Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Strange Fire - Some Further Thoughts from the Reb

Strange Fire (Lev 10:1-20)

The context of the story begins at chap 9 which was a happy day when Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests. But the day of joy quickly turned to sorrow (Lev 10) as 2 of Aaron’s sons died in strange circumstances. The quick change of circumstances and mood is highlighted by the text’s sparseness. Lev 10 poses 2 problems - what is this strange fire that is mentioned and why did Aaron hold his peace i.e. accepted the fate of his 2 sons?

In chap 9, Aaron and his 4 sons were consecrated to the priesthood so that they may now preside over the worship ceremonies. When Aaron and Moses stepped out of the tent of meeting, they blessed the people and God’s glory appeared. In v. 24, it is recorded that fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering, indicating that God was pleased with the sacrifice. Chap 9 ends with a happy mood. But in chap 10, 2 of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abbihu took their censers, put fire in it and laid incense and offered before the Lord strange fire ('unholy fire' - RSV) which God had not commanded them. Fire came forth like before but this time the fire consumed both Aaron’s sons and they died in the very presence of the Lord. In the first instance, God sent down fire to signal favor with the people and their leaders, Moses and Aaron. In the second instance, fire came down to destroy Aaron’s 2 sons as punishment for their offering of strange fire to the Lord. So what actually happened? What is this unholy or strange fire that God is not pleased with?

The clue lies with the word zarah usually translated as ‘strange, unholy’. The root word zar means 'strange, foreign, completely different, unlawful'. Thus, firstly, it refers to the unauthorized non-Levite or non-Levite, one who does not share in the cult. Secondly, it can refer to the non Israelite. Thirdly, it can mean strange as in forbidden or illegitimate. It is also used to refer to the strange or unchaste woman in Prov 2.

But the text does not explain what is considered 'strange' but the Jewish Midrash provides several possible explanations. Firstly, in the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 12:1, the Jewish rabbis suggested that the answer was to come from Lev 10:9 - ‘Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die’. Although this injunction follows after the incident, it can be read as being instituted after the offense by Nadab and Abbihu. They had performed their duties while drunk and thus dishonored their vocation and calling and profaned God’s name. Hence this legislation is to prevent further such happenings.

A second possible interpretation came from Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Przysucha. He noticed that Leviticus Rabbah 12:3 explains this verse from Lev 10:1-2 by citing another verse from Ps 19 - ‘The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart’. This mean that we cannot enter into God’s presence in the midst of sadness. The priest is expected to preside at the altar with a spirit of rejoicing and exaltation. If so, then wine cannot be the mere cause of Nadab and Abbihu’s sin since wine rejoices a person’s heart. If a priest is to preside at the altar with feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, then these feelings must come entirely from fulfilling God’s commandments (deriving a natural high) and not from external substances like wine to produce this joy. So Nadab and Abbihu’s sin was to rely on wine to produce their exaltation as they entered God’s presence to serve Him.

A third possible interpretation comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Nezikin 52a) where the sin of the two brothers was suggested to be arrogance. In Exod 24:1 we read of how Moses was summoned to go up to Mt. Sinai. Aaron and his 4 sons and the 70 elders accompanied Moses for part of the journey. The Talmud imagines that Moses and Aaron are walking ahead of everyone while Nadab and Abbihu follows behind. Nadab turned to his brother and said ‘When will these 2 old fellows die and you and I will lead the generation?’ Then God said to them ‘Do not exult prematurely. Let us see who will bury whom’. The fulfillment of this saying is thus found in Lev 10.

A fourth Jewish interpretation is to see the strange fire as a symbol of idolatry. In chap 9, when Moses and Aaron offered the burnt offering and blessed the people, fire came down from heaven. It was something which they probably did not expect and something which they did not do to produce or force God to produce the fire. The fire from heaven was an unexpected gift. But in the next chapter, Aaron’s 2 sons seemed to want to recreate or re-stage the appearance of the divine fire. They offered their fire in their censers in the expectation that it would be matched by another dramatic manifestation of fire from heaven. They expected to force the hand of heaven to act as they had desired. What could be the possible reasons their doing so? Was it because they wanted a share of the glory their father and Moses had when the fire came down in the first instance? Was it because they were anxious to demonstrate their own sacred powers to draw attention to themselves? Was it an act of rebellion and trying to legitimatize their own calling to the priesthood?

Some Jewish scholars (e.g. N. Leibowitz, Studies in Leviticus, 1980) perhaps do not want to push the interpretation too far as to suggest that Aaron’s 2 sons were trying to usurp their father’s role. These scholars see the strange fire as an example of religious extremism - the 2 sons were carried away in trying to re-create the fire from heaven. Perhaps the 2 sons hungered for the sacred. They wanted also to feel God’s nearness, his tangible presence. Perhaps they thought if they can perform some act that will compel the divine presence to respond and to force a dramatic self-disclosure of God again. Perhaps they couldn’t accept the fact that God is both hidden and revealed and that unless God reveals and discloses himself, human beings cannot hope to force God to reveal himself. So was it this yearning for intimacy that cause Aaron’s 2 sons to do something which would eventually cost them their own lives?

We come to the second problem raised by this passage: why did Aaron hold his peace (v. 3)? As their father, Aaron would have been visibly upset by the death of his 2 sons. But Moses’s words to Aaron in v. 3 was a reminder of the divine declaration - ‘I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all people I will be glorified’. In the JPS version, it is translated ‘Through those near me I show myself holy and assert my authority before all people’. The principle is that harsher punishment is linked to the special status of the transgressor. The claim to leadership requires special accountability because it would be very devastating to the morale of the group if the leadership fails. No one worthy of the mantle of leadership is permitted to be primarily the exemplar of weakness and spiritual fallibility. How destructive it is to the faith and faithfulness of the group if they discover that the priest has no clothes!

No wonder Aaron responds with total silence. Moses’ words, although telling the truth, is stark insensitive to the moment and ill-timed. Moses was in effect saying ‘You see Aaron, that’s what God meant when God said that through those near me I show myself holy’. No wonder one Jewish writer argues that Aaron’s silence was the ‘silence of one turned to stone’. It was the mark of numbness, not acquiescence. Moses’ words only served to deepen the estrangement between Aaron and God. The fact that Moses, bent on keeping the rules, insisted that Aarons’ 2 surviving sons and Aaron himself continue to fulfill their priestly duties (Lev 10:4-7) instead of mourning for death of Nadab and Abbihu. Moses continues to give Aaron and his surviving sons instructions concerning the meal offering, breast offering and the thigh offering (Lev 10:12-16). Moses seemed to be concerned to let the sacred business go on as usual. So what if Aaron’s 2 sons had been scorched to death? Life goes on. Our duties go on.

But in Lev 10:17-20, we begin to see a different story. Moses diligently investigated the goat of the sin offering and discovered that Aaron and his 2 sons did not follow the instructions. Moses confronted them angrily ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy…?’ Aaron breaks his silence ‘Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been acceptable in the sight of the Lord?’. On hearing this, Moses accepted the explanation.

Some scholars see Aaron’s answer to Moses not as a legal justification of what he had not done but as a ‘welling of the prompting of his heart’. Aaron argued that God would understand his feelings and he would receive divine understanding and favor. Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) imagines Aaron saying ‘Only today did we make our dedication offerings which were marred by a great personal tragedy and now that there have fallen me such things as these, how can I partake of the most holy sin offering when we cannot bring to the act a joyful heart?’ Aaron’s grief is validated and deemed an appropriate ground for modifying his behaviour even in the midst of performing his priestly duties [cf. Lev 21:10-12 - the high priest must not grieve publicly even for a departed son but may grieve publicly for close relatives (Lev 21:1f)].

Aaron’s silence is something for us to ponder over especially when it comes to mourning when performing one’s religious duties. One must be given the freedom to cry and lament before offering to God the silence of acceptance. God is not offended by the outpouring of a heavy heart. ‘Weeping tarry for the night then joy comes in the morning’ (Ps 30:5b).

'stranger' fire

budding NT scholar had an interesting post by j.l. grady on strange fire on defiled altars. see

just yesterday, i had dinner with a stm alumnus who is now pastoring a small vibrant church in kota kinabalu sabah. he told me that a popular church in k.k. recently organized a big seminar for the churches in town and got some canadian folks to come to do some teaching in a big hotel like sutera harbour. one of the speakers told the audience to throw spirtual fireballs at the enemy! and he proceeded to show the audience how!

man, i wish i was there to see the spectacle (if there was one). it is not any day that you can see a Christian 'dragonball' throwing spiritual fireballs! talk about strange fire on the altar. i mean how 'stranger' can you get.

my guess is the speaker was probably a manga or old chinese kungfu fan. if what he says is true, we don't need a Canadian to teach us Asians because we already know all these stuff!

Monday, 8 October 2007

starting and maintaining a blog

many friends and colleagues are afraid to start a blog, the biggest fear is that once they started, they will fizzled out. well, it is true. one yahoo news report shows that 2 million blogs have closed down recently but the good news is that an equally number of new ones have sprung up.

how does one begin a blog? and the more important question - how does one maintain it? how can one keep one's blog to the high standards demanded in order to attract readers to come back? well, i can empathize with you if you are seriously not wanting to start a blog for the fear it will die a natural death. this blog was started way back in 2003 but lapsed for over a year before i took it up again.

found this link below which gives some good advice for the above questions. scroll down some more in the webpage for other good links.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

claus westermann's birthday

October 7th is claus westermann's birthday. he was born in the year 1909

he was truly a great form critic, judging from the commentaries he wrote using form criticism e.g. genesis, isaiah 40-66 etc. his books 'basic forms of prophetic speech' and 'prophetic oracles of salvation in the OT' are still used when teaching students about form criticism in the prophetic books. his books on wisdom literature are still read and studied. there are still a lot of his books and articles written in german yet to be translated into english for a wider audience.

happy westermann birthday!