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And God Blessed Nadav and Abihu

Almost without exception the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu are regarded as punishment for their having brought “strange fire” - esh zara - before God. It is a natural conclusion. Humans fear death, and the loss of a loved one is never easy.

However, the evidence that their deaths were a punishment or a reward is roughly equal. In deed, the evidence mustered in favor of punishment is equivocal, at best, and seems to have been assembled to support an assumption based on our human feelings toward death.

So let me first propose that we consider whether the text lets us conclude that the deaths of Nadav and Abihu could have been something other than punishment for some misconduct (the exact misconduct remains up for interpretation). Or perhaps their deaths could even have been a sign of exemplary conduct on their part. Then let’s consider what difference such an interpretation would make.

We are told that Nadav and Abihu offered before God strange fire (esh zara) which had not been commanded. (10:1) And then, “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed (tochal) and killed them died before God. (10:2) Notice that just a few verses before, we have what was seen as a very positive sign that all the rituals have been properly performed when: “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed (tochal) the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.” (9:24) That the two actions are described in almost the same terms suggests that they must be regarded as on the same plane – a reward from God.

Indeed, the first thing that happens after the deaths of Nadav and Abihu is that Moses says to Aaron, “This is what was meant when God said: Through those close to me I am holy and before all the people I gain honor.”(10:3) Usually the statement is read to meant that the deaths were a punishment that reminds us that those who come close to God act in ways that honor God. But Moses’ words could just as clearly mean that in drawing close to God Nadav and Abihu had honored God.

Furthermore, whatever was meant by being “consumed”, it apparently did not involve reducing the two men to ashes. Even though they were “consumed” (tochal), their clothes were intact, and by inference their bodies were more than ashes. (10:5)

The remaining verses do nothing to support either interpretation. The text could support an interpretation that Nadav and Abihu performed such a meritorious action that God rewarded them by bringing them immediately into God’s presence (consuming them). Of course, those who loved them would have been filled with grief and loss, despite the honor.

It would seem that such radically different interpretations must lead to very different consequences. To assess the consequences, we must consider the impact the deaths would have had.

The prior parasha ended with a commandment that the priests spend seven days preparing for the dedication of the Tent. In a sense, they are recreating Creation and will henceforth live in a new world. The old world in which sacrifices and worship can be done by anyone and where and when it seems appropriate will be gone. Replacing it is a world in which sacrifice belongs to the Priests who otherwise do no or little work but are supported by the community. This creates a hierarchy that might have been resisted.

If the fate of Nadav and Abihu is a punishment for exceeding the bounds of the detailed and strict rules laid down for worship, then the role of priest becomes not just an elite position but a critically important position filled with danger that few would be willing to risk. How better to promote the stability of this new hierarchy than that punishment should be exacted on the first day this new regime is set in place? Who would want to rebel? In fact, in Numbers, their fates are referred to twice (Num:3:4, 26:60), lest we forget.

But even if the fate of Nadav and Abihu is not a punishment but a reward to them for exemplary behavior, it nonetheless sets an example that would establish and maintain the hierarchy. Few of us are likely to see death as any sort of reward or a goal to be aspired to, although we all know it will be our fate.

Given this, does it make any difference whether we see the deaths of Nadav and Abihu as a punishment or a reward? The answer is that it might not have when the Jewish world was one of exacting Temple sacrifice that demanded no more and no less than was commanded, but it does matter to us today. It does not mean that any action we take is appropriate and acceptable. But it does mean there is room for innovation in our efforts to draw near to God.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah