Priests and clergy do mess up, of course. Nadab and Abihu take their fire pans, incense, and light up, not as told by God – and God burns them. Traditions say that this younger generation was impatient, didn’t listen and learn from Moses and Aaron, wanted to get on with succession, and started free-lancing with ‘alien fire’. As Kurt Vonnegut put it: ‘You know why we have so many popular ‘gurus - because people can’t spell ‘charlatan’”.
Moses tells a couple of Aaron’s cousins to haul the burnt bodies off to the ash heap beyond the pale. But he tells Aaron and his other sons not to leave the tent to touch and grieve their lost sons and brothers. It was taboo to make contact with such dead screw-ups. Regardless of natural grief, they banish and remove the criminals from the crowd, to maintain the integrity of cult or community. He also prohibits drunkenness of priests at their work. Wise guy.
Moses goes on to reassure the remaining sons of Aaron that they are allowed to eat the grain offerings, the less loaded shelamim, and even to share them with their families. They have not taken vows of perpetual poverty, and their work is worthy of basic support and keep. After watching their brothers burnt for a misstep, they would likely be tentative without the permission. It’s a bit like ‘litigation chill’, where we get overly careful after a big scandal, until we find the lines again for shared norms.
Moses then scolds the boys for having burnt up a guilt offering, and not eaten some with the priests in the tent, as was permitted. Aaron pushes back, correcting Moses’ interpretation of the norm, saying that after such a bad day it was right to abstain. Moses stands corrected, one of three times the rabbis said he lost his temper and got it wrong, and accepted correction. There’s a model, too!
1 Now Aaron’s sons,Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them.
2 And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
3 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD meant when he said,“Through those who are near me I will show myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified.” ’And Aaron was silent.
4 Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, ‘Come forward, and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.’
5 They came forward and carried them by their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had ordered.
6 And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not dishevel your hair, and do not tear your vestments, or you will die and wrath will strike all the congregation; but your kindred, the whole house of Israel, may mourn the burning that the LORD has sent.
7 You shall not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, or you will die; for the anointing-oil of the LORD is on you.’ And they did as Moses had ordered.
8 And the LORD spoke to Aaron:
9 Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations.
10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean;
11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them through Moses.
12 Moses spoke to Aaron and to his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar: Take the grain-offering that is left from the LORD’s offerings by fire, and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy;
13 you shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, from the offerings by fire to the LORD; for so I am commanded.
14 But the breast that is elevated and the thigh that is raised, you and your sons and daughters as well may eat in any clean place; for they have been assigned to you and your children from the sacrifices of the offerings of well-being of the people of Israel.
15 The thigh that is raised and the breast that is elevated they shall bring, together with the offerings by fire of the fat, to raise for an elevation-offering before the LORD; they are to be your due and that of your children for ever, as the LORD has commanded.
16 Then Moses made inquiry about the goat of the sin-offering, and—it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said,
17‘Why did you not eat the sin-offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and God has given it to you that you may remove the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement on their behalf before the LORD.
18 Its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’
19 And Aaron spoke to Moses, ‘See, today they 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 agreeable to the LORD?’
20 And when Moses heard that, he agreed.