Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.(3) The first priestly transgression and its punishment (1–7)
1. Nadab and Abihu were specially chosen to ‘come up unto the Lord’ with Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders (Exodus 24:1; Exodus 24:9-11, the only reference to these sons of Aaron outside P).
his censer] The Heb. word is used in this sense here, in ch. Leviticus 16:12 (of Aaron on the Day of Atonement), and in Numbers 16 (the censers of Korah and his company, and of Aaron). A dish or pan for carrying live coal is meant.
offered strange fire] This is sometimes explained as fire not taken from the altar of Burnt-Offering (cp. Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:46); but then the adjective ‘strange’ would have been used with fire when first mentioned—‘and put [strange] fire therein.’ If the offence consisted in bringing ‘strange incense’ (Exodus 30:9), i.e. incense not prepared according to the prescription in Exodus 30:34-36, then the next clause would have been—‘and laid [strange] incense thereon.’ The whole action is here described as ‘offering strange fire before the Lord,’ an expression found only here and in passages referring to this event (Numbers 3:4; Numbers 26:61). It was an irregular fire-offering, and the sin of Nadab and Abihu consisted in offering that which the Lord had not commanded them. At the commencement of priestly ministrations both priests and people are taught by this visitation to observe scrupulously the Divine commands in all that concerns the ministration of the sanctuary. From Leviticus 16:1 it may be conjectured that the regulations for entering into the Holy place were at one time more closely connected with this narrative.
there came forth fire from before the Lord] As in Leviticus 9:24; see note there.
devoured them] They were not wholly consumed (cp. Leviticus 10:5). For similar punishment cp. Numbers 11:1; Numbers 16:35; 2 Kings 1:10.
And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.3. I will be sanctified] The words seem to be a quotation and are in poetical parallelism:
“In them that come nigh me I will shew myself holy,
And before all the people I will glorify myself.”
The sense is that the priests are those who have the right to approach God, and He shews Himself holy in punishing those who do it improperly.
And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them, Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.4. For the relationship between the persons mentioned see Exodus 6:18; Exodus 6:22.
So they went near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp; as Moses had said.5. their coats] their priestly garments. See on Leviticus 8:13.
And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled.6. The ordinary priest might defile himself for those near of kin (Leviticus 21:2) but the high priest was not allowed to do so (Leviticus 21:11). On this occasion Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar were all subject to the stricter rule. The whole house of Israel joined in the mourning.
Let not the hair of your heads go loose] It was said to Ezekiel when forbidden to mourn, ‘bind thy headtire upon thee’ (Ezekiel 24:17). On removing the headtire the hair would fall down, so that the prohibition ‘Uncover not your heads’ (A.V.), is in effect the same. To let the hair loose and to rend the garments were and still are signs of mourning among the Jews and Eastern nations.
And ye shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you. And they did according to the word of Moses.7. for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you] The commands of this verse do not necessarily imply that the seven days of consecration (Leviticus 8:33) are not yet ended, for a similar statement is applied in Leviticus 21:12 to the high priest at all times.
(4) Wine and strong drink forbidden (8, 9)
Aaron is the direct recipient of God’s commands here and in Numbers 18:1; Numbers 18:8; Numbers 18:20 only. Elsewhere they are given ‘unto Moses and unto Aaron’ or ‘unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron.’
According to an old tradition, Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire when under the influence of wine. The close connexion of this prohibition with the record of their transgression is probably the basis of this tradition. In many ancient cults wine was forbidden to priests and other officials. Cp. Ezekiel 44:21.
And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying,
Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations:
And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean;10, 11. This passage may well have an immediate relation to the preceding context, as meaning that perfect sobriety was required in order to enable them to discriminate between ‘holy’ and ‘common’ and to give right Torah. Others have thought that the words in the last clause of Leviticus 10:11 ‘the Lord hath spoken’ shew that it is not connected with Leviticus 10:8, and that Leviticus 10:9 seems marked off by its last clause from what follows. Leviticus 10:10 would form an appropriate introduction to chs. 11–15.
Driver and White (Haupt’s SBOT., ad loc.) think that something may have fallen out here.
(5) The law of eating the holy things (12–15)
The reference is to the Meal-Offering and Peace-Offering of Leviticus 9:17-18. The remainder of the Meal-Offering, after the handful therefrom had been burnt, belonged to the priests, Leviticus 2:2-3, Leviticus 6:16-18. Being most holy, it was eaten only by priests in a holy place here specified as ‘beside the altar.’ Cp. Leviticus 6:16; Leviticus 6:26; ‘in the court of the tent of meeting.’ The priestly portions of the Peace-Offering might be eaten by the families of the priests in a clean place, of course only by those who were ritually clean (Leviticus 7:20-21). The Sin-Offering when eaten, being most holy, was treated as the Meal-Offering. See Leviticus 6:24-29.
And that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.
And Moses spake unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons that were left, Take the meat offering that remaineth of the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and eat it without leaven beside the altar: for it is most holy:
And ye shall eat it in the holy place, because it is thy due, and thy sons' due, of the sacrifices of the LORD made by fire: for so I am commanded.
And the wave breast and heave shoulder shall ye eat in a clean place; thou, and thy sons, and thy daughters with thee: for they be thy due, and thy sons' due, which are given out of the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel.14. For the ‘wave breast’ and the ‘heave thigh’ see Appendix IV, pp. 183 ff.
(6) Aaron’s excuse for not eating the Sin-Offering (16–20)
The Sin-Offering is that of Leviticus 9:15 which was offered as the first, i.e. as Aaron’s, Sin-Offering, and burnt without the camp (Leviticus 9:11). This burning (as opposed to eating by the priests) should only have taken place, if (as was not done in this case) the blood had been brought into the ‘tent of meeting.’ Moses is angry with Aaron’s sons, but they acted under direction, and Aaron acknowledges his responsibility by replying.
The heave shoulder and the wave breast shall they bring with the offerings made by fire of the fat, to wave it for a wave offering before the LORD; and it shall be thine, and thy sons' with thee, by a statute for ever; as the LORD hath commanded.
And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron which were left alive, saying,
Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD?17. and he hath given it you to bear [mg. to take away] the iniquity of the congregation] Two interpretations of this clause have been proposed, (a) God has given the Sin-Offering for the purpose of taking away the iniquity of the congregation, (b) God has given to you the Sin-Offering (the part not burnt on the altar) to eat for the purpose of bearing (or taking away) the iniquity … The first is a general statement as to the efficacy of the Sin-Offering; the second attributes an atoning value to the eating by the priests, although not to this action apart from the ceremonial of which it formed a constituent portion. The acceptance of a sacrifice depends on the due observance of the whole appointed ritual, and each action as contributing towards the acceptance of the whole may be said to have an atoning value.
Behold, the blood of it was not brought in within the holy place: ye should indeed have eaten it in the holy place, as I commanded.
And Aaron said unto Moses, Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD; and such things have befallen me: and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?19. Aaron in his reply admits that he should have eaten the Sin-Offering, but gives as a reason for not doing so ‘there have befallen me such things as these.’ This is explained as a reference to the death of his sons. Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar were forbidden to mourn for them; but Aaron considered their death as a sign that God was displeased and refrained from eating the Sin-Offering. The whole incident presents difficulties which have not been satisfactorily explained, one of which is that the sacrifice to which Moses refers belongs to that class of which the priests were not to eat. The direction in Leviticus 6:26, that the priest who offers a Sin-Offering ‘shall eat it’ is there limited in Leviticus 6:30, by forbidding that this shall be done when any of the blood has been brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement. In accordance with this restriction, the rebuke by Moses in Leviticus 10:18 is justified, but on the other hand it should be noted that no blood has yet been brought into the Holy place, not even that of the calf for Aaron’s Sin-Offering (Leviticus 9:8 ff.), and yet no objection against the burning of it was made by Moses.
For one who desired to defend the burning of all the parts the argument would be fairly obvious that the rules for the Sin-Offering of the priest as laid down in Leviticus 4:3 ff. direct this course. Aaron’s line of defence, however, is wholly different. Dillm. suggests that the section as it now stands has arisen through the expansion of an older and simpler narrative in P, in which was set forth the original disinclination of the priests to partake of the flesh of the Sin-Offering.
The most probable explanation of the passage is that it is an attempt to account for a discrepancy between the earlier and later ritual. That the priests should abstain, in the contemplated case, from eating the victim whose blood had not been brought into the sanctuary, was opposed to the later custom, and thus needed special circumstances to justify it, and the consequent sanction of Moses.
And when Moses heard that, he was content.