Tread Not Too Far, Yet Not Too Close
What we can learn from the death of Aaron's sons--the only narrative amidst the litany of laws in Leviticus
Chapter 16's slightly altered version of the incident tries to present it as containing a lesson for the surviving priests. "And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they came near before the Lord and died.... Speak to thy brother Aaron that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the covering which is upon the ark that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark cover." This version, pointing to the fact that Aaron's sons got too close to God (rather than mentioning the "strange fire"), is here contrasted with the moderation Aaron is commanded to have in approaching God.
The second version of Nadab and Abihu, while still disturbing on some level, contains a basic truth about the Book of Leviticus and how it presents God's laws. For one thing, the incident is an example of the punishmentkaret
--the most severe punishment meted out by Jewish law for only the worst transgressions and often translated as the "cut[ting] off [of the transgressor] from his people."
While vague in meaning (the rabbis understood it as a divine punishment), the word karet is quite obviously intended to remind us of the other "karet" in the Torah:li-kharat brit,
the "cutting" of the covenant between God and the Israelites mentioned in Exodus. At the heart of both usages of the word is the concept of separation: The word expresses both the forging of God's covenant--separating Israel from all other nations--and the cancellation of His covenant with its transgressors, their separation from God's covenant.
This type of strange symmetry resurfaces frequently in the Book of Leviticus. Aaron's two dead sons, for example, are counterweighted by his two surviving sons, Eliezer and Ithamar, who perpetuate the priestly lineage. . Also in this portion are the two sacrificial goats of the Day of Atonement: one isredeemed (sacrificed to God), the other--the scapegoat--upon whose head the chief priest transfers the sins of the Israelites, is sent into the wilderness.