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?
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.
It could mean “strange,” as in something abhorrent or loathsome. For instance, in Job 19: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.