One of the most difficult incidents to understand in the whole Bible is the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, at the ceremony of dedication for the Tabernacle. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. The portable sanctuary that the Israelites had constructed in the wilderness was finally finished and Aaron was being consecrated as its priest when suddenly fire came out of heaven and consumed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10,2). Their offence was that they had offered ‘strange fire’ in their censers. This is usually understood to mean that they had used their own recipe to make the incense they were burning, instead of sticking to the divinely sanctioned formula.
Immediately after the event, Moses turned to Aaron, telling him that God had already warned that he would be sanctified through those who draw close to him, and that would be honoured before all the people. It is not at all clear what Moses meant and the later Jewish commentators struggle to understand it. The consensus, which is difficult for us to accept, is that somehow Nadav and Avihu were greatly privileged by being chosen to die; the dedication of the tabernacle was such a tremendous event that it could only be fully sanctified by the death of the most righteous of all people. Moses thought that he and Aaron would be the ones to die, but it turned out that Nadav and Avihu were more deserving.
Needless to say, this explanation is not satisfying to modern sensibilities. The idea that God is appeased or even pleased by the death of people puts us in mind of horrors like child sacrifice, that the Bible itself rails against. Continue reading