The killing of Nadav and Abihu

Painting by James Tissot in the Public Domain
Painting by James Tissot in the Public Domain


In Parsha Shemini, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, die at the hand of heaven when they bring “strange fire” before HaShem (Leviticus 10:1-2).  The Sages and commentators offer many reasons for their death.  For example: their behavior was inappropriate because they were drunk or they did not seek permission from Moses or that they were in the Holy of Holies, and only the Kohen Gadol was authorized to enter the Holy of Holies.

I think however that the responsibility for their death lies in part with their father or perhaps with their uncle Moses, himself.  It all begins in the previous year, eight months before, in the month of Tammuz with the Sin of the Golden Calf:  Moses is away on Mt. Sinai, learning Torah from HaShem, and Aaron is in charge.  The Israelites become restive; Aaron calms them down; he makes a golden calf and proclaims the next day as a festival day (Exodus 32:1-6).

Then early the next day, a festival day, the people bring Olah and Shlamim offerings to an altar that Aaron has erected. The Olah is the standard voluntary offering where the entire animal, except for its skin goes up to HaShem. It is a form of a gift, a thank you and by doing so, the offeror comes closer to HaShem.  The Shlamim is also voluntary, and also has a thank you connotation, but in this instance it is shared between HaShem, the priesthood and the offeror.  In both of these offerings there is a prescribed ritual  which Aaron’s sons are required to carry out which means that although Aaron may have made the golden calf, his sons assisted the populace in giving thanks to it.

HaShem becomes incensed; he vows to annihilate the entire population except for Moses, but Moses pleads on behalf of the people and calms HaShem down.  However, in the aftermath, the Sons of Levi by name, and not Aaron and his sons by name, slay three thousand of the evil-doers.  Additionally as a punishment, HaShem brings a plague against the Israelites. But in no instance does it appear that Aaron and his sons are held accountable, at least not at this juncture.

Fast forward one year later to the 1st of Nissan, the Mishkan has been completed and ready to be activated as a resting place for HaShem.  Aaron and his sons, including Nadav and Abihu the eldest of them, have been personally trained by Moses as to how to carry out their duties.  Nadav and Abihu are consumed by a heavenly fire. And the question is…Who is responsible for their deaths?

The Sages and commentators place the responsibility on the two brothers themselves.  Support for this position can be found in the narrative of the death of Uzzah (2Samuel 6:3-7).  At King David’s direction, Uzzah was helping to transport the Ark by wagon from his father AviNadav’s (interesting name) house to Jerusalem, and inadvertently grasped the Ark when it became dislodged.  Although Uzzah intended no disrespect, HaShem struck him and he died.  If this could happen to Uzzah because of an accident, then how much more so Nadav and Abihu because of their deliberate actions.  Although King David, very much like Moses, was ultimately responsible for the care of the Ark, he like Moses was not punished.  However, King David was frightened enough not to move the Ark again for another three months.

Notwithstanding that the Torah does not explicitly hold Aaron, Nadav and Abihu or any of Aaron’s children responsible for the sin of the golden calf; a case may be made for doing so.  Again, returning by example to King David in 2 Samuel 12:13-18: David sinned with Batsheva.  HaShem through the prophet Nathan called him to account.  David admitted his guilt; HaShem did not kill him, but the son born to David died seven days after having been born.  It could be that Aaron paid a similar price.

I think one of the lessons here is that leadership is an awful responsibility, one not to be taken lightly, not only for purposes of potential culpability, but because of possible dire consequences from inadvertent or deliberate errors in judgment.

I’ll leave it you as to who should take responsibility for the death of Nadav and Abihu. I myself like happy endings.  It could be as some say: their physical bodies were not up to being in such close proximity to the Divine Presence, and their spiritual souls just exited their physical bodies, only to be united with HaShem.

I realize that calling this essay “THE KILLING OF NADAV AND ABIHU” and not “THE DEATH OF NADAV AND ABIHU” I am making a statement that their death was a deliberate act and not an accidental occurrence.

About the Author
Lives in Nahariya, Israel. Interests: Torah, geology, archaeology, and anthropology. “Northern Exposure” Blog in Jerusalem Post for 3 years, co-founder of Nahariya Anglo Benevolent Society.
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