Before Ancient Israel

I have read quite a bit about the emergence of ancient Israel in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron age. I have read quite a bit about the surrounding culture in the Levant and Near East. Today, though, I came across something which I have never thought about: the Levant in the 6th millennium (c. 5999 BCE – 5000 BCE). Because the article is relatively technical and unavailable for general readership, I will offer a succinct summary of the article.

Katharina Streit begins with a short history of scholarship for archaeology in the Levant. Although it has been noted before, she reminds us that the 6th millennium is not necessarily prehistory. At the same time, it doesn’t fit within ancient Israelite history. So, it is an oft ignored field of research. She then offers a short summary of Jacob Kaplan’s archaeology, which connected a particular style of pottery in the Levant  to a type of pottery found in Northern Mesopotamia.

Now, at a 2015 dig in Ein el-Jarba, two Halaf sherds were discovered. A Halaf sherd is a reference to a particular style of pottery in Northern Mesopotamia. In other words, these two sherds from roughly the 6th millennium BCE are evidence for active inter-cultural exchange between Northern Mesopotamia and the southern Levant. This means that there is reason to suggest that there was an “intense transregional exchange network that culminated in the sixth millennium.”

Although it isn’t necessarily directly relevant to the emergence of ancient Israel and the Levantine culture, I would love to see more about how historical circumstances back to the 6th millennium may have, or may not have, influenced the eventual development of ancient Israelite culture(s).

“The Near East before Borders: Recent Excavations at Ein el-Jarba (Israel) and the Cultural Interactions of the Sixth Millennium cal. B.C.E. ” by Katharina Streit, in Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 79, No. 4 (December 2016), published by ASOR, pp. 236-245.


“The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel” edited by Susan Niditch (Part 3 of 3)

WileyBlackwellSusan Niditch (editor). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, 567 pp., $195.00 (hardcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Wiley Blackwell for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Additionally, primarily due to the many contributors and secondarily the lengthy nature of this work, I will be posting the complete review through three blog posts. Click here for Part I and Part II.

Part III covers a wide variety of theme in ancient Israel.

Neal Walls (Associate Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Wake FOrest University School of Divinity) introduces prominent deities in ancient Israel’s region and how Yahweh is represented within the ancient near Eastern environment. His contribution is helpful because it primarily focuses on regional deities, providing a thorough background of regional deities for the reader. Problematic, though, is the historical distance between Ugaritic mythologies of El (12th century BCE) and various representations of Yahweh. Acknowledgement of the distanced history would be helpful and easily solved by referencing the reader the Avraham Faust’s contribution about the emergence of Israel in the second-half of the 13th century BCE. In doing so, he would demonstrate why Ugaritic mythology and representations of Yahweh can be compared.

Mark Smith (Skirball Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University) reviews modern issues surrounding the term monotheism, history of Yahwism contextualized in the ancient Near East as monotheistic tendencies developed, and aptly discusses how monotheism in reshaped ideas of what constituted divinity. Smith’s contribution contains two valuable elements. First, his assistance in drawing out baggage of the the popular term monotheism provides important information about a term that may impact terminology and methodology of students. Second, while many realize the novelty of Judaean monotheism, I appreciate his focus on how the development completely redefined divinity in general.

S. A. Geller (Irma Cameron Milstein Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary) introduces the Priestly Theology (henceforth PTh) of the Tetrateuch, especially focusing on the priesthood, cult, and sacrificial system. While is introduction to the textual data is fairly thorough, I have one major contention with his contribution. Geller seems not to put enough focus on the material reality of ancient Israelite ritual. For example, when discussing the function of blood rites upon the Holiest Place, he notes that “How this unique blood rite attains atonement is not stated. On the contrary, it essential that it remain a mystery of faith” (302). Likewise, overall his representation of the PTh tends to focus purely on literary effects of certain choices. Although literary analysis of PTh is important, it is just as valuable to recongize that the PTh was also within a material reality. I also took issue with his representation of Zadok. Some scholars have pushed against the historicity of Zadok (MacDonald, 2015; see also Alice Hunt, Missing Priests: The Zadokites in Tradition and History, 2006); yet, Gellder presents the Zadokite priests as if they were a genuine historical group of priests.

Robert R. Wilson (Hoober Profesor of Religious Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Yale University) engages with the phenomenon of prophecy, providing its history of scholarship and operative function and source within ancient Israel. For a basic introduction to prophecy in ancient Israel, this article is an excellent choice, as it presents a basic picture and doesn’t make any significant arguments about prophecy.

John J. Collins (Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University) introduces apocalypticism with attention to the development of it from Persian prophecy. Most beneficial about this article is its attentiveness to the historical development of apocalypticism rather than just attempting to pinpoint what is and is not apocalyptic literature.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professsor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter) examines household materials to provide a snapshot of how religion function in ancient Israelite households. Stavrakopoulou’s clearly presents religion of ancient Israel homes without utilizing biblical texts as the foundation for her portrayals, consequently constructing an important image for readers to understand the average person from ancient Israel.

Raymond F. Person Jr. (Professor of Religion at Ohio Northern University) considers the transmission methods of education and traditions in ancient Israel. His article is important to understanding not only the methods of transmission, but also the ways in which they overlapped within the culture, namely via literary and oral transmission.

T. M. Lemos (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College at Western University) traces the social history of Israel, with special regard for kinship, community, and society, from its emergence in the 13th century to Judea in the Hellenistic period. Her contribution does well in tracing ancient Israelite society as a non-static, fluid people group and should be used to demonstrate to students ancient Israel’s social fluidity over time.

Bernard M. Levinson (Professor of CLassical and Near Eastern Studies and of Law at the University of Minnesota) and Tina M. Sherman (Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University) introduce the major Law collections and legal literature of the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate how the “constitution” of ancient Israel was “a model of ongoing renewal of its legal and religious heritage” (412). The manner in which Levinson and Sherman present their data is interesting because it makes the law and legal literature more relevant to a modern audience. For this factor, I greatly appreciate the article.

Carol Meyers (Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University) thoughtfully considers the role of woman in ancient ancient Israelite daily life, pushing against ideas of “domestic work” formed during the industrial revolution and emphasizing the social complexities and large communal benefit of women. Beyond the scope of her contribution, I like the quesiton that she raises of the disconnect between archaeology and textual records of women (See Carol Meyers, “Double vision: Textual and archaeological images of women” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4).

J. David Schloen (Associate Professor of Syro-Palestinian Archaeology in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago) focuses on the economy and society of ancient Israel during the Iron Age . As part of the volume, I greatly appreciate his contribution because economy observations need more sustained attention, especially with primary use of archaeology, made known to the public and incorporated in biblical studies and studies of ancient Israel.

Edward L. Greenstein (Meiser Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University) introduces a variety of literary and rhetorical techniques commonly utilized in the ancient Near East and emphasizes their artful roles great care to aesthetic principles. Greenstein’s contribution is by far a necessity for literary studies of the Hebrew Bible. As he covers texts ranging from Mesopotamia, to the Levant, and to Egypt, the broad coverage of literature clearly demonstrates the literary environment in which ancient Israel existed.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi (The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) explores literature in the Persian period, the Ketuvim (or the Writings) and highlights how the documents reflect a Persian context. Eskenazi’s focus on the human realities of the Ketuvim provides a unique perspective, one which is scholarly and also takes seriously the plight in which writers and represented audiences partook in.

Benjamin G. Wright III (University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religion Studies at Lehigh University) introduces Second Temple Period Literature; however, rather than merely describing genres as found in James Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, he introduces five different categories of Second Temple Period Literature, based on George J. Brook’s list, that both attest to the commonalities and differences within Judaism of the period.

  • use of textual antecedents as a framing device or springboard
  • implicit use of or allusion to earlier texts
  • explicit citation and use of scriptural antecedents
  • revision and rewriting of earlier texts
  • texts that relate to earlier texts but that complicate the previous categories (495)

Although these categories are extremely broad, but their use as organizing literature proves fruitful.

Theodore J. Lewis (Blum-Iwry Professorship in Near Eastern Studies at John Hopkins University) covers the interdisciplinary field of iconography and advocates for analysis of Yahweh’s representation as abstract, rather than merely assuming an anthropomorphic representation. His argument is strongly supported by his brief analysis of representation of divinity across the ancient Near East. Especially in an increasingly secularized society (I do not mean the term pejoratively in any way), the tendency is to see Yahweh, or other deities made in man’s image. I appreciate Lewis’ call to re-orient towards most abstract understandings of divinity.

Overall, I have no doubts that this volume is one of the most valuable contributions to the study of ancient Israel. Most handbooks and encyclopedias relating the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel cover a significant breadth of scholarship. This volume, though, deeply engages with 28 aspects of ancient Israel on their own terms. Furthermore, each contributors brief introduction to the history of scholarship and discussion of current trends establishes the companion to ancient Israel as one of the best places to begin any research relating to ancient Israel.

While the book is oriented towards scholars, one must determine the status of the scholar. In this case, the companion is oriented towards student-scholars. Practiced scholars with lengthy experience may find some of the articles and information repetitive for their area of focus. In contrast, certain contributions will assist them if they desire to move in a different direction and obtain a different perspective on a certain issue. More likely is that this book will be a cornerstone for serious student-scholars, as it engages the reader with a great variety of information, methodologies, and topics. I highly recommend The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. For any student in or applying to graduate school, it is a must read because it presents a broad, succinct, and detailed snapshot of current scholarship and ancient Israel.


Ancient Israel, Literature, and Context

One reason that I find ancient Israel, along with its literature and ancient context, Alma Memeto be so fascinating is its place historically. During the periods in which ancient Israelite religion and culture developed, it was usually under a foreign power, or at least the threat of a foreign power, namely Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, or Roman power(s). Even when they operated autonomously, the shadows of great empires recognized their value and sought to rule the Judean region. It is in these contexts that the majority of literature and religious ideas were formed.

In other words, ancient Israel developed in constant tension. They never had the opportunity to be settled, as did Egypt and Mesopotamia, both of which were protected by large geographical boundaries and enabled to grow extensively due to their available resources. Ancient Israel, while it did have some beneficial geographical boundaries, was not enabled to grow extensively due to their lack of available resources. This lack of resources resulted in a culture rooted in constant tension. I suspect that it was the very tension that allowed ancient Israel to thrive and always maintain presence and life, even in exile.

Tensions are a huge aspect of what drives my interest in the Hebrew Bible, Pseudepigrapha, and other ancient literature. To this day humans feels tensions in their contexts when they don’t live a privileged lifestyle. And to observe and take note of how, historically speaking, people have dealt with those tensions is beautiful and awe-inspiring. Perhaps Tennessee Williams’ character Alma said it best: “To me, well, that is the secret, the principle back of existence, the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach” (From Summer in Smoke by Tennessee Williams).


“The Responsive Self” by Susan Niditch

Susan Niditch. The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, vii + 190, (hardcover).

*I would like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Susan Niditch, Professor and Chair of Religion at Amherst College, explores the various self-expressions of lived religion in the Jewish, post-exilic environment. With research interests and works in the ancient Near East, early Judaism, and the body in ancient Judaism, Niditch’s exploration of lived religion in ancient Israel during the post-exilic period is an excellent study in continuity with her interests and previous publications.  The Responsive Self is a prime example of solid scholarship which draws out the personal and lived elements of ancient Israel.

Niditch’s work emerges from Lived Religion, the work of  sociologist of religion Meredith B. McGuire, and McGuire’s discussion regarding the complex dynamics between concrete practice, diversity, official and unofficial. Her analysis and case studies of lived religion are guided by five bearings: physical environment, authorial declaration about material culture, “non-Judean Jews”, the role of Persian culture to Yehud,  and chronology.

The first case study is based on a folkloric and contextualized reading that demonstrates the theodicy focus  and innovative approach to lived religion dealing with sin in the works of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In its engagement with Job and Qohelet, Chapter Two analyzes their appropriation of conventional wisdom, with special regard for death, and illustrates how their critical self-evaluation exemplifies lived religion, rather than communal or balance, in a post-exilic context. Chapter Three’s examination of lament as means of incantation traces the self-representative trajectory from incantation to autobiography in Jeremiah’s confession and Nehemiah’s memoir. With regard to vowing and personal religion, Chapter Four discusses personal, lived religion and its dynamics between personal and public religion in Nazirite and votive offerings.

In the following chapter, Niditch presents post-exilic burial art and graffiti, symbolic visions of Zechariah, and sign acts of Jeremiah to illustrate the lived religion of ancient Israel through materials. Chapter Six examines prophetic encounters with the divine realm, which paradoxically reflects cultural conceptions of religious experience and personal reflection, and the concurrent and interactive dynamics of official and unofficial religion. Chapter Seven draws out the self-characterization in Ruth’s narrative, as opposed to Tamar’s narrative, and the book of Jonah, both of which express thoughts of emotion rather than ritual reflective of emotion. Her work, thus, explores the patterns of culture and humanities capacity to adjust traditions to their sociohistorical setting and skillfully draws out the complexities between the communal and individual, material and meta-physical, and self-expression in religion as lived.

One of the most praiseworthy successes The Responsive Self is her ability to make significant the religious lives of ancient authors. Rather than subjecting texts to critical analysis to the end of critique, Niditch draws out the humanity of the post-exilic texts. For example, regarding nonbiblical incantaion, she notes that “these texts implicitly offer reasons for life’s challenges and testify to the human need for such explanations” (54). So beyond mere textual analysis, her work demonstrate the breadth of human experience, a most notable and consistent aspect in her work.

With regard to analysis, the only point which should have been more fully explored how allusions to the combat myth seen in the raging Sea contributed to the self-expression of the book of Jonah. As Debra Ballentine has recently explored, the combat myth is appropriated by a variety of audiences and is not necessarily universally under the banner of Chaoskampf. Were Niditch to consider this in her analysis of Jonah, it would have demonstrated better how authors utilized older traditions innovatively to express the self.

Apart from the minor issue with analysis about the book of Jonah, Susan Niditch expertly, skillfully, and creatively explores the dynamics of lived religion in the neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, drawing out a variety of approaches to lived religion in the post-exilic period. Her work will be beneficial especially to scholars of Jewish studies, humanities and religion, and even world literature. Rather than restricting herself to academic analysis in a manner limited to academic audiences, she opens up the world of the post-exilic period to readers. In drawing out the variety of approaches to life and religion, any person can read her work and know that 2,500 years ago people wrestled with the same issues people do in the modern era. To know that one is within the constant stream of human thought allows Niditch’s work to act almost as a catharsis for readers: humanity is not alone in non-understanding of why, but is always united in non-understanding of why.

Exodus and Leviticus: A Parallel Reading (Part II)

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.

In the previous post, after posing two basic assumption, I traced the parallel nature of Leviticus 8:1-13 and Exodus 29:1-9. I will now continue in tracing how they parallel each in Leviticus 8:14-30 and Exodus 29:10-30. The following chart summarizes the parallel nature of these portions of text:

Lev Leviticus Ex Exodus
8:14 Bull for sin offering before tent of meeting, Aaron and sons lay hands upon head of bull. 29:10 Bull before tent of meeting, Aaron and sons lay hands on head of bull.
8:15 Moses slaughters bull, puts blood on horns of altar and purifies altar, pours blood out at base of altar to consecrate and atone for it. 29:11-12 Slaughter bull before the LORD at tent of meeting, blood onto the horns of the altar with finger, and pour blood at base of altar.
8:16-17 Fat on the entrails, lobe of liver, two kidneys, and kidney fat are offered as smoke offering. Bull, hide, and flesh is burned outside camp, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 29:13-14 Fat that covers entrails, lobe of liver, two kidneys, and fat on kidneys offered up in smoke on altar. Bull’s flesh and hide burned outside the camp as a sin offering.
8:18-19 Ram of burn offering presented, Aaron and his sons lay hands on head of ram. Moses slaughters ram and sprinkles blood around altar. 29:15-16 A certain ram is taken, and Aaron and his sons lay hand on head of read. Moses slaughters ram and sprinkles blood around on the altar.
8:20-21 Ram cut into pieces and head/pieces/suet offered in smoke. Entrails and legs washed and offered in smoke. Burnt offering is a soothing Aroma and offering by fire to the LORD, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 29:17-18 Ram cut into pieces and head/pieces/legs/entrails washed. Offer up the whole ram on altar, a burnt offering to the LORD, a soothing aroma, an offering by fire.
8:22 Second ram of ordination, and Aaron and sons lay hands on head of ram. 29:19 Another ram, and Aaron and sons lay hands of head of ram.
8:23-24 Moses slaughters ram, puts some blood on lobe of Aaron’s right ear, thumb of right hand, and big toe of right foot. Moses puts blood on Aaron’s sons: lobe of right ear, thumb of right hand, and big toe of right foot. Sprinkle remaining blood around on altar. 29:20 Moses slaughters ram, takes blood and puts it on lobe of Aaron’s right ear and his sons’ right ears, thumbs of their right hands, and big toes of right feet. Sprinkle remaining blood around on altar.
29:21 Take blood and altar and anointing oil, sprinkle on Aaron and his garments, on sons and sons’ garments, so Aaron, his sons, and the garments are consecrated.
8:25-26 Moses takes fat, fat tail, and entrails fat, lobe of liver, two kidneys, fat on kidneys, right thigh, and places one unleavened cake and one cake of bread, mixed with oil and wafer, places them on portions of fat and the right thigh. 29:22-23 Moses takes fat from ram, fat tail, fat that covers entrails, lobe of the liver, two kidneys, kidney fat, and right thigh (for it is a ram of ordination). Also, one cake of bread, one cake of bread with oil, one wafer.
8:27 Moses places previous items in hands of Aaron and his sons as wave offering before the LORD. 29:24 Moses places previous items in hands of Aaron and his sons to wave as a wave offering before the LORD.
8:28 Moses takes wave offerings and offers them as smoke, an ordination offering and soothing aroma, and offering by fire to the LORD. 29:25 Moses takes wave offerings and offers them as smoke on the altar, a burnt offering and soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the LORD.
8:29 Moses takes breast of ram and presents it as wave offering, Moses’ portion of the ram ordination, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 29:26 Moses takes breast of Aaron’s ram of ordination, waves it as wave offering before the LORD as his portion.
8:30 Moses takes anointing oil and blood from altar, sprinkles on Aaron, his garments, his sons, their garments, and consecrates Aaron, his garments, his sons, and his sons’ garments.
29:27 It is made clear that Moses consecrated the breast of wave offering, thigh of heave offering, which was offered from ram of ordination, one for Aaron and the other for his sons. This verse is a description of what happened in 29:26.
29:28-30 This portion describes the future of the Aaronic priesthood and will be discussed in a latter blog post.

*In making this chart, I did consider the fact that , in Exodus, Moses is being commanded. In Leviticus, the narrative is actually occurring. That said, when reading this chart, please assume that the Exodus side of the chart, the right side, recognizes that God was commanding Moses.

In many places, the wording is different, yet the concepts remains consistent: consecration of Aaron and his sons. Aside from Exodus 29:28-30, a passage absent in Leviticus for good reason (this will be the subject of a later blog post), the only significant difference is the placement of Aaron and his son’s actual consecration. Leviticus places their consecration in 8:30, while Exodus does so in 29:21, the middle of the consecration ritual.

There are a few possible explanations for the differing locations of Aaron and his sons’ consecrations. First, it may simply be an issue of redaction. Perhaps the redactor failed to fully synchronize the P source and any contradictions within it. Second, it may be an intentional result to suggest that Moses intentionally consecrated them at a different time than God commanded. Third, perhaps the different is not significant because the consecration ritual was not as set in stone and people make it out to be. In other words, the ritual has a certain amount of flexibility to it because they are not directly interacting with God’s kabod.

The next post will discuss this difference further and explore why Exodus 29:28-30 is not included in Leviticus’ narrative.

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Reading Leviticus 12: Impurity Post-Birth

Leviticus 12 denotes the requirements for women after they have given birth. In summary, a male child is unclean for seven days and circumcised on the 8th day. The woman is impure for thirty-three days. Female children are unclean for two weeks and the women for sixty-six days. Following each designated period of impurity, the same sacrifice is required for a male or female child and the mother. Based on the double time for uncleanliness on the part of women and female children, sixty-six days and two weeks, Leviticus 12 is controversial because it implicitly notes that women are more impure than men, a true assumption within the text. Patriarchal patterns should be expected, to a certain extent, in Leviticus considering its existence in a patriarchal society.

But to stop at this point is inadequate for proper exposition of the text. Leviticus is not oriented towards defining impurities and the time required to wait for sacrifice. Rather, Leviticus 12 is oriented towards the recovery from such impurities, recoveries which would permit the presence of God to permeate the community of Israel. Hence it is important to read Leviticus 12 in two parts: the first defines the impurities, and the second offers the expiatory solution.

First, Leviticus 12:1-5 discusses the nature of impurities for a mother and her children, whether male or female. It defines the time of separation for her from the Israelite camp. These details are very much culturally rooted in what ancient Israel considered to be taboo, to be disgust. Such disgust is present throughout the ancient Near East. Yitzhaq Feder explores a Hittite birth ritual, noting that the woman’s blood may potentially transfer sin, and hence punishment, to her child (2011, pg. 13). Presence of ritual for women giving birth within Hittite ritual indicates that issues about impurity upon birth were an important aspect of the cognitive environment in the ancient Near East. Leviticus 12:1-5 addresses this very taboo and notes the required response to the taboo of impurity via the lens of ancient Israel.

Following, Leviticus 12:6-8 demands sacrifice for expiation on her behalf. Within this section, two things are notable. First, circumcision is absent, suggesting that it is more universal focus on the issue of blood expiation following birth. Secondly, and consequently, male and female children, and the mother, are on the same plane. There is no extra sacrifice required for expiation. Thus the actual sacrifices, that which is the expiatory solution, are egalitarian within their context in which birth is an impurity.

In summary, my reading of Leviticus 12, while not denying the patriarchal tones of Leviticus, draws out the importance of the sacrifice for the impurities. Sacrifice, and hence worship, drew Israelites closer to the presence of God. Impurities from what 21st century readers consider “natural” were a functional aspect of the human relationship to the divine. And the sacrifice for recovery of the relational aspect in Leviticus 12 is equal for males, females, and mothers. Because the focus of Leviticus is upon the recovery of relationship via expiation, Leviticus 12 is not nearly as sexist as some may claim it to be.

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.