Why the Fire-Pans Were Used to Plate the Altar
The Fire-pans of the Incense Offerors
When two hundred and fifty tribal leaders, led by Korah, challenge Moses for cultic parity with Aaron and his sons, Moses instructs them to bring fire-pans with incense before the sanctuary as a way of verifying who God has chosen:
במדבר טז:ו זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת… טז:זוּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הוָה הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ…
Num 16:6 Do this: take fire-pans… 16:7 and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before YHWH. Then the man whom YHWH chooses, he shall be the holy one…
The two hundred and fifty men do as Moses suggests (v. 18) and the result of this test is that a divine fire goes forth and incinerates all of them (v. 35):
במדבר טז:לה וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת יְ-הוָה וַתֹּאכַל אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ מַקְרִיבֵי הַקְּטֹרֶת.
Num 16:35 And a fire went forth from YHWH and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.
Following this dramatic incident, God gives Moses the following instructions:
במדבר יז:ב אֱמֹר אֶל אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ—יז:גאֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם—וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ כִּי הִקְרִיבֻם לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה וַיִּקְדָּשׁוּ וְיִהְיוּ לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 17:2 “Tell Elazar son of Aaron, the priest, to remove the fire-pans from the charred remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the fire-pans are holy.—17:3 The fire-pans of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives.—Hammer the fire-pans into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before YHWH and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites.”
The following verses narrate that Elazar the priest fulfills this command, and that the reason for the command was to remind the Israelites that only priests may make offerings to YHWH:
וַיִּקַּח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיבוּ הַשְּׂרֻפִים וַיְרַקְּעוּם צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
Num 17:4 Elazar the priest took the bronze fire-pans which had been used for offering by those who died in the fire; and they were hammered into plating for the altar,
זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ
17:5 This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before YHWH, or he would become like Korah and his followers,
כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה לוֹ.
as YHWH had ordered him through Moses.
The final clause of 17:5, “as YHWH had ordered him through Moses” is difficult to understand in its immediate context. Who is the “him” that is referred to?
Korah or Aaron?
The previous names mentioned were Korah and Aaron. Rashi, in his original version (Leipzig MS), suggests that the it refers to Korah, and translates the ל as “about”:
[כמו: עליו] כמו: על קרח.
[Meaning “about”] that is to say “about Korah.”
Nevertheless, he later changed his view to make the referent Aaron, to whom God promised the priesthood:
כמו עליו, על אהרן דבר אל משה, שיהיה הוא ובניו כהנים, לפיכך לא יקרב איש זר אשר לא מזרע אהרן וגו’, …ומדרשו על קרח.
Meaning “about,” [God] spoke to Moses about Aaron, that he and his sons will be priests. Therefore, “no outsider who is not a descendant of Aaron should approach…” …And according to midrash it is about Korah.
Rashi made this change to fit with that of R. Joseph Kara, who was the first to make this suggestion:
ועל אהרן ועל זרעו, שלא יכנס עוד אחר בגדולה זו תחתיו. והיכן דבר? והזר הקרב יומת
About Aaron and his descendants, that no one else will receive greatness (=priesthood) instead of him. And where did [God] say this? “Any outsider who encroaches will be put to death.” (Num 1:51).
Abraham ibn Ezra also discusses these two possibilities, though he strongly supports the Aaron option:
לאהרן. ויש אומרים: כי לו – שב אל קרח. והוא רחוק בעיני.
To Aaron. And there are those who say that “him” refers to Korah, but this seems unlikely to me.
And yet, both of these interpretations are forced, since the phrase seems to refer to a command God just gave Moses.
Instead, as already noted by Rashbam and Bekhor Shor, the reference must be to Elazar the priest, whom Moses commanded concerning the fire-pans, yet the clause about the function of the overlay of the altar as a reminder severely obscures this.
Note the interesting comment of Joseph Ibn Caspi (ca. 1280-1345) in his commentary on the verse in his Matzref La-Kessef about how the commentators struggled with this verse:
כל המפרשים הקדמונים נלאו בפרוש לו, ולא מצאתי מי מכולם אליו האמת עם חזק הראותו זולת אחד מזקני הדור שלפני, לא היתה חכמתו נשגבה, והוגד לי כי יפרש שאמרו לו כנוי לאלעזר. וזה כי המפרשים כולם לא היו מביטים רק לסמוך לזה, ובאמת הוא שב אל הרחוק, רצוני, למה שהחל – ויקח אלעזר…
All the ancient commentators toiled in interpreting “to him” but I have not found any of them with the truth in spite of the strength of their vision except one of the elders of the previous generation whose wisdom was not that exalted. I was informed that he interpreted the mention of לו as referring to Elazar. This is because all the commentators only looked at that which was close by when in truth it refers to that which is distant, that is, to that which began things – “And Elazar took”…
In fact, to make sense of this final phrase, the NJPS Tanakh translation moves it to the beginning of the sentence, highlighting the incoherence of its current placement, but this is not a real solution.
It thus seems likely that the indented passage is a supplement, and that the phrase “as YHWH had ordered him” originally followed “Elazar the priest took up the fire-pans…” Once we remove the supplement, the text reads smoothly.
The likelihood that reminding Israel about what happened to “Korah and his followers” is a late insertion works with the view of many contemporary scholars, including myself, who have argued that the Korah figure was introduced into the narrative of Numbers 16 at a very late stage by the final editor of the text.
Originally, the (Priestly) story here was simply about 250 community leaders challenging Moses and Aaron, with no mention of Korah or Levites. The editor turned the story into an account of a sinful attempt on the part of Levites to serve as full-fledged priests under the charismatic leadership of Korah, the Levite. As part of the Korah redaction, the editor added in this clause in 17:5 as well.
Similarly, the phrase in verse 3, in which God says that the bronze plating will be a sign, is also redactional. After all, verse 3 makes perfect sense without the final clause, “Let them be a sign to the Israelites,” which remains most unclear without the clarification of its meaning in verse 5.
Moreover, this clause goes against the reason, repeated twice, that the fire-pans must be dealt with because they have been sanctified. In fact, I suggest that this is the original meaning of the passage: The priestly editors were concerned with the cultic status of the sanctified fire-pans, which would have remained intact even as the incense bearers were burnt in the fire.
Dealing with the Holy Fire-pans
These fire-pans posed a unique problem. On one hand, they were clearly sanctified through their contact with the divine fire. Accordingly, they could hardly have been disposed of or allowed to be put to some profane use outside the sanctuary. On the other hand, they were used by illegitimate personnel in an illicit attempt to approach God. As God most emphatically rejected the incense that was offered in these fire-pans, could they simply have been incorporated into the sacred priestly service of incense worship? If not, what, then, happened to the “sanctified” fire-pans?
That this is at the heart of what this section wishes to address was already noted by Rashi (1040-1105):
כי קדשו – המחתות והם אסורין בהנאה שכבר עשאום כלי שרת
“For they have been sanctified” – the fire-pans, and it is forbidden to use them for any benefit, since they have already been used as cultic accoutrements
Ramban (1194-1270), who attempts to explain Rashi’s view, makes the point clearer:
ולא ידעתי טעם לאיסור הזה שהרי קטורת זרה הקריבו וזר שעשה כלי שרת להקריב בחוץ באיסור אינו מקודש
But I do not understand the reason for such a prohibition, for they used foreign incense and made a foreign and prohibited offering, which should not be sanctified.
אבל יש לומר כי בעבור שעשו כן על פי משה היו קדש כי הם הקדישו אותם לשמים לפי שחשבו שיענה אותם האלהים באש ותהיינה המחתות האלה כלי שרת באהל מועד לעולם.
Nevertheless, one could argue that because they did this by the word of Moses, [the fire-pans] became holy, for they sanctified them to God, since they thought that God would answer them with fire and that these fire-pans would become cultic accoutrements in the Tent of Meeting forever.
Another possibility, suggested by Jacob Milgrom (1923-2010), is that the fire-pans were sanctified through contact with the divine fire.
In my view, Numbers 17:1-5 was originally composed in an attempt to offer an “historical” solution to the above-mentioned conundrum: what was done with the sanctified fire-pans? To do so, the author took advantage of the fact that the sanctuary’s outer altar was plated in bronze, which would have been at least somewhat unusual for an altar, as they were often made of stone without plating.
By explaining that the plating came from the fire-pans of the rebels, the author provided a solution to the question of the fate of the fire-pans. They were neither used for incense worship nor disposed of outside the sanctuary. They were rather used to plate the altar of God. The purpose of the bronze plating was to make the altar ornate and distinguished, but this was not something that was planned from the outset. It was the product, argued the author, of a cultic necessity.
A Secondary Etiology
Numbers 17:1-5 is a classic etiological account, explaining the origin of the bronze plating of the sanctuary’s altar. And yet, several reasons suggest that the etiology here is secondary to the larger story (for more on types of etiologies, see appendix):
- Not integral to the Story – The story of the Levitical rebellion in Numbers 16 stands perfectly well on its own and does not leave any issue that it raises untreated.
- No Foregrounding – Numbers 16 never mentions that the incense fire-pans were made of bronze (see verses 6, 17, 18). One would surely have expected the narrative to foreground the etiology by mentioning this fact at least once if the story were truly concerned with the bronze plating of the altar.
- Poor Etiology – The bronze plating does not really serve as a very good reminder of the death of the rebels of Numbers 16. After all, the fire-pans are hammered into a thin bronze sheeting that (presumably) obliterates all signs of their original form and function. Surely the fire-pans would have served their pneumonic purpose more effectively if they were put on display in the form of charred but recognizable incense fire-pans!
- Unnecessary Etiology – Bronze plating of an altar is not really something that requires explanation. After all, all of the sacred vessels of the Tabernacle and Temple were covered in various metals (gold, silver, or bronze) and no special explanations are offered for them. Indeed, Exodus 27:2 presents God commanding Moses to overlay the altar with bronze at the time of the Tabernacle’s construction. No special explanation is given for this, as none is needed. Exodus 38:1 reports the execution of the command, again, with no special explanation.
We may thus conclude that the etiology of Numbers 17:1-5 is a secondary development of the story of Numbers 16, an etiology designed to solve the problem of the sanctified fire-pans that were used in a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Originally, the story did not include this element at all, and ended with the death of the 250 rebels.
It thus emerges most clearly that this section of the narrative presented the bronze overlay of the altar as the simple product of necessity. Something had to be done with the fire-pans, “for they were presented before the Lord and have become holy.” The forced and unconvincing assertion that this overlay additionally served as a warning sign for potential encroachers was added by the “Korah” editor of Numbers 16 to help consolidate his editorial edifice.
Etiologies in the Bible
Etiologies of cultic objects or practices appear frequently in the biblical corpus, but their connection to the stories of which they are part varies.
Whole Story – Etiologies can sometimes comprise an entire story. A classic example would be the story of Numbers 21:4-9 about the copper serpent that Moses built to cure the Israelites of venomous snake bites. Though the story fits the “complaining/punishment/miracle” cycle in Numbers, the narrative was written to serve as an etiological tale concerning a bronze serpent called Nehushtan that stood in the Temple until the time of Hezekiah (see 2 Kings 18:4).
Independent Graft – An independent etiological explanation of a given object or phenomenon can be grafted onto a preexisting story. A classic example of this is the story of how Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26). Many believe this began as a local legend about “a woman of salt” which explained a strange mineral or rock formation in the area which looked like a woman. This legend was then grafted into the Lot story in order to create the opportunity for the incest account between Lot and his daughters.
Secondary – Finally, an etiology can be inspired by a story and added into it as a secondary expansion. For example, according to Joshua 4:5-8, the twelve stones that were present at the cultic site of Gilgal were set up by Joshua as a reminder of how the waters parted when the Israelites crossed. The etiology here feels forced and artificial, since it is unclear how the stones are supposed to remind the person that sees them of the miraculous splitting of the Jordan River.
The etiological explanation for the bronze plating of the altar is of this third type, and the story of the incense offerers’ rebellion once existed without it.
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June 13, 2018
September 27, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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