Strange Fire

By Kenneth Way Nov. 30, 2012 10:35 p.m. Biblical Exposition, Old Testament

What was the sin of Nadab and Abihu?  The text of Leviticus 10:1-7 is ultimately unclear about this.  One Pentateuch scholar aptly calls this an instance of “intentional ambiguity” on the part of the storyteller/author (see Schnittjer, 99, 324, 413-414).  So perhaps we will never know the answer for sure.  Nevertheless, many people have contemplated this question, and there are many suggestions out there.  How do we evaluate the relative merits of these suggestions?  Is there a way to distinguish the plausible theories from the implausible ones?  I think so.

The literary genre of ritual—which dominates the book of Leviticus—needs to be interpreted according to ritual categories of thinking.  Over the years, a number of scholars have come to realize that the biblical ritual literature is driven by the sacred categories of space, status and time (see, for example, Frank Gorman’s Ideology of Ritual).  That is to say, the prescriptions of Leviticus are about making sure the right people (=status) are in the right places at the right times.  When these categories are properly maintained, then God’s presence is preserved in the midst of His people and equilibrium is established and enjoyed in the cosmos (see also John Walton’s “Equilibrium”).  When these categories are ignored or disturbed, chaos may threaten to jeopardize the presence of God and people may die (cf., Exod 33:3-5; Num 16:35; 2 Sam 6:6-8).  But how do these matters specifically apply to the strange (zarah; “foreign” or “unauthorized”) fire of Nadab and Abihu?

Perhaps the “strangeness” of the fire is not so much about the fire itself or the coals themselves.  Instead, the offense is more likely related to (one of) the above ritual categories.  For example, “strange” might be understood as untimely.  That is, Aaron’s sons performed the ritual at the wrong time, thereby upsetting the equilibrium and endangering the Israelites (cf., Lev 16:2; see Rabbi Jeremiah, cited in Milgrom, 634).  Or perhaps “strange” is related to status.  That is, only the high priest was supposed to do that particular ritual, and the two sons upset equilibrium by usurping Aaron’s role (cf., Lev 16:2; see Harrison, 109; Hartley, 131, 133).  Or perhaps “strange” is related to space.  That is, Nadab and Abihu may have brought the fire beyond its proper zone (cf., Lev 16:1-2; see Rabbi Jeremiah, cited in Milgrom, 633), or perhaps they brought the fire from a zone outside of the sacred enclosure (cf., Lev 16:12-13; see Gorman, 50, 65; Milgrom, 598, 634).  Either way, the fire would be "strange" because it was out of place, thus upsetting equilibrium and bringing danger to the community.

These three proposals are, in my estimation, the best kinds of theories.  Interpretive certainty will always elude us because the text is ultimately ambiguous about their specific sin.  However, these proposals are all plausible ways of explaining the nature of their disobedience (i.e., going against the command of YHWH; see Lev 10:1) because they are in keeping with the ritual categories of thinking that were likely assumed by the ancient Israelites.  I even wonder if the specific sin in Lev 10:1 might be some combination of the above three proposals.  In fact, the sin of Nadab and Abihu is referenced again in Leviticus 16:1-2 where it serves as a preface for the rituals of the Day of Atonement on which matters of space, status and time are intricately combined.  

The incident in Lev 10:1-2 is not unlike the story in Acts 5:1-11 where Ananias and Sapphira also disrupted the equilibrium of the newly inaugurated sacred space of the church by lying to the Holy Spirit.  God indeed revealed his holiness in both of these inaugural events and sent a clear message about the deadly serious importance of maintaining purity by obedience to God’s commands (cf., Lev 10:3; Acts 5:5, 11).  Perhaps this is also the kind of thing the Apostle Paul is explaining when he says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Cor 3:17).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Gorman, F. H. The Ideology of Ritual: Space, Time and Status in the Priestly Theology. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990; Harrison, R. K. Leviticus. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980; Hartley, J. E. Leviticus. Dallas: Word Books, 1992; Milgrom, J. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991; Schnittjer, G. E. The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006; Walton, J. H. "Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass: The Structure of Leviticus" Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001): 293-304.


  • Sam Evans Dec. 2, 2012 at 6:31 AM


    This was excellent! Thanks for your hard work...



  • Joe Hellerman Dec. 8, 2012 at 8:50 AM


    Great stuff! I have always read Lev 10:1-2 and Acts 5 through the same lens, as "inaugural events," if you will. In both places in salvation history, God is inaugurating a new way for his people to live in relationship with him. When this is betrayed, God exercises an "inaugural severity" that we don't see later (for example, when the priesthood was compromised during the Second Temple period).

  • Jay Wesley Oct. 22, 2013 at 6:46 AM


    Great article. The theory of a Space,Time, Continuem attempts to paint for the reader a rare glimpse of what may be the reason behind God's view of the importance of strict obedience. It challenges us to to think more deeply about everyday, mundane occurences and how they can and will effect the future. Finally, it pushes the reader to conclude that we all must attempt to become more like Jesus in developing such a deep relationship with our ABBA Father that we can grow to know him intimately enough to share in our Father's thoughts.

  • Tim Stark Oct. 24, 2013 at 6:37 AM

    I agree with your analysis and the plausibility of these theories. I would add that the strange fire could very well be related to the attitudes of their hearts (eg Cain) and possible drunkenness (v.9). I like the connection between this event and Acts 5:1 as well.

    One caution I would make is that the phrase and idea "upsetting the equilibrium" (and similar terminology) is not biblical, rings of liberal phraseology and represents God as being an impersonal force, rather than being a very personal and holy God who is offended by disobedience (biblical terminology). Let's stick with biblical terminology and not be guilty of offering "strange fire" ourselves.

  • Kees Van Hartingsveldt Nov. 5, 2013 at 1:40 PM

    Dear Dr. Way,
    In light of your article I have a question: do you think that Talbot Grad John MacArthur is using the title "Strange Fire" for his recent conference correctly?
    At this conference (Oct 2013) and book by the same title he addresses some extremism within Charismatic Christian circles and as a "cessationist" (what a word for Christians to box each other up!) judges ALL of them with a broad brush as bogus christianity. Quite a condemnation indeed.

    It would be great to see a response in the Good Book blog about this and find some balance.

    Hebrew Bible scholar and theologian Dr. Michael Brown is writing a book response called "Authentic Fire" which promises to be a great response.

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