Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer unsanctioned ‘strange fire’ and are ‘consumed’ by God. Why? To enable the younger Eleazar to succeed Aaron as Cohen Gadol in defiance of human primogeniture and, crucially, for Eleazar to be succeeded by his son, Pinchas, who is “zealous for his God.” (Numbers 25:13).
Did Nadav’s and Avihu’s punishment fit their crime? Ours is not to reason why: “God gave and God took; may God’s name be blessed” (Job 1:21). This week’s story does seem to focus on our respect for God – although Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 52a disagrees with me:
Moses and Aaron once walked along, with Nadav and Avihu walking behind them, and all Israel behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, “When will these two old men die, and I and you will lead the generation?” The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: “We shall see who buries whom.”
The siblings pay the ultimate price for being disrespectful to their father and uncle.
But their behaviour also slights God because He had selected Moses as His prophet and Aaron as His High Priest. The boys want to supplant their elders before God has decided that the next generation must assume responsibility. Their chutzpah is not appreciated.
Is God consistent when insulted? 1. Eve and Adam are banished for their disobedience. 2. Abraham and Sarah laugh incredulously on learning they will have Isaac in their dotage, but only Sarah is reprimanded. 3. Zipporah saves Moses from death by circumcising his son(s). 4. Pharaoh defies God publicly but his firstborn dies. 5. 3,000 Israelites are executed, presumably for publicly worshipping the Golden Calf, but that does not assuage God who afflicts all Israel. 6. Nadav and Avihu perish (private or public misdeed?) 7. The son of an intermarriage blasphemes publicly and is stoned to death. 8. Korach dies in an earthquake for publicly defying God’s appointees, Moses and Aaron. 9. Aaron fails to restrain Miriam from criticising Moses (privately?), but only she seems to be punished. 10. Thirty-six Israelites in Joshua’s army die trying to take the city of Ai, because Achan has kept some of the spoil from Jericho. Achan and his entire family are stoned to death and cremated. 11. Uzzah publicly tries to stop God’s Ark falling to the ground as David transfers it to Jerusalem and is struck down.
Death is the divine decree in eight of these 11 stories. You disrespect God at your peril, particularly if you do it in public!
However, the early rabbis were ambivalent about capital punishment. Mishnah Makkot (1:10) says that a Sanhedrin that executed somebody once in seven years was considered destructive. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “once in seventy years”. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva claimed, “If we were on the Sanhedrin, nobody would ever be killed.” Then Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, the leader of the Jewish community, responded, “If so, they [these rabbis] would multiply shedders of blood [murderers] in Israel.” (In other words, there would be more murders without the deterrent of capital punishment.)
Mishna Sanhedrin (4:5) disagrees: “Man was created as one person [Adam] to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered … to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”
God may favour the death penalty, but the Talmud advises humanity to be humane.
Nahum Gordon is a founding member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and founder of Torah Chat, a Bible Study Group