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David Frankel





“That Is What YHWH Said,” Moses Interprets Nadav and Avihu’s Death



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David Frankel





“That Is What YHWH Said,” Moses Interprets Nadav and Avihu’s Death






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“That Is What YHWH Said,” Moses Interprets Nadav and Avihu’s Death

A fire comes forth from God and devours Nadav and Avihu but God does not actually say anything. It is Moses who infers what God was communicating through this act and even formulates a law based on his understanding of God’s message.


“That Is What YHWH Said,” Moses Interprets Nadav and Avihu’s Death

The bodies of Nadav and Avihu are carried away by Mishael and Eltzaphan. James Tissot c. 1896-1902.

During the inauguration of the Tabernacle, the two older sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, bring an illicit offering (אֵשׁ זָרָה) of incense before YHWH and are destroyed by a divine fire (Lev 10:1-2). When this happens, Moses turns to Aaron and says,

ויקרא י:ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן.
Lev 10:3 That is what YHWH [meant when he] said, “Through those near to Me I will be sanctified, and be glorified before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.

Putting aside the difficult question of what Moses means by this claim,[1] we may ask a simpler question: Where do we find that God said this, or even implied this idea?[2]

Several commentators offered various solutions to this problem.

1. Sanctified through my Honored Ones

(Midrash and Rashi)

In a number of places (Sifra “Miluim” 36; Lev. Rab. 12:2; b. Zeb 115b), the Rabbis note that the wording of this verse is similar to God’s comment to Moses when describing the ordination ceremony concerning the function of the daily tamid offering:

שמות כט:מג וְנֹעַדְתִּי שָׁמָּה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִקְדַּשׁ בִּכְבֹדִי. כט:מדוְקִדַּשְׁתִּי אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אֲקַדֵּשׁ לְכַהֵן לִי.
Exod 29:43 and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified with My Glory. 29:44 I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests.

Based on the Rabbis’ midrashic exegesis of rereading one word as if it were another word by changing the pointing, Rashi (1040-1105) comments:

והיכן דבר? “ונועדתי שמה… ונקדש בכבודי” (שמ’ כט, מג), אל תקרי בכבודי אלא במכובדי. אמר לו משה לאהרן, אהרן אחי, יודע הייתי שיתקדש הבית במיודעיו של מקום והייתי סבור או בי או בך. עכשיו רואה אני שהם גדולים ממני וממך.
Where did God say this? “And I will meet with you there… and be sanctified with my glory” (Exod 29:43). Don’t read, “with my glory” (בִּכְבֹדִי) but “through my honored ones” [3](בִּמְכֻבָּדַי). Moses said to Aaron, “Aaron my brother, I knew that the house would be sanctified with God’s favored ones, and I thought it would be me or you. Now I see that they were greater than me or you.”

According to this interpretation, God related to Moses in Exodus 29:43 that the Tabernacle would be sanctified through the death of מְכֻבָּדַי=) כבודי), that is, those honored by God, and upon the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moses realizes that this is what the divine speech was referring to.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is based upon a fanciful rereading of the words ונקדש בכבודי of Exodus 29:43. Indeed, Rashi himself, in his commentary on that verse, interprets this phrase as meaning that the Tabernacle will be sanctified through the indwelling of God’s glory, or divine presence (שכינה), and relegates the interpretation offered here to a secondary position, introducing it with the phrase, ומדרשו באגדה, “but its Midrashic interpretation is in the Aggadic tradition…”

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1085-1158) notes that this interpretation is unreasonable:

וכי היה מבשר הקב”ה למשה, עשו לי משכן ובו ביום ימותו הגדולים שבכם
Would God really announce to Moses, “Build me a Tabernacle and on that day your great ones will die”?!

2. The Law of the Anointed High Priest (Rashbam)

Rashbam offers a different interpretation connecting the words בקרובי אקדש… with the laws mentioned later on in Leviticus 21:10-12, which forbid the high priest from mourning his relatives. Rashbam explains the connection of these passages as follows:

וימותו לפני ה’ – ומיד כששמע אהרן היה רוצה להניח העבודה ולהתאבל על בניו,
“They died before the Lord” – As soon as Aaron heard this he wanted to leave the divine service to mourn the death of his sons.
ויאמר משה אל אהרן – אל תתאבל ואל תבכה ואל תחדל מן העבודה, כי הדבר הזה אשר אני אומר לך, הוא הדבר אשר דבר ה’ – בקרובי אקדש – בכהנים גדולים הקרובים אלי לשרתני אני רוצה להתקדש, ולא שיתחלל שמי ועבודתי,
“Then Moses said to Aaron” – Do not mourn or weep or stop the divine service, for that which I tell you now, “It is the word that the Lord has said, בקרובי אקדש” – I want to be sanctified through the high priests that come near me to serve me, and I do not want my name or service to be desecrated.
שכן אמר לי הקב”ה, “והכהן הגדול מאחיו” וגו’, “את ראשו לא יפרע ואת בגדיו לא יפרם”, “ומן המקדש לא יצא ולא יחלל את מקדש אלהיו”: הא, אם לא יצא, קידש – ואין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה – אלא יתקדש הקב”ה ועבודתו על ידך.
For God told me, “The priest who is above his brothers…, he must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes… or leave the sanctuary of his God or desecrate it” – indicating that if he refrains from going out, he sanctifies. – The sequence of the sections of the Torah do not follow chronological order. – Therefore, let God and his service be sanctified by you.

According to Rashbam, the words בקרובי אקדש have nothing to do with the death of the two sons of Aaron, but express the gist of God’s instructions in Leviticus 21:10-12, that the high priest must continue the divine service in the sanctuary no matter what tragedy befalls him since this dedication serves to sanctify God’s name and impress his glory upon the people who witness it.

According to this interpretation, Moses was instructing Aaron not to leave the sanctuary to mourn the death of his sons and the final words of verse 3, “And Aaron was silent,” indicate that he accepted Moses’ instructions in the name of God and refrained from mourning the death of his sons.

The fact that the laws of Leviticus 21 appear only later on in the Torah is not perceived by Rashbam as problematic, since he can make recourse to the traditional saying, אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, literally, “there is no chronological order in the Torah,” in other words, narrative order is not chronological order (b. Pesahim 6b).[4]

Rashbam believes that his interpretation is the passage’s “solution and truthful simple meaning” (זהו פתר’ ואמיתת פשוטו). Moreover, this same interpretation is adopted by anotherpeshat commentator, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.). Nevertheless, it is problematic.

The main point that Moses supposedly communicates to Aaron – that he must continue his service in the Tabernacle and must not mourn the death of his sons – is not stated in clear and explicit terms. It is hard to imagine that Aaron would have been able to derive this set of laws on the basis of the words in this verse alone.[5]

3. Sanctifying Priests at Sinai (Abarbanel)

A third suggestion is offered by Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508),[6] which ties this statement in with what God said to Moses in preparation for the revelation at Sinai:

ונראה לי שאמר זה על מה שנאמר לו בהר סיני, “וגם הכהנים הנגשים אל ה’ יתקדשו פן יפרץ בהם ה'” (שמ’ יט, כב), כי זו היא היתה ההזהרה לענין נדב ואביהו והדומים להם.
It seems to me that he (=Moses) said this with reference to that which was told to him on Mt. Sinai, “Even the priests who come near to God must sanctify themselves lest God break out against them” (Exod. 19:22), for this was the warning for the matter of Nadav and Avihu and similar cases.

This verse is indeed appropriate to the context of the Nadav and Avihu incident. Yet it refers specifically to approaching Mt. Sinai during the theophany, not the Tabernacle at the time of the priests’ inauguration. One wonders, furthermore, how the words “and be glorified before all the people” (ועל פני כל העם אכבד) are to be derived from this Exodus passage.

4. Said but Unrecorded (Ibn Ezra)

Other commentators, such as Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), suggest that it is inappropriate to search for a specific verse in which God made the statement, and that Moses is just informing Aaron of something that God had previously related to him, although this is not recorded in the Torah:

כבר אמר לי ה’ שהוא מראה קדושתו בקרובים אליו
God previously told me that he demonstrates his holiness through those close to him.

R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) explains this point further:

כבר העיר הרמב”ן שבתורה ובמקומות אחרים נזכרות הרבה פעמים אמרות ה’ בלי לפרש קודם, שאמנם ה’ אמר זאת, ובלי להגיד באיזו הזדמנות אמר (השוה שמות יא:ד, טז:טז, כג:לב).
Ramban already noted that in the Torah and other places there are many references to God’s statements not found explicit in earlier texts. Indeed God must have said them, but [the text] never tells us when this occurred (see, Exod 11:4; 16:16, 23:32).

In short, God said it earlier, but we don’t know when.

God’s Communication of His Ways (Wessely)

Some commentators go further and look for a specific context when this may have occurred. For instance, Hartwig (Naphtali Herz) Wessely (1725-1805), in his commentary on Leviticus commissioned for R. Moses Mendelssohn’s Biur, surmises:

כשדבר בי בהר סיני והודיעני את דרכיו אמר לי בקרובי אקדש
When he spoke with me at Mount Sinai and showed me his ways (Exod 33:13) he told me “through those close to me I will be sanctified.”

Since “I will be sanctified by those close to me” is essentially a statement about God’s nature, Wessely argues, we are supposed to assume that this was explained to Moses when God showed him his ways on the mountain at Moses’ request, even though this is never reported.[7]

Part of the Oral Torah

Alternatively, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) suggests that this must have been part of God’s revealing of the Oral Torah (torah she-be-al peh) to Moses, which reflects Hirsch’s neo-Orthodox concern to ground the authenticity of the Oral Torah in the biblical text. He writes:

קשה לבאר את הוא אשר דבר ה’; שהרי לא נזכר בתורה עד כה, שה’ אמר כן…. נראה אפוא, שיש גם מכאן ראיה לכך, שלא כל דברי ה’ אל משה נמסרו בתורה שבכתב. אלא שכאן חזר משה על הדברים מחמת המאורע שאירע; ואגב סיפור המאורע – נכתב בתורה גם מאמר זה; אלמלא כן היה גם מאמר זה נשאר בתורה שבעל פה – יחד עם מאמרים רבים אחרים.
It is difficult to explain [the phrase] “this is what God said” for no such thing appears in the Torah up to this point in which God says it… Therefore, it would appear that from here we have a proof that not everything God told Moses appears in the written Torah. Instead, Moses only makes reference to it here because of the event that occurred [with the death of Nadav and Avihu], and as part of telling that story, the Torah also included this statement. If that had not happened, this statement too would have remained part of the oral Torah together with many other of God’s statements.

This approach of Ibn Ezra and others, that Moses is quoting something God said to him but which is not otherwise recorded in the Torah, is superior to the forced attempts to connect this quote to verses that say something else. Nevertheless, I believe that a different approach, first suggested by Ramban and refined by Arnold Ehrlich, is the most convincing.

5. Said in his Heart (Nachmanides)

After quoting ibn Ezra’s approach, Ramban (R. Moses Nachmanides, 1194-1270) argues that we need not assume that God ever related the statement to Moses, since the word דבר of the phrase הוא אשר דבר ה’ is best taken in the sense of “said in his heart” (cf. Eccles. 1:16 “I spoke to my heart” [דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲנִי עִם לִבִּי]) or “decreed”:

ולדעתי בדרך הפשט אין צורך לכל זה כי דבר השם גזרותיו ומחשבותיו
In my opinion, according to the peshat, there is no need for all this, for “the word of God” refers to his decrees and his thoughts.[8]

Accordingly, Moses was not referring to something that God told him at some unspecified time in the past. Rather, he was referring to a private, inner decision that God had taken concerning how he would act with his most intimate servants. It was never communicated to anyone, but Moses infers from the present incident that God must have said it “to his heart” at some earlier point in time.

What God Is Telling Us with this Act (Ehrlich)

In his Mikra Ki-Pheshuto, Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) offers a slightly modified version of Ramban’s approach. He writes:

ופירוש הדברים, המקרה הזה הוא אשר דבר ה’, כלומר במקר[ה][9] הזה דבר ה’ וגלה דעתו לאמר בקרובי אקדש
The meaning is, this incident is what God is saying, in other words, with this incident God speaks and reveals his mind, saying, בקרובי אקדש.

According to Ehrlich, the words ‘הוא אשר דבר ה do not refer to a past divine statement or even decision. They should not be rendered “That is what God meant when he said” or, “That is what God meant when he decreed,” but, “this is what God is saying to us.” Moses tells Aaron that God, by killing Nadav and Avihu, is relating a message: “Through those close to me I will be sanctified and I will be honored by all the people.”

In support of his reading, Ehrlich points to the phrase “voice of the sign” (קול האות) in Exodus 4:8. After God has given Moses signs to perform before the elders of Israel to convince them that God really sent him, God tells him:

שמות ד:ח וְהָיָה אִם לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לָךְ וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ לְקֹל הָאֹת הָרִאשׁוֹן וְהֶאֱמִינוּ לְקֹל הָאֹת הָאַחֲרוֹן.
Exod 4:8 And if they do not believe you or pay heed to the “voice” of the first sign, they will believe the “voice” of the second sign.

Obviously, the signs that Moses was to perform before the elders of Israel in Egypt did not have a “voice” in the literal sense. Figuratively, however, they could be said to have “spoken” loudly with respect to Moses’ divine authority. Not only do I find this approach most convincing, I also find it to be of great significance for an understanding of biblical theology.

Theology of Non-Verbal Commands

According to Ehrlich’s reading, God’s communication is not exclusively verbal; he also communicates through actions. Thus, a prophet is not merely a vessel who relays the words that God tells him to say but rather a prophet (also) interprets God’s actions as messages and creatively “translates” them into words.[10] In our story, not only does Moses express God’s message in killing Nadav and Avihu, but he formulates law based on his understanding of God’s message.

Legislating Based on God’s Actions

Moses’ first two instructions given after the death of Nadav and Avihu are that the bodies of the deceased be removed by Aaron’s cousins, Mishael and Eltzaphan (verses 4-5), and that Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar should remain in the Tabernacle and refrain from observing mourning rites (verses 6-7).

After each command, we are told that they were carried out in accordance with Moses’ instructions:

Mishael and Elzaphan remove the bodies

ויקרא י:ה וַיִּקְרְבוּ וַיִּשָּׂאֻם בְּכֻתֳּנֹתָם אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה.
Lev 10:5 They came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics, as Moses had ordered.

Aaron and his sons remain in the Tabernacle without mourning

ויקרא י:ז … וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה.
Lev 10:7 …And they did as Moses had bidden.

Moses, who has the authority to interpret the divine “statement” implicit in God’s sending a fire to devour Nadav and Avihu, also has the authority to determine how to respond to the unprecedented situation at hand. If God strikes out at those who are closest to him, Moses reasons, it is probably best to get cousins from outside the priestly line to go into the sacred area to remove the dead bodies rather than the surviving father or brothers,[11] and it is probably also best to prevent Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar from leaving the sanctuary to observe mourning rites for their loved ones.

Moses or God?

Leviticus 10 presents these instructions as ad hoc responses of Moses to the situation at hand. In other words, Moses formulates these laws on his own as an interpretation of God’s actions and is not quoting a divine verbal message. Yet this same law appears in the Holiness Collection later on as part of God’s ostensibly dictated laws (the underlining shows the speaker):

Moses (Lev 10) God (Lev 21)
ויקרא י:ו וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן וּלְאֶלְעָזָר וּלְאִיתָמָר בָּנָיו רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא תִפְרֹמוּ וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה יִקְצֹף וַאֲחֵיכֶם כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל יִבְכּוּ אֶת הַשְּׂרֵפָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף יְ-הוָה. י:ז וּמִפֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא תֵצְאוּ פֶּן תָּמֻתוּ כִּי שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת יְ-הוָה עֲלֵיכֶם וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה.
ויקרא כא:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן… כא:י וְהַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל מֵאֶחָיו אֲ‍שֶׁר יוּצַק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וּמִלֵּא אֶת יָדוֹ לִלְבֹּשׁ אֶת הַבְּגָדִים אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ לֹא יִפְרָע וּבְגָדָיו לֹא יִפְרֹם. כא:יא וְעַל כָּל נַפְשֹׁת מֵת לֹא יָבֹא לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לֹא יִטַּמָּא. כא:יב וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֵת מִקְדַּשׁ אֱלֹהָיו כִּי נֵזֶר שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת אֱלֹהָיו עָלָיו אֲנִי יְ-הוָה.
Lev 10:6 Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that YHWH has wrought. 10:7 And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for YHWH’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden. Lev 21:1 YHWH said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them…21:10 The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes. 21:11 He must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother, 21:12 nor leave the sanctuary of his God or desecrate it, because he has been dedicated by the anointing oil of his God. I am YHWH.

The Priestly text of Lev 10:6-7 assumes that the law regarding priestly mourning was determined by Moses in wake of an actual case. Moses introduces new laws on his own authority, based upon his own judgments, and those who obey these laws are said to do “as Moses said.” The presumably later Holiness text (Lev 21), however, presents this same law as determined by God within the detached context of a legal code.[12]

For the Holiness text, the law had to be presented both as the precise verbal word of God as well as the predetermined and noncontingent divine command.[13] In this way the law was placed above all the vagaries of historical circumstance and elevated to an essential, not-contingent principle.[14]

The Human Element of Divine Law

While in a certain sense, H’s pristine view of legislation may be seen as a religious advancement, it leaves no room to adapt to the changing lives of earthly and contingent humans. Moreover, it offers no model for humans to interpret divine will outside of direct verbal communication.

For these reasons, we should not overlook the advantages of the earlier Priestly approach. In P, Moses derives these laws from a divine act; he is interpreting what God was “saying” through the killing of Nadav and Avihu. In that sense Moses’ legal instructions can be understood, in a broad and metaphoric sense, to be “divine” in nature. And yet, it is still presented as a human construction that comes in response to new and unforeseen historical circumstances.


The High Priest and His Sons

The suggestion in Leviticus 10:6-7 that Elazar and Itamar must not mourn the loss of their brothers contradicts the explicitly divine law of the Holiness Collection in Leviticus 21:10-12, which applies this ruling to the high priest alone. Traditional commentators have offered various suggestions for harmonizing these two sections but it seems likely that the texts reflect slightly divergent conceptions.[15]

Jacob Milgrom argues that Aaron’s sons were anointed together with their father at the first inauguration (citing Exod 40:15 and referring to 29:29 and 30:30), in contrast to the single successor of the high priesthood who, as implied by Lev 21:10, would alone be anointed with the death of the previous high priest.[16] Since, in the future, only the high priest would be anointed, only he would be subject to the more severe mourning restrictions. Elazar and Itamar are prohibited from mourning the death of their brothers because they, uniquely, were anointed with oil.

Milgrom fails to explain, however, why the same system that depicted the anointing of Aaron’s sons together with him at the time they were dressed with their priestly garments (40:13-15) would think of this procedure as something that would not be repeated in the future when a new high priest is appointed with the death of the previous high priest. Is it not reasonable to assume, in other words, that the earlier P material assumed that all the sons of the high priest were anointed regularly each time that a new high priest was appointed?

Furthermore, Lev 21:1 presents the laws of the chapter as addressed specifically to the sons of Aaron. The clear implication of this is that the law stating that regular priests may mourn the deaths of their close relatives would apply to them and not just their future children! The contradiction thus remains unresolved.

It seems more reasonable to assume, then, that the depiction in Lev 21 of the high priest alone as anointed and therefore severely restricted from mourning observances reflects a different theological approach from the above cited Exodus passages (and Lev 10:6-7), one which betrays a greater leniency toward regular priests and an extreme severity for the high priest. This scheme is further supported by the fact that Ezekiel 44 makes no distinction at all between priests of varying ranks. This seems closer to the P approach than the later H approach.


April 12, 2018


Last Updated

April 13, 2024


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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).