Aaron and his sons are getting into the swing of things, getting the hang of all their new priestly duties, when Nadab and Abihu muck up their duties and either put the wrong incense in the censer or light the fire in the censer incorrectly (the text isn’t quite clear and my five second internet search yielded both interpretations). God throws the diva hiss-fit to end all diva hiss-fits and “fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them” (Lev. 10:2).

So, what was the crime here? The Enduring Word commentaries think that they “sought out their own relationship with God, apart from the revelation granted through Moses.” But I think that they’re just trying to make God not seem like quite such a psycho. If Nadab and Abihu are doing an idolatry thing, it still makes God’s reaction way out of line, but it fits more easily with the Enduring Word‘s theology. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the text to support this. All we’re told is that they either used the wrong incense or lit it with the wrong fire, that’s it. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe it was an honest mistake.

The only hint we have is a contextless line later on forbidding the consumption of alcohol in the tent of meeting (Lev. 10:8-9), which may suggest that Nadab and Abihu were a little tipsy and that this may have contributed to the incense error.

The purpose of this story is clearly to warn against getting too casual with God’s instructions to the priests, but it serves another purpose as well: it explains why Aaron’s line is traced through Eleazar, his third son (Ex. 6:23-25).

Disposing of the bodies

Leviticus 10 - The sin of nadab and abihuAaron and his remaining sons are still all dressed up for the party and they don’t want to have to re-consecrate their outfits and all that, so Moses fetches Mishael and Elzaphan (sons of Uzziel, Aaron’s uncle – see the begats in Exodus 6). The two of them come and take Nadab and Abihu’s bodies outside camp, which makes it an interesting parallel to what we’re told the priests have to do with the remnants of sin offerings in Leviticus 4:11-12.

This comes back to the idea of moral contagion, where the animal is magically imbued with the sin, corrupting its flesh. Therefore, the non-yummy bits have to be taken outside of the camp for disposal lest the sin re-enter the community. Nadab and Abihu get the same treatment – they are seen as unclean and corruptive and must be removed from the community.

Because they used the wrong incense.

An additional interesting note on this bit is that Moses is the one who fetches Mishael and Elzaphan, but they are described as being the sons of Aaron’s uncle. Maybe I’m imposing anachronistic narrative expectations on the text, but it seems to me that it would make more sense to describe Uzziel as Moses’ uncle.

Throughout Exodus and what we’ve read so far of Leviticus, I keep getting the feeling that the Aaron tradition emerged separately from the Moses tradition, and that Moses was appended onto Aaron’s family tree to lend it legitimacy.

Don’t cry about it

Just because killing a guy’s sons isn’t quite nasty enough, God/Moses (who seem pretty interchangeable ever since Moses got his shiny-face) tells Aaron and his two remaining sons not to show any signs of mourning, “lest you die, and lest wrath come upon all the congregation” (Lev. 10:6). That’s right, Moses is threatening to kill Aaron if he acts upset that he’s just lost two of his children.

But at least the same verse is okay with letting the rest of the Hebrews “bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled.”

Stopping for some lunch

In a totally tactless switching of gears, Moses tells Eleazar and Ithamar to go eat some bread and take a consecrated  lunch break.

But Aaron and his sons don’t eat their portion of the sin offerings and they don’t splash the blood around the altar just right.

Moses comes in all angry, but Aaron explains: “yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been acceptable in the sight of the Lord?” (Lev. 10:19) In other words, either he thinks that his heart just wouldn’t be in it enough for God or he’s concerned that God might be a bit angry at the Levites and not particularly interested in hearing from them for the rest of the day. Either way, Moses accepts their answer.

So why do priests have to eat the offerings, anyway? The purpose is so that the priests “may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord” (Lev. 10:17). The animals take on the sin so that they can be killed and the sin with them, and the priests take on the sin so that they can take it in to God for expunging where plebs aren’t allowed to be.