Fire from the Lord

Author: Esther Ehrman, Iyar 5766/April 2006

"And there came out a fire from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense" (Num.16,v.35).

This verse ends the story of Korach and his company, who rebelled against the privileged authority of Moses and Aaron. Like the latter, Korach and his men belonged to the tribe of Levi, dedicated to the service in the Tabernacle. It is possible that it was a measure of their religious zeal that made them envy the position of the two leaders, Moses and Aaron. In order to show the Israelites that the choice of Moses and Aaron was the Lord's choice, Moses instructed Korach and his men to put fire on their censers and stand by their tents. The earth swallows them and fire from the Lord consumes them.

The verse recalls an earlier situation when, at the climax of the initiation of the Tabernacle built by the Israelites in the desert so that the Lord should 'dwell in their midst', two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, brought 'strange fire' on their censers and "There went out fire from the Lord and consumed them and they died before the Lord" (Lev.10,v.2).

In both of the episodes, 'fire from the Lord' indicates the instant death of the sinner.

On the Sabbath when the story of Nadab and Abihu is read in the Synagogue, the accompanying Haftara that is read tells of a similar situation (2 Samuel,ch.10). David has decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark had been captured by the Philistines and returned by them and was currently housed in Kiryat Yearim (possibly the modern Abu Ghosh, not far from Jerusalem, in the house of Aminadab. From there it is taken on its way with joy and merrymaking on 'a new cart'. One of the sons of Aminadab, Uzzah, walks next to the ark and, at one point, when the oxen of the cart seem unsteady, Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the Ark. "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and G-d struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the Ark of G-d. And David was upset because the Lord had made a breach (paratz Hashem peretz) upon Uzzah and he called the place Peretz Uzzah (v.7,8)".

The reasons for the fact that instant death is inflicted seem to be different in each of the three episodes. In the case of Korach and his company, the fact that the earth swallows them is the sign that 'these men have provoked the Lord' (Num.16,v.30). However, Eleazar, the son of Aaron, is told to collect the censers and scatter the fire that was on them; the censers are to be smelted and made into a cover for the Altar, 'because they were sanctified' (ibid.v.2,3), they were brought in the service of the Lord, although they were unacceptable.

The case of Nadab and Abihu is more complex. It is seemingly clear. They brought 'strange fire which He commanded them not' (Lev.10,v.1). The verse immediately following on this statement reads 'And Moses said to Aaron, this it is that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me (be kerovai ekadesh v.3). Could this mean that the death of Aaron's two sons was a kind of sanctification? The context here may help our understanding of the episode. The Tabernacle is being dedicated and very exact instructions are being given because 'the Lord will appear today' (ibid ch.9 v.4 and 6). The sacrifices are brought 'as G-d commanded' (v.7) and 'as Moses commanded' (v21). Aaron carried out the instructions exactly (ka mishpat v.16). As a result, Aaron and Moses can bless the people (v.23) and the glory of the Lord appears (v.23). There then follows the episode of Nadab and Abihu (ch.10)who offer 'strange fire which He commanded them not' (asher lo tziva otam). Not only is it strange fire, but it is not commanded. In the context of a very specific ritual, this was disastrous. Why?

There is a theory that the proximity to the area of the manifestation of the Divine is relevant here. The entire people is holy, but they do not all take part in the service of the Tabernacle. There are concentric circles that become ever smaller the closer they are to the centre and each group is affected according to its location. A modern writer (E.Unger, 'The Natural Order of Miracles' in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 2002) explains it thus:

1. Some things are incumbent upon every member of the nation; a slight infringement, whether intentional or unintentional, necessitates the temporary exclusion from the camp of those involved, mostly for only a few hours.

2. There is a complex of prescriptions binding on the one tribe of Levi, whose activities take place within the radius of the zone of manifestation.

3. A specific discipline is imposed on a limited number of men within the tribe of Levi, the families of Gershon, Merari, Kahati, sons of Levi; they are given the charge of the Tabernacle, its internal and external order.

4. The family of Aaron has a ritual in an isolated area of the greatest separation

5. There is conduct prescribed for Aaron alone and for his successor, the Cohen Gadol within the closest proximity to the Divine presence allowable to any human being.

...'failure to carry out the instructions prescribed results in the instant death of those people whose task and privilege is the service of the Divine manifestation and this is so whether the infringement was accidental or deliberate or occurred for any reason whatsoever. The Divine power responds with the instant death of those involved and does so with the inevitability of the laws of nature; there is no time, no weighing up of the intent of those involved, of their past merits, personal value...' (ibid).

The question not answered here is, why is it so? One suggestion is that an infringement of a ritual that is intended to prepare for the Divine manifestation ('The Lord will appear today') harms that preparation and can therefore not be tolerated. Only the elimination of the harmful element can restore the sanctity of the location that is being so meticulously prepared. That is the meaning of the statement 'I will be sanctified in them that come nigh Me' (v.3). The sons of Aaron here are to sanctify the Lord and cannot 'afford' even the slightest infringement, even if, as the Midrash tells us, they were guilty only in the excess of their zeal for the service.

If we go along with this explanation, it will not be difficult to understand the third episode, when Uzzah dies instantly because he has put out his hand to steady the ark on the cart that is taking it to Jerusalem, "And G-d struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the ark of G-d. And David was upset, because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzzah" (paratz Ha Shem peretz be Uzzah) (2 Sam. 6, v.7,8).

Uzzah, of the tribe of Levi, should have known, commentators explain, that the Ark did not need his help. It had crossed the Jordan and had lifted its bearers across; it could thus certainly lift itself (Rashi). We can add that the 'breach' here, is like the fire of the Lord, a necessary result of an infringement of the prescribed conduct by anyone close to a Divine manifestation. In each of the three episodes, there is an element of wrongdoing and an element of uncalled for excess of zeal. Korach, Nadab and Abihu as well as Uzzah seek to serve G-d. Since, however, they take it upon themselves to act in a way that does not comply with the Divine commands, they damage the sanctity of the Israelite camp and of the Tabernacle and that sanctity has to be restored to allow the continued presence of the Lord in their midst.