Nadav and Avihu: The Unlamented Sons

Posted by on Apr 16, 2023

The story of Nadav, Avihu, and their father who lost his two sons in a “strange fire” and could not even mourn properly after their death. He did not raise his voice in crying, as a father would do for his dead children. He did not even say a word, for he had no breath left in him, only grief and deep sadness in his broken heart. He was devastated by his grief when his sons died, but he did not cry in the instant as he should have; he mourned them in his heart. He lost his right forever to bury his dead, for he became the Priest of YHVH. This father was Aharon.

Nadav and Avihu. A father lost his sons and could not even mourn properly. He lost his right forever to bury his dead, for he became the Priest of YHVH.

Nadav and Avihu. A father lost his sons and could not even mourn properly. He lost his right forever to bury his dead, for he became the Priest of YHVH.

The strange fire that kills

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his fire holder and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and brought strange* fire before Yehovah, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from Yehovah and consumed them, and they died before Yehovah. (Lev 10:1-2)

*The word translated as “strange” is זוּר zur, which means to turn aside, especially for lodging, hence, to be a foreigner, stranger, one who comes from another place. “Strange fire” could mean fire that comes from another (unknown) place.

When reading our verse here one might come to the premature conclusion that Nadav and Avihu were killed for doing what the Lord had not commanded them, because it is said that they took their fire holders and having put fire in them, placed incense in them and brought them before YHVH. We should not err and conclude this from the words “they died before Yehovah”.

It is not very clear from this short description of the incident what offence they actually committed to deserve that level of punishment. If there was indeed something wrong, they had done, we are not told particularly what it was. On the contrary, we are told in the following verse 3 that the Lord is sanctified by His servants, the priests, when they come near Him, near Him in the Sanctuary. We read,

By those who come near Me let Me be set-apart! And before all the people let Me be glorified! (Lev 10:3)

How does this short statement explain what Nadav and Avihu have done? And how did their punishment fit their sin?

What really happened at the Tent

If we want to understand what took place there, we must pay attention to the verses of the preceding chapter.

On the eighth day of the priests’ consecration for service, Mosheh called Aharon and his four sons, and the elders of Israel, and said to them to bring sin offerings before YHVH (Lev 9:1): a young bull for Aharon to atone for the sin of the golden calf which he had made (see Rashi on Leviticus 9:2) and a male goat to atone for the elders for the idolatry the people had committed in Egypt (see Chizkuni on Leviticus 9:3).

And when the glory of YHVH appeared to all the people, fire came forth from before YHVH and consumed the offerings, and the people shouted and fell on their faces in reverence (Lev 9:22-24).

Then, in the very beginning of Chapter 10, it is first said that Nadav and Avihu brought “fire”, and in the same line of words it is said again that they brought “strange fire” before YHVH, which He had not commanded. Fire came forth from before the Lord and they died.

It is assumed that the “strange fire” that was burning the incense was the same as the first one that they brought in their censers. But if they had brought inappropriate fire, or if the fire had somehow defiled the incense, it should have been described as “strange fire” from the beginning of the story.

Rabbi Or HaChaim comments that the reason the Torah distinguishes in its description is to emphasize that the crucial part of their error was the fire which did not originate on the altar. In his opinion, the words “which He had not commanded them” define the nature of the “strange fire”. It is possible, he says, that if they had taken the fire for their incense from the Altar, the Lord would not have minded so much.

Another commentator, Rabbeinu Bahya, says that the regulations pertaining to the incense offering required that the fire be taken from the Altar and that the incense be burned up by that fire, referring to Lev 16:12. Nadav and Avihu, he says, thought that the actual fire from the Altar was required to totally consume the animal sacrifices. Then, he goes on to say that “this was a sin as they demonstrated a lack of faith, not trusting God to make heavenly fire descend on the sacrifices and able to consume the sacrifices; this is why they brought additional fire to consume the incense”. Thus, in Rabbeinu Bahya’s view, by bringing their own fire they made the miracle of the heavenly fire that consumed the offerings in Leviticus 9 irrelevant causing a desecration of the Name of the Lord in the eyes of all the people. The law Rabbeinu Bahya refers to reads,

And he (Ed. Aharon) shall take a censer full of coals of fire from off the Altar before Yehovah, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense upon the fire before Yehovah, that the cloud of the incense may cover the ark-cover that is upon the testimony, that he die not. (Lev 16:12-13)

This interpretation, however, is problematic because a closer examination of the text shows something else. And we will find that Leviticus 16 regulates the procedure of the atonement of the nation of Israel on Yom Kippur. It is evident from these verses that Aharon dressed in white linen long shirt and turban, washed in water, was take fire from the Altar and with incense in his hand he could enter the sanctuary. Only then he was allowed to put the incense in his censer so that the cloud of the sweet aroma might cover the Ark with the Covenant in it. Any deviation from this procedure would result in his death.

There was to be no one in the Tent of Meeting on Yom Kippur, when Aharon went into it to make atonement in the most Set-apart Place, until he came out again, because no one but he alone was worthy to be there before YHVH (Lev 16:17).

Returning to our story Nadav and Avihu offered their fire with incense not in the Sanctuary, for it was forbidden, not even in the Tent, but outside of it. The fact that they were outside is evident from the fact that their cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan, took them by their tunics out of the camp (verse 5). This could only be possible if Nadav and Avihu, who were priests, were outside of the Tent, because Mishael and Elzaphan, Levites, were not allowed to be in the Tent in the first place.

It is not clear from the short narrative where they took the fire from and what their intent was, but one thing is for sure: they did not think that the actual fire from the Altar was required to totally consume the animal sacrifices, because the sacrifices had already been burned at the end of Chapter 9. Thus, by their action they did not make the miracle of the heavenly fire irrelevant causing a desecration of the Name of YHVH, as Rabbeinu Bahya claims. Besides, the laws of Yom Kippur were given no earlier than in Chapter 16. When the brothers brought the “strange fire”, they had a very little that could prohibit them.

Nadav and Avihu and their much zeal on fire

The offering of incense in fire might have been called “strange fire”, if it was not offered according to the instruction in Exo 30:9 where it is called “strange incense”. In Exodus 30, we find the instructions how to make and use the Altar of Incense, but we do not find that incense was ever placed directly on the censer in which the fire was burning.

But the two young priests did exactly that; they placed incense on their censers believing that they were doing something good for the people, or perhaps, even for YHVH. And that might have been their error, which we have to admit in their defense, was not explicitly prohibited but implied in the instructions Mosheh gave them; otherwise, we find no other deviation from the Torah.

This subtle moment was detected in the 12th-13th century Torah commentary, Daat Zekenim. There the rabbis noticed the language the Torah used to describe the incident. And indeed, the Torah uses the unusual formulation “which He had not commanded them”, instead of “which He had forbidden them”. What is the difference? The difference is called “exceptional circumstances”, the Torah permits something which is otherwise prohibited. But what followed in the incident explains that this was not the case. Daat Zekenim gives an example of such “exceptional circumstances”: that would be what Eliyahu did on Mount Carmel in his confrontation with the 400 hundred priests of the Baal (see 1Kings 18). But in the case, the prophet used “a private altar something which was strictly forbidden since the Temple had been erected”.

But why then did Nadav and Avihu bring “strange fire”? Perhaps, it was because they remembered the command (Lev 1:7), “The sons of Aharon the priest shall put fire on the Altar”, and in their zeal to serve YHVH they might have interpreted it in their own way to do more than what they were required. They might have intended to accompany the shouts of the people with an incense-offering to bring more praise and glory to YHVH.

Filled thus with zeal to serve and glorify YHVH, Nadav and Avihu crossed the boundaries of instructions Mosheh gave them and presumed to approach YHVH in their own manner, even though with a good intention. They were on a high level of deeds and for this reason the Torah called them “the sons of Aharon”. They erred in their service.

Whatever the reason for their death was, whether the man-made fire, or the incense, or both, it was not commanded by YHVH; indeed, it was not yet commanded. They did something on their own initiative before the actual instruction that regulated the incense-offering came. Nadav and Avihu were too eager to serve the Lord and impatient to wait until it was regulated. That was their transgression.

If Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, who were just consecrated to serve as priests, did what they did with no ill intention, i.e., by mistake or without knowledge, why were they punished so severely while the prophet Eliyahu was not even rebuked? We cannot explain how the latter case does not contradict the former. But as the rabbis say, the Bible is a book of questions, not answers, and we will leave the issue unexplained in the Torah as it is.

What took the lives of Nadav and Avihu?

We need to know that while the absolute presence of the Creator is everywhere at any time, He does not move from one place to another, but space and time are in Him, His manifested presence is altogether different. This Presence is שְׁכִינָה Shechinah, (feminine of שֶׁכֶן shechen) the “dwelling” or “settling” that denotes the presence of the Everlasting YHVH Elohim, as it were, in a place.

The closer to the proximity of Shechinah, the closer is the connection to the Creator, and the manifested presence is more readily perceivable. The priests, the prophets, and ultimately the greatest prophet Mosheh our teacher, are the best examples of being close to Him.

The word מִשְׁכָּן mishkan, Tabernacle, where YHVH chose to dwell with His people and particularly the Sanctuary, is derived from Shechinah. The Hebrew Scripture, the Tanach, speaks of the places where the manifested presence of the Creator was experienced as the Shechinah: the burning bush and the cloud with fire that rested on Mount Sinai.

And Mount Sinai was in smoke, all of it, because Yehovah descended upon it in fire. And its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and all the mountain trembled exceedingly. And when a voice of the shophar sounded long and became very strong, Mosheh spoke, and Elohim answered him by voice. (Exo 19:18-19)

For this reason, the Shechinah of YHVH is also referred to as His glory.

With that said a careful reading into our story would recall another tragic episode in 2Samuel 6, when King David decided to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to which we now turn.

The ark of the covenant had been in the house of Avinadav from the time when the Philistines had sent it back into the land of Israel. They placed the Ark on a new wagon, and Uzzah and Achyo, sons of Avinadav were leading the wagon (2Sa 6:3-4). When the procession had reached the threshing-floor, the oxen stumbled and Uzzah stretched out his hand to lay hold of the ark to keep it from falling on the ground. Then, the wrath of YHVH was kindled and killed Uzzah right there.

Uzzah’s error consisted in the fact that even though he touched the ark with good intention to prevent its falling from the cart and possible damages, touching the most set-apart object was a violation of the Torah. Besides, according to Numbers 4 the ark was only to be moved by the Levites carried on their shoulders, and even they were expressly forbidden to touch it on pain of death (Num 4:15). David was displeased against the tragedy that had befallen Uzzah, because he had planned the way in which the Ark had to be taken to Jerusalem.

This story has a curious connection to our story in Leviticus. The Israelite who had been keeping the Ark at his home is named Avinadav. The sons of Aharon are Avihu and Nadav. Uzza, who died because of David, was Avinadav’s son.

We find a resemblance to the Ark incident at the Sinai revelation (see Exo 19:22-24) without such consequences. There YHVH told Mosheh to fence in the mountain when the heavenly presence would descend upon it. While this is commonly understood to mean that the mountain was to be protected from the people, the opposite in fact is true: the people were to be protected, not from the mountain for the rock did not have any supernatural power to harm the people, not from Elohim Himself as if He felt threatened by them, but from the Presence, the Shechinah, of the Almighty, lest YHVH break out against them.

And because the Torah is very specific in its description of the incident that Nadav and Avihu were taken by their tunics, this teaches us that their garments had not been burned (nor their bodies), but their souls had been taken. With this fact considered we are fairly convinced that that the “fire” which came forth from YHVH was not a natural fire that burns, but it might have been a force of the Shechinah that took their lives.

Both brothers, Mosheh and Aharon, learned lesson of a high value. The service to YHVH is like fire: it warms but it also burns. From a distance fire provides light; coming closer it provides warmth; upon touch it burns and then it may kill. This lesson to learn is deadly serious although not simple to hear.

It was the Shechinah not YHVH Himself that ended the lives of Nadav and Avihu. The wording tells all: “And fire came forth from Yehovah and consumed them, and they died before Yehovah” (Lev 10:2). It was the fire that consumed them, not YHVH. To what we are to liken this fire? Oily stain burns instantly in the presence of pure oxygen. Both are completely incompatible to exist together. So is it with His Presence: the closeness to Shechinah burns if YHVH is approached not according to His instructions. We now may understand the very words of YHVH: “No one has seen Me and lives”.

The deaths of Nadav and Avihu made it quite clear that approaching His Shechinah, His Presence, and serving Him are to be done only through His prescribed provisions, not through man’s own perceptual powers of the mind even though the mind might have been filled with good intentions. Perhaps, that would explain why Nadav and Avihu, the priests, were punished but not Eliyahu, the prophet: the closeness of service, the closeness to His Shechinah. The priest must always be available for service, while the prophet only when he is called.

When a father could not mourn his sons

Mosheh prohibited Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, from showing any sign of state of sorrow and grief over the death of his sons “lest they should die, and wrath come upon all the people” (verses 6-7). The reason for this prohibition might have been that any manifestation of grief would have indicated discontentment with the judgment of Elohim, and they would have fallen into sin themselves.

Mosheh prohibited Aharon to leave the sacred Tabernacle because he and his sons had been anointed with oil of YHVH to do service to Him. This sacred anointing oil as a sign of dedication had nothing in common with death (see also Lev 21:12).

But after everything for the consecration of the Tabernacle was done according to the instructions, Mosheh noticed that Aharon and his sons did not eat the offering (Lev 10:12-16). And Mosheh asked, “Why have you not eaten the offering you were supposed to eat?

In his response, Aharon acknowledged that the sin-offering ought to have been eaten but this had not been done so because of the tragedy that had befallen the family: his grief at the death of his eldest sons, which rendered it impossible to enjoy the sacrificial meal. And this might have really been a sufficient reason for not having eaten the sin-offering: because he said, “such things as these have befallen me (the deaths of his sons). And if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been right in the eyes of Yehovah?” (Lev 10:19)

This time it was Aharon who taught his brother an important lesson: leaders of their ranks can ignore themselves and their personal problems, but the real life is different. What Aharon was saying was that leaders like them are still humans and the relationship with the Eternal does not mean suppressing their own senses of reality, especially in time of sadness, grief, and tragedy. And this, Aharon is suggesting, is hardly the will of the Supreme One, who has decreed the laws. Aharon makes the point that it is humanly to balance and experience both His and his realities. Aharon was not a high priest only but also a father, and as a father it was natural for him to mourn, and he had the whole reason to mourn for his dead sons, but he did not. He did not mourn, nor could he even cry for his sons. Mosheh heard these words, it was good in his eyes, and he said no more (verse 20).

The lesson learned in grief

On the day of the Tabernacle’s consecration, only Aharon was to bring the incense offering or any other offering. The death of his sons, as a punishment for willfully doing something they were not commanded to do, was to be a warning to Aharon himself, namely, not to come at all times into the Most Set-apart Place, where the Ark with the Covenant was, but only once a year and only in the manner prescribed in Lev 16:3, lest he die too. The death of his sons, because they drew near to YHVH in an unauthorized manner, was to serve as a warning to Aharon himself never to transgress the instructions in this respect.

And that was the lesson both Mosheh and Aharon learned: the closer one is to YHVH, the more responsibility he is charged with and the stricter rules YHVH applies to him, and therefore, the lesser margin of error he has. The permissible difference allowing some freedom to move within the prescribed limits of the Torah becomes lesser and lesser with the closeness to the Supreme Power.

To cry silently without tears

Aharon lost his sons Nadav and Avihu because of the incense burned in a “strange fire”. He knew his sons made a grievous mistake to approach the Set-apart One of Israel in a way they were not supposed to. In his heart, he might have asked himself how the punishment fitted the mistake. But received no answer. He could not mourn them. He did not cry, although his heart was broken. He wanted to raise his voice in “Why?” but he was not allowed to. Instead, he was eating quietly the offerings hiding his tears of grief, for all the tears he had turned to dry. He knew his eyes were drying up forever for he became the high priest. He felt deep down in his heart that it was so hard for him to accept that he could not even cry for his sons, and the father cried silently with dry eyes; something only a priest of YHVH could know.

Aharon lived out his harsh reality of being both the closest servant to the Creator and at the same time a loving father who would lament the death of his sons quietly all his life. And being both the high priest and a father, he could not mourn his dead sons, as other fathers could. He could not even bury his dead for he was the high priest.

Aharon did not see the Promised Land, for he erred as his brother Mosheh erred, and died in a foreign land like his sons. Aharon and Mosheh both sinned before YHVH, and they were both denied the promise to enter the Land they longed for in the nights of endless dreams of forty years. This is what it takes to be the High Priest of YHVH.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!


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