Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Two Counts of "Unauthorized Fire Before the Lord": Leviticus 8-10

This post is part of a revolutionary commentary on the Bible, sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I thought we'd already taken care of the ordination of Aaron at the end of Exodus, but I was wrong! The author of Leviticus records, in breathtaking detail, Moses's dressing-up of Aaron in fancy priest clothes, the slaughter of animals to mark the new priesthood, and so on. Aaron and his sons get the meat that's left over. I really do mean "breathtaking" for this section - I am nearly bored to death, which would indeed take my breath away. Aaron and his sons, after eating, have to stay at the Tent of Meeting for one full week, or else they will die. God seems very worried that if he doesn't threaten to rain down fire and death, Aaron will refuse to stay and cuddle after the ceremony's over, and will instead scamper off for a drink with the lads.

As it turns, out, Aaron's sons did indeed go out drinking a little too much. On the eighth day, things start out well with yet another major sacrifice - a bull, a goat, a calf, a lamb, an ox, a ram, and some grain - and Aaron and his sons gather up all the blood and drench the altar with it. On this occasion, God decides to impress everyone by lighting up the sacrifice himself, a miracle for which all the people "shout for joy and falle facedown."

After this, though, things go downhill quickly. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, decide to burn some incense for God. God doesn't approve: hilariously, my NIV describes their sin as "offer[ing] unauthorized fire before the Lord." (Some older translations actually call it "alien fire," which I think is even better.) This is not just a parking-ticket misdemeanor; immediately, God sends out his own, authorized fire and burns them alive. Moses is completely unsympathetic, telling Aaron that the prompt executions were necessary because God wanted to "show myself holy in the sight of all the people." According to my Bible, "Aaron remained silent" as Moses spoke. Of course he did. God just killed two of his kids! What does one say in a moment like that?

Moses has Aaron's cousins carry the remains out of the camp to be disposed of, then speaks to Aaron and his remaining two sons, warning them that if they mourn for their kin, they too will be killed by God, "and the Lord will be angry with the whole community." Why God will be angry with all Israelites for this is not made clear. Moses sends the priests back to the Temple of Meeting. What follows is an exceedingly rare moment, in which God actually speaks to Aaron rather than Moses: from this day forth the priests must not drink any alcohol when they go to the Tent of Meeting. See what happens when you let a drunk run your worship service? People get killed! God seems to be explaining to Aaron that Nadab and Abihu had to be killed to illustrate just how important it really is that all Israelites follow the rules. Priests are not above the law!

Despite the tragedy, Aaron's surviving kids just refuse to learn their lesson. Later, after some more sacrifices, Moses orders them to take the remaining grain and food from the sacrifice and "eat it in a holy place." He finds it necessary to repeat in full, agonizing detail God's earlier decree that thiw would be a "regular share for you and your children," etc., etc. Later, Moses comes back and finds that they committed the serious but obviously not capital crime of burning the rest of the goats meat. Moses berates Aaron's sons for not eating what was "given to you to take away the guilt of the community." See what happens when priests hesitate to take full payment for their services? Aaron manages to placate Moses on this occasion with some baffling mishmash about sin offerings and burnt offerings.