When Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, make an improper sacrificial offering, using esh zarah (foreign or alien fire), they are struck down by God's fire. What exactly is an improper offering? For what sin have they exacted such a harsh punishment? Baruch Levine helps us understanding the biblical narrative in Leviticus 10.

Following the ordination of Aaron and his sons as cultic officials and the appearance of God's presence (kavod) at the newly consecrated Tabernacle, the Torah sets forth various regulations regarding appropriate priestly conduct. To emphasize the necessity of precise compliance with all the ritual laws, Leviticus chapter 10 preserves a brief narrative of the untimely death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu: having made an improper incense offering, they were struck down by God. Like the story of Korah,[1] the story of Nadav and Avihu serves as an admonition and as an object lesson. The tragedy of their punishment is echoed in several other Torah passage. [2]

"Aaron's sons each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them, thus they died at the instance of the Lord."

The two young priests erred by placing coals, rather than incense on the fire pan. The Hebrew word esh (fire) refers in fact to the embers placed on the fire pans, much as it does in Numbers 17:2: "Order Elazar son of Aaron the priest to remove the fire pans — for they have become sacred..." Esh zarah (alien fire) refers to the incense itself. It could be translated "an alien [incense offering] by fire." The sense of the Hebrew word zarah ("alien") is elusive, and the "strangeness" implied have been variously interpreted.

The text does not specify the offense committed by Nadav and Avihu; it merely states that the offering had not been specifically ordained. The Sifra [3] speculates that they brought a voluntary offering in celebration of the Tabernacle dedication. Various suggestions in the midrashim produce a composite of several possible offenses. In Leviticus Rabba we read: "Because of nearness (kirvah) — for they penetrated into the innermost section [of the sanctuary]. Because of 'sacrificing' (kirvah) — for they brought an offering they were not enjoined to bring. Because of 'alien fire' — they brought coals inside [the sanctuary] which came from an oven (and not from the sacrificial altar)."[4]

The principle of this last interpretation has been adopted by a modern scholar, M. Haran, who suggests that the offense of the two priests lay in using incense brought from outside the sacred area between the altar and the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. It was therefore impure.[5]

For the others, the midrashic interpretations play on the verb k-r-v (to draw near, approach), reflected in va-yakrivu (they brought near, presented) in verse 1. The first of these interpretations, that the offense consisted of penetrating too far into the sanctuary, is supported by the reference to this episode in Lev. 16:1: "The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord." There Aaron is warned not to repeat the offense of his two sons by proceeding beyond the curtain (parokhet) in the sanctuary on any occasion other than Yom Kippur — "lest he die."

A possible key to the precise nature of the offense lies in the equivalence of two descriptive terms: esh zarah in our text and ketoret zarah, "an alien incense offering," in Exodus 30:9. If esh zarah is equivalent to ketoret zarah, we may learn from Exodus 30:9 that it was forbidden to offer on the golden incense altar anything other than the daily incense offering. Aaron's two sons, then, violated the law of Exodus 30:9. Entering the Tent for an improper purpose, they met with death.

The punishing fire that "comes forth from the Lord" refers to the fire mentioned in 9:24, which came forth from inside the Tent of Meeting and consumed the sacrifices offered at the dedication of the Tabernacle, as explained by Rashbam. [6] The phraseology here is similar to that of Numbers 16:35, where it is said that God's fire consumed Korah and his faction as they stood near the Tent of Meeting to offer incense that had been rejected by God. This suggests a similarity of theme, as well.

[1] Numbers 16-17 [back]
[2] Lev. 16:1-2; Num. 3:4, 26:61 [back]
[3] Midrash (interpretive literature) on the book of Leviticus from the classical period of the tannaim (1st to 3rd century Palestinian scholars) [back]
[4] Lev. R. Aharei Mot 8 [back]
[5] See M. Haran, "The Tabernacle: A Graded Taboo of Holiness," in Sefer Segal, ed. J. Liver (Jerusalem: Kiriat Sefer, 1964), 33-41 [back]
[6] Shmuel ben Meir, 12th century rabbinic scholar and biblical and Talmudic commentator, known by the acronym Rashbam [back]
The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (commentary by Baruch A. Levine). Leviticus Commentary © 1989 by The Jewish Publication Society.

FIRE Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend