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.

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“Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder

Yitzhaq Feder’s monograph seeks to clarify and more firmly establish the socio-historical context of the origins of blood expiation within the Pentateuch. In part one, he clearly demonstrates that the zurki and uzi Hittite blood rituals are from the same tradition as the Levitical sin offerings. Part two continues by exploring the finer facets of the Israelite and Hittite blood ritual in order to explain the symbolism and meaning encompassing blood ritual’s expiatory nature. In doing so, Feder establishes a solid framework by which future scholars may approach critical theories of the Priestly biblical source, explore ancient Israel’s context, or better understand the role of sin offering in Jewish and Christian theological developments.

First, Feder’s established framework is one of the most commendable aspects of the monograph. He operates on the basis that rituals are not arbitrary gestures akin to magic, but rather they are actions within a socio-historical context where the ritual affects the world from the inside. His approach, unlike some anthropologists who consider ritual action to be arbitrary, honorably respects the depth and life within the Israelite and Hittite rituals. Such respect is not merely a product of his context within Israel. Genuine respect is also a product of his well-explained and well-reasoned methodological approach to the subject of ritual.

Additionally, relating to methodology, Feder provides an important key to prove the historical connection between Hittite and Israelite blood ritual. Feder utilizes Meir Malul’s Comparative Method to provide evidence for the historical connection, testing for “coincidence versus uniqueness, and corroboration to prove the flow of ideas between the two cultures” (115). Presentation and explanation through this framework provides and supports the remaining portions of his argument quite significantly by his clear justification of why his cross-cultural study is valid. In response to his proof of the historical connection, especially in light of the unique nature of blood ritual for Hittites and ancient Israel, I wonder what other connections may be drawn between the two cultures regarding other aspects of ritual.

In conclusion, Feder contributes a new, relevant, and important analysis of biblical and Hittite ritual to propel discussion surrounding biblical history, traditions, and interpretation. Though focused on proving his argument through concrete evidence, he never loses sight of the significance his work holds for 21st century Jews and Christians. In truth, “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” is more than a socio-historical study of raw facts and data. It is an explanation for human behavior, especially as it relates to theology.

Click here to purchase “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder.