Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1–4:20)
© 2017 S.H. Parker

This week’s action packed episode has a huge amount of scintillating material.

We start with a census of Israel, fighting men only, thank you. Immediately after the census, we get the order of battle of the Israelite camp, a census of the Levites, the TO & E of the headquarters company (the order and job assignments of the Levites) and another census of the Levites.

And, somewhere along the way, we revisit Nadab and Abihu.

Scintillating stuff, this.

Nadab and Abihu were the two eldest sons of Aaron. They took their censors and burned incense in them (Lev. 10:1); they “offered strange fire in front of Adonai.” The key term is אֵש ׁזָרָה, “strange” fire, fire that had not been commanded.   

Why are the boys consumed by God? Fire is required on the altar. Indeed we learn later that someone had to attend the altar all night to ensure that the fire did not go out.

They are consecrated. They are priests (not “the” priest, but priests).

They weren’t told to do this. But so what? There are lots of things that are not specifically mandated but, nevertheless, must be done.

What did the boys do? The explanation, such as it is (Lev. 10:3), is somewhere between meaningless and incompressible.

Perhaps it would help if we remember that זָרָה, strange, throughout the Mishna and Gommora means “pagan.” Now it certainly makes sense. The boys did something pagan.

Except that while זָרָה does refer to pagan practices in Mishnaic Hebrew, in Biblical Hebrew it means something else entirely. In Biblical Hebrew, זָרָה indicates something inappropriate, something that is in the wrong place or at the wrong time, inappropriate.

What is inappropriate about what the boys did?

The short answer is: everything.

Bringing the fire, the incense is an ex officio prerogative of Aaron, the only one who, to this point, is actually called “priest.” Bringing the incense is Aaron’s job, his responsibility.

What do you call it when someone performs a public function belonging to another?


Nadab and Abihu are usurping the prerogative of their leader and their father. They are performing his duties without any sort of sanction. In short, they are trying to demonstrate that they are the priests, not Aaron.

That is why they die. (Can’t exactly be “fired” from the kohanute, the priestly clan, can you?) This is also why Aaron is forbidden from grieving.

This is no different from Reuven when he has intercourse with his father’s concubine. Nor is it different than when Absalom does the same with his father’s concubines on the palace roof (where it would be visible everywhere in the City of David). Each is trying to demonstrate that he now occupies the role formerly discharged by the rightful leader (and, in each case, father), the person with the right to have intercourse with these women. Reuven is cursed by his father and his tribe does not survive. Absalom is killed in his rebellion ….

You just don’t go and break somebody’s rice bowl. The consequences can be dire.