Exodus and Leviticus: A Parallel Reading (Part VII)

The following is part of series exploring the narrative of P material and its explanation of why Nadab and Abihu are killed in Leviticus 10. Such a study is important because theology often misuses verse like Leviticus 10:1-3 to demonstrate the un-malleability and impossibility of keeping Torah, resulting in antinomianism. In order to demonstrate the true focus of Nadab and Abihu’s death, I will compare two passages of P material, Leviticus 8:1 – 10:3 and Exodus 29 – 30:10. These pericopes, with a close reading, provide a reasonable explanation for the death of Aaron’s son.

As mentioned in the previous post, Leviticus 9 and Exodus 29:38-46 are both concerned with consecrating the altar. The consecration is means for the glory of Yahweh to appear. This trajectory also carries a notable difference between the two books. Exodus 29:38-46 focuses on the establishment of God’s consecration of the altar and his appearance to the people. Verses 38, 42, and 45 indicate that the appearance of Yahweh is a continual occurrence in Israel as they perform the sacrifices and offerings in verse 38-41. Verses 38 and 42 use tāmîd, a term for continuance and unceasingness (Holladay). Partnered with the dwelling of Yahweh in verse 45, it is clear that the focus is on the continual presence of him and ritual which purifies the Tent of Meeting to enabling him consecrate and dwell.

Leviticus 9, though, takes place during a narrative sequence and is more focused on the present completion of the consecration of the altar through Yahweh’s appearance. Unlike Exodus 29:38-46, which focuses on the future and continual instructions for a consecrated altar, Leviticus 9 focuses on the initial consecration of the altar. Although the long term rituals of consecration may be in view, they are periphery. Leviticus 9 consistently uses the waw consecutive imperfect, indicating the narrative nature of the passage. And while the glory of Yahweh appears, the moment is in view rather than Yahweh’s continual presence.

As this brief analysis of Leviticus 9 and Exodus 29:38-46 demonstrates, both passages are focuses on Yahweh’s glory appearing and the ritual therein. Exodus focuses more on the future issues with his continual presence while Leviticus focuses on the monumental moment of Yahweh’s appearance.

The next post will discuss Exodus 30:1-10 and Leviticus 10:1-3.



Exodus and Leviticus: A Parallel Reading (Part I)

The following is part of series exploring the narrative of P material and its explanation of why Nadab and Abihu are killed in Leviticus 10. Such a study is important because theology often misuses verse like Leviticus 10:1-3 to demonstrate the un-malleability and impossibility of keeping Torah, resulting in antinomianism. In order to demonstrate the true focus of Nadab and Abihu’s death, I will compare two passages of P material, Leviticus 8:1 – 10:3 and Exodus 29 – 30:10. These pericopes, with a close reading, provide a reasonable explanation for the death of Aaron’s son.

Leviticus 8:1 – 10:3 should be read parallel to Exodus 29 – 30:10 because the two pericopes point toward a possible solution, or answer, for explaining Nadab and Abihu’s death. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, popular interpretations of Leviticus 10’s “unholy fire” often carry negative views of the value of cult worship. In response, I hope to demonstrate that the issue of “unholy fire”, or the improper actions of Nadab and Abihu, is not intended to emphasize the un-malleability of P’s law, but rather to draw focus on God’s kabod, his physicalized glory (Sommer 2015, 52).

In order to demonstrate this, two assumptions must be clarified. First, Lev 8:1 – 10:3 and Exodus 28 – 30:10 are both P material (Sommers 2015, 53). Having developed from the same theological traditions, these two pericopes are subject to parallel analysis. Second, the kabod, for P, “describes God’s body (the כָּבוֹד, or kabod) as consisting of a substance that looked like fire” (Sommers 2015, 53). This will be important later in analysis of the actual presence of fire-like kabod that represents God’s body.

Following is presentation of a portion of each pericope. Exodus 29:1-9 describes the necessary materials for sacrifice (vs. 1-2), coming to the doorway of the tent of meeting for washing (vs. 3), dressing Aaron in the High Priest garments (vs. 5-6), anointing Aaron (vs. 7), and dressing Nadab and Abihu in priests tunics (vs. 8), and binding sashes and caps on Aaron and his sons (vs. 9). Likewise, Leviticus 8:1-13 follows a similar narrative: proper sacrifice materials are brought (vs. 2), they meet at the doorway of the tent of meeting for washing (vs. 4, 6), Aaron is dressed in High Priest garments (vs. 7-9), Aaron is anointed (vs. 12), Nadab and Abihu receive priestly tunics (vs. 13), and Aaron and his sons are bound with caps and sashes (vs. 13). In essence, these two pericopes portray the same narrative trajectory with minor differences.

First, Leviticus details that “this is the thing which the LORD has commanded to do” (vs. 5). In essence, Leviticus 8:5 seems to refer back to Exodus 29:1-9 in that it seems to repeat, save for minor embellished details, exactly what God directly commanded Moses. Such repetition within P material is no surprise because other ancient Near Eastern materials operate similarly, employing tools like repetition within literary compositions. Secondly, Leviticus 8:8 specifies the Urim and Thummim on Aaron, while Exodus 29:5 does not discuss the Urim and Thummim. Third, Moses, in Leviticus 8:10-11, anoints the tabernacles, altar, utensils, basin, and stand prior to anointing Aaron in vs. 12. Exodus 29:7 contains solely a command to anoint Aaron. Fourth, Leviticus 8:1-13 notes repeatedly “just as the LORD had commanded Moses” (vs. 4, 5, 9, 13), while Exodus 29:1 abstains from such comment because it is only instruction.

In conclusion, a parallel comparison of Exodus 29:1-9 and Leviticus 8:1-13 demonstrates that both run parallel to each other, one as command and the other as past action. Leviticus 8:1-13 tends to use the waw-consecutive + imperfect to illustrate a continuous narrative of ritual, while Exodus 29:1-9 uses perfect Qal verbs to illustrate it as distant from the actual action. Thus, it is further reasonable to assume that these two passages are intended to be connected, one as the command and the other as action.

Next time, I will present the similarities and difference between Exodus 29:10-30 and Leviticus 8:14-30.

Sommer, Benjamin D. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Traditions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

All biblical quotation taken from NASB.

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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.

Observations Relevant to Interpretation of Leviticus 10

In a previous post, I discussed the nature of the “strange fire” offered by Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, in Leviticus 10 (click here to read). My purpose of doing so was to offer an alternative explanation to the event of the fire consuming Aaron’s sons. My observations within this post are also intended to shed greater light on the issues of the consuming fire and, even more so, overall nature of the entire drama surrounding Aaron and his sons.

Primarily the presence of Aaron’s sons must be observed. As far as I am aware, and please correct me if I am wrong, the placement of Aaron’s sons has not been observed within scholarship. The phrase “Sons of Aaron” occurs 20 times within Leviticus. Sixteen occurrences reference all of Aaron’s sons (1:5, 7, 8, and 11, 2:2, 3:2, 5, 8, and 13, 6:7, 7:10, 8:13, 24, 9:9, 12, and 18). At the turning point of chapter 10, two occurrences solely reference Nadab and Abihu (10:1, 16:1). Eleazer and Ithamar as a pair of Aaron’s sons are referenced twice, once in the same narrative as Nadab and Abihu and once in the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26).

While these observation may carry implications for the overall structure and composition of Leviticus, they also carry implications as to what exactly Nadab and Abihu did incorrectly to be consumed by God’s fire. The text itself explains that “He had not commanded them”, a strong statement especially because the term for “command” is directly negated rather than the phrase as a whole. And when the actions of Aaron’s four sons are noted throughout the 1st part of Leviticus, a pattern becomes evidence: they are only to do as the cultic structure permits them.

Prior to the consuming fire, Aaron’s sons are commanded within the cultic system to act in three roles: to purify the altar by pouring the blood, to receive offerings as their livelihood, and to be consecrated. At the turn of events in chapter 10, the fire consumed the offerings and “the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people”. Based on roles of Aaron’s sons, the error of Nadab and Abihu becomes more clear with respect to each role.

First, they were responsible for handling the blood at the altar. Unclear to most readers from the 21st century, blood with ancient near eastern ritual systems played an essential role for the purification and expiatory natures of rituals. Yitzhaq Feder explores this extensively in his monograph “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” (2011). For Nadab and Abihu to step outside of their roles as priests who handled the blood at the altar, they potentially polluted themselves or simply disobeyed the order which God had established within the cultic system.

Second, they were responsible for receiving offerings as their livelihood. This command is clearly spoken towards Aaron and his sons. Because Aaron and his sons received the leftover grain offerings (Lev 2:3), it is possible that Nadab and Abihu were “recycling” the holy bread. Thus the offering was insincere and “strange”. This is supported by Leviticus 10:12, within the same narrative, in which Moses commands Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, to “eat [the grain offering] unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy”. Clearly there is an dimension of Leviticus 10:1 in which the issue with Nadab and Abihu was the selected food which they offered.

Third, Aaron’s sons, just as Aaron were responsible for becoming consecrated. Loosely connected to the first point, Nadab and Abihu’s actions following the presence of God in Leviticus 9:23-24 reflects that Nadab and Abihu may have approached God in a manner contrary to their previous consecration rituals. Though this point is quite shaky, it is a possibility that should be seriously considered.

As one observes the role of Aaron’s sons within the Leviticus narrative, the error of Nadab and Abihu may become more apparent. Exploration of the roles of Aaron’s sons may also contribute to a fuller understanding of the historical composition, theology or theologies, and “strange fire” occurrence of Leviticus.

The Strange Fire of Leviticus 10

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.





Works Cited

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.