The Incident of Nadav and Avihu
Setting the Scene
Moses and the Israelites have constructed a moveable dwelling for the Deity in the midst of their encampment in the wilderness—the mishkan. The Book of Shemot (Exodus) ends with the divine presence (kavod) filling the portable sanctuary. Having God close by provides greater blessing and protection for the people. The mishkan will be the site of the rituals that will secure the divine presence and induce the Deity to continue to bless and protect. All that is needed is to invest Aaron, Moses’ older brother, as chief priest, and the other adult males of the priestly clans as the additional functionaries, in order to make the mishkan operational.
The first part of Parashat Shemini describes the process. To express Divine approval of all that has been done, God emits a fire “from before the presence of YHWH” (ותצא אש מלפני י־הוה) to ignite the sacrificial altar (Lev 9.24). And then there occurs a mystifying disaster:
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 They took, sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, did, each man his tray; they put in them fire; they placed on it incense; they brought near before YHWH fire, strange (fire), that he did not command them. 10:2 It came out, fire did, from before YHWH; it consumed them; they died before YHWH.
What Was the Sin of Aaron’s Sons?
No motive is given for the unexpected act of Aaron’s two older sons, and no explanation is given for the horrific divine response, which occurred without warning. The earliest Jewish interpreters and the rabbis of the classical period scrambled for explanations, but they came up with too many possibilities to be sure of any.
A minority of readers down through the ages, beginning with Philo of Alexandria, has interpreted the motives of the young priests benignly—they brought an unscheduled offering of incense out of religious enthusiasm. They were swept up by the excitement of the dedication ceremony. Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, author of the popular ’Or ha-Hayyim commentary (17th c. Morocco), reckoned that the young priests, whose status was underscored by referring to them as “sons of Aaron,” took pains to perform a proper ritual act. The act may have been ill-conceived (it was not commanded), but it was well-intentioned.
Most commentators, however, like Job’s friends, see what looks like a punishment and go searching for the sin that might have caused it. Some note that following the account of the incineration of Nadav and Avihu and its aftermath, God speaks directly to Aaron, commanding the priests never to enter the Tent of Meeting intoxicated (verses 8-9). So maybe the young priests acted while under the influence (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 20:9; ed Margaliot, vol. 1, pp. 462-44; and other sources). Before that, Moses had told the priests they may neither let their hair hang loose nor wear frayed garments (verse 6). So maybe the young men were unkempt (ibid.). In Numbers 3:4, when the death of Nadav and Avihu is remembered, the text notes that they had no sons—so maybe they were killed for failing to perform the mitzvah of fathering children (ibid.).
Most modern commentators, along with some medieval ones, assume that since they were burned by fire “from before YHWH,” there must have been something wrong with the fire they brought. After all, they brought “strange fire” (אש זרה), which must have been taken, it is supposed, from an improper source. Rashbam (12th c. France) suggests that they should not have brought fire at all—it was God’s prerogative to produce the ritual fire, as God had done in the immediately preceding verses, to impress the Israelites with a miracle. Support for this interpretation is often adduced from Num. 3:4 and 26:61, which recall the strange deaths, stating explicitly that Nadav and Avihu “brought strange fire near” to the holy precincts.
There are serious difficulties with this interpretation. In the passage in Leviticus 10, it is first said that Nadav and Avihu brought “fire,” plain fire, not yet called “strange fire.” If they had taken fire from an improper source, or if the fire was otherwise tainted, it should have been described as “strange fire” from the outset.
Perhaps the problem was not in the fire but in the young priests who brought it. According to philosopher and commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (late 15th cent. Spain), on the day of the mishkan’s consecration, only Aaron, the chief priest, was to bring the incense offering or any other offering. The first verse of Parashat Aharei Mot (Lev. 16.1) supports this interpretation:
וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וַיָּמֻתוּ.
YHWH said to Moses after the death of two sons of Aaron, when they came near before Yhwh, and they died.
There is no mention here of any fire, only that the young priests approached God. Although their tragic end suggests they were doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and/or place, it is no more than an inference on our part. What was wrong, and even if something was wrong—we are not told.
The official rabbinic translation into Aramaic, Targum Onqelos, distorts the meaning of Lev 16.1 in order to have it conform to the other verses. It renders “when they came near” as “when they brought strange fire near!” The strained effort of the Targum to harmonize the verses and simplify the interpretation only calls attention to its ambiguities.
Shifting the Focus from Nadav and Avihu to the Deity
Perhaps instead of looking at Nadav and Avihu, who brought fire near to God, or who brought themselves near to God, we should be looking at the Deity. The classical rabbis suggest as much by pairing our parasha with a haftara taken from 2 Samuel 6, the account of King David’s moving the Ark of the Covenant from its temporary storage outside Jerusalem in Gibeah to Jerusalem, the future site of the Temple. That account has a remarkable parallel to our parasha.
The Ark was mounted onto a freshly made wagon, pulled by a team of cattle. The procession was accompanied by great fanfare. When along the way the cattle tripped, and the Ark was about to fall, one Uzza stretched out his hand to stabilize the Ark and prevent it from smashing on the ground. At once the Deity “exploded” (פרץ) against Uzza, slaying him on the spot. Uzza had only the best intentions; he didn’t want the Ark to crash. Where did he go wrong?
Uzza forgot that YHWH does not tolerate any impingement by the impure on anything that is directly connected with the divine. God could not tolerate for a second the less-than-divine hand of Uzza making contact with the holy Ark, the seat of God’s presence.
We find the same concept at the Sinai revelation (Exodus 19:22, 24). There Moses must cordon off the mountain when the divine presence descends upon it—lest God “explode” (פרץ) and thereby kill any person or animal that encroaches on the mountain while the divine is touching it.
Seeing the Deity through Different Eyes
We are used to thinking of God as an always benevolent protector. But in one of the most prevalent conceptions in the Bible, the Deity is a being who is “Wholly Other,” from a reality different from ours—as the scholar of religion, Rudolf Otto, described it in the early twentieth century. This being is fascinating on one hand and terrifying on the other hand. The Deity is surrounded by mystery (in Otto’s Latin terminology: mysterium fascinans et tremendum). In this conception, God is not necessarily good and just in our terms—the way we might like God to be. God is an unpredictable and frightening power from another realm that elicits our awe and wonder, but with whom we must be exceedingly careful.
Uzza, who tried to keep the Ark from falling, forgot to be cautious in the presence of God. So, it seems, had the young priests, Nadav and Avihu, when they brought forth their fire.
The two stories have a curious connection in the Bible. The person who had been keeping the Ark at his home in Gibeah before it was taken to Jerusalem is named Avinadav—a mirror image of the names of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The man who tried to stabilize the Ark, Uzza, was Avinadav’s son.
The story of Nadav and Avihu is shrouded in the smoke of their incense. The smoke is dissipated to a degree by reading the haftara, relating the story of Avinadav’s son, Uzza. But the Deity who lies at the heart of both stories, and several others in the Torah and Tanakh, remains a mystery.
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March 15, 2014
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Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the author, most recently, of Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019).
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