Why Did the “Strange” Fire in Leviticus 10 Earn a Death Sentence?

This post is excerpted from Problems in Bible Interpretation: Difficult Passages IV, available now from Logos Mobile Education.

***

The Old Testament is filled with odd stories that take us by surprise. One of those stories is found in a book that is, to say the least, pretty foreign to our modern worldview. I’m talking about Leviticus and, for this topic, Leviticus 10 specifically: the story of Nadav and Avihu, or as we like to say, Nadab and Abihu. It’s is a short episode, and I am going to read the whole thing:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.

The passage shocks most readers. The punishment seems overly harsh for what appears to us to be a small offense, whatever the offense was, which, of course, is the real difficulty here. What did they actually do? The people who extracted the bodies later in the passage and Aaron, the father of the deceased men, are forbidden to mourn. So we know that in God’s eyes this was pretty serious. But what exactly did these two men do?

“Unauthorized” Fire?

Meaning of Zar

The key to understanding the offense of Nadab and Abihu is the phrase “unauthorized fire.” Other translations might have something like “strange fire.” This is what they offered to the Lord that got them in trouble. The Hebrew here is ʾesh zarah; zarah (and the lemma there is zar) generally speaks to something that is not normative. But it actually has a range of usages.

Abhorrent, Loathsome

It could mean “strange,” as in something abhorrent or loathsome. For instance, in Job 19:[17] we read, “My breath is strange (zar) to my wife, and I am a stench to the children of my own mother.” Normally he doesn’t stink like that or as bad, and so Job is saying, “Because of my condition, there is something strange.” There is something not normative about him. So that’s one possibility.

Foreign, Pagan

The word could also mean “foreign,” as in something associated with pagans or Gentiles. Psalm 44:20 says this: “If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god.” “Foreign” there [is] Hebrew zar. So here’s a clear instance where zar, the term used in Leviticus 10, is pointing to something in the Gentile world, the Gentile culture, Gentile religion, pagans. Normative Israelite worship would be, of course, the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Unauthorized, Inappropriate

Third, it could also mean something like what the ESV has here, “unauthorized”—in other words, something not appropriate or something that’s disqualified or off-limits. Numbers 1:51 is a good example of this. That passage reads, “When the tabernacle is set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider”—there’s our word zar—“comes near, he shall be put to death.” What’s normative for taking down and setting up the tabernacle is that the Levites do it. So if somebody else decides they are going to pitch in, that is not normative. That is unauthorized. The basic idea of a departure from what’s normative sort of underlies all of these possible usages for the Hebrew term zar

Sacred Space

You can probably already tell that I think the ESV does a nice job in Leviticus 10 with our Hebrew word zar. I favor the last of these options that we covered, that the term means something disallowed or unauthorized. It really is the best option, as we’ll see.

Unauthorized Incense

There is a similar phrase and a very similar idea, context in Exodus 30:9 that describes what is and is not to be burned on the altar of incense. That passage reads as follows: “You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it.” The altar of incense is the referent point for this. You are not supposed to offer burnt grain or drink offerings on it. It’s the altar of incense. It’s for incense—and not just any incense. There is such a thing as unauthorized incense. There are rules for what kind of incense could be offered on the altar of incense. Specifically, you could read that in Exodus 30:34–36.

Profane Coals

We can coherently infer, then, that the ʾesh zarah—the unauthorized fire brought into the holy place at the altar of incense, which was “before the Lord,” right there before the veil in the holy place, behind which was the ark of the covenant—that that was a disallowed fire. [There is] something going on there with what they brought into that most holy location right before where the presence of God was. That’s what’s going on here. There is something there that they did wrong. It was unauthorized.

Fire in the verse that we’re talking about refers to coals that were carried in the censers. Remember, they’re carrying censers in Leviticus 10. That’s the way the passage opens. You would drop incense on hot coals and then create the incense smoke. So what sort of coals would be unauthorized or authorized? How does this work? In other words, what makes what they did not normative? The priests ministering in the holy place were supposed to get their coals from a particular location, not just any place.

Milgrom, in his commentary on Leviticus, writes this: “This can only mean that instead of deriving from the outer altar (e.g., [Lev.] 16:12; Num. 17:11), the coals came from a source that was ‘profane.’” It was not normative. Profane there doesn’t mean something like swearing. It means ritually disqualified, ritually impure.

In English we see a word like profane and we think it’s some sort of morally off-putting thing, but it actually means it comes from a common location. There is sacred space in Israelite thought, and then there is common space. There is turf associated with God and where God’s presence is and where His priests are supposed to be, and then there is turf that everybody else can walk on.

So the difference between profane and sacred is really important here. Apparently, what Milgrom is saying is that the coals that Nadab and Abihu used came from a place not designated as a holy or a sacred spot, a proper location. It came from a common, nonsanctified source.

Polluting Sacred Space

Nadab and Abihu’s crime, then, was polluting sacred space with their nonsacred coals. It places them right in front of Yahweh, so to speak, right at the veil where the altar of incense was. They carry something unauthorized to that point where He is right behind the veil, and they offer incense using profane coals. And if you remember the passage, the fire that consumes them comes out from behind the veil. It comes directly from God, and it consumes both Nadab and Abihu.

As Moses says just a few verses later to their father Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common,” the sacred and the profane. The object lesson was that God’s presence is not to be polluted. He gave rules to teach you about sacred space, so learn the lesson.

Conclusion

The passage is actually quite understandable on its own terms. It’s just that we have little concept anymore of sacred space, judging certain areas to be for the Lord’s presence and no other use.


Comments

  1. God is HOLY. The writer to the Jewish believers in the New Covenant reminds us:

    “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” -Hebrews 9:24-28 (ESV)

  2. I love how Dr. Heiser communicates; he makes difficult things easy to understand. I appreciate how he gives his knowledge so freely. He reminds me of the phrases in Gen. 12…He has been blessed to be a blessing to others. The gist of the above is now a note in my Bible. :~)

  3. Michael Grooms says

    This study is well done. The truth is, God never has and still does not accept unauthorized worship. The New Testament reveals what God has authorized in worship today. Jesus said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24 NKJV).

  4. Scripture is very clear, in numerous places, both in the Old and New Testaments, that anyone who approaches God, must do so EXACTLY as he requires. Every instance in the Old Testament, related to how worship/approaching God, is without debate, a pattern for the ultimate requirement of approaching God through Jesus Christ. If God allowed anyone to veer, even the slightest, from His requirements stated in the Old Testament, that would therefore mean, we could veer away from approaching God through Jesus Christ. That would mean Jesus was not the only way to the Father. We could have life apart from Jesus. The issue I see, from many of the followers of Dr. Heiser, is they become so enamored and excited when learning about the culture and practices of those pagan nations along side the Israelites and how what they are learning brings some perspective on the Biblical world and interpreting the bible, that they let this take over from seeing the actual main message of scripture. An example is the question that was posed about why Nadab and Abihu were killed for offering “strange fire” before the Lord. Those seeking an answer by delving into the surrounding cultural practices, failed to grasp the basic theological truth related to Jesus Christ. No matter what is learned from the pagan cultural practices of that day, any good and proper biblical exegesis must ask, “What is this telling me about Jesus Christ?” If, this is not the ultimate goal when trying to understand the Old Testament, then whatever is learned apart from it teaching us about Jesus Christ is in err. Jesus Christ provides the only correct commentary of how the Old Testament is to be interpreted and understood. It is about him! If the Old Testament is interpreted apart from Jesus, that means we are a modern day Jewish Rabbi and not a Christian scholar or Christian interpreter.

    • Terry Nokleby says

      I love the Temple/Tabernacle example. Jesus tells us to knock on the door and he will open it to us. In the Temple, one only had to walk through the Temple gate/door, and bring his offering to the Priest. From the door all the way to the Holy of Holies the priest took over completely. A believer only had to walk through the Temple door. The entire Temple/Tabernacle illustrates the throne of God and the operation of Jesus Christ simultaneously. This seems more apparent with the Temple of Solomon. Read the description of the brazen sea alongside Ezekiel’s vision of the throne of God, the similarities are striking. Also, the throne room described in Revelation. Instead of a believer in Jesus bringing a sacrifice to the door, Jesus provided that himself, since no other sacrifice is sufficient. Praise be to our Lord Jesus for his word and the amazing examples he has given us.

  5. Connie Hawthorne says

    &In reading the story, what comes to mind is that we haft to remember that we serve a HOLY GOD who wants and desire for us to come to HIM as HOLY people. So it was not like they did not know ( Nadav & Avihu ) that GOD was who HE said HE was. Leviticus 11:44 reads like this, I am the LORD your GOD. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy. for I am holy. There is more HE said about being holy, but the point I wanted to make is ( You just can’t come to GOD any kind of way and expect nothing to happen, there are rules to follow and the LORD spoke them all through the bible ), thank you and GOD bless