There are three deaths spoken of in this week’s parasha, Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47. The first two are Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who had just been anointed with their father for service in the Mishkan.
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own censer, put fire in it, laid incense over it, and offered unauthorized fire before ADONAI—which He had not commanded them. So, fire came out from the presence of ADONAI and consumed them. So they died before ADONAI.Leviticus 10:1-2
We are not told what caused the fire offered by Nadab and Abihu to be unauthorized. It would appear the major difference between what Aaron had already offered and what Nadab and Abihu did is captured by the phrase “which He had not commanded them.” As we have seen so far, every aspect of the Mishkan was accompanied by detailed instructions. From its design and construction to the numerous items as well as requirements for various rituals, all were minutely detailed according to HaShem’s command. The the priestly duties were also set out in meticulous detail. Nadab and Abihu had been trained in their duties as priests, first to assist their father Aaron and then eventually to step into the role of High Priest when it was time for Aaron to step down. They not only saw the manifestation of the glory of HaShem, more than likely, they too fell on their faces before his glory.
Moses and Aaron then went into the Tent of Meeting. When they came back out and blessed the people, the glory of ADONAI appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of ADONAI, and devoured the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.Leviticus 9:23-24
Nevertheless, instead of following the pattern and instructions they had learned, they were apparently caught up in the moment. Instead of following HaShem’s instructions, their zeal motivated them to an action that he had not commanded. I need to stress, at this point, that personally, I do not believe that Nadab and Abihu were bad priests, that they evil or malicious intent, nor do I believe they even considered that they were doing something that HaShem had not required of them. I firmly believe that they allowed their zeal to outrun their knowledge of how things were to be done and in doing so they abused the office of priest in which they had just been sanctified to perform. Their zeal caused them to display a flagrant act of disrespect not only to HaShem but to his commands as well. The, considering their position s anointed priests, their disobedience no matter how well intended it might have been, brought immediate and decisive consequences – their deaths. And it was those consequences that should serve as a warning to others not to follow in their footsteps, whether they be in positions of leadership or the common rank and file individuals.
I said there were two deaths in this week’s parasha. The second was in the Haftarah, 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17. This time however, the person did not die solely because of his disobedience. King David following the word of HaShem had just soundly defeated the Philistines and was returning to Jerusalem. He then decided to bring the Ark of God up to Jerusalem from Baale-judah (possibly modern day Kiryat Yearim), a journey of some 18 to 20 kilometers (or 11-12.5 miles). Unfortunately, though well intentioned, David did not take the time to plan the move following the requirements set forth in the Torah, specifically that it must be carried by the Levitical clan of Kohath (Numbers 4:15) in a specific manner (Exodus 25:13-14).
Meanwhile David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating before ADONAI with all kinds of instruments made of cypress wood, with harps, lyres, tambourines, three-stringed instruments and cymbals. But when they reached the threshing floor of Nahon, Uzzah reached out to the ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. Then the anger of ADONAI was kindled against Uzzah. God struck him down there for his irreverence, so that he died there beside the ark of God. David was upset because of ADONAI’s outburst against Uzzah. That place is called Perez-uzzah to this day.2 Samuel 6:5-8
Due to his haste and inattention to detail, Uzzah, one of the attendants accompanying the Ark, died. It appears that Uzzah was well intentioned as well, not wanting the Ark to fall. But he was not a Levitical clan of Kohath, it was not his place even to be involved in the transportation of the Ark. Ultimately, while it was HaShem who struck him down, it was David who had orchestrated the situation placing Uzzah in the position he found himself. I am not denying the statement that his death was due to “his irreverence” however I have walked the hills in Kiryat Yearim, they are uneven often step at times, and it is not hard to imagine that the oxen might stumble. Uzzah’s irreverence may well have been the very fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, I suggest that David, instead of being angry with HaShem for Uzzah’s punishment, should have been angry with himself for putting Uzzah in that position to begin with.
As these thoughts come to an end, there are a couple of conclusions I believe we can draw. First, whether we be leaders or not, we must never allow our zeal to serve HaShem to cause us to do things that either HaShem has not commanded or more specifically to do things he has specifically forbidden. Second, and this is for those of us who may be in some type or position of authority, we have an even greater responsibility not to do things that would inadvertently cause those whom we are responsible for to stumble. Remember Ya’acov’s words when he wrote,
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, since you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.James 3:1
Whether teachers or leaders, we have people listening to what we say and more importantly watching what we do. We have the responsibility not to lead them astray rather to help them walk in the paths of righteousness.
All Scripture passages are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.