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.

“Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions” by Catherine Bell

Catherine Bell  (1953-2008). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press: 2009.

Catherine Bells was, until her passing in May of 2008, Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Previous to her work Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, her seminal work Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992) became key to understanding the dichotomy between action and ritual. Her later publication, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimension, expanded the study to a more comprehensive history of the phenomenon of ritual theory and the vast number of perspectives and approaches to ritual. Now re-published in 2009 with a forward by Reza Aslan, a new generation may take hold of her detailed introduction to the history of ritual theory.

Her work is divided into three parts: theories, rites, and contexts. Part one explores three major schools of thought, clearly demonstrating how the schools dynamically interact with each other. Sense is made of how various theoretical approaches developed. Beyond providing neat arrangement of complex history, Bell opens up the opportunity for student readers to move forward with theories of which they take interest. She does this by demonstrating, at the end of each school of thought, how the range of theories within the schools each interpret, or would interpret, certain ritual. In effect, one is left with an organized account of the major theories within each school of thought.

Part two provides an introduction to the range of ritual rites. Bell is careful to note the dynamic relationship between the various categories so that students do not fall into a rigid system of ritual theory that ultimately overlays ritual interpretation with concepts foreign to the original audience and actor(s). The basic genres provide a healthy framework for understanding the different types of ritual, while characteristics of ritual-like activities demonstrate how ritual is actually expressed within societal contexts. Her depth of knowledge detail regarding the spectrum of ritual and clear presentation indicate her as an authoritative voice for any questions or issues surrounding what denotes “ritual activity”.

Part three approaches ritual within the fabric of life, the reasons for much or little ritual, change, and reification. Most interestingly, she notes that “if, in some fundamental way, we continue to see “modernity” as antithetical to religion and ritual, it may be due in part to how we have been defining religion” (202), a fascinating observation that reflects the mind of scholars and draws out a major difficulty of ritual studies. How does one approach ritual with the right mindset, objective and not presupposing, open minded and not limited in ritual interpretation? Though she doesn’t attempt to answer questions like this, it is a thoughtful element that flows and ebbs through her work. Even though she discusses various elements and logical categories of ritual density, change, and reification, ritual theory is clearly a difficult topic to discuss and not nearly as absolute as some scholars illustrate it to be.

In conclusion, Catherine Bell’s history of ritual perspectives and dimensions provides a study that draws out elements from scholars who developed the foundations of ritual theory. Although there has been development in the field of ritual studies, Bell’s work is rooted in the past. Hence, it will always be a resource for understanding how ritual studies emerged. Furthermore, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions consistently provides analysis of each early perspectives. Rather than merely present the information, Bell clearly demonstrates if certain theories possessed flaws without necessarily arguing for a certain approach. Finally, although her work is not oriented towards biblical scholars, as this blog is, she does provide possible foundations for interpretation of ritual in the Hebrew Bible. At the end of the day her heart for Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions shines through in her concluding statement, demonstrating that she sees ritual not as a bland academic endeavor but as a humanistic endeavor. In her own words, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (267).

I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy and the opportunity to review the publication


Leviticus as a Window to Ancient Israel

Too often Leviticus is overlooked because 21st century interpreters are generally unable to connect with the cognitive environment of Leviticus. Unfortunately, this results in a skewed and simplistic view of Leviticus and the entire sacrificial system. In reality, the sacrificial system offers insight to the societal organization and cognitive environment. While the ethical standards of Leviticus are most clear in displaying ancient Israel to the modern reader (cf. Lev 18-19), the environment can also be grasped through the sacrificial system.

Take, for example, the arrangement of sin offerings (Lev 4). In it, the sin offerings are grouped in two categories, communal and individual. Each of these categories break into two more sub-categories, for a total of four sub-categories.

  • Communal – Anointed Priest
  • Communal – Community as a whole
  • Individual – Ruler
  • Individual – Common Israelite

In Leviticus 4:3-12, the sin of an anointed priest is described as “bringing guilt on the people” (Lev 4:3, NRSV), hence its categorization as communal. Also communal, Leviticus 4:13-21 discusses the process of a sin offering “if the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (Lev 4:13, NRSV). Both communal sacrifices require a bull to be brought before the Lord and involve the sprinkling of blood seven times before the curtain.

The second category, individual, involves the actions for a ruler, or judge, who sins or the ordinary person. The individual category simply requires a male goat for the judge and female goat, or sheep, for the ordinary person. Additionally, the blood is not sprinkled seven times before the curtain. The individual category does not imply any need for communal cleansing in response to the actions of an individual, whether ruler or ordinary person.

Distinction by the text of the communal and individual illustrates the cognitive environment and  society of ancient Israel. Additionally, it provides an essential key to interpreting biblical texts, especially texts of more Priestly oriented tradition. Leviticus 4 demonstrates that ancient Israel, while fully aware of the individual, placed much more significance upon the community. First, the communal sin offerings required far greater sacrifice, a bull. In contrast, the individual sin offerings only requires a goat or sheep. Secondly, unlike the individual sin offerings, the communal sin offerings required the priest to spring blood seven times before the curtain. The curtain was the closest that one could move towards the center of the sanctified space because it was the Holy of Holies. So, by the priest sprinkling blood for atonement before the curtain in order to attain atonement for communal sin offerings, Leviticus suggests that sanctification of the entire community is more important than the individual sanctification. While the text clearly suggests that the individual is important, the community take precedence.

In conclusion, this brief examination of Leviticus 4 and ancient Israel’s sin offerings exemplifies how Leviticus holds essential keys to understanding the world and mind of ancient Israel. While such observations in Leviticus are not always immediately noticed by the modern reader, they are present if one is willing to set aside his/her presupposed ideas about Leviticus. By doing so, they will avoid abrogating the meaning and intention of the text and provide it autonomy from the 21st century cognitive environment (cf. John Walton 2015, 15-23). After all, a proper reading of Leviticus results in far richer results of the Bible than are generally expected.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015. Print.

Leviticus One: Burnt Offerings and the Poor

Too often people immediately skip over Leviticus because the first chapter is about burnt offerings. Realistically it is logical to skip it due to the fact that sacrifice of animals in no longer a practiced act for most in the 21st century. However, Leviticus one’s threefold nature offers a beautiful image of the God whom the author presents. After the introduction of what Moses should speak to the children of Israel (vs. 1-2), there are three types of burnt offerings: herd, flock, and birds. These three represent “a gradation in value” corresponding with the “donor’s ability and resources” (Rooker 2000). This alone is magnificent and displays Yahweh’s character as a one who includes the richest and poorest into His people. Though it was often not practiced, the desire for inclusion is apparent throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

But what else does Leviticus 1 speak to the reader?

As mentioned earlier, there are three sections, each for the different type of offering. The end of each section is always the same: “a burnt-offering, a fire-offering, a satisfying aroma to Yahweh” (עֹלָ֛ה אִשֵּׁ֥ה רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיהוָֽה). However, each section begins differently. The first section, which discusses burnt-offerings from herds, speaks solely of what to do if the offering is from a herd. The second section, which discusses  burnt-offerings from flocks, speaks solely of what to do if the offering is from a flock. And the third section, which discusses burnt-offerings of birds for the lower class, is unique in its introduction. Rather than simply expressing what is required for a burnt offering, it includes the phrase “offering to Yahweh” (קָרְבָּנֹ֖ו לַֽיהוָ֑ה). In consideration that Leviticus is centered around the theme of holiness, primarily due to God’s character, the author seems to intentionally connect the poor and lower class people of Israel to closer proximity to the holiness of God. While the wealthy, those who offer herds and flocks, are not far from God due to their social status, there exists in Leviticus 1:14 a special place for the poor and impoverished. Leviticus pronounces God’s care for the poor by exalting them to a special status.

In conclusion, one must never skip over Leviticus and deem it unimportant biblical sacrifice ritual. For within the ritual lies great depth of what the God of Israel envisioned his people to be. In Leviticus 1, the threefold division of the types of burnt-offerings offers insight not only to ancient Israel, but to the heart of God. By specifically connecting the offerings of the poor to the god whom they offer towards, Leviticus implicitly exalts the poor as they attain closer proximity to Yahweh, textually and perhaps historically. By attaining such proximity, the poor and disfranchised are the holy ones in spite of the monetary value of their sacrifice. Those with the least possessions best accomplished the will of God. In the words of Jesus, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (NIV, Matthew 19:21).

Works Cited

Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2000. Print.