Essays

The Sin Of Nadab Abihu

.. ingwhile 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.”.