By Garrett Best
In the last post, I raised several questions about the enigmatic story of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10:1-2. Why did the brothers do it? Why did their crime deserve such a violent death? What does “strange fire” mean? What command did they violate? The story raises more questions than it gives answers. In this post I hope to deliver on a promise I made to explain what I think the Nadab and Abihu episode is doing in Lev. 10, the book of Leviticus, and the larger Pentateuch.
If you are expecting answers to all these questions, prepare to be disappointed. After studying this passage up and down, frontward and backward, I don’t think we will ever know with certainty the answers to the “Why?” and “What?” Nadab and Abihu did. At best, we can make educated guesses. A few scholars believe that “unauthorized fire” means Nadab and Abihu took hot coals for the incense offering from a source other than the inner alter which made the heat source “unauthorized” and therefore illicit. If this is the answer, where they got the coals or why they did it still remains a mystery.
I believe the story is too enigmatic for us to know what happened exactly. Without further information, we just won’t ever know. However, I actually came to think that observation was significant. I realized that the author/editor’s interests lie elsewhere and he was not exactly interested in answering all my questions. He had his own agenda. In what follows, my thoughts are heavily indebted to James Watts’s research.
I think Lev. 10:1-3 is intentionally ambiguous for literary/rhetorical purposes. It is precisely because the story is short, enigmatic, and outrageous that it calls our attention. Leviticus is a book filled with detailed laws about the sacrificial system, but the truth is that no matter how detailed a code of laws may be, that code of laws will never be able to address every eventuality the priests would face. Inevitably, an issue would arise for which there would be no explicit instruction. This is a problem because a priest’s job is very dangerous. A mishap could result in immediate and violent death.
I believe it is precisely because of the ambiguity of the story and the danger involved in serving as a priest that the reader/listener asks, “If Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, can die so violently for violating some command, then who will be there to interpret the law so that this doesn’t happen again?!”
Here is an important point I became convinced of after studying this chapter: Leviticus 10 is more about Aaron than it is about Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, or Ithamar. The two stories which bookend the chapter are foils by which the writer/editor of Lev. 10 is trying to teach something significant about Aaron. Thus, it is important to note Aaron’s response to the death of his oldest sons. In verse 3, the text simply says “Aaron held his peace.” He doesn’t say or do anything. Remember that.
The death of Nadab and Abihu points to the need for ritual and legal interpretation. “We don’t want to die like those two brothers for doing something wrong. Who will tell us what to do when there is a ritual ambiguity?” The short three-verse story at the beginning of the chapter sets up the question that the rest of Leviticus 10 answers.
The answer is given in Lev. 10:10-11. These key verses are the central verses of the chapter. YHWH speaks directly to Aaron and says, “You [Aaron] are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.”
This is significant. In Leviticus, YHWH speaks directly to Moses no less than 28 times. This is the first and only time YHWH speaks directly to Aaron in Leviticus which calls our attention to the importance of what is taking place. YHWH gives Aaron the responsibility of distinguishing between the holy and the common and teaching Israel. In essence, God is giving Aaron the responsibility for the problem that was raised by the Nadab and Abihu episode. Aaron, the high priest, has been granted interpretive authority by YHWH so that the Nadab and Abihu incident never happens to another priest.
In the second story, Eleazar and Ithamar violate Moses’s instructions about making a sacrificial offering. Stated succinctly, the brothers did not eat a part of the sacrifice Moses commanded them to eat. Again, I don’t think it’s important to dwell on the details of what they actually did wrong. I think the point is to focus on the debate that ensues between Aaron and Moses.
Moses inquires whether Eleazar and Ithamar followed his instructions. When he learned they had not eaten the portion of the sacrifice he had commanded, Moses became angry. Remember, after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu Aaron remained quiet; however, in verses 10-11, YHWH has spoken directly to Aaron and given him greater responsibility as a ruler in Israel. With his newly endowed interpretive authority, Aaron speaks up and in essence, challenges Moses on the interpretation of the law regarding this incident. Whoa! Aaron is challenging Moses’s interpretation of the law!
Moses was rightfully angry because under normal circumstances according to the laws regarding sacrifices, Eleazar and Ithamar should have eaten the portion of the sacrifice. Aaron says to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the LORD have approved?”
I believe Aaron is saying something like this: “Yes, Moses, if today had been a normal day, you are right to be mad that they did not eat that portion of the sacrifice, but today was not a normal day. Today, two of my sons were struck down and the laws do not provide instruction for such an unusual situation. Did not the dead bodies of Nadab and Abihu laying in the sacrificial area render all the sacrificial meat unholy? This situation was difficult so give my sons a break.”
Both Moses and Aaron are appealing to a law. Moses is appealing to the instructions given for making sacrifices and Aaron is appealing to an exception in which a dead body would render a sacrifice unholy. Both men were right in a sense. The situation was unusual and the right thing to do ambiguous. Which law trumps the other? Apparently, Aaron wins the interpretive dispute. Verse 20 says, “When Moses heard that, he agreed.” With that, the chapter ends.
Summary of what I believe is happening in Lev. 10:
Leviticus 10:1-3 highlights the need for interpretive authority in Israel’s priesthood. Leviticus 10:10-11 addresses the problem by giving Aaron (i.e. the high priest) interpretive authority. Leviticus 10:12-20 shows Aaron asserting his new interpretive authority and winning an argument with Moses over a legal matter. Lev. 10 has been constructed in such a way to show that Aaron has taken a step up the ladder in importance in Israel’s leadership. Prior to this incident YHWH only addresses Moses directly. In 10:10-11, YHWH addresses Aaron directly for the first time. After Leviticus 10, YHWH address Moses and Aaron together (cf. 11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1). In essence, Aaron has been promoted to a prominent role. He has taken on the responsibility of teacher and interpreter of the law which previously had only been Moses’s responsibility. This is what I believe is happening in Leviticus 10, the larger book of Leviticus, and the larger Pentateuch. Aaron and his descendants rise to prominence in Israel’s cult. Leviticus 10 is part of that larger program of boosting the importance and authority assigned to Aaron, the high priesthood, and the Aaronic priestly line.