[Edit: The post I forgot to edit and publish last night. I don’t have the energy to deal with the sexism and anti-body messages of chapter 12 tonight. My outrage is too spent on what happened in Boston today.]
Leviticus may be mostly laws and rituals, but there are a few narrative sections, and this is one of them. After spending chapter upon chapter explaining how to perform sacrifices, we have two instances of people not performing sacrifices properly. In the first, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu make an “unholy fire” that leads to them being burned alive. In the second, Aaron’s other sons, Eleazar and Ithamar don’t eat the sin-offering and instead incinerate it. They get off with a warning.
Why is one worthy of death and not the other? Perhaps it’s a level of intent? The first two brothers deliberately ignored the rules while the latter two merely misunderstood. There’s really no internal evidence to say if that’s the case, though Aaron’s request for clarification at the end might indicate that Eleazar and Ithamar’s misdeed was a mistake. But then again, Nadab and Abihu aren’t depicted as being particularly awful. Aaron and his surviving sons aren’t allowed to mourn because they’re still in a consecrated state, but everyone else is encouraged to mourn for them. The Japanese once more talks about “inviting death” rather than simply dying. Perhaps Nadab and Abihu, by going directly to God’s presence without the proper behavior, were literally playing with fire. It’s almost as if God can’t really control what happens to people when they encounter his presence.
As I was reading this, it sounded familiar, and I remembered that I’d read an essay on this passage at Huffington Post’s religion page. You can read it here, and the Reconstructionist Rabbi who wrote it clearly knows her stuff when it comes to Jewish commentaries, way more than me. As an East Asian studies major, what intrigued me in the essay was how Akiva and Ben Azzai’s positions mirror those of Mencius and Mozi. These two Chinese contemporaries argued for morality in very different ways. Mozi argued that all humans are equal under Heaven, which loves everyone equally (Heaven is an important concept in Chinese religion, but only Mozi seems to have considered it a personal deity). Hence you should treat everyone equally. If your father commits a crime, you turn him in. You don’t show preference for your family. Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, argued that you can only learn morality by starting with your family. Hence if your father commits a crime, you don’t turn him in, because love and loyalty to family takes precedence over love and loyalty to others.
Christianity has a lot more in common with Mohism than it does with Mencius’ Confucianism, though the protectionist attitude toward patriarchal figures is all too real (see any recent abuse cover-up). But it was interesting to find out that a similar debate happened within Judaism, and that some of it centered on this passage. Even parts of the Bible that seem boring or confusing can spark interesting ideas.
One little note on translation: what the NRSV refers to as as “unholy fire” (v 1) the Japanese calls sumibi or “charcoal fire.” While I don’t know how that compares to the Hebrew, it is true that the passages before all specify wood and not charcoal. Charcoal is easier to burn but also dirtier. It might be seen as a disrespectful shortcut. Or it could the Japanese equating dirtiness directly to unholiness, which is most decidedly a concept over here. We might say “cleanliness is next to godliness.” In Japanese religion, cleanliness is godliness.
The Japanese: kouro “censor,” sumibi “charcoal fire” (v 1), hodoku “to undo, to loosen,” samonaito “or else, otherwise” (v 6), zoku “vulgar, wordly” (v 10).