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SBL e-journal

Hartley Koschitzky





Nadav and Avihu Diminish YHWH’s Glory at the Tabernacle’s Inauguration





APA e-journal

Hartley Koschitzky





Nadav and Avihu Diminish YHWH’s Glory at the Tabernacle’s Inauguration








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Nadav and Avihu Diminish YHWH’s Glory at the Tabernacle’s Inauguration

To highlight how Israelite ritual is not meant to be a secret known only to the priests, the Tabernacle’s inauguration is conducted publicly, before all the people, including rituals usually carried out in the sanctum. Herein lies the sin of Nadav and Avihu: offering incense before YHWH in the privacy of the sanctum.


Nadav and Avihu Diminish YHWH’s Glory at the Tabernacle’s Inauguration

Nadav and Avihu, p. 165. The Pictorial Bible and Commentator, 1878. The Library of Congress.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two oldest bring an incense offering with “a strange fire” (אֵשׁ זָרָה) at the inauguration of the Tabernacle and are consumed by a divine flame (Lev 10:1–2). Both sons had previously joined their father and Moses in meeting God upon the mountain (Exod 24:1, 9–11), and Nadav was in line to serve as the next high priest. Commentators have debated for millennia what they did wrong, and why it leads to such a harsh punishment.[1] The ritual context of their incense offering offers a clue to their offense.

The Public Consecration of the Priesthood

The construction of the Tabernacle and the appointment of the priesthood are the main themes of the latter half of Exodus.[2] This section includes the command to perform the מִלֻּאִים (miluʾim), a ceremony that features several offerings and blood sprinkled on the body and clothing of the priests, followed by a seven-day waiting period (Exod 29:35); during this period, Moses is told to perform daily cleansings/atonements for the altar.

After a detailed account of sacrificial law (chs. 1–7), Leviticus (ch. 8) describes the carrying out of the 7-day consecration of the priesthood, beginning with a command to gather all the people to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting:

ויקרא ח:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְה־וָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ח:ב קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ וְאֵת הַבְּגָדִים וְאֵת שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וְאֵת פַּר הַחַטָּאת וְאֵת שְׁנֵי הָאֵילִים וְאֵת סַל הַמַּצּוֹת.ח:ג וְאֵת כָּל הָעֵדָה הַקְהֵל אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Lev 8:1 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: 8:2 “Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; 8:3 And assemble the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”

After the people gather, Moses introduces the ritual:

ח:ד וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֹתוֹ וַתִּקָּהֵל הָעֵדָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. ח:ה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעֵדָה זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת.
8:4 Moses did as YHWH commanded him. And the community assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. 8:5 Moses said to the community, “This is what YHWH has commanded to be done.”

Moses then consecrates the priests as described in Exodus, and tells Aaron and his sons that they will need to wait in the tent for seven days.

A Non-Secretive Cult

The public nature of this ritual is striking. As Jacob Milgrom has noted[3] a more secretive approach to the sacrificial service is characteristic of ancient Near Eastern practices.[4] For instance, in the Mesopotamian ritual of covering the temple kettledrum,[5] an instrument whose beating represented the beating heart of the gods, we read:

This ritual which you perform only the properly qualified person shall view. An outsider who has nothing to do with the ritual shall not view it. If he does may his remaining days be few. The informed person may show this tablet to the informed person. The uninformed shall not see it—it is among the forbidden things of Anu, Enlil and Ea, the great gods.[6]

Viewed against this backdrop, the Priestly laws of the Torah stand out as being accessible to the average person. Jon Levenson of Harvard Divinity School notes that this characteristic also distinguishes biblical tradition from Christian practices:

The religious traditions recorded in the Hebrew Bible include no parallel to the monasticism that was to develop in the church.[7]

The biblical authors present the biblical inauguration service and much of the cult service in general in a manner that distances it from the more secretive cult practices of ancient Near Eastern priesthoods. This explains why the passage emphasizes that, upon completion of the rituals, YHWH will appear before all the people.

The Public Ritual of Day Eight

Following the consecration of the priests:

ויקרא ט:א וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי קָרָא מֹשֶׁה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וּלְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Lev 9:1 On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.

Moses then instructs Aaron to bring a sin (or purification) offering (חַטָּאת), and a burnt offering (עֹלָה), and then instructs Aaron to tell the Israelites to bring their own sin offering, burnt offerings, and peace offerings (שְׁלָמִים):

ויקרא ט:ד ...כִּי הַיּוֹם יְ־הוָה נִרְאָה אֲלֵיכֶם. ויקרא ט:ה וַיִּקְחוּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה אֶל פְּנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיִּקְרְבוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיַּעַמְדוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 9:4 …For today YHWH will appear to you. 9:5 They brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded, and the whole community came forward and stood before YHWH.

The instructions in Exodus 29 make no mention of the 8th day inauguration service, but Moses clarifies in Leviticus that the command as well comes from God:

ויקרא ט:ו וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה תַּעֲשׂוּ וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה.
Lev 9:6 Moses said: “This is what YHWH has commanded that you do, that the Glory of YHWH may appear to you.”

Moses then commands Aaron to perform atonement rituals for himself and the Israelites:

ויקרא ט:ז וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן קְרַב אֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת חַטָּאתְךָ וְאֶת עֹלָתֶךָ וְכַפֵּר בַּעַדְךָ וּבְעַד הָעָם וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת קָרְבַּן הָעָם וְכַפֵּר בַּעֲדָם כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה.
Lev 9:7 Then Moses said to Aaron: “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as YHWH has commanded.”

The language here is reminiscent of the Yom Kippur service, in which the high priest expiates for himself, the people, and the Tabernacle. Indeed, since the Tabernacle needs to be purged of all “contaminants” before going into service, a Yom-Kippur-like ritual makes sense. And yet, Yom Kippur contains rituals that are meant to be carried out in the privacy of the inner sanctum. As R. Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, ca. 1195–ca. 1270) noted on Leviticus 9:

רמב"ן ויקרא ט:ג ...ונראה כי בעבור היות טעם החטאת של אהרן כטעמו ביום הכפורים, שרף אותו כאשר ישרוף של יום הכפורים, אף על פי שהיה זה חטאת חיצונה...
Nahmanides Lev 9:3 …And it appears that, because the reasoning for Aaron’s sin offering is the same as the reasoning (for it) on Yom Kippur, he burned it (instead of eating it)[8] just as he burns that of Yom Kippur, even though this is a sin offering done outside [the sanctum]…

Sprinkling Blood: Inside in the Smoke or Outside in Public View?

Nahmanides’ final point is that on Yom Kippur, the blood of both the high priest’s and the people’s sin offerings is sprinkled on the covering of the ark (kaporet) in the inner sanctum:

ויקרא טז:יד וְלָקַח מִדַּם הַפָּר וְהִזָּה בְאֶצְבָּעוֹ עַל פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת קֵדְמָה וְלִפְנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת יַזֶּה שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים מִן הַדָּם בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ. טז:טו וְשָׁחַט אֶת שְׂעִיר הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לָעָם וְהֵבִיא אֶת דָּמוֹ אֶל מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת וְעָשָׂה אֶת דָּמוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדַם הַפָּר וְהִזָּה אֹתוֹ עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת וְלִפְנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת.
Lev 16:14 He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the cover on the east side; and in front of the cover, he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 16:15 He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover.

Indeed, as the priest will literally be in YHWH’s private room, he must cover the act of sprinkling with the smoke of burning incense:

ויקרא טז:יב וְלָקַח מְלֹא הַמַּחְתָּה גַּחֲלֵי אֵשׁ מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וּמְלֹא חָפְנָיו קְטֹרֶת סַמִּים דַּקָּה וְהֵבִיא מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת. טז:יג וְנָתַן אֶת הַקְּטֹרֶת עַל הָאֵשׁ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וְכִסָּה עֲנַן הַקְּטֹרֶת אֶת הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָעֵדוּת וְלֹא יָמוּת.
Lev 16:12 And he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before YHWH, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain. 16:13 He shall put the incense on the fire before YHWH, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the Pact, lest he die.

Even this is not enough secrecy, so the biblical texts emphasizes that no other person, even another priest, is permitted to view this ritual:

ויקרא טז:יז וְכָל אָדָם לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ עַד צֵאתוֹ...
Lev 16:17 When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out.…

This is reminiscent of the Temple Program for the New Years Festivals at Babylon, which has many parallels to the biblical Yom Kippur ritual, where it states:

Twenty-one lines of writing; secrets of the temple Esagil.[9] Whoever revers the god Bel shall show them to nobody except the priest of the temple Ekua.[10]

Milgrom analogizes from the Babylonian New Year rite that in the ancient Near East, priestly lore was “a secret preserve of the priestly guild.”[11] Admittedly, the Torah never goes this far: even the Yom Kippur law is written in a text that is meant for readership outside the priesthood.[12] Nevertheless, the sprinkling of the blood on Yom Kippur, under the cover of incense, in the privacy of the inner sanctum, contrasts sharply with the sprinkling of the blood of both sin offerings on inauguration day on the horns of the bronze altar, which stood outside the Tabernacle:

ויקרא ט:ח וַיִּקְרַב אַהֲרֹן אֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַיִּשְׁחַט אֶת עֵגֶל הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ. ט:ט וַיַּקְרִבוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַדָּם אֵלָיו וַיִּטְבֹּל אֶצְבָּעוֹ בַּדָּם וַיִּתֵּן עַל קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת הַדָּם יָצַק אֶל יְסוֹד הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
Lev 9:8 Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering. 9:9 Aaron’s sons brought the blood to him; he dipped his finger in the blood and put it on the horns of the altar; and he poured out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar.[13]

Not a Standard High Priestly Sin-Offering Either

Not only does this sin-offering not follow the procedure for the Yom Kippur offering, but it does not follow the procedure for a high priest’s regular sin offering:

ויקרא ד:ו וְטָבַל הַכֹּהֵן אֶת אֶצְבָּעוֹ בַּדָּם וְהִזָּה מִן הַדָּם שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֶת פְּנֵי פָּרֹכֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ. ד:ז וְנָתַן הַכֹּהֵן מִן הַדָּם עַל קַרְנוֹת מִזְבַּח קְטֹרֶת הַסַּמִּים לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת כָּל דַּם הַפָּר יִשְׁפֹּךְ אֶל יְסוֹד מִזְבַּח הָעֹלָה אֲשֶׁר פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Lev 4:6 The priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before YHWH, in front of the curtain of the Shrine. 4:7 The priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of aromatic incense, which is in the Tent of Meeting, before YHWH; and all the rest of the bull’s blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering, which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.[14]

Instead, the inauguration sin-offering follows the procedure for regular sin-offerings: sprinkling the blood on the horns of the bronze altar.[15] But if it were just a regular sin-offering, then the meat would be eaten rather than burned (Lev 6:22). Noting that this offering, and those of the seven days of inauguration, do not fit into any sin-offering rubric, Rashi (Lev 9:11) writes וכולן על פי הדיבר “they are all based on divine fiat.” The reason for this anomaly derives from a critical element of the inauguration: it must contain no hidden rituals.[16]

Everything Outside for the Inauguration

Following the rituals of day eight, Aaron lifts his hands and blesses the people. Moses and Aaron then briefly enter the Tent of Meeting, exit, bless the people again, and finally YHWH appears:

ויקרא ט:כב וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת (ידו) [יָדָיו] אֶל הָעָם וַיְבָרְכֵם וַיֵּרֶד מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה וְהַשְּׁלָמִים. ט:כג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ וַיְבָרֲכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד יְ־הוָה אֶל כָּל הָעָם.
Lev 9:22 Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. 9:23 Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Glory of YHWH appeared to all the people.

The sequence here is strange: Aaron and Moses go in and out of the tent but absolutely nothing happens. This may be the point of the inclusion of this detail: everything important happens outside the tent, including the appearance of YHWH. Following this, YHWH publicly accepts the sacrificial offerings by consuming them with a divine fire:

ויקרא ט:כד וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַתֹּאכַל עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֶת הָעֹלָה וְאֶת הַחֲלָבִים וַיַּרְא כָּל הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם.
Lev 9:24 Fire came forth from before YHWH and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

Moses’ inauguration service seems to have been successful.

Entering the Sanctum: Nadav and Avihu’s Sin

At this point, Nadav and Avihu offer incense:

ויקרא י:א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִבוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם. י:ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 10:1 Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before YHWH alien fire, which [YHWH] had not enjoined upon them. 10:2 And fire came forth from YHWH and consumed them; thus they died before YHWH.

The mention of incense should give us pause. Exodus 30:6–10 commands the lighting of incense on the golden incense altar in the outer sanctum twice a day, and yet, this is the first mention of incense in the chapters on inauguration. This is because the inauguration ceremony was limited to outside rituals,[17] whose every facet is to be witnessed by the people. The burning of incense, however, as Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1085–1158) notes, takes place in the sanctum, and this must be where Nadav and Avihu brought their firepans:

רשב"ם ויקרא י:א ויקחו בני אהרן נדב ואביהוא – קודם שיצא האש מלפני י"י, כבר לקחו איש מחתתו – להקטיר קטורת לפנים על מזבח הזהב...
Rashbam Lev 10:1 “Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu took” ...Before the fire came forth from before YHWH (9:24), they had already “each” taken “his firepan” to offer incense inside [the Tabernacle] on the golden altar….[18]

This is further clear from Moses’ instructions about how to dispose of the bodies:

ויקרא י:ד וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל מִישָׁאֵל וְאֶל אֶלְצָפָן בְּנֵי עֻזִּיאֵל דֹּד אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם קִרְבוּ שְׂאוּ אֶת אֲחֵיכֶם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה.
Lev 10:4 Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.”

Herein lies the sin of Nadav and Avihu: they performed a “secret” ritual, hidden from the viewing of the people.[19] No ritual, however, was supposed to be performed inside the Tabernacle during this service. This was adhered to so strictly that even the format of the high priest’s sin offering was changed to have the blood sprinkled on the outside altar instead of inside the sanctum.

Glorification Is a Public Act

The necessity for the inauguration service to be public is underscored in Moses’s reaction to the event in Lev 10:3. This verse is enigmatic; note especially the term in bold:

ויקרא י:ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד...
Lev 10:3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what YHWH meant when [YHWH] said: ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, but I gain glory before all the people.’”…

The coordinating conjunction ve- usually serves as the copulative “and” yet it can also mean the contrasting conjunction “but” or “though,”[20] as both Jonathan Grossman and Liane Feldman understand it here.[21] Feldman explains in a note:

This is something of an enigmatic statement, but it seems to suggest that while the priests are the ones to serve God, God’s presence requires the physical presence of the Israelites as well.[22]

What is the “but” coming to emphasize? The first part of YHWH’s message, “I will be sanctified through those near to Me” refers to the priests, who perform the rituals surrounding the Tabernacle.[23] Nevertheless, the message continues, “I gain glory before all the people.”

God is telling the Israelites that as opposed to foreign cults, Israel’s cult will be accessible to the public; even the cloistered rituals are described to the people so they know what happens inside the Tabernacle. To demonstrate the open nature of Israel’s cult, the inauguration ceremony is performed entirely in public.

By entering the sanctum and performing the incense offering there, Nadav and Avihu reverted to the non-Israelite ethos of secluded worship. This was the strange fire that YHWH did not ask for, since, as Moses reminds Aaron, YHWH gains glory before כָל הָעָם “all the people,” not in the privacy of the sanctum with only the priests. Thus, the punishment is harsh and public, reestablishing the ritual of the day along the lines that YHWH intended: God needs to be visible to everyone on inaugural day.


March 31, 2024


Last Updated

April 9, 2024


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Hartley Koschitzky studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University. He received his M.B.A. and B.S. in engineering from Columbia University and works in his family business.