This week’s parasha Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47)[i] begins “[n]ow it happened on the eighth day…” indicating that the seven-day consecration period of Aaron and his sons had been completed, and that now they would begin their service in the Tabernacle. The first duty was to provide an atonement for themselves, and then for the rest of Israel (9.7). Upon completion of the required offerings:
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. (9.23-24)
Imagine for a moment —the Exodus is past, the Covenant has been sealed at Sinai, the Tabernacle has been meticulously constructed, the priesthood ordained and the ritual life of Bnei-Yisrael begun with the very visible presence and acceptance of Hashem. There was great excitement in the camp, not only had the LORD delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage but now He had accepted their service, their worship. Then, suddenly, the atmosphere did a hundred and eighty degree turn-around. For whatever reason, two of 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” (10.1). Then, to everyone’s horror, the same fire that had come “out from the presence of Adonai” and accepted the offering presented by Aaron and his sons, appeared once again. Only this time instead of consuming and accepting the offering, it consumed the offerors, Nadab and Abihu, resulting in their death. Excitement had turned to fear and alarm.
What was the problem? What was the difference between the acceptable offering and the one that brought the judgement of the LORD. The narrative itself gives the answer, they offered “unauthorized fire before Adonai—which He had not commanded them.” Nehama Leibowitz notes, “Nadav and Avihu did not offend against any ritual precepts but sinned by reaching for God through the dictates of their own hearts rather than through the path set by God. Submission to the yoke of Heaven – the ultimate aim of the Torah – was here supplanted by unbridled religious ecstasy. Hence their punishment.”[ii] The what and how of their actions: what they did was in fact “ritually” correct; however, the reason why they did what they did, precipitated the judgment.
In their excitement, Nadav and Abihu moved from the permitted to the presumed. And even though what they did was technically correct, it was not ordained or sanctioned by Adonai. In a similar vein, Yeshua taught His disciples,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and drive out demons in Your name, and perform many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Get away from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7.21-23)
More often than not, emphasis is placed upon “get away from Me, you workers of lawlessness,” without realizing that the people Yeshua was speaking about were serving in the name of the LORD — “didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and drive out demons in Your name, and perform many miracles in Your name?” The works were all good and commendable, the motivation or authority however was questionable. It would appear that like Nadab and Abihu, the people to whom Yeshua referred abused their position, following the form of service but not in the exact manner required by the LORD. As leaders Nadab and Abihu had a special responsibility to obey Hashem, especially in regard to their position; they could easily have led people astray. Equally, as believers in Yeshua we have the responsibility to ensure that we are walking and working in the Ruach HaKodesh, and not our own strength or timing. The moral of the story then, for Nadab and Abihu as well as for disciples of Yeshua, is that those who have the privilege of being in leadership and service to Hashem must bear special responsibility to exemplify His holiness and glory.
The Haftarah for this Shabbat, found in II Samuel 6.1-19, recounts David’s attempt to move the Ark from Baale-judah (Kiriath-jearim, near present day Abu Gosh) up to Jerusalem. However, just as Nadab and Abihu did not follow the prescribe directions for offering incense, David did not follow the prescribed directions for transporting the Ark. The Ark was supposed to be carried by poles on the shoulders of Levites (cf. Numbers 4.4-6; 7.9), not on an animal drawn cart like the Philistines used. The improper mode of transportation set the stage for something to go terribly wrong, and sadly it was not David but Uzzah who paid the price. It would seem that Uzzah meant well and was probably acting out of reflex when he reached out to stabilize the Ark. However, little about the manner in which the Ark was transported, met the requirements as commanded in the Torah. Thus, Uzzah’s reaching out his hand to touch the Ark brought about judgment. David was understandably upset (6.8). Many commentators feel that David was upset with the LORD, but Malbim,[iii] observes that David was “upset with himself for not having taken the proper precautions to respect the sanctity of the Ark,”[iv] which resulted in Uzzah’s death. One has to wonder if this might not be part of the blood on David’s hands (I Chronicles 28.3) that precluded him from building the Temple. Having learned his lesson, David eventually bring the Ark into Jerusalem (6.13) on the shoulders of the Levites.
The lesson for us all from this week’s portion is that we must not allow our zeal or our enthusiasm for the LORD and His service to supersede or replace His expressed manner or pattern for said service.
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[ii] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, 2 vols., Jerusalem: Eliner Library, WZO Dept. for Torah Education, 1993, 1:124.
[iii] Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as The Malbim, (1809-1879) was a Ukrainian rabbi, master of Hebrew grammar, and Bible commentator.
[iv] Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Prophets: Samuel, Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2002, 237.