Naomi Graetz

The Two Sons of Aaron and Abraham: Acharei Mot

With the opening Torah reading of Yom Kippur we come full circle following the stories about Abraham’s sacrifice of his two sons Ishmael and Isaac read on Rosh Hashana. The story of Aaron’s sons’ death are referred to in the opening verse which begins with:

 God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהֹוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃ (Leviticus 16:1).

Of course, the back story of the death of the two sons took place several chapters earlier:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ before God alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from יהוה and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Although the terrible tragedy is only referenced in the first verse of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, there are many midrashim on this verse which try to come to terms with the terrible tragedy. Many of these commentators blame the sons for what happened. There are similar types of midrashim which blame and even demonize Ishmael, who by “playing” with Isaac, was responsible for his expulsion.


Since the stories of the two sons of Abraham are central to the Rosh Hashanah readings, I feel that a legitimate connection can be made. First of all, God is the agent in the story of Ishmael and Hagar’s eviction. When Abraham feels bad about the thing – וירע הדבר מאד בעיני אברהם על אודות בנו—concerning his son, i.e that Sarah told him to banish Ishmael, God steps in and tells him not to feel bad and to listen to his wife’s voice. And of course, in the akedah story, it is God who commands Abraham to sacrifice his ONLY son, i.e. the one who is left. In the story about Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, it is God who sends the fire that kills them and Moses even implies that he chooses people who are near him– בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ—to make himself holy. In the Abraham stories, the angel of God points wo where there is water and so Ishmael is saved. Isaac is also saved when a ram shows up and Abraham sacrifices it instead of his son. Would God have preferred human sacrifice (as he clearly does in the story of Nadav and Avihu) with Abraham’s sons? Was he playing chicken with Abraham to see who would blink first? And was it only when he saw that Abraham was going to actually go through with the sacrifice of his son, that he sent the angel to stop him.

AFTER– אחרי

One other commonality in these two stories is the word “after” אַחֲרֵ֣י.  Our story begins with acharei mot–after an actual death. In the Genesis story, right before the akedah, we have the words after these things– ויהי אחרי הדברים האלה—and that’s when God tests Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. And the story ends with another ויהי אחרי הדברים האלה at the conclusion of this episode. Since the word achar appears in conjunction with the ram that is substituted for Isaac, could we argue that an actual death may have occured?


The brothers are playing with a foreign fire that was not commanded by God– אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃. And their punishment is by a fire that God sends to consume them and they die before God– וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה. In the Genesis story, fire plays a definite role: both Abraham and Isaac carry the wood, the fire and the knife with them. And Isaac even points out to his father: “Here’s the fire –אש– and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” But when Isaac is actually bound on the altar, with Abraham’s hand raised to kill him with the knife, there is no mention of the fire. Of course, had there been fire, there would be no Isaac.


In both stories, the father is deprived of his two sons. But Aaron has two spare sons who can carry out the priesthood. Abraham may not have physically lost his sons, but they will be lost to him, only coming back to bury him when he dies.


In the akedah story, the substitute is clear: the ram. In the Yom Kippur story, we have an elaborate substitution. First Aaron is warned by God via Moses:

Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.

He has to put on his sacred garments and expiate for his sins and all of the nation’s sins. And then he has to bring forward two goats: one to be sacrificed and the other to be sent off and wander around in the desert.

Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for God, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before God, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel….

When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness—לשלח אותו לעזאזל המדברה– through a designated agent. Thus, the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.


In his masterful collection of midrashim about the binding of Isaac, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice, Shalom Spiegel brings many midrashim, which insist that Isaac was actually slaughtered (and then came to life again). If this is the case, then perhaps the rabbis want to make an additional point.  Isaac was the goat sacrificed as a sin offering, whereas Ishmael is the goat who is sent off and then set free in the wilderness. Ishmael is going to be a free agent and he with his mother was sent off by Abraham to live or die in the wilderness.

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away–וישלחה. And she wandered about in the wilderness—במדבר– of Beersheba (Genesis 21:14).

Lest anyone think this comparison is too far-fetched, I would like to point the interested reader to the following quotation from a book The Atoning Dyad: The Two Goats of Yom Kippur in the Apocalypse of Abraham by Andrei Orlov:

The possibility that the typology of the two goats of the atoning rite is reflected in the stories of some human protagonists of the biblical stories, even in the Hebrew Bible, has been noted by several scholars. These studies often attempted to argue that the sacerdotal typology involving two prominent cultic animals appears to be reflected in the portrayals of various siblings found in the Genesis accounts, including, among others: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. According to these interpreters, in these implicit cultic reinterpretations, one of the siblings is envisioned as the goat for YHWH, who is directed into the divine presence, while the other is understood as the scapegoat predestined for exile into the wilderness. Keeping in mind the realities of the atoning rite, modern and ancient exegetes have often highlighted the twinship of these brotherly pairs, which, in their opinion, is reminiscent of the twinship of the goats. This is because these atoning goats, according to rabbinic and patristic testimonies, ought to resemble each other. Another feature that has been often noted in these interpretations is that the aforementioned human pairs represent mostly male siblings, more specifically brotherly pairs—a gender marker which, again, invokes the imagery of the Yom Kippur rite, where the goats selected for the ritual must be male (here).


We don’t have to make sense of these stories. But it is certainly worth noting that there is an element of sublimation in this reading that sons should not be sacrificed—and that if we have to sacrifice anything that is living to God, it should be an animal and not a child. One can argue that there is an internal polemic in the opening phrase of the text where Nadav’s and Avihu’s tragic deaths are mentioned. One can read it as a warning to Aaron not to stray from the minutiae of ritual sacrifice, or one can read into the substitutions of animals as the text continues as a critique of God’s burning with fire those who are close to him. Today prayer has come to take the place of sacrifice and physical atonement. The closest we get to sacrifice is by sitting in the synagogue for an entire day and fasting. Today’s virtual reality is a small price to pay for not having to engage in actual sacrificial rites.

To those among us who are fasting, have an easy fast. G’mar Hatimah tovah.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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