Elisheva tapped her left foot rapidly. She was sitting in the first row, facing the wide entrance to the Sanctuary courtyard. Her sister-in-law, Miriam, sat to her left and her brother, Nachshon, sat to her right. All attention was focused on her other immediate family members: her brother-in-law, Moses, her husband, Aaron, and her four sons, Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar. The air was warm and motionless, as if God were holding his breath.
Other princes and elders also sat in the first row of chairs. More elders sat in the second and third rows, followed by high court judges, Tabernacle artisans, goldsmiths, and the wives of senior Levites. Standing around them in all directions were hundreds of thousands of Israelites, spread out like a wave upon the shore.
A row of Levites stood at the entrance to the courtyard, preventing anyone from approaching the Sanctuary. Moses, dressed all in white, stood in the middle of the courtyard, on the top of the altar. Next to him was Aaron, dressed in the multi-colored robe of the High Priest. They were surrounded by Aaron’s four sons who, like Moses, were all dressed in white.
They had just finished placing the dismembered animal parts on the altar and were walking down the altar ramp to the front of the Sanctuary structure. The audience was able to see the activity in the courtyard over the top of the Levites guarding the entrance and through the spaces between the pillars surrounding the courtyard.
Aaron turned to face the vast assembly of Israelites. He stretched out his arms and, while holding his thumbs side-by-side, he spread his fingertips.
In a booming voice that filled the Sinai desert, he pronounced:
“May the Lord bless you, and keep you.”
“May the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.”
“May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
The air above the Sanctuary suddenly shimmered and thickened. A small white cloud appeared and grew rapidly. It filled up the entire airspace above the Sanctuary and then stopped growing. It was a bright white color that was difficult to look at directly. The audience gasped noisily and moved backward. Then with a sound like thunder, a thick pillar of fire emanated from the cloud and connected to the altar. All of the meat and fat on the altar were consumed quickly with a loud, crackling sound. The pillar of fire then disappeared. The audience broke into song and bowed down on the ground.
My Aaron has brought forth the presence of God! Elishava thought. How incredible! He explained to me this final sacrificial process, but it seemed so mundane. Yet now I see; God truly wants to be amongst us!
As the crowd lifted their heads, Elishava noticed Nadav and Avihu carrying a different fire in their fire pans. How odd, Elishava thought, Aaron never mentioned this part of the service. She looked at Aaron’s face, but he seemed equally confused by their actions.
The cloud above the Sanctuary darkened. Two streams of fire separated from the cloud in the direction of Nadav and Avihu. The two streams split up into four thin strands of fire. Two strands of fire entered Nadav’s nostrils and the other two strands entered Avihu’s nostrils. Both of them were immobilized as their bodies emitted smoke. They fell to the ground, their fire pans clanging on the desert floor.
“Noooo!!” Elisheva yelled from her seat and ran towards the Sanctuary courtyard. Aaron fell to his knees with his head in his hands. Elazar and Itamar started towards the lifeless husks on the ground, but Moses intercepted them and held on to them.
Elisheva was stopped by the Levite guards at the entrance to the courtyard. Miriam and Nachshon caught up with Elisheva.
“You can not enter, ma’am,” one of the guards said, alternating his glance between the bodies in the courtyard and the approaching crowd.
“My babies,” Elisheva moaned, ignoring the Levite guard, “my precious boys. What happened?” Two Levites grabbed her arms as she tried to push her way through the line.
“I must go to my boys. I have to help them.”
“They are dead, ma’am,” the guard explained.
“No! They can not be dead!” Elisheva insisted. “They are so full of life, with such a future ahead of them. I must go to them.”
“We can not let you in,” the guard insisted.
“You would stop me?” Elisheva started banging on the guard’s chest with her small fists. “You would keep me from my own children?” Elisheva continued banging feebly while tears flowed freely down her face.
“Moses gave us strict orders that only people who have been consecrated for the service can enter the courtyard today. I am truly sorry and shocked by your loss, but nonetheless I am not allowed to let you enter.”
“Allowed? What do I care for your orders? They are my boys, my children! I am their mother. They need me. I need to be with them. You can not stop me.”
“Elisheva,” Moses intoned as he approached the commotion. “There is nothing we can do for them. God has taken them.”
“No,” Elisheva fell to the ground in a crumpled heap. Miriam sat down next to her, trying to hold her up.
“There must be something,” Elisheva sobbed. “They are so good. Moses, talk to God. Bring them back to me. How could he take them so young? How could he take them before me? I want to see them married with children, serving in God’s Sanctuary. Moses, you can do it! Bring them back,” Elisheva got back on her feet, still supported by Miriam. “Please! You must bring them back!”
“Elisheva, my dear,” Moses said. “It is not in my power. God wanted them. He wanted them with Him. Now they are providing the highest service on behalf of us all.”
“I do not understand,” Elisheva said, “and I do not care. They belong here, with us, with me. Why must God take them away? What did I do wrong? Why is He punishing me like this? They are such good boys. Please, Moses. Please!”
“I must go now, Elisheva,” Moses looked at Miriam, who was also crying quietly. “I will leave you with Miriam who will take care of you. I must make arrangements for Nadav and Avihu to make sure they are cared for properly. I will be back to speak with you further.”
Moses returned to the Sanctuary and spoke with a few Levites, pointing at the corpses and directing the Levites as to their removal.
Elisheva crumpled again on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. “No! No, no, no, no….”
* * * * * *
22 And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings. 23 And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. 24 And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.
1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace. 4 And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’ 5 So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said.
The fire (that consumed the sacrifice on the altar) descended like a column from the heavens to earth.
Rashi, Leviticus 9:22
“…and blessed them.” Aaron officially declared the Priestly Blessing.
Two strands of fire came out from the Holy of Holies and separated into four. Two penetrated the nostrils of Nadav and two penetrated the nostrils of Avihu, burning their souls and killing them while their bodies remained unscathed.
Ramban, Leviticus 10:3
“…and Aaron held his peace.” At first, Aaron wept audibly, but when he heard Moses’ solace, he stopped.