Aaron and his four sons spend seven days at the entrance of the tent-sanctuary after Moses consecrates them as the first priests of the Israelites. (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.) On the eighth day, in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (“Eighth”), Moses summons the new priests to make their first offerings on the altar. He lists the necessary animal and grain offerings, then adds:
“This is the thing that God commanded you shall do; and then the glory of God will appear to you.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)
Aaron, assisted by his sons, does the required slaughtering, blood splashing, and separation of the fatty parts (which make the best smoke for God’s pleasure). The five priests lay out everything to be burned on the altar. Aaron blesses the people. Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, and when they emerge again, they bless the people together. (See my post Shemini: Prayer and Glory.)
… and the glory of God appeared to all the people. And fire went out from before God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy, and they fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23-24)
The “glory of God” appears as a fire rushing out of the tent-sanctuary and devouring the offerings on the altar. Since God’s presence is supposed to touch down in the Holy of Holies, the chamber at the back of the tent,1 the fire must miraculously travel through the curtains in two doorways without burning them.
In the midst of the rejoicing, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, pick up their incense pans. Nobody has instructed them to do so; each one is moved by his own impulse. They put fire, in this case glowing embers, in their pans.
And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his incense pan, and they placed fire in them, and they put incense upon it. And they brought near before God strange fire, that [God] had not commanded them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:1)
Nadav (נָדָב) = generous one, spontaneous giver. (From the same root as nedavah, נְדָבָה = a voluntary and spontaneous gift, usually to God.2)
Avihu (אֲבִיהוּא) = my father (אֲבִי) is he (הוּא).
And fire went out from before God, and it devoured them, and they died in front of God. (Leviticus 10: 2)
The Torah uses exactly the same Hebrew for “And fire went out from before God, and it devoured” on both occasions of divine fire.
What happened? Commentators have developed too many theories over the last two thousand years to list them all in this blog post. Here is my theory.
Nadav and Avihu are unlike their younger brothers, Elazar and Itamar, in two ways:
Seeing the Feet
Only Aaron’s two older sons walked halfway up Mount Sinai with Moses, Aaron, and the 70 elders. There they saw God’s feet on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10). The elders could probably accept this as a once-in-a-lifetime vision, since they could never be prophets or priests. But Nadav and Avihu are left hungry for more contact with God, more than the usual pillar of cloud and fire everyone sees. As priests, they feel they are entitled.
They wait for the next opportunity to behold God. In this week’s Torah portion, the miraculous fire of God comes forth and lands on the altar after Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting and back out again. Perhaps the way to experience another close encounter with God is to enter the Holy of Holies—now, while God is in the mood to manifest.
Aaron’s younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, did not climb Mount Sinai and see God’s feet. They are still waiting patiently for whatever comes their way in their new life as priests.
2. No time to think
The two older brothers are more impulsive than the two younger brothers—and the Torah signals this with their names. Nadav, whose name means “spontaneous giver”, decides to give himself as a nedavah to God. He is willing, even eager, to let his own ego go up in smoke in order to be united with God. So he picks up his incense pan and puts embers in it, even though Moses gave no such instructions.
Avihu, whose name means “he is my father”, takes after his father, Aaron. When the people asked for an idol, Aaron had a flash of inspiration and immediately made the golden calf, forgetting that Moses had said God detests idols.1 Avihu is also forgetful in an important moment. He watches Moses take his father Aaron into the tent, probably into the Holy of Holies. And Avihu wants to do it, too. When he sees Nadav heading into the sanctuary with an incense pan, he has a flash of inspiration, and immediately seizes his own pan, forgetting that Moses had not authorized an incense offering.
Elazar (אֶלְעָזָר = God helps) and Itamar (אִיתָמָר = date-tree coast) are not so impulsive. Elazar wants to follow God’s rules in order to receive God’s help, and Itamar focuses on the physical things of this world. They both want to preserve their lives, and they know God’s presence is dangerous, so they avoid taking any unauthorized actions.
Nadav and Avihu, unlike their younger brothers, crave religious experiences and are willing to risk their lives. Symbolically, the “strange fire” they bring into the sanctuary is their burning desire to come closer to God—Nadav because of his impulsive generosity, and Avihu because he copies his father. Their consuming desires are met with a consuming fire from God, and they die—presumably in ecstasy.
Elazar and Itamar stick to following instructions and doing the job God has given them. They are rewarded with long lives and many descendants who also serve as priests.
Is it better to die in an ecstasy of worship, hurtling your soul into the unknown? Or is it better to keep your head and pay attention to the demands of this world? Both paths have their attractions, and perhaps there is a middle way, a life with one’s own feet on the ground and a vision of God’s feet in the sky.
But I prefer to be like Elazar and Itamar, and hope for a long life of service in this world, doing my work as well and as carefully I can. (And I am glad I was not given the bloody work of an ancient Israelite priest!)
(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)
- Leviticus 16:2, Numbers 7:89.
- A nedavah is an offering on the altar, from a human to God, throughout the bible except in Psalms 68:10 and 110:3.