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Commentary on Parashat Shemini

This Sabbath the reading of the Torah is called “Shemini” – that is the eight day because the beginning of the reading: “It came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel.” (Leviticus 9:1 NKJV)

However the most famous part of this week’s Parasha is the first half of chapter 10. It is the story of Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadab and Abihu who brought “strange fire” to the altar and fire came down from Heaven and devoured them instantly. The questions that everyone is dealing with is – What is the strange fire? Why did Aaron’s sons Nadab and Avihu bring the strange fire? Why did Moses not intercede for his nephews? Some traditional Christian commentators use this story to show the harshness of God’s judgment in the so called “Old Testament.”

If however the readers would continue reading the rest of the chapter may be he would gain some insight or answers to the above questions. There is a second story in chapter 10 of Leviticus. Yes, Nadab and Abihu sinned with the strange fire, but their other two brothers Eleazar and Ithamar who were also priests and sons of Aaron sinned in a much more serious way and yet nothing happened to them. Aaron pleaded for himself and his sons and Moses heard his brother’s plea and approved it. These two children of Aaron, Priests, Eleazar and Ithamar were given instruction by Moses and Aaron: “Take the grain offering that remains of the offerings made by fire to the LORD, and eat it without leaven beside the altar; for it is most holy. You shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, of the sacrifices made by fire to the LORD; for so I have been commanded. The breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the heave offering you shall eat in a clean place, you, your sons, and your daughters with you; for they are your due and your sons’ due, which are given from the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel. The thigh of the heave offering and the breast of the wave offering they shall bring with the offerings of fat made by fire, to offer as a wave offering before the LORD. And it shall be yours and your sons with you, by a statute forever, as the LORD has commanded.” (Leviticus 10:12–15 NKJV)

The first command for these two sons of Aaron was: Eat the grain offering beside the altar without leaven in a holy place. The second command: The breast of the wave offering shall be eaten in a clean place. The third command: The thigh of the heave offering and the breast of the wave offering with the fat made by fire to offer as a wave offering before the LORD.

These three commands were not kept by the two lasts sons of Aaron: “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in a holy place, since it is most holy, and God has given it to you to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? See! Its blood was not brought inside the holy place; indeed, you should have eaten it in a holy place, as I commanded.” (Leviticus 10:17–18 NKJV) These sins of the Eleazar and Ithamar sons of Aaron were much more serious than the strange fire that Nadab and Abihu brought to the altar, but they did not die or even did not get punished. Aaron and Moses interceded for these sons of Aaron and in the end Moses heard Aaron’s pleading and it is said: Moses heard and was content. In other words, the Lord did not punish these two sons of Aaron and Aaron himself – because Moses understood and Aaron’s explanation was satisfactory for Moses.

We have read two stories in the same chapter: In the first story there is a very quick and harsh judgement and both sons of Aaron die by divine fire from heaven. Even Aaron is not allowed to morn for his two sons. God had no mercy for these two sons of Aaron. In the second story, there are the two last sons of Aaron Ithamar and Eleazar. They sin in three things and God accepts Moses and Aaron’s understanding of the very difficult circumstances and if the last two sons of Aaron and Aaron himself die – there would be no priests in Israel. The house of Aaron would be decimated. For this reason, God’s relativity in judgment and provision of Grace and Loving kindness – wins over HIS judgment. Don’t say that the Torah has no mercy and grace – or no grace and truth. Read the whole chapter 10 of Leviticus.

This article originally appeared as a part of The Jerusalem Prayer List by Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, April 13, 2017, and reposted with permission.


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