Clarification: Why Nadab and Abihu Die

Recently I’ve discussed possibilities as to why Nadab and Abihu were killed in Leviticus 10. Were they doing improper and unsanctioned ritual? Were their hearts in oppositions to G-d? Were they worshiping pagan deities? These are the sort of questions I’ve discussed lately. That said, I’d like to illustrate more clearly why I have issue with an explanation as simple as, “Nadab and Abihu offered sacrifices at the wrong time”.

In order to do so, I’ll respond to a question one of my readers sent me.

So, about the sons of Aaron: I was always taught it was something they did not do correctly with the incense. The incense was clearly outlined. Are you thinking that that was not the case, but it instead had something to do with what or how they were doing the offering? Also, I have always been taught that it had something to do with the way the offered the incense, that they did it the way (somehow) that the pagans offered. Thoughts?

I was always taught it was something they did not do correctly with the incense. The incense was clearly outlined.

I completely agree. Exodus 30 does explain the rules for incense and specifically notes that unholy incense should not be offered. The issue with using Exodus 30:9 as the support for why Nadab and Abihu died within the narrative context of Leviticus 10 is problematic. First of all, it assumes an organic relationship between Exodus and Leviticus. In reality both books were composed at different periods of time. And although there may be an allusion to Exodus 30 on some level, it is not the only explanation.

Hence, the second major issue is that of the context of the death of Nadab and Abihu. If their death was merely improper ritual worship, Moses’ command to Aaron and his two remaining sons in the latter half of Leviticus 10 should have also resulted in some sort of punishment or death.

16 But Moses searched carefully for the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it had been burned up! So he was angry with Aaron’s surviving sons Eleazar and Ithamar, saying,

17 “Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? For it is most holy, and 1He gave it to you to bear away the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord.

18 “Behold, since its blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, just as I commanded.”

Levitiucs 10:19-20 continues by showing that, following Aaron’s explanation of why they acted how they did, it was good in the sight of Moses. Thus, an interpretation that explains Nadab and Abihu’s death as improper ritual is inadequate because the latter half of Leviticus 10 notes the fluidity in the cultic system.

Are you thinking that that was not the case, but it instead had something to do with what or how they were doing the offering?

And yes. This is exactly what I am exploring. At the moment, I have no answer. Most of my posts just explore different dimensions of the issue. At the moment, I am exploring the death of Nadab and Abihu via a diachronic hermeneutic, one which takes into account various editorial adjustments that took place over time. For example, although Leviticus 10 references Exodus 30, it is also important to consider that Leviticus 10 is part of a greater narrative. That narrative may be a later, or earlier, addition to Leviticus’ explanation of why Nadab and Abihu died. This is the sort of thing I am exploring.

Also, I have always been taught that it had something to do with the way the offered the incense, that they did it the way (somehow) that the pagans offered. Thoughts?

Yes! That is one possibility and dimension that I am considering.

I hope this helped to clear up how I am working with Leviticus.

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