 'Uq. 3:11 A & m. Nega'im 11:2 A-B imply the cleanliness of these products).
Radical cleanliness in an unclean land
The wilderness was like an isolation ward, you could place unclean things in it without them having ill effects or you could culture the new without fear of cross infection. In God’s case, he used it for both, for it was a place where God could start again, free from the compromise and idolatrous clutter that had accreted to Israel over the years. Thus, whenever God called for voluntary exile from an unclean land, he effectively moved his faithful people into a wilderness. When the Israelite went down to Egypt their shepherding lifestyle was offensive to Egyptians so they dwelt in the unoccupied parts of the land (Gen 46:34). When Moses led Israel out of Egypt, it was in the wasteland that God met with them (Exod 19:2). When some in Judah took Jeremiah’s advice and voluntarily sought exile, it was by the Chebar, at the deserted city mound of Tel-abib (whose Akkadian name meant ‘ruin heap of the flood’9) that God’s Glory established its camp (Ezek 3:15). When the exiles returned it was amidst the wilderness-like ruins of Jerusalem that they would construct the second temple.
A Nazirite in the wilderness
Repeatedly, when God began to reform an apostate Israel, the Nazirite vow came into play. It granted, to those whom God called to it, the authority to judge Israel, criticise an apostate high priest and appoint the nation’s rulers. Such men, whose lives revolved around self imposed constraints of consecration and who bore a natural hairy badge of office, were often to be found in the wilderness, driven there by a terminally unclean land and called to play their part in a new creation. At such times, men, who in godlier times would have been at the heart of the nation, chosen a life of isolation at its unkempt margins or voluntary exile in a far-off place.
Whenever the time came for God to create afresh, it started with people, still unclean from an Egypt or a Babylonia, assembling in the wilderness under the ministry of such men. The land of Goshen, the wilderness of Sinai, Tel-abib and desolate Jerusalem, each saw God at work, restoring the obedience of his people under the tutelage of a man of God. In just such an incorruptible place, John’s diet and his dress both testified to God’s ability to bring the clean from the unclean. A new creation was in progress and, a lot hung upon the angelic command to refrain from wine and beer. It set John apart as a Nazarite and a prophet, the person destined to become the first century’s hairy man in the wilderness and the de-facto senior Aaronic priest in God’s new creation.
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1 For a discussion of what it meant to dishevel the hair, see Victor P. Hamilton, “1824 פָּרַע (pāra˓) III, let go, let loose, ignore,” TWOT, 736-37.
2 If someone died suddenly next to a Nazirite they had to go through a procedure that echoed that used for the ‘leprosy’ resulting from disobedience, rather than the standard procedure for dealing with death. Thus, the procedure treats being near to someone who died suddenly as disobedience.
3 Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, 2:160.
4 Eg., Hezekiah supplemented the priesthood with Levites who had been more diligent in consecrating themselves (2 Chr 29:5, 10, 34, 30:2-3, 13-17).
5 This is still the normal way to gather camel’s hair for clothing, see Cashmere and Camel Hair Fact Sheet. Cashmere and Camel Hair Fact Sheet, (Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturer's Institute). [Cited: 3 March 2009]. Online:http://www.cashmere.org/cm/facts.php.
6 For the characteristics of wilderness see Denis Baly, and Paul J.Achtemeier, “Wilderness,” Harper's Bible Dictionary, 1133-34.
7 God’s desire to feed his people with honey (Ps 81:16) and the positive portrayal of their eating it (Deut 32:11-12) both confirm it was considered a clean food.
8 The words desert and wasteland in verse ten both carry the sense of being not only unproductive but uninhabited places – see “4497 I. מִדְבָּר (miḏ∙bār),”Dictionary of Biblical Languages, n.p.; “3810 יְשִׁימֹון (yešî∙môn),” Dictionary of Biblical Languages, n.p.
9 Yoshitaka Kobayashi, “Tel-Abib,” ABD, 6:344