What did Nadav and Abihu do wrong?
The story of Nadav and Abihu, two of the four sons of Moses’ brother the high priest Aaron, is repeated five times in Scriptures, in Leviticus 10:2, 16:1, Numbers 3:4, 26:61, and I Chronicles 24:2. In four of these five sites, both their offence and their punishment of death are reiterated. Yet despite the repetitions, it is unclear what they did, why they were punished, and what the punishment was.
Complicating the matter is that there is another narrative about 250 Israelite rebels that is similar to the episode of Aaron’s two sons, both in the offense committed and in the punishment incurred.
The first appearance of the episode of Aaron’s sons is Leviticus 10:1 and 2 and reads as follows: “Now Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censor, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”
The similar incident about 250 men who rebelled against Moses’ leadership in the wilderness is told in Numbers 16:6, 7, and 35. God instructed Moses to put the rebels to a test. Each of them should “take censors… put fire in it, lay incense on it, before the Lord tomorrow; and it will be that the man whom the Lord chooses, he will be holy…. And fire came forth from the Lord, and devoured the 250 men that offered the incense.”
1. What did Nadav and Abihu do wrong?
2. Did they act differently than the 250 rebels?
3. What is the significance of the punishment by fire in both cases?
What was the offense of Aaron’s sons?
The Bible states that Nadav and Abihu brought “strange fire.” Why was this wrong? The rabbis differed in identifying the fault.
For example, the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 63a, states that “the sons of Aaron died only because they gave a legal decision in the presence of their master Moses…. Although, they recognized that fire came down from heaven [as it states in 9:24, they decided that] it is a religious duty to bring also some ordinary fire.”
Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 20:6 has one sage present this idea, but in 20:8, another sage suggests four other reasons for their punishment. They entered the inner precincts of the sanctuary without permission, offered a sacrifice that they were not commanded to offer, brought fire from the kitchen, and failed to take counsel with one another before they acted.
In this same section, another sage states that the Bible repeats the story many times to inform us that “they were guilty of no other iniquity but this one alone,” that they brought “strange fire.”
Section 20:9 reports a sage saying that they died for four other reasons. They drank wine, did not wear all the prescribed priestly garments, did not wash their hands and feet before performing the service, and did not have children.
Section 20:10 has a tenth reason for their death, they were arrogant. This arrogance is explained in three ways, yielding a total of twelve descriptions of the event. They felt no woman was worthy to be their wife; they wanted Moses and Aaron to die so that they could assume authority over the community; and they looked at the Shekhinah (divine presence).
There are other sources, such as Midrash Sifra that speculates that the sons brought a voluntary offering, one not ordered by God, to celebrate the dedication of the Tabernacle. Additionally, medieval commentators offer their own ideas. Nachmanides, for example, states that the two sons did not offer the sacrifice in a way that accomplished its purpose, a purpose understood by mystics. Rashbam suggests that the two sons were well meaning when they acted as they usually did and brought fire for the altar. However, Moses wanted the inauguration to be different, that no man-made fire should light the altar, but that it should be lit by a miraculous fire from God.
The punishment of Nadav and Abihu
The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 52a, relates that Nadav and Abihu died when four streams of fire issued from the Holy of Holies, entered their nostrils and killed them. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which borrowed most of its material from the Talmuds and Midrashim, rendered the verse this way, “there came forth in anger from before the Lord a flame of fire that was divided into four threads. It entered [the four nostrils of] their noses and burned their souls; but their bodies were not burnt; and they died before the Lord.”
Sanhedrin 52a emphasizes that the “souls” of Nadav and Abihu, as well as those of the 250 rebels, were burned, but not their bodies. “They incurred the punishment of fire to effect [the pollution of] their souls.” It was their inner souls that caused them to act improperly, and so it was their souls that were burnt. This talmudic statement can be understood figuratively.
The tragic incident of Nadav and Abihu in Leviticus 10 and four other biblical sections does not specify the offense of Aaron’s two sons. Although more than a dozen diverse explanations of the offense of Aaron’s sons are offered by the sages, a general theme runs through most of them. Aaron’s sons were acting with misguided and over-enthusiastic religious intentions. Nadav and Abihu thought, for example, that it was proper to bring regular fire in addition to that which descended miraculously from God. They were eager to show what they considered suitable respect and love of God by offering an uncalled-for sacrifice. They rushed impetuously to worship God without due consideration and discussion with each other or with their father and uncle.
Their behavior was in an act of misguided and overenthusiastic zealotry similar to the poor judgment of the 250 Israelites who rebelled against Moses. While they saw their acts as well intended, they were still wrong.
Both groups behaved with fiery fervor for holy matters. They failed to realize that overzealousness and arrogance is far from appropriate in religion. Benjamin Franklin wrote, to be overzealous in religion is to be irreligious. Overzealousness destroys the self and others.
The punishment for both fit their crime. A purifying fire burned their insides and left their bodies intact. The fire symbolized the inner nature of their offences, an over-fueled, misguided desire that had to be eradicated. It was fire fighting fire.
 While the popular articulation of the name of this portion is Bamidbar, this name is incorrect. The proper name is the word used in the opening verse, Bemidbar. The mistaken name is apparently a Yiddish version.
 This essay appeared in my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Press.