Leviticus 10: Going overboard


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.

Exodus 6: Moses gets a pep talk

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At the end of the last chapter, everyone was upset with Moses for being a poop-disturber, and Moses was upset with God for not delivering the Hebrews like he said he would. The chapter break was right in the middle of the exchange, so now we get to pick up with God’s response.

God sends Aaron to meet Moses in the desert by Marc Chagall, 1966

God sends Aaron to meet Moses in the desert by Marc Chagall, 1966

God says to Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, yea, with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land” (Exod. 6:1). Now, I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so I fully accept the possibility that I might be wrong, but doesn’t Pharaoh chase the Israelites to get them back? That’s not exactly the same thing as driving them out.

God, worried that Moses may have forgotten who he was, repeats (again) that he’s  the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then tells Moses that, when he appeared to the patriarchs, it was by the name El Shaddai, and that they didn’t know his new name of YHWH. But is that true?

In Genesis 22:14, when Abraham has just been stopped from murdering his son, he calls the altar Jehovahjireh (rendered as “the Lord will provide” in my RSV). How could this be unless Abraham know the name YHWH?

Back to the story, God tells Moses again that he’s here to free all the Hebrews and that Moses should go to them and tell them, again, that God is totally good for that whole freedom thing he promised. You know, ’cause that worked right well the first time.

So Moses goes again to the Hebrews and tells them all these things and, surprisingly, they aren’t nearly as excited as they were the first time. “Fool me once…” and all that. Or, you know, they just didn’t listen “because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9).

Not to be deterred, God tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moses refuses again, protesting that Pharaoh would never listen to him because of his “uncircumcised lips.” No, I’m not joking. It’s right there in Exodus 6:12. Now, to be fair, this is apparently an expression that would translate to our “sealed lips.” Still, though, the imagery is hilarious. I’m going to start using this whenever I’m feeling tongue-tied. “Oops, sorry, I guess my lips are really uncircumcised tonight!”

Moses’ uncircumcised lips aside, God puts him and Aaron in charge of bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt.

And now for something completely different…

Thought that genealogies were a Genesis thing? Sorry to disappoint you!

The sons of Reuben: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi.

The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul (the son of a Canaanite woman).

The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. (Additional note, Levi died at 137.)

  • The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimi.
  • The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. (Additional note, Kohath died at 133.)
  • The sons of Merari: Mahali and Mushi.
  • Kohath’s son Amram married his father’s sister (eeeew), named Jochebed, and they had Aaron and Moses. The incestuous Amram died at 137.
  • The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri.
  • The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Zithri.
  • Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Naashon. Their children are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
  • The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph.
  • Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and they had Phinehas.

Where applicable, this does all seem to match the genealogy given in Genesis 46. It does bear mentioning, however, that a few of these guys live longer than the 120 years God had supposedly allotted them way back in Genesis 6:3.

Back to the story

Now that we’ve established which Aaron and Moses we’re talking about, we get to hear about Moses’s uncircumcised lips (Exod. 6:30) one last time before the chapter comes to a close.