Vayikra (Lev) 9:1-11:47
This week’s parasha contains the unique story of Aaron’s sons being killed as they offered ‘profane fire’ before the Lord, contrary to that which G-d had commanded. This was a dramatic event meant to make an impression upon the people of Israel and, by extension, us. So let us explore this event and extract some of the lessons G-d wants us to learn.
Vayikra Rabba gives us these reasons for their death;
“For four things did the sons of Aaron die.. For drawing near, having entered into the innermost sanctuary; for sacrificing something which G-d had not commanded; for strange fire, they had brought the flame from the kitchen; and that they did not consult one another, as it is said ‘Each one his own censer’, therefore each one acted on his own initiative.”
Nadav and Avihu entered the inmost sanctuary arrogantly, full of pride in their position and the opportunity they had before God. Arrogance and pride are two of the things G-d hates the most (Prov 16:18 and 21:4). Our attitude in our service to G-d must be aligned with what He desires. He may place us in positions of great responsibility or visibility, He may give us the opportunity to acquire knowledge, He may even use us as channels for the miracle working power of the Spirit. But we must always remember that G-d’s gifts are just that, gifts. There is nothing we can do to work miracles or touch people’s lives through our teaching, only He can do that. If we remember that, there will not be any occasion for pride. We will never take our gifts for granted nor will we impose on our relationship with G-d. If we do, the results could be disastrous.
Second, they sacrificed something which G-d had not commanded. They were ‘doing what was right in their own eyes’. They were making up their worship of the Eternal One as they went along. They were inventing sacrifice and religious expression. Does that sound familiar? G-d wants to be approached and worshipped in a particular way and He has every right to dictate those desires; after all, He is G-d and we are not. We can’t make things up as we go along, we can’t invent religious expression just because we like it. All religious expression and service must be grounded in Torah, in G-d’s description of the way He desires to be approached. As our covenant is like a marriage, we desire to please our partner (G-d) the way He wants us to please Him just as He does for us.
Thirdly, they brought the fire ‘from the kitchen’. In doing so they were treating the holy things of YHVH with contempt, they were treating sacred things as common. The performance of the mitzvot is a sacred duty. As such they are to be taken most seriously and performed diligently and exactingly. For example, if we wrap ourselves in Tallit just for services and just because it’s ‘the thing to do’, we are treating the sacred things of G-d with contempt, we are not accurately fulfilling the purpose of the mitzvot. We will be held accountable for such things.
Finally, they did it each of his own volition. They ignored the community, the eldership and even their own family and went their own way. The development and implementation of religious expression is a group effort between the community of Israel and the G-d of Israel. In Nazarene Judaism we have local assemblies, the leadership forum and ultimately, the Beit Din to help us formulate worship and service in ways that are Scripturally consistent and workable for the community. Deviation from the standards developed in those contexts must be taken very seriously. Nazarene Judaism is not ‘do it yourself Judaism’ where each one does what is right in his own eyes and takes and leaves what he or she wishes.
God has a way He wants to be worshipped and approached and He has every right to define what that way is. It is only through the greatest arrogance that we mortal men decide for ourselves what God would like and that we know better than He does how to worship and serve. God is not pleased. We must take our responsibility in the recreation of authentic Nazarene Judaism very seriously, remaining Scripturally accurate, respectful of those who have gone before and attentive to the spirit of G-d. Then our results will be spectacular rather than disastrous.
This week’s parasha and the haftorat that goes with it detail some tragic events in the history of G-d’s service. In our parasha, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons are killed by YHVH when they offer incense before the Lord and in the haftorat (II Sam 6:1-7:17), Uzzah is struck down by the Lord as he steadies the Ark on it’s way to Jerusalem. Two recorded cases where someone really was ‘struck by lightning’ for offending YHVH.
These two events highlight something very important about our relationship with our Creator. G-d is in the details. He has a particular way He wants to be approached and served and because He is G-d and we are not, He has the right and privilege of dictating those methods. For those who really care about serving Him, He has shown them how to go about building their relationship. And the two events highlight both of the necessary components of that service.
In the case of Nadav and Avihu, they were offering ‘unauthorized fire’ and they were doing it while intoxicated. They certainly did not have the right mental attitude to do the service they were performing. Their cavalier attitude cost them their lives. When we approach G-d, we must do so with the greatest awe and respect, taking very seriously the service in which we are engaged and whom we serve. One can be performing the mitzvot but without the right spirit behind it, it is not acceptable to G-d.
The case of David and Uzziah is very different. In this case the attitude and the seriousness of the service is unquestioned. David was a man after G-d’s own heart. He desired to bring the ark, the holiest object in the Mishkan, into the holy city where G-d had chosen to place His Name. He was sincere in his intent. But he was doing it wrong. The Torah is very specific about the ark being carried on the shoulders of the levites. David put it in an oxcart. The very best to be sure. But the very best done in error is no substitute for the truth. For those that think they can serve G-d sincerely apart form the truth of His Torah, this account should be a wake up call. David may have been dancing with joy to bring in the ark but he didn’t do his homework. He didn’t have the respect for G-d and the event to study first for correct application. When we desire to approach G-d, we need to do our homework. We need to study so we know how to pray, how to celebrate, how to serve.
Look at your relationship with G-d as that of a husband and wife. Two married people are supposed to express love to one another. But everyone has a unique way in which they like to be loved. If a husband knows his wife is horribly allergic to flowers and he thinks he can show her love by presenting her with flowers after work every day, is he really showing love? If G-d has stated he abhors the religion of the canaanite or that of babylon, can we really think he is pleased to be worshipped with those traditions just because we are sincere? If we truly love G-d with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, we need to find out what makes Him happy, what is the proper expression of that love. Fortunately, it is not hit or miss, G-d is not fickle. He laid it all out in a book, we need only read and apply. Yahushua said that the true person of G-d worships in Spirit and in Truth. That worship and service is in accordance with the teaching of G-d (Torah) and with kavanah.
Much of this week’s parasha is concerned with the laws of Kashrut, that which is acceptable for human consumption and that which is not. The list of animals, although it follows a pattern, does not justify the inclusion or exclusion of any particular animal. Especially in today’s world with it’s advanced science and meat processing facilities, the exclusion of some of these animals does not make sense in the field of science and health.
The other side of the issue is the present day Jewish community’s view of the issue. Kashrut is big business now and the laws around it and the various levels of ‘Kosher’ are mind boggling. Since before the time of Yahushua, the laws of kashrut had been elevated in importance far beyond that which they are given in Torah. They had ascended to the level of ‘community marker’, a law that shows whether one is a ‘good Jew’ or not.
What does the Torah really say? First, we note that there are no punishments given to one who eats that which he is not supposed to. There are not even any consequences given. The Torah simply says that ‘they are an abomination to you’ and if you touch their carcasses you become unclean. If one becomes unclean, the only thing one has to do is wash one’s clothes and wait until evening. That is not a very severe consequence, I’m sure you would agree. After all, the penalty for violating the Shabbat is death. I would say that violating the laws of Kashrut does not even rise to the level of ‘sin’. There are no sacrifices required for violating the rules. So what is the purpose and consequence of these laws?
The parasha concludes by saying that the purpose of the Kashrut teaching is to make us holy by giving us the ability to discern between the clean and unclean. Kashrut is one of those areas of the Torah that is not really community related but concerns the individual’s relationship with his Creator. After all, there were no ‘kosher police’ looking into every pot in every home to make sure all the Jews were compliant. The consequence is primarily spiritual, not physical. If an Israelite became unclean through this form of contamination, he could not enter the tabernacle or temple to fellowship intimately with his G-d. The Jewish people are separated from others to rise to a high spiritual plane. That is why these thing apply to the people of Israel and no one else. The rest of the nations are not going to reach this plane because they do not follow the more important parts of Torah, they are like a terminal patient who can eat and do what he wants because he’s going to die anyway. The Jews, however, are like a well trained athlete whose diet impacts his performance in competition. If we want our spiritual senses to be highly attuned, if we want to come into the Holy Place, we cannot have any vestiges of contamination in our bodies. It is adherence to these laws that allow us to rise up to the highest spiritual levels of relationship and ministerial effectiveness.
This weeks parasha relates more information of the priesthood. It gives the account of Aaron’s offering that YHVH consumed on the altar and then the unfortunate death of his two sons when they offered ‘strange fire’ before the altar. This event leads in a later parasha to the regulations surrounding Yom Kippor. Going into the holiest place and offering anything to YHVH was a very serious matter. Over several chapters the Torah has told us of the anointing and separation and sacrifices Aaron and his sons went through to put them in a place where they could survive the experience. This privilege was passed down through his sons to the time of the second temple. At that time it was bought from the Romans by men considerably less worthy than Aaron, Phineas, Abiathar or Zadok.
Our understanding of this history and the way the followers of Y’shua fit into the temple and the priesthood is pretty standard. Y’shua was, according to Hebrews, a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. This basically marginalized the role the temple played in the life of the community. They went there for teaching and to offer some sacrifices but as a group, the temple ‘establishment’ was foreign to them. The sadducees and the priests were among Y’shua’s and his talmidim’s most consistent foes. When the temple was destroyed, it had little impact on them.
The facts may be a little different. First of all, there is a lost character in much of the standard history. Amidst all the material about Paul, the central figure of the early community, Ya’akov (James), the brother of Y’shua, hardly gets mentioned. In Acts, he shows up all of a sudden in chapter 15 as the community leader, supplanting the top three of the gospels, Peter, John and John’s brother James. Then he disappears again along with most of the Talmidim. Unfortunately, because Luke is a friend of Paul and wants to both emphasize him and put him in the best light, he ignores some of the most important events. There are a few he leaves behind. One, he does show that Ya’akov is the undisputed leader of the community, even if Paul doesn’t agree with him. Another is that these believers spent a lot of time at the Temple. Third, a lot of priests became part of the community and they were ‘zealous’ for the Torah. They were perhaps not just meticulous but also zealous like the Maccabees were zealous. We know that Y’shua had several ‘zealots’ and perhaps even sicarii in his company. Josephus also testifies about Ya’acov and the priests. He says that Ya’acov ‘the Righteous’ had the respect of all the people and that the priests, the ‘lower priests’ and levites specifically, were introducing ‘innovations’ that the Pharisee Josephus did not approve of. Then we have the testimony about Ya’acov by the ‘church fathers’ and historians which brings all this history back to our parasha and the priesthood.
He did not anoint himself with oil, nor did he go to the baths. He alone was allowed to enter into the place of holiness, for he did not wear wool, but linen, and he used to enter into the temple alone, and was often found upon his bended knees, interceding for the forgiveness of the people, so that his knees became callused as a camel’s....... Hegesippus by Eusebius
He alone had the privilege of entering the holy of holies, since indeed he did not wear woolen garments, only linen, and he went alone into the temple and prayed on behalf of the people.......Jerome
I find further that he also exercised the priesthood according to the ancient priesthood. For this reason he was permitted to enter into the holy of holies once a year, as the Bible lays down in the Law commanding the high priests. He was also allowed to wear the High Priestly diadem on his head as the aforementioned trustworthy men-Eusibius, Clement and others, have related in their accounts......Epiphanius
It appears as though there is a consistent tradition that Ya’acov, for a period of time before his death around 62 CE and the war with Rome, exercised the duties of the High Priest. He wore the garments, he went into the Holy of Holies on the Yom Kippor. He could only do so with the approval of a lot of the other priests. This means that far from being marginalized from the temple and the political life of Israel before the war, the followers of messiah were intimately involved in the struggle for the soul of the nation and, if our connection with the zealots means anything, the political independence of Israel and the physical establishment of the Kingdom. It also means that the followers of Y’shua were in a much higher level of conflict with the Pharisees, who historically from the time of the maccabees were anti-nationalists, than we previously thought. This explains Y'shua's condemnation of them and why Paul wanted to hunt the believers down. All this is presented because it has important implications for our lives today. It destroys the barriers between religious duty and political involvement, it shows that the followers of Y’shua were not the peace loving flower children they are often portrayed to be but a group of revolutionaries. How we look at the world and our involvement and place within it will have to change. No longer is our Torah just a hobby, some part of our life we do the best we can with where we are, something we argue about with no real impact or application. If we follow in the footsteps of the Talmidim, we have a duty to do a lot more to establish the Kingdom, not just within our hearts, not just in our homes, not as some pie in the sky ideal but as a real place where we and our children can serve our God and Messiah in peace and freedom. Apparently the early community came a lot closer to that establishment than we thought. We have a right and a duty to pick up where they left off.
This parasha contains the unusual event of the deaths of Aaron’s two sons. They came into the Mishkan and offered ‘strange’ or ‘unauthorized’ fire before YHVH. This immediately followed the amazing event of God’s own fire consuming the offerings on the altar. After such a supernatural display, there must have been great excitement among the priests and those around the Mishkan. It was in this charged environment that the two sons of Aaron came forward with an offering that was outside of the routine, an offering not commanded at that time or in that manner. The consequences were severe.
The fire they offered was ‘zarah’ fire, usually translated as ‘alien’ or ‘unauthorized’. The word really has nothing to do with that. It has to do with cutting the heads off grain or scattering the grain heads. The fire they offered, therefore, was ‘scattered’ which is the complete opposite of being focused or concentrated. The commandments regarding the the offerings were very specific and required concentration. Nadav and Avihu lost their concentration, got caught up in all the excitement and did something without thinking. We can easily relate. We can understand for example, the ‘mob mentality’ where normal, restrained people do things completely out of character. Or think of a time when we may have been ‘caught up in the moment’ and said or did something without thinking, something negative.
In response to this event Moshe says, “Of this did YHVH speak, ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.’” I might translate it “By those near I will be separated and before the faces of all the people I will be made heavy.” We have a great responsibility as people who are on the journey of knowing God. The whole point of bringing the people out of Egypt was to develop a people who would be intimate with God and show the world what that looks like. While from the outside the journey may look like a drunk on the street who has no idea how to get where he is going, in reality it requires great focus and attention. I’m sure as the surrounding nations watched Israel wandering in the desert, taking the long way to the promised land, they must have thought them crazy as well. But they were not wandering aimlessly, they were closely following the cloud and the pillar of fire.
Y’shua said that the way was narrow, it was difficult and steep and rocky. When one climbs such a path, one rarely walks a straight line. That does not mean one does not know where one is going. On a clear highway, one does not have to pay any attention to one’s steps, there is nothing to trip on. It requires no concentration, no focus, our mind can wander wherever it wants. If that happens on a rocky hiking trail, one trips and can fall with possibly disastrous consequences. If we do not stay focused as we seek the truth, if we do not pay close attention to what we are doing, we risk swaying too far one way or the other, to become Ya’akov’s ship tossed about by the waves. We represent YHVH, we represent the breath and in doing so we must stay in control at all times.