Verse: (Lev. 10:1) And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron took either of them his censer, and put fire therin, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.
(King James)The Sin of Nadab & Abihu: An Exegesis There is no clear consensus as to what sin Nadab and Abihu committed as detailed in verse 10:1 of the book Leviticus, in the Hebrew bible. Some commentators like to take into consideration material previously mentioned, some like the literal view of the story, others try to narrow the possibilities to come to a conclusion, while still more understand it all as simply a figurative tale. But in truth, few if any of the explanations this exegesist looked through seemed satisfactory, but blended together, and analyzed individually, they did form a far more satisfactory intrepretation of my own. The story is that Aaron, the newly consecrated Israelite High Priest had two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were consumed by God for offering ‘strange fire’ before him. This occruance took place during the Octave-day celebrations which were taking place for the opening of the just completed Tent Of Meeting, or Tabernacle.
Sacrifices, and prayers were to take place each day with special ritualistic rules in the preparation and performance of each. The priests were chiefly responsible for the running of events, and as most scholars agree Nadab and Abihu at the time of their death were priests, and so were presumably performing their priestly duties. Where the break in agreement occurs is with the question that naturally arises: What did Nadab and Abihu do wrong? The answer to this question lies in the context of the verse, the bigger picture involved. This does not, however, mean that it is clear enough so one can realize it with a read through or two.
To best comprehend the situation, an understanding of the verse must be realized. The realization in this case is best accompolished through a translation of the verse from the original Hebrew that can put a clear picture of the happenings taking place. Unfortunately such a translation is not available. The King James is to poetic to be vivid, and the RSV changes the true meanings of words too much to be respected.
Similar arguments could be put for the other translations out there. Faced with such a dillema, one must undertake the translating upon himself: “Then took Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each his censer and placed in them fiery coals, and put on them incense and sacrificed before the Lord with strange fire, which he had not commanded them. ” With this translation it is clear that the action is taking place with a specific sequence, in an event that has to be taken into consideration. Furthermore, it clarifies the problem with the ‘strange fire’ to explain that the fire was strange because it wasn’t what God had commanded to be done. It is admitted, however, that this translation does not answer any questions beyond what any sentence can at any time answer. It is just a tale of events, and as any sentence studied individually would be, is a bit obscure.
The whole picture must be taken into consideration. As for some explanation of the terms used: A censer is a pan used to carry coals. It has practical used even today in the middle east. The incense was a mixture of sweet herbs and spices as prescribed in Exodus 30:34. The one phrase that needs to be further developed is the hebrew ‘esh zara’ or ‘strange fire’. The word esh as used here refers to fiery coals, but it has nevertheless compelled many scholars try to interpret it, mostly to fit their own theoretical views.
In its present form esh zara, simply means a fire taken from an unauthorized source. This is what had made it strange and unholy for use in the Tent of Meeting. The use of the word zara which means strange, is a bit puzzling. Only a handful of times has the this form of strange been used in the Torah. Three other places other than Lev. 10:1 it’s been used to retell the reason Nadab and Abihu were consumed, one it has been used as ketoret zara or strange incense in Ex.
30:9, and once it has been used to explain how God was aroused into jealousy in Dt. 32:16. Every other time the word ‘strange was used the root word necher was used. In Ex. 30:9 it is interesting to note that the verse like Lev.
10:1 is about incense offering on the altar. Aaron is warned not to offer any strange incense on the inner altar, after being told to burn incense on it every morning. One can only suppose that when strange fire is used in Lev. 10:1 it is not the same as strange incense used in Exodus.
Therefore, this is further proof that the sin of Nadab and Abihu lay in the fire not the incense. The surrounding text has been disected by many scholars, but confusion, and uncertainty devalue the insight rendered by each. The material preceding the text details the events taking place during the eight-day, or octave-day celebration that took place when the tabernacle was completed, and ready for official use. Public prayers, and various sacrifices were prescribed, and all were performed by the priest(s). Directly preceding Lev. 10:1 in 9:23,24 is the detail of how Moses and Aaron on the eighth day went into the tabernacle, came out and blessed the people, and how the glory of God was shown to the people in the form of a divine fire that consumed the burnt offering laid on the outer altar.
Immediately following verse 10:1 the death of Nadab and Abihu takes place, and in v. 3 Moses is depicted giving this quote from God to Aaron: “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. ” Aaron is then depicted as holding his calm, or grief. Following the section about Nadab and Abihu in v. 9 is an admonishment to the priests not to enter the Tent of Meeting while under the influence of alcohol, or face death as punishment. This reference to intoxication has led many scholars to conclude that Nadab and Abihu were drunk, and this is why they were consumed.
The larger unit containing the octave-day activities and the material following Nadab and Abihu is basically a priestly hankbook as to what was expected of them, their responsibilities, and the punishments awaiting them if they fail to follow the prescriptions. When trying to understand this verse it is most helpful to look at it as a literal piece of work. One literal explanations rendered has been that the incense was offered on unauthorized coals (Milgrom 634). The coals were brought from an unholy place and incense was burnt on them inside the Tent of Meeting where only coals from the outer altar (Yitzhaki 16:12) were allowed to be used for incense burnings as stated in Lev. 16:12.
Because they were not brought from the outer altar, they were called ‘strange fire’. As stated in 16:13: “. . .
. that he die not” if done properly; since Nadab and Abihu did not perform properly the acts, they were doomed to death. P. Heinisch, however, does not agree. He states the fact that it could not have been because they failed to bring fire from altar, because they had not been commanded yet (Laymor 49); Lev. 16:1 states: “And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.
. . ” The commandment to bring coals from the outer altar for incense burning is part of what God told Moses at this juncture. Another explanation of the sin committed by Nadab and Abihu is suggested.
The argument is that Nadab and Abihu overzealous in their efforts to serve their roles as priests, took their censers, put coals from the outer altar -which had already received the divine fire- in them and proceeded to burn incense on the inner altar as a sacrifice, therefore prompting “which he had not commanded them” in v. 1. from God. They were commanded to wait for a second fire to shoot from the Holy of Holies to burn the incense, but thinking that since the Divine Glory had once been revealed, they were permitted to take the coals, and use them for the ritual incense offering performed on the inner altar (Cohen 655).
Because of the circumstances involved, even though in essence a good-hearted act, they were doomed to death (Hertz 445). Further proof of the non-malicious intent of the sons is to be understood from Moses’ following quote of God in Lev. 10:3: “Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified. .
. ” Even though they were close to God spiritually, God had to be sanctified by meting out punishments as meant to be. Strict adherence to law is required (Brown 73), misunderstanding or not. Still another intrepretation of the sins of Nadab and Abihu, while looking at the surrounding text, is taking into consideration v.
9. Jewish Rabbis state that Nadab and Abihu had dared to enter the Tabernacle drunk, and so had to die (Hertz 445). As previously noted v. 9 contains an admonishment to the Priests not to enter the Tent of Meetingwhile drunk, or under the influence of alcohol. Observing this Rabbi Eliezer, a Torah commentator states: “The proof is that their death (scripture) admonished the remaining that they should not enter intoxicated with wine into the sanctuary.
. . ” (Yitzhaki 10:2). But the merit of this argument is not very strong. The relationship between the ‘strange fire’ by Nadab and Abihu, and intoxication is unclear. Furthermore, the statement “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh to me.
. . ” attributed to God has no implications of any kind of sin involving the lude, but rather implies sin through the mistaken practice of a noble act. Some allegorical interpretaions of the Nadab and Abihu incident have been proposed also.
One held by Rabbi Eliezer is that “the sons of Aaron died only because they decided a law in the presence of their teacher Moses” (qtd. in Yitzhaki 10:2). This argument is further supported in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs by suggesting that this disregard to Moses, or even Aaron’s authritative power, was a product of jealousy. They were enchanted with the ambition of being the head of the congregation, and hoped for the death of the old men (445).
It was this that led them to commit the sin which ultimately brought on their own death, it is argued. But unfortunately this theory doesn’t hold up too well either, as in 10:3 God through Moses blesses Nadab and Abihu by proclaiming they were near to him. Certainly jealous, and impious men would not receive that great of honor by God. Other suggestions are that the incense offered was improperly prepared as prescribed in Ex. 30:9, or that they were wearing their special robes in a way not acceptable, or even that the brothers entered the Holy of Holies, but there is not sufficient argumentative proof for any of them. The incense offering itself is not part of the sin, but the fire it was used to burn it with.
If the mixture of incense was the problem, certainly the text would have read ‘esh ketoret’ or ‘strange incense’ but this is not the case. The argument that their clothing was worn wrong is not acceptable either, because it is just a guess: no where, even in the surrounding text is found a reference to priestly wardrobes to validify this argument. The argument that Nadab and Abihu entered the Holy of Holies is harder to disprove, but it’s likely that by ‘before the Lord’ it is meant inside the Tent of Meeting, but directly outside the Holiest part, or before it. Since God is supposed to reside in there, scripture regards the area as the body of God. According to the analytical approach to the Torah, as opposed to the traditional orthodox belief that it is dvinely inspired, four different schools of thought undertook the writing of the Hebrew Bible: Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deutronomist. The entire book of Leviticus is credited to the Priestly writer, or for short P.
The time and place that P is believed to belong to is post-exilic Judah. After returning to the land of Israel after being given their freedom, the Priest class, which was by then also the teaching class, tried to instill in the Israelites a sense of religious responsibility, and with that the doctrine of ‘as God is holy so must Israel be’ began to take form and precedent. Most of the writings credited to P infact have to do with minute detail of ritualistic acts of cleansing and keeping holy. P’s genuine need for “an aetiology of the ritual practice of Judaism” is what N. Gottwald wrote when explaining the motives th P writers had for such a document which is basically articulated around covenants made by God wth various biblical figures (448).
The people P was trying to reach was exposed to paganist religions, and cults residing in the Babylonian empire, and even before the exile some of these cultic behaviors had penetrated Israel with the many Assyrian invasions and settlings in the land. Infact many of the rituals were incorporated into daily lives. Assyrian astral worship began to surface in Judaean culture around the end of the first Temple. How this relates to the story of Nadab and Abihu is the fact that astral worshipping involved the offerings of incense on rooftops of homes (Milgrom 628). Many biblical sources among them Jeremiah 19:3, and Zephaniah 1:5 testify to the existence of incense burning on rooftops of the Jewish people.
P believing this ritual is thoroughly paganistic, and therfore unallowed, decided to do something to cure the epidemic. Observers have come up with the theory that the priest class knew they could not blot out this ritual by simply issuing edicts forbidding it, because the ritual was so widespread that the order would have been ignored, and the Priestly influence and power therefore undermined. The solution was to put it into law, with a polemic tale against pagan practices of incense burning with Nadab and Abihu serving as subjects who disobeyed the command of God, and were destroyed because of it (Milgrom 629). Infact, Nadab and Abihu’s offering of the ‘strange fire’ resembles closely the Zoroastric custom of enthroning fire in the temple by having two priests carry the flame into the sanctuary on a censer (Milgrom 628).
The lesson the Nadab and Abihu tale was supposed to teach was: Legitamate incense, legitimate people, but illegitimate coals! The only coals authorized for such a service were coals taken from the altar outside the Tent of Meetingas stated in Lev. 16:12. Even though the Torah did have a final editor who put together the books as they are today, according to the anlytical thinking, it is believed that the Yahwist, and Elohist material were incorporated within the general outline that P provided (Gottwald 452). Therfore most of P’s views are preserved, and what we have today is probably what was intended to be read, if not how to be understood.
Even though post-exilic Israel had a very tense political situation, the influenced that prompted the P writers to do this piece seems to be religious (Milgrom 628). The problem involved the fact that the Jews were a province in the Zoroastrianic Persian Empire which had considerable influence with the people who considered them their savior. Therefore the story of Nadab and Abihu was needed to ingrain in the people a sense of nationalism, and religious unity needed for them to survive as a people, aas thought by P. This verse has had a profound effect on the religion of Judaism as practiced today.
If not for this passage Jews around the world might be burning spices, just as they light candles on Friday evenings, as a religious, traditional ritual. But this verse along with the other one or two like it, step in and forbid the imitation of the act done daily on the holy altar of gold by the priests, when there was a suitable, and authorized place for the performing of it. This act ran too close to pagan rituals by the laymen too be allowed to be done by Jewish laymen. The closeness could have been intrepreted as a relationship, and that would have been the ultimate disaster: The Mono-theistic ritual done by the people individually to their one-god, being essentially the same as the pagan ritual to their many gods. At this point the exegesis comes full circle to the point: What was it that Nadab and Abihu did that was so wrong? What was the sin? It is worth repeating that the answer lay in the context, and the surrounding text.
Nadab and Abihu along with their brothers and father were given a set of rules, and prescriptions of rituals by which to abide by on the last day of the octave-day celebrations (Ex. 9:6), one of which was to wait for devine fire to burn sacrifices, though not specifically mentioned in text. In Lev. 9:24 we learned that fire came out from “before the Lord, and consumed the burnt offering. . .
” Nadab and Abihu, having been assigned the task of handling the incense offering, saw the divine fire devour the burnt offering on the outer altar, and having witnessed their father take coals from that altar, remove them to the inner altar, and burn incense with them the past several days, proceeded to do the same. What they had failed to do was follow directions correctly and wait for a second divine fire to burn the incense offering. This misinterpretation of the law cost Nadab and Abihu their lives. The fire was called strange simple because it was not what was ordered to be done, as the last words of Lev. 10:1 attest: “. .
. . Which he had not commanded them. ” The ritual was strangely performed and not the way it was supposed to have been. In light of their offense, and the fact that they were heir-apparents to the high-priesthood, their sin was not forgivealble, and therefore punishable by death.
As S. R. Hirsch correctly pointed out when quoted by A. Cohen (445): “the stricter the standard by which he is to be judged…the greater the consequent guilt and punishment, if there is a falling away from that standard.”