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Two sons of Aaron . . . and a ritual that went terribly wrong

Join us in an imaginative, insightful approach to an intriguing and disturbing biblical story, with the help of traditional Jewish interpreters of Torah . . .

As chapter 9 of Leviticus opens, the narrative takes up the eighth and final day of the consecration of the Tabernacle. This is the day that Aaron begins to officiate as high priest. He and his sons take up their priestly duties in what begins as a solemn and exhilarating occasion. But something appears to go terribly wrong, ending in the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons.

Read the story aloud, slowly, and preferably with a friend. Then let’s explore the sacred text with the Jewish sages.

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant by saying: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Lev. 10:1-3)

What happened to warrant the deaths of these two newly-ordained Israelite priests? Is it some kind of divine accident? Or did they get what they deserved? And if the two did commit a wrong, did the punishment fit the crime?

If you feel uneasy about this story, know that your concerns are shared by the Jewish sages who have reflected on this text over many centuries. [1] It is good to know that our questions, concerns and, at times, strong human reactions to Scripture are all part of a healthy dialogue with the word of God. The Scriptures draw us into a robust personal engagement with God's word (rather than a blind, unthinking obedience).

Alarmed by the fate of two respected Israelites (who were among the leaders to accompany Moses when he ascended Mt Sinai—see Exodus 24:1,9-11), and convinced that God is never unjust, the sages wrestle with the text and seek to explain it in various ways.

Some propose that Nadab and Abihu were in fact guilty of sin: drunkenness (see Lev. 10:8-9), arrogance, irreverence. Too proud to ask the advice of the ‘old man’ Moses or even their father the high priest, they brought disaster upon themselves. Some say that similar transgressions had occurred when they were up on Mt Sinai with Moses. There they had infringed the boundaries set by God, but God had given them a reprieve.

Others approach the problem very differently. They defend the virtue of Aaron’s sons. They note that each time their deaths are mentioned in Scripture it is in relation to “alien fire.” Thus their sin was nothing more than a religious ritual performed incorrectly, with pure motives, but with excessive enthusiasm. According to this view the severity of the punishment reflects the heights of the spiritual status of Aaron’s sons! God’s awesome display of power is a response to Nadab and Abihu at a level that most people do not attain. [Think of gifted students of whom more is expected than the average student.] Does this help to make sense of the Lord’s words (quoted by Moses in 10:3): “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy...”

Then again, perhaps what we see in Nadab and Abihu is a superficial attempt to imitate the greatness of their father and uncle whom they saw negotiating the Lord’s fiery presence on Mt Sinai and here at the consecration of the Tabernacle. [2] The ceremony and celestial fireworks are all very exciting. Yet what Nadab and Abihu fail to appreciate is that the greatness of Moses and Aaron is hard won—authentic humility born in the crucible of adversity. Contrast this with the action of Nadab and Abihu who are in pursuit of a ‘photo-op’! The fires that were a blessing now become fires of catastrophe. Aaron’s ‘silence’ (10:3) is the pain of a parent, looking on sadly as his children make poor choices which contradict parental example.

With reference to the text, ponder and discuss these three different interpretations. Which do you favour? Why? What perennial issues does each raise? How do you interpret this text, and (in particular) Aaron’s silence? Bring your own creative insights to this Torah discussion. Share and debate them with your Torah partner, in havrutah.

Bibliography: Freedman & Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Leviticus (New York: Soncino, 1983); Munk, The Call of the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 1992); Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006) Scripture: NJPS

1. The midrashic opinions that follow are discussed by Plaut and Munk with particular reference to Leviticus Rabbah and Sifra.

2. I am grateful to Rabbi Dr Pesach Schindler for bringing this interpretation to the attention of our readers.

© Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom! Download your free Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar, courtesy of Etz Hayim-Tree of Life Publishing.

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