Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, each took his censer, put fire in it, laid incense on it, and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.
Section One (Parsha Debrief):
This week’s Parsha (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) contained: the inaugural service, the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron dealing with the loss of his sons, and kosher laws.
In the Midweek Reading Guide, we wanted readers to engage the kosher laws.
But, M.D. Goulder’s map seems to point us elsewhere in the Text. X marks the spot regarding Aaron’s sons: Nadav and Avihu.
Interestingly, this treasure gets very little attention by way of word count. The actual incident is only two verses — Leviticus 10:1-2.
Quick re-cap: On the eighth day — following the seven inaugural days of consecrating the priests and dedicating the Tabernacle — all the stages of the service are performed for the first time with the entire assembly of Isreal gathered in anticipation. Following this, the glory of God appeared to all the people and a consuming fire came (Leviticus 9:23-24). After which, Nadav and Avihu took their own fire into the Holy of Holies and were burned to death by the Lord’s fire.
Only two verses detail the incident; yet, the majority of Rabbinic commentary tries to explain what they did wrong to warrant death. Much less attention looks to explain why Nadav and Avihu did it. That is, what implored them alone, even though all of Israel was present that day.
Let’s start with the why since, historically, it’s not given much attention.
Rabbi Beth Lesch of Aleph Beta tackles this question in her newest video The Untold “Backstory” Of Nadav And Avihu. Also, Or HaChaim, a 17th century Rabbi, points to a similar backstory. Both recognize this is not the first time we encounter Nadav and Avihu. In fact, the first time is almost exactly one year prior to this climactic inaugural moment. We first encounter them on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24 at another ceremony.
It’s as if the Text goes out of its way to explicitly tell us that “Moses went up with… Nadav and Avihu (Exodus 24:9).” These two sons are not just in the mix but referenced by name. Now, think about their experience halfway up Mt. Sinai. They saw God and it was like pavements of sapphire beneath His feet. They beheld God and ate and drank before Him.
Rabbi Lesch puts it this way: “it’s the most spiritual experience they’ve ever had.” I would agree. And, if any of us would have been there we’d easily say the same.
Then it ends. They’re told to wait. They’re restricted from continuing. Moses continues on. They watch as Moses enters the cloud, approaching God even closer.
Fast forward to our Leviticus Text. It’s like déjà vu for Nadav and Avihu! Rabbi Lesch suggests that as they stand in front of the Tabernacle — once again the glory of God appears and a consuming fire comes — they are flooded with the desire to be close with God. So, they take their fire pans and rush toward God. Maybe in an attempt to recreate their intense spiritual moment on Sinai. Maybe in an attempt to experience what they were restrained from when they were told to wait. In either case, they’re filled with fervor.
What is so wrong with that — that it warrants death?
While Rabbis vary in their reasoning, most point out that the fire Nadav and Avihu brought was unauthorized. That is, God did not command it.
Now, in combining the what and the why… a common denominator among the Rabbinic commentaries for why what they did was so wrong is: a lack of respect. The Chazal text suggests it was a lack of respect for Aaron, their father. The writings in the Sifra suggest it was a lack of humility for Aaron as well. Rabbi Eliezer, a first-century Rabbi, and Rabbi Haim Sabato suggest it was an issue of not consulting Moses. Ultimately, as Rabbi Lesch puts it, they showed a lack of respect for God’s boundaries — His commandments.
Still, few Rabbis argue the brothers had an evil intention. In fact, Rabbi Haim Sabato, among others, points out:
without question, [Nadav and Avihu] acted out of profound gladness and a yearning to reciprocate the heavnely fire that God had just lavished upon Israel.
-Rabbi Sabato, Rest for the Dove
But, is that what God wanted? A question that should evoke some tension. Another way to put,
[Nadav and Avihu] were so caught up in the moment, so caught up in their love for God, that maybe they didn’t stop to think about what God wanted from them.
-Rabbi Beth Lesch
Rabbi Lesch goes on to excite more thought by providing evidence of how the root of Nadav’s name may factor into the whole incident. His name, Nadav, means generous or willingness. The root is first used in Exodus, where the people willingly give materials to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:2; 35:21).
But, Moses had to restrain the people from bringing, because they brought too much (Exodus 36:6). She says,
There was a misalignment between how the people wanted to serve God and what God wanted from them. So Moses actually places a restraint on their overflow of devotion — their “Nadav-ness.”
– Rabbi Beth Lesch
None of the Rabbis I’ve read doubt Nadav and Avihu’s love for God. None that I’ve read doubt that their intentions were good. Yet, we read that they were consumed by the Lord’s fire.
That should give us pause.
…to be continued in Sections Three & Four below.
Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):
So, how does all this play into our Gospel Text?
Well, is there a dead son in the Luke Text? Yes.
Are there people carrying the dead body in the Luke Text? Yes.
Is the body being taken outside the city/camp? Yes.
Here’s the clincher… Jesus tells the widow not to weep (Luke 7:13). The Greek for weep is klaio. In the Septuagint, it shows up in Leviticus 10:6, where Moses is telling Aaron and his two surviving sons (Eleazar and Ithamar) not to mourn in all the traditional ways. Instead, the whole community of Israel will weep for Nadav and Avihu. In both the Leviticus Text and the Luke Text, the weeping verse directly follows the verse on carrying of the body/bodies outside of camp/city.
Okay. One more.
In our Leviticus Text, God through Moses says,
‘Through those who are near me I will be consecrated, and before all the people I will be glorified.’
-Leviticus 10:3, emphasis added
In our Luke Text,
[All the people] were filled with awe and glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has appeared among us,” and, “God has come to help his people.”
-Luke 7:16, emphasis added
It seems like a number of parallels exist.
So, is it possible the story about a widow losing her son is expounding on the story of Aaron losing his sons?
If so, what do we, the readers, gain from recognizing the connection?
I’d like to suggest…. we are to infer why the boy died. What the author adds — resurrection and reunion.
Section Three (missing the mark):
Now, continuing with the tension presented in Section One… here’s more from Rabbi Beth Lesch:
You can’t just serve God however you want, even if it’s coming from a place of genuine love. Why not? Because when you love someone, it’s not about what you want to give. You’re supposed to ask: what does the Other want to receive?
-Rabbi Beth Lesch
That’s probably hard to hear. Interestingly, I think most counselors would agree with it as it relates to human-to-human relationships. How much more then, when it’s about creation approaching the Creator?
Pastors, how you invite people to approach God matters. There are ascending and complementary levels in the Relationship with the Divine.
Maybe it’s time to revisit what God’s love language is.
[Because,] love needs to be bounded by respect. Without respect, it’s dangerous. Maybe it’s not even really love.
-Rabbi Beth Lesch
Section Four (real-world applications):
Rabbi Beth Lesch is on a role. She’s got me wrestling. Why stop now?
So, it’s worth asking… do we serve the poor the way we want to provide or the way they want to receive?
Next Week’s Readings: Leviticus 12:1–13:59; Luke 7:18-35