A Tale of Strange Fire
The case of Nadab and Abihu offering strange fire to the Lord and their subsequent deaths is somewhat enigmatic. God had just sent fire to consume the burnt offering on the altar (Lev. 9:22–24) which the priests were to have kept kindled in perpetuity (Lev. 6:12–13). Now, two of Aaron’s sons, priests in their own right, presented an unwelcome fire that resulted in God sending fire to devour them. The altar of incense, however, was not in the holy of holies but was just before the veil which partitioned the holy of holies from the sacred place. Several sources suggest that the priests entered the holy of holies, however (Vayikra Rabbah 20.8; Torat Kohanim; et. al.). God had previously instructed against such a “strange” offering on the altar of incense (Exod. 30:7–9), so what they had done violated what He earlier warned against doing.
The “strange fire” likely came from a source otherwise not sanctioned by Yahweh (cf. Lev. 16:12 [Milgrom, 598]). Interesting it is that the phrase, “So fire went out from the LORD” is the same as that which appears in Lev 9:24. On the earlier occasion, the fire demonstrated God’s approval and acceptance, but on the latter, His disapproval. Yahweh is, therefore, hallowed by manifesting His power against transgression as well as in approving of righteousness. The priests established His holiness and honor by their reverence for Him. They were chosen not to be honored themselves, as Aaron might have mistaken, but to honor God and reveal His greatness to Israel (Houston).
Rather than thinking that this story is about what happened to Nadab and Abihu, it’s really about Aaron. Notice that he is addressed after what befell his sons in verses 3, 6, 8, and 12 of Lev 10 with one of the speakers to Aaron being Yahweh (v. 8). This was one of the rare times that God spoke directly to Aaron, and He emphasized the importance of discernment in the priestly vocation (v. 10). Aaron was told by Moses what God revealed to him at the moment regarding the cause of his eldest sons’ deaths (v. 3). Moses then instructed that no public display of mourning be made nor for him to remove himself from the tabernacle due to the presence of the anointing oil upon them (vv. 6–7). Israel, however, was permitted to mourn for Aaron and what had occurred.
Emotion is ever-present in this narrative. When God’s fire lit the altar, the people “saw and shouted with joy” (9:24). The root of Aaron’s silence suggests not just holding his tongue, but a mournfulness that might induce him to moan in sorrow which he repressed (10:3). The father isn’t stoically standing by as if not moved by what’s happened but is bothered by it all (Eliasen).³ Aaron is so bothered that he refused even to eat of the sin offering made by Eleazar and Ithamar, his two other sons. This was not to be rebellious, but cautious lest he incurs a similar fate to that of his sons. Moses grew angry with his nephews for this, but Aaron responded in a way that communicated that he views himself as his sons or they as extensions of him. Therefore, Aaron didn’t lose two of his sons, but a part of himself died (Lev. 10:16–19), so he feared eating it lest he suffers similarly.
Here on out, the distinction between the sacred and profane are highlighted for the Israelites so that God may dwell in their presence and them in His. What went wrong here? It is possible that Aaron still had his idolatrous tendencies about him, which led to his sons’ usage of profane fire. God had already selected Aaron and his sons as priests to Himself before Moses returned to the bottom of Mt. Sinai, and Aaron had constructed the golden calf (Exod. 32:1–6). The golden calf itself was not a god but was a heavenly throne upon which a deity or deities would sit, similar to the cherubim of the ark of the covenant. It was meant to invite the deity to dwell among the people and lead them, but was done in a way unauthorized by God. Later, the northern kingdom would erect golden calves in Bethel and Dan, not as images of pagan worship but as thrones for the God of Israel (Alter, 494). If Aaron hadn’t ridden himself of idolatrous ways, his sons would have held the same cavalierness when they offered strange fire, thus reflecting on the parenting of Aaron.
The failure of a patriarch regarding God with reverence and holiness isn’t isolated to Aaron. King David similarly failed in this regard. His adultery was followed by Amnon’s rape of Tamar, which led to Absalom’s rebellion. The son acted likewise to the father, which brought misery and death. This same pattern happens regarding Eli, Samuel, and Jeroboam. It also occurs with a variance to Noah. The sons repeat in some way the sins or carelessness of their fathers, but as it progressed to the next generation, it got worse for them and had a harsher conclusion (Houston).
Alter, Robert, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 494.
Eliasen, Karen C., “Aaron’s War Within: Story and Ritual in Leviticus 10,” Proceedings 20 (2000): 81–98.
Houston, Walter J., “Tragedy in the Courts of the Lord: A Socio-Literary Reading of the Death of Nadab and Abihu,” JSOT 25, no. 90 (Sept. 2000): 31–39.
Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 1–16 (AB, 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991), 598.