Following the appearance of the presence of God to assembly of Israel (Lev. 9), God appears more intimately to Nadab and Abihu. Unfortunately, this appearance of the presence of Yahweh resulted in their deaths. Their deaths were a result of offering incense and strange fire which Yahweh had not commanded. But what was the nature of the incense and strange fire? Mark Rooker offers four common possibilities:
(1) penetrating too far into the sanctuary
(2) offering unauthorized coals from outside the temple area
(3) offering incense that did not contain the proper ingredients
(4) offering incense at the wrong time of the day” (Rooker 2000, 157).
While each of option can be supported, I propose a more contextualized interpretation of what “strange fire” represents. Although there are clearly connections to Leviticus 16:1-2, option 1, and disobedience to the cult regulations, option 3, Leviticus 10 suggests another possibility. I suggest that strange fire, rather than being disobedience to cult regulations, is an issue of foreign worship.
1. Altars in the Ancient World
The first piece of evidence is the nature of altars in the ancient world. Unlike Yahweh’s altars, ancient Near Eastern texts hold evidence that single altars could be used for multiple gods. In The Zurku Festival, repeated ritual upon one altar is used for many gods such as Ea, the Moon and Sun, and Nergal. Within it, one altar and sacrifice are utilized as “sacrificial homage for all the gods with a ewe” (William W. Hallo 1997, 433).
Especially in consideration that the Priesthood took part in the worship of the golden calf, it is not unlikely that within the Priesthood were still people dedicated to worship for “strange” gods. The term “strange” is significant and will be explored more thoroughly in section four.
2. “Breaking the Regulations” in Leviticus 10
Leviticus 10 is written so that Nadab and Abihu’s sin regarding ritual is reflected by their father Aaron in Leviticus 10:19-20. In Leviticus 10:17, Moses critiques Aaron for not eating the sin offering in the holy place. Yet, Aaron’s reason for doing so is good to Moses. Regardless of Aaron’s reason, Aaron broke the cultic regulations. To do so did not result in his death. Why would it result in the death of his sons? If his sons were merely offering incense to Yahweh out of regulation, would not have Yahweh accepted the offering graciously?
3. Command in Leviticus 10
Leviticus 10:1 uniquely uses God’s command. As far as I am aware, it is the only place where a term of negation (לֹא) is directly paired with God’s command (צוה). The nearness of these terms indicates more than going against a command of ritual. Put plain and simple, God in no manner ordered the incense and strange fire because it was completely foreign and apart from God. Unlike Aaron, who erred in the ritual process, Nadab and Abihu opposed the ritual process by doing what God did not command. It was not of God. Thus, incorrect ritual is an unreasonable conclusion for their death and interpretation of what is strange fire.
4. Semantic Range of “Strange” (זָר)
In the Torah, זָר is used in contexts to describe laypersons (Exod 29:33, Lev 22:10, etc.), strange fire as related to Aaron’s sons (Num 3:4, Lev 10:1), and command not to offer strange incense (Exod 30:9). Deuteronomy 32:16 once uses “strange” to describe other gods. Throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, “stranger” references an adulteress (Prov 22:14) and foreigners (consistent throughout prophetic literature).
If “strange” is understood directly in the context of the Torah, it should be understood as a “layperson” fire. Within a cultic context, the laypersons fire would have perhaps been unsuitable and unholy for offering. While the assembly centered around holiness, the flowing out of holiness implies that laypersons were less holy than the priests. With this interpretation, the “strange fire” was an unholy offering. This is supportable outside of the Torah because the remainder of the Hebrew Bible uses “strange” is some sense of lack of holiness, whether it be an adulteress or foreigner.
As noted in section one, altars could be utilized for various purposes and gods. A holy place did not necessarily house only one deity or act as a gateway to a single deity. Thus, it is likely that some within the Priesthood had no issue with offering to another deity within Yahweh’s cult center. Consequently the strange fire would be an issue of worshiping a foreign deity. If the issue were primarily of ritual regulations, Nadab and Abihu would have been fine, just as their father was fine after breaking ritual regulation. Yet they were not.
The nearness of the term of negation and command in Leviticus 10:1 solves this issue. Nadab and Abihu were doing something not just outside of regulation, erring in their operation, but completely outside the holiness of God. This is why the negation is so strongly tied to God’s command. The best explanation is that the strange fire was an unholy offering in the sense that it totally outside of the will of God: God did not command it. Semantic range of זָר (strange) lends greater support to this conclusion. Every use of “strange” carries an implied sense of distance from the holiness of God. Thus, the sin of Nadab and Abihu rests not in crossing cultic regulations but in offering an altogether foreign substance to God that was not likely even directed towards him. Hence, it was unholy.
Importantly the text is ambiguous about details of the foreign substance. The emphasis, overall, is on maintaining the holiness of God. So the editor of Leviticus saw no reason to describe in details the nature of their sin. In short, through the nature of altars in the ancient Near East, it is possible that one altars could serve for many gods. Contextually, Aaron’s err regarding God’s ritual indicates that Nadab and Abihu did more than incorrect ritual. Rather, they performed a sacrifice that was unholy because it was foreign, not even within the scope of God’s will. At the end of the day, Nadab and Abihu crossed boundaries of holiness as they offered unholy offerings possibly to other gods, not boundaries of how the ritual should be done.
Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger. The Context of Scripture. Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997–.
Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.