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In the context of a very different project I have recently been thinking about Leviticus 10.

Leviticus is a book often deliberately avoided, either out of fear or boredom (or both). To be fair, the text contains a rather formidable amount of cultic and legal materials.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the Jewish tradition has always found the text to be very important, and understanding the worldview of Leviticus has important implications for the worldview of the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

At first sight, especially in English translation, Leviticus 10 is very simple. Two priests, sons of Aaron (Nadab and Abihu), commit a cultic violation and pay the penalty. (In fact, this has been a common reading of the text, both in Rabbinic literature and in modern scholarship–See esp. Milgrom’s commentary on the story). However, as highlighted by Bibb, the text is actually rather more ambiguous in its construction. Bibb actually argues that the passage itself attempts to force the reader to consider these ambiguities (or as he terms them, “gaps”).

The peculiarities of this passage have long been noted by commentators, most of which are also elaborated by Bibb. The most obvious is the term “strange fire” (אש זרה) in v. 1. The meaning of this term is unclear. What is strange about it? Does the fire consist of the wrong kind of incense (if so, why does it not say that?) Does the fire come from an improper place? (If so, why are there not laws specifying it?) Is the fire meant to be reminiscent of idolatry? (if so, how, and why?). Perhaps the term had a well-known, technical or idiomatic meaning which has been lost to us; perhaps it is deliberately vague.

Also in v. 1 is the notice “which he had not commanded them” (אשר לא צוה אתם). There are three things which are not immediately clear in this phrase: (1) who is doing the commanding? (the subject is left unclear: one might posit the Lord, Moses, or even Aaron); (2) Who was commanded? (Nadab and Abihu, the priests generally, or Israel?); (3) unlike the typical rebuke in the Torah, lack of commandment is noted rather than the breaking of a given commandment: so what exactly is the issue?

Verse 2 is pretty explicit in claiming the agency of G-d in burning up Nadab and Abihu.

If these were not enough to keep the exegesis-wheels spinning, the passage only gets even clearer. In v. 3 Moses responds by says that this was the meaning of the Lord making himself glorified. Given the ambiguity of the previous two verses the antecedent of “this” is hardly clear, not to mention the supposed explanation: how does this episode show how the priests glorify G-d? Aaron’s response (silence) is little help.

In the next verse (4) Moses has Aaron’s cousins carry away Nadab and Abihu’s bodies, even though v. 2 said they had been consumed by fire. In v. 6, Aaron and his remaining sons are forbidden to mourn for Nadab and Abihu’s deaths, though Israel is. These are followed by various commands on priestly commands, which end with Moses rebuking Aaron for not following a command to eat the offerings, yet Aaron makes an excuse which is accepted by Moses.

Overall, the passage is quite difficult, despite the wide variety of explanations which have been given to it. Nevertheless, it ought to be understood that this passage is hardly alone in its difficulty, or even, perhaps, its ambiguity.

Take as an example the story of G-d’s covenant with Abram in Gen 15, of which the author of Hebrews makes much. After promising to give Abram descendants, verse 6 says in the NRSV “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The Hebrew is not so unambiguous. It says “And he believed in (hiphil, אמן) the Lord and he accounted it to him as righteousness.” Note that the verse does not specify any of the antecedents: who did the accounting, who was accounted, or what was accounted: Did YHWH account Abram as righteous for believing, or Abram account YHWH as righteous for promising? The rest of the chapter could be read differently depending on which one chooses.

Another famous example will also make the point. Just before Jacob is to meet Esau again after stealing his blessing, Jacob wrestles with a man (Gen 32:22-31). Jacob crosses the Jabbok alone, as if he was expecting something, though that is not stated. “A man” from nowhere wrestles with him all night. This man appears to be the equal of Jacob, as he has to put out Jacob’s hip. This presumably painful action does not seem to phase Jacob, though, for he refuses to let go, demanding a blessing. Who is this man, that Jacob thinks he has the power to bless him? The man renames him Israel, giving the reason that he has “perservered/persisted with gods and with men and was made able/prevailed (hophal יכל).” So was this contest with a man or a god? The man refuses to name himself, and blesses Jacob, and presumably Jacob lets him go, as he disappears from the narrative. Jacob clearly identifies the man as G-d, as he names the place “Face of G-d.” The current text clearly sees this as an aetiology of both the name Israel and a taboo on meet from the hip, but otherwise it is rather lacunose and ambiguous as to its point.

Lastly, we can note in passing the notorious first four verses of Gen 6.

In light of these, one might be tempted to say that ambiguity is a significant feature of the Hebrew Bible. This could be explained in several ways. I suppose the immediate answer anyone familiar with textual criticism might offer is the widely-accepted idea that the final text is a composite text, and thus things may have been altered, lost, and confused in the redaction and transmission of the various passages. This is no doubt true, so far as it goes. Nevertheless, the texts managed to become accepted in this form. Given the number of (quite well crafted) stories in which the final form of the text is ambiguous, one might wonder whether it is deliberate in its ambiguity. Could the authors/compilers/transmitters have considered some of these to be part of the point of the texts? Bibb argues this for Lev 10, and Pyper has said similar things about Zechariah and Daniel; could it be more widely true? And what does that mean for texts which are viewed as “authoritative” for various communities?

In this, I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on the difference between the “ethical” and the “religious.” In his rather stunning deliberation on the Aqedah or Sacrifice of Isaac in his Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard makes the religious something that is dependent solely on faith, beyond an absolute, clear-cut rule, such as ethics supply. He takes it further, when in Practice in Christianity he claims there is no “abridgment” in acquiring truth, but that it must be struggled with by each individual and generation. Neither of these are meant to be “nihilistic” or absolute relativism, but point to the need for an individual to make things his/her own, rather than rely on the authority of others. There is value in the struggle. The rabbis seem to have canonized such an approach (pluriformity of perspectives), especially in the Talmud.

Certainly, textual transmission has caused difficulties. Loss of cultural context also makes many allusions which were probably quite well known now rather obscure. But, maybe, some of the passages in the Hebrew Bible are intended to make the reader wrestle with their meaning, and thus to make him or her wrestle with the deeper religious issues at stake. If not, perhaps treating them as such in faith-communities wouldn’t always be a bad exercise.

Works mentioned in text:

Bibb, Bryan D. “Nadab and Abihu Attempt to Fill a Gap: Law and Narrative in Leviticus 10.1–7.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament26, no. 2 (2001): 83–99.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling; Repetition. Edited by Howard V Hong and Edna H Hong. Kierkegaard’s Writings VI. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Practice in Christianity. Edited by Howard V Hong. Translated by Howard V Hong and Edna H Hong. Kierkegaard’s Writings XX. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 3.1. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Pyper, Hugh S. “Reading in the Dark: Zechariah, Daniel and the Difficulty of Scripture.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29, no. 4 (2005): 485–504.