Rabbi David Fohrman gives an intriguing interpretation of Numbers 3:1–4. The text runs as follows (KJV):
These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the Lord spake with Moses in mount Sinai. 2 And these are the names of the sons of Aaron; Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests which were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest’s office. 4 And Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father.
Rabbi Fohrman asks a number of questions that draw attention to some peculiarities of the text, such as:
- Why the inclusion of the phrase “in the day that the Lord spake with Moses in mount Sinai?” Neither Moses nor Aaron fathered any children on the day that Moses spoke with the Lord on Mount Sinai, did they?
- Why does the text say that these are the generations of Aaron and Moses, but then proceeds to only describe the sons of Aaron? Moses’s sons aren’t mentioned here, so why is he mentioned at all?
- Why does the text repeat the phrase “these are the names of the sons of Aaron” twice? And why go into such detail describing the circumstances of the death of Nadab and Abihu, which was already recounted in Leviticus 10?
These are good questions, and as usual Rabbi Fohrman suggests fascinating answers. I linked to his video at the start of this post, and I’d encourage you to watch it for the full treatment. To summarize: Nadab and Abihu became Moses’s (metaphorical) sons on the day that Moses spoke with the Lord on top of Mount Sinai, as they desired to emulate and follow after him, becoming his students and disciples. They desired for themselves the sort of intimate experience with God that Moses had in the glory cloud on top of Sinai. Nadab and Abihu over-identified with their teacher, attempting to re-create the experience that Moses had, not on Mount Sinai but “in the wilderness of Sinai” near the tabernacle, where God’s glory cloud now rested (Exod 40:34–38; Num 9:19–22).
This reading has a number of benefits. To begin with, it explains the peculiarities of Numbers 3:1–4. Even further, it sheds light on the nature of Nadab and Abihu’s sin. Their sin is probably best viewed less as an intentional act of idolatry and more as an instance of foolhardy zeal for the Lord (cf. Rom 10:2). In their eagerness to experience closeness of relationship with God, they did not honor the boundaries he had established, take due precautions, or draw near in the way he had appointed. This understanding underscores the fearful holiness of God and the fact that we can only draw near to him on his terms.
This reading of the story of Nadab and Abihu falls in line with the story of the men of Bethshemesh in 1 Samuel 6:19, who were struck down for looking upon the ark of the Lord, or of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6:1–7, who was struck down for touching the ark when the oxen stumbled. Within the book of Numbers, the event serves as a tamer precursor to Korah’s rebellion, where the sons of Levi demand the priesthood, desiring to have the same level of access to God as Moses and Aaron enjoy. The admiration and over-zealous emulation of Nadab and Abihu develop into resentment, envy, and open hostility.