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Sheila Tuller Keiter

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2024

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The Cause of Nadav and Avihu’s Death: Incense Smoke?

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Sheila Tuller Keiter

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The Cause of Nadav and Avihu’s Death: Incense Smoke?

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2024

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The Cause of Nadav and Avihu’s Death: Incense Smoke?

Immediately after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, YHWH warns Moses that priests are prohibited from consuming wine before serving in the Tabernacle. Is their mysterious death the result of some form of intoxication?

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The Cause of Nadav and Avihu’s Death: Incense Smoke?

Nadav and Avihu killed by flames (colorized), Hans Holbein (II), 1538. Rijks Museum

On the eighth day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, fire descends from YHWH and consumes the sacrifice (Lev 9:24), signaling YHWH’s approval of all that has transpired and marking His tangible dwelling in the midst of Israel.

In this triumphant moment, on the very day that the priestly order comes into the service of YHWH, two of Aaron’s sons bring a “strange fire” before YHWH:

ויקרא י:א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם.
Lev 10:1 And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, and they put in them fire, and they placed upon it incense, and they brought before YHWH strange fire that He did not command them.[1]

No explanation is given for Nadav and Avihu’s actions or motivations, nor what makes the fire strange; instead the text notes that YHWH immediately strikes them down:

ויקרא י:ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 10:2 And fire came forth from YHWH and consumed them; thus they died before YHWH.

What did Nadav and Avihu do wrong? Among the explanations are:

Improper offering – one not sanctioned by YHWH, or perhaps one expressly forbidden by YHWH.

Wrong clothing – The details of the priestly vestments were dictated by YHWH, and thus were not subject to alteration.

Arrogant – Nadav and Avihu thought they could improvise service to YHWH because of their stature as priests and Aaron’s sons.

Undermining Moses and Aaron – Their impromptu service was really an attempt to steal the reins of spiritual leadership.

Refused to marry – Procreation is a clear commandment that pertains to priests equally with the rest of Israel.

Innocent – Perhaps they committed no transgression at all. It could be that their proximity to YHWH necessitated their deaths, which were not a punishment but a natural consequence.[2]

Contemporary interpreters have also suggested a wide range of possible solutions to the mystery, including several novel approaches:

Unsanctioned – They died because they approached YHWH without permission.[3]

Fire from an improper source – Instead of removing coals from the altar, Nadav and Avihu lit fires in their own fire pans.[4]

Naked – The emphasis that Nadav and Avihu were carried out in their tunics (Lev 10:5) suggests that they sinned by entering the Tabernacle naked.[5]

Presumptuous – They were killed for encroaching on YHWH’s domain or even trying to control the divine,[6] or for coopting the holy for their own purposes.[7]

No reason – The Torah offers no explanation for their deaths because there is no comprehensible reason.[8] YHWH’s ways are not ours, and some things are beyond human comprehension.

The range of explanations highlights the lack of textual clarity regarding the (mis)conduct of Nadav and Avihu.

Drunkenness?

One classic explanation is that Nadav and Avihu sinned because they entered the Tabernacle while drunk.[9] This may be suggested by YHWH’s warning to Aaron immediately after they meet their fate:

ויקרא י:ט יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל תֵּשְׁתְּ אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם.
Lev 10:9 Do not drink wine and intoxicating drink, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die; it is an eternal statute for your generations.[10]

The drunkenness theory also works in concert with many of the other explanations. If there was something wrong with the method, timing, or intent behind their offering, alcohol may have been the culprit.[11]

Yet the argument regarding alcohol fails to explain the conspicuous use of the term strange fire, which appears twice in the genealogies of Aaron later in the Torah:

במדבר ג:ד וַיָּמׇת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לָהֶם וַיְכַהֵן אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם.
Num 3:4 And Nadav and Avihu died before YHWH in their bringing strange fire before YHWH in the desert of Sinai, and they did not have sons, and Elazar and Itamar ministered before Aaron their father.
במדבר כו:סא וַיָּמׇת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא בְּהַקְרִיבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה.
Num 26:61 And Nadav and Avihu died in their bringing strange fire before YHWH.

The Torah does not revisit the matter of priestly drunkenness. Instead, it emphasizes the strange fire, which suggests its centrality to Nadav and Avihu’s error.

Incense: A “Controlled Substance”

Even before it provides the recipe for the incense, the Torah prohibits the use of any other formulation:[12]

שמות ל:ט לֹא תַעֲלוּ עָלָיו קְטֹרֶת זָרָה וְעֹלָה וּמִנְחָה וְנֵסֶךְ לֹא תִסְּכוּ עָלָיו.
Exod 30:9 You shall not raise upon it [the incense altar] strange incense, or a burnt offering, or a meal offering; and [any] libation you shall not pour upon it.

The proper incense ingredients are subsequently prescribed:

שׁמות ל:לד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה קַח לְךָ סַמִּים נָטָף וּשְׁחֵלֶת וְחֶלְבְּנָה סַמִּים וּלְבֹנָה זַכָּה בַּד בְּבַד יִהְיֶה. ל:לה וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתָהּ קְטֹרֶת רֹקַח מַעֲשֵׂה רוֹקֵחַ מְמֻלָּח טָהוֹר קֹדֶשׁ. ל:לו וְשָׁחַקְתָּ מִמֶּנָּה הָדֵק וְנָתַתָּה מִמֶּנָּה לִפְנֵי הָעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לְךָ שָׁמָּה קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם.
Exod 30:34 And YHWH said to Moses: Take the herbs stacte, onycha, and galbanum—these herbs together with pure frankincense; let there be an equal part of each. 30:35 Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure, sacred. 30:36 Beat some of it into powder, and put some before the Pact in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you.

It must also be used only for its intended ritual purpose; personal, profane use is prohibited:

שמות ל:לז וְהַקְּטֹרֶת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בְּמַתְכֻּנְתָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיֶה לְךָ לַי־הוָה. ל:לח אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה כָמוֹהָ לְהָרִיחַ בָּהּ וְנִכְרַת מֵעַמָּיו.
Exod 30:37 But when you make this incense, you must not make any in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be held by you sacred to YHWH. [30:38] Any man who will make its like to smell it, and he will be cut off from his people.

Moreover, the incense must only be burned by priests:

במדבר יז:ה זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הֹוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה לוֹ.
Num 17:5 It is a remembrance for the children of Israel so that a man who is not of the seed of Aaron will not approach to burn the incense before YHWH, and so he will not be like Korah and like his assembly as YHWH spoke to him by way of Moses.

These restrictions may reflect the sanctity of the incense, making it parallel to the restriction on offering sacrifices by non-priests outside of the Tabernacle. Alternatively, they may also have served as safety precautions, protecting laypersons from accidental exposure to the incense. Or these constraints may represent an attempt to restrict exposure to a specialized priestly class solely in the context of worship.

High on Incense?

Since the burning of incense typically releases a pleasant odor, it has often been suggested that its purpose in the Tabernacle was to sweeten or mitigate the smell of burning flesh produced by the sacrifices. The incense altar’s location within the Tabernacle, however, probably had little to no influence over the smell of offerings burning outside on the altar. Thus, it likely served an entirely different function.

The Bible never explicitly discusses the potential intoxicating effects of the incense, but it does describe the substance as קטורת (ה)סמים, the incense of sammim (sg. sam).[13] Sammim appears to be a general term for spices or herbs. Since ancient peoples often used the same plants for both medicinal and non-medicinal purposes, sammim may not simply describe fragrant plants; it may also refer to medicinal plants.[14] Moreover, at least one of the ingredients, frankincense, has been identified as having a “mild narcotic” effect.[15] It could be that the Tabernacle’s incense was inherently formulated to offer such an effect.

Incense in the ancient world often consisted of psychoactive substances that, when burned within confined areas, produced altered cognitive states. These substances were used to enhance the spiritual or magical experience of the encounter with the divine.[16] The protocols of burning incense inside the Tent of Meeting, not in the open air of the courtyard, seem to fit this description (Exod 30:6).

Nadav and Avihu, having encountered the incense offering for the first time during the dedication of the Tabernacle, may have been surprised by its intoxicating effects. Their strange fire may refer to a strengthened blend of the incense, which impaired their judgment, causing them to break protocol.

Perhaps the fire that consumes them (10:2) is not a separate fire deriving from a divine source, but their own fire: the enhanced fumes of their incense kill them. If so, we might even surmise that their consumption by fire is a case of death by overdose.

Fire from Within

That Nadav and Avihu may have died from a drug overdose works well with Midrash Tanhuma (7th–9th c.; cf. b. Sanh. 52a), which imagines the flame entering Nadav and Avihu’s nostrils and consuming them from within, leaving their bodies whole:

מדרש תנחומא שמיני יב וַהֲלֹא כְּבָר נֶאֱמַר, וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה' וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם. אֶלָּא יִתְבָּרֵךְ שְׁמוֹ שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁהוּא עוֹשֶׂה כַּמָּה נוֹרָאוֹת וְכַמָּה נִפְלָאוֹת, שֶׁשָּׁלַח הָאֵשׁ כִּשְׁנֵי חוּטִין לְכָל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד בְּחָטְמָן וְשָׂרַף אֶת הַנְפָשׁוֹת, וּבִבְשָׂרָם לֹא נָגַע וְלֹא בְּמַלְבּוּשָׁם.
Tanhuma Shemini §12 And has it not already been said, “And fire went out from before the Lord and consumed them?” Rather, blessed be the name of the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He—who does several awesome deeds and several wonders, who sent the fire like two cords to each and every one, into their nostrils, and burned their souls; but their flesh He did not touch, nor their garments.

This tradition beautifully captures the way overdose can essentially fry the brain (remember the after-school public service announcement with the fried egg?—this is your brain on drugs), leading to death, while leaving the body relatively unscathed.

Nadav and Avihu may not have realized the dangerous nature of their experimentation. The Torah does not explicitly discuss intoxication through psychotropic substances. Its language is limited to descriptions of drunkenness and inebriation through alcohol. YHWH’s exhortation to Aaron that the priests are not to imbibe intoxicating drink before engaging in holy service may be the closest language the Torah could employ to relate drug-induced intoxication to language the reader could understand.

Published

March 27, 2024

|

Last Updated

June 10, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter received her Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She is the author of Perils of Wisdom: The Scriptural Solomon in Jewish Thought (Gorgias Press, 2021) as well as a number of articles. Keiter currently teaches Talmud, Tanakh, and history at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.