“And fire came forth from God and consumed them” Leviticus 10:2


Shemini opens with the transferral of priestly leadership from Moses to Aaron. What looks like a happy ending of Aaron blessing the people with perhaps the first priestly blessing takes a sudden turn towards tragedy. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu bring incense and a “strange fire” before God and God’s fire consumes them.

The Torah is ambiguous in explaining the reason they die in their attempt to serve God. Did they do something wrong or sinful to warrant such a severe consequence? There are no less than four types of explanations to describe their behaviour.

Firstly, the Midrash highlights how Nadab and Abihu were missing something fundamental in their religious practice. Based on textual clues, some of their shortcomings were that they didn’t wash their hands and feet, or they didn’t wear the appropriate priestly vestments. Another suggests they lacked respect for their father, Aaron, or uncle, Moses. While each of these critiques shines light on a specific issue, the general theme is that the priest requires wholeness.

Secondly, the rabbis critique Nadab and Abihu for the extra elements of their service. For example, they may have been drunk while bringing the fire. This is textually supported by the next paragraphs in the Torah which warn the officiating priest not to be intoxicated during ritual worship.

Thirdly, perhaps the most straightforward response mentioned in the Torah and supported by the rabbinic commentaries as well is that Nadab and Abihu brought “a strange fire that was not commanded by God”.

The Torah is replete with phrases of God telling Moses and the Israelites to do something and narrating that they did as God commanded. Nadab and Abihu’s mistake symbolises the importance of this commandment process and commitment to God’s teachings rather than following one’s desires or inventions.

The fourth and most surprising explanation for their death is that their religious fervour motivated them to bring a fire pan and incense before God. In this perspective, rather than viewing their death as a punishment, it is as though they wanted to be completely devoted and consumed by God. While their intentions to be close to God were positive, religious ecstasy can lead to fanaticism or a perverted religious experience.

Each of these explanations provides a different critique of Nadab and Abihu’s behaviour; they present a warning that leaders and their families can be far from perfection.



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