One of the most difficult incidents to understand in the whole Bible is the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, at the ceremony of dedication for the Tabernacle. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. The portable sanctuary that the Israelites had constructed in the wilderness was finally finished and Aaron was being consecrated as its priest when suddenly fire came out of heaven and consumed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10,2). Their offence was that they had offered ‘strange fire’ in their censers. This is usually understood to mean that they had used their own recipe to make the incense they were burning, instead of sticking to the divinely sanctioned formula.
Immediately after the event, Moses turned to Aaron, telling him that God had already warned that he would be sanctified through those who draw close to him, and that would be honoured before all the people. It is not at all clear what Moses meant and the later Jewish commentators struggle to understand it. The consensus, which is difficult for us to accept, is that somehow Nadav and Avihu were greatly privileged by being chosen to die; the dedication of the tabernacle was such a tremendous event that it could only be fully sanctified by the death of the most righteous of all people. Moses thought that he and Aaron would be the ones to die, but it turned out that Nadav and Avihu were more deserving.
Needless to say, this explanation is not satisfying to modern sensibilities. The idea that God is appeased or even pleased by the death of people puts us in mind of horrors like child sacrifice, that the Bible itself rails against.
The book of Samuel (II 6,1) records another event when treating a holy object without due respect leads to a supernatural death. King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital in Jerusalem. The oxen pulling the wagon on which the Ark had been loaded, stumbled. Uzzah grabbed hold of the Ark to stop if from slipping. This angered God and Uzzah died on the spot. The Ark, it seems was just too sacred, too supernaturally powerful, for ordinary mortals to be permitted to touch it.
The Ark was the holiest object in ancient Israel. Its intended resting place was in the Tabernacle that the Israelites had constructed in the wilderness. The Tabernacle too was imbued with extreme sanctity. Both the death of Uzzah and that of Nadav and Avihu seem to suggest that sacred objects, spanning the boundary between the human and divine worlds, fizz with a dangerous, uncontrollable, mystical energy; just like electricity they can be a source of great benefit, or of mortal danger.
There is something else about these two stories. Before David decided to take it to Jerusalem the Ark was stored in a region called Gibeah, in the house of a man called Avinadav. Avinadav is a conflation of the names of Aaron’s sons, Avihu and Nadav. Avinadav’s son were called Ahiyo and Uzzah. Uzzah died when he tried to stop the Ark from slipping. Ahiyo means ‘his brother’ and Uzzah is reminiscent of Uzziel, the brother of Aaron’s father. The names in the two stories are connected, as are the narratives.
The names Nadav and Avihu crop up again a couple of generations after David. Jeroboam, who leads a rebellion against David’s grandson, and becomes ruler of the new, northern Kingdom of Israel calls his sons Nadav and Aviyah (I Kings 14, 1 & 20). It is through the similarity in names that Jeroboam helps us understand what Moses may have meant at the dedication ceremony.
After Aaron’s sons die and Moses utters his strange explanation Aaron is silent. He has no reaction at all, other than silence, to the death of his sons. He was silent, but no doubt his mind was awash with thoughts.
Perhaps he was thinking of the Golden Calf, for which he was not punished. Maybe his silence indicates that he was reflecting on his part in that episode and imagining his sons’ death as his punishment. For he and jeroboam are linked, not just by the names of their sons, but by what Jeroboam did when he became king of Israel. He built two sanctuaries, one in Beth-El and one in Dan. In each one he placed a Golden Calf.
Uzzah, the son of Avinadav is linked to both Jeroboam and Aaron through the name of his father Avinadav. He is linked to Aaron’s sons through the manner of his death. There is evidence here of an ancient folk tradition, recurring at times in the Bible, that links the Golden Calf, the death of Aron’s sons, Uzzah and Jeroboam. We no longer know the folk tradition, but we can spot its elements as they protrude from the biblical narrative.
One of the distinguishing features of Talmudic literature is that there are rarely answers, only further questions. The discussion of an intractable problem sometimes ends with the words tzarich iyyun, ‘needs further investigation’. This one certainly does.
Harry Freedman’s latest book , Kabbalah, Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available in bookshops, on Amazon or through www.harryfreedmanbooks.com