If you are a drug addict or alcoholic, or have a friend or relative that is one, I would like to offer a reflection on Luke 1:15—an example of the information and consolation that true scriptural meditation can offer.
Luke 1:15 carries an extremely important verse for alcoholics everywhere. When the birth of John the Baptist is foretold, the angel Gabriel himself says, “for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” Isn’t that interesting? The angel Gabriel could have said a great many wonderful, holy things about John’s mission or circumstances, but one of the first things that Gabriel mentions is that he was not going to drink any wine or strong drink. It wasn’t just a prohibition against wine. God also has Gabriel mention any strong drink. The Greek word Sikera is a transliteration from the Hebrew term shekar (strong drink). We need to differentiate this term from the Greek word, oinos in that this is a wine made not only from grapes, but includes a strong drink made from grains and other fruits. Sikera always means a kind of “hard liquor.” Sikera was an artificial product, and we could stretch the meaning for our purposes to say that it was an ancient equivalent of drugs. John the Baptist was actually commanded from the very beginning not to drink or drug! So what is going on here?
What the Angel is referring to is actually a special religious group called the Nazirites (the perfect name for a Christian AA group, by the way). We do not read a great deal about the Nazirites in Scripture, but they are most certainly there. The vows for Nazirites are set out in Number 6:1-21, and it is essentially a consecration to the Lord. There are some fairly odd things that a Nazirite was supposed to do: he had to let his hair grow long until he fulfilled his vow (or broke his vow), in which case he had to shave his head. He was not supposed to come into contact with a dead body, for in the Hebrew mindset this was to make one’s self ritually unclean or impure—God is the God of life, so contact with death was seen as something ugly. For our purposes, this isn’t very important. What is important for us is the prohibition against drinking, and the general spiritual reason for it.
This is extremely important for us to understand, particularly as alcoholics. The word from which “nazirite” comes, nazir, means “separated” or “consecrated.” A consecrated thing is “set aside” for some kind of sacred purpose. The vessels used during mass are consecrated—they are “set aside” for a sacred purpose. If we want to think of a simple example, my grandmother had a very special set of china that she only broke out for very important guests. This isn’t exactly sacred, but you get the idea that that china was consecrated for a special purpose, and if we were to use it casually to munch on cheese and crackers, then we would feel the wrath of grandma! So a Nazirite was a man or a woman who had decided to take a very special vow to God and set himself aside for God. By not drinking and not shaving his head, these were outward signs of some kind of inner vow. Thus we can understand that a traditional Hebrew word used for monks—consecrated people—in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions is nazir. The word Nezerim could actually refer to a prince or leader of the people in the sense that leaders are seen as “set apart” from their brethren, or in a way, “head and shoulders” above the rest of the people.
One usually made a nazirite vow for a short period of time, but one could also be a nazirite for life. If was often made for only 30 days, but sometimes for periods of 7 years or, as just mentioned—permanently. And why was this vow made? An example might be something like a man promising that he will be a nazirite until he defeats a certain enemy, or until he wins the hand of a woman he loves, or perhaps as a thanksgiving for some blessing or miracle that he has received. Ancient historians like Josephus mention that the vows was sometimes made in thanksgiving (or request) for being delivered from the clutches of an enemy. It was supposed to be difficult—particularly the part about no drinking. (And we need to remember that in ancient culture, sometimes wine was important for health reasons—the fermentation process kills many bacteria, thus sometimes making drinking wine safer than actually drinking water.) In a certain sense, taking a Nazirite vow was like making a very serious Lenten promise to refrain from drinking, from coming into contact with death, and from shaving one’s head. It was a concrete, visible way that a man or a woman could express dedication and thanksgiving to God. If the rules of the vow were violated, you usually had to shave your head, bring certain sacrifices to the temple, and even start the time period over again. So interestingly enough, becoming a Nazirite mean that you had to take certain steps to “prove” to yourself, God and the community that you were serious about serving God. Sound familiar? One might say that the Nazirites were the first AA’s! Other than the things mentioned, Nazirites had to make a verbal declaration of their vow as well as special sacrifices. Here we see the importance of the Nazirite vow as having a communal aspect, a spiritual aspect, and a personal aspect. It had both a negative and positive aspect: negative in the sense that the nazirite was to separate himself/herself from some worldly things, and positive in the sense that it symbolized a greater dedictation to holiness and purity of life.
We might not think we are even worthy to be “set aside” for God. But shouldn’t we let God make that decision? I once had a crush on a girl in junior high. One day she stepped on a gum wrapper, and in my silly romantic fervor I took the gum wrapper and set it aside in a special box at home. It was consecrated for me because she stepped on it. Not because it was valuable in itself. In a similar way, I can be precious to the Lord simply because he says so–simply because he feels like I am precious. That is all that matters. And not drinking is a kind of sign of that specialness, according to the Nazirite.
This is likely the vow that St. Paul himself is referring to when St. Luke’s writes in the Acts of the Apostles: “After this Paul stayed many days longer, and then took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aq’uila. At Cen’chre-ae he cut his hair, for he had a vow (Acts 18:18). Scripture scholars can only speculate why this may have been the case. The most likely reasons are that Paul was offering a thanksgiving for being delivered from his enemies, or perhaps as even an outward sign to some of the Jews that he did not despise all of their laws, since it was well known that Paul was very critical of circumcision, it may have been some kind of compromise to his enemies for the sake of winning some of them over to the faith. Whatever the reason, we see one of Jesus Christ’s apostles making the vow, as well as the prophet John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said “there is none greater born of woman (Matthew 11:11).”
One of the toughest and perhaps most well-known Nazirites is the figure of the strong man Samson, whose strength was dependent on the length of his hair. An angel actually tells Samson’s mother, “Therefore beware, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines (Judges 13:7-8).” In her case, what is important is that his mother not drink any “wine or strong drink.” He actually tells her the same thing again in verse 14. We are still to understand that Samson did not drink alcohol. Another important Nazirite was Samuel (1 Sam 1:11). It has also been inferred that Jeremiah was a Nazirite. Also, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “If we are to believe the legend of Hegesippus quoted by Eusebius (Church History II.23), St. James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, was a Nazarite, and performed with rigorous exactness all the ascetic practices enjoined by that rule of life.
What are we to really make of all this? For the alcoholic, I think it is quite significant to see that refraining from alcohol or drugs has a very noble spiritual heritage, to the point where there was even a specific class of persons who went through public steps to designate themselves as having some kind of special service to God. Though it has nothing to do with a Nazirite vow, I have often found it touching that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus Christ himself told his apostles, “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25).” There are several very theologically important reasons why the Lord likely said this, but at least one of them is that the Lord is informing his apostles that he is consecrated—set aside—and has a very specific mission to fulfill until he reigns in Heaven. This is a line that the true alcoholic must try to say with the Lord: I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. It is a prayer that may grant strength and consolation, knowing that when he said those words, he was full of anxiety about the events that were going to make up the end of his life. Moreover, on the cross, the Lord refused a sponge that had been dipped in gall (Matthew 27:34). Why? Because gall (myrhh) had narcotic qualities that would have allayed the pain that he was in, and Jesus wanted to feel the full weight of his agony for our sakes. When in his own Passion—when one would have excused even the Son of God for partaking a bit—Jesus Christ himself refused both wine and drugs. But do not be mistaken—his first miracle was making several hundred gallons of wine! Our Savior will save us, and he will save us for the sake of joy. The image of Heaven in Scripture is of the most massive wedding feast imaginable!
I’m not asking you to shave your head necessarily, or grow your hair to your belt, or even swear off wine forever. But in meditating on realities such as the Nazirite vow–particularly for addicts–perhaps it can give us an inspiration about what God might be asking of us.
I do not know if these reflections will benefit anyone. But I offer them nonetheless. May God spare us from our addictions, and may all idols be thrown down before him until we find rest, consolation, and comfort in Him alone. “But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” (Jesus Christ—Luke 21:34-36).
Rev. Dr. Basil Burns