Light from the Sidra

Sh'mini ('Eighth')

Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47. Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17

Catch 22

I don’t know about you, but I always feel sorry for Nadab, Abihu and Uzzah because they don’t at first sight seem to have been ‘bad’ people according to current coinage. In Lv. 10, Aaron’s sons infringe what to us might appear a minor commandment but they die in a terrifying conflagration. In the Haftarah, in a reflex action, Uzzah puts out his hand to prevent the holy ark from falling off a cart and is punished with death.

A number of explanations for the sudden deaths of Nadab and Abihu on what appears to have been their first public service after their consecration have been proposed: they entered the holy of holies; they were not wearing the requisite clothes; they took fire from the kitchen not the altar; they did not consult Moses and Aaron; they did not consult one another. According to some commentators they were guilty of hubris. Others say they were impatient to assume leadership roles; others that the men did not marry, considering themselves above such things. Still others see their deaths as a delayed punishment for an earlier sin when at Mount Sinai they ‘ate and drank’” in the presence of God. Rashi says they were drunk.

Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorised, literally ‘strange,’ fire (es zara) ‘that YHWH did not command.’ According to Ex. 30: 7-9, only Aaron was allowed to burn the morning and evening incense: ‘Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.’

With this in mind, we suddenly see that there was an audacity about the actions of Nadab and Abihu and a contempt for their father as they attempted to usurp his role and position. In a foreshadowing of the rebellion of Korah and his followers, the sons of Aaron became too big for their sandals. But the fundamental reason why God killed them was not just that they had failed to honour their father but that they had failed to glorify God: ‘By those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified’ (Lv. 10:3). With privilege comes responsibility and therefore the heaviest responsibility was placed on the holiest and most privileged men in the nation.

The Haftarah, 2 Sam. 6, tells of King David transporting the ark of God to Jerusalem on a new cart. No doubt the new cart was beautiful but, according to the command of God, the ark was to be carried by its poles on the shoulders of Levites (Nm. 7:9; 10:21). As the procession approached Jerusalem, the cart hit a piece of uneven ground and the holy ark was in danger of falling off the cart. In an instinctive action Uzzah reached out to steady the ark and, as he did so, was struck dead. Unlike in the case of Nadab and Abihu, the intention of Uzzah appears to have been entirely good but he violated a clear prohibition and paid the price for it with his life. From these two incidents we learn that in observing Torah – particularly the precepts regarding the worship of God – precision and accuracy are essential. In the service and worship of God we may not turn to the right or to the left, however good our intentions or motives.

But wouldn’t you or I have done the same thing if we had been in Uzzah’s place? And wouldn’t you or I have suffered the same fate as Uzzah for doing so? And wouldn’t God have been justified in punishing us in the way he punished Uzzah? And are we not guilty every day of falling short of God’s commandments? God is gracious and overlooks those sins but, because he is holy, he will one day judge every infringement of his Torah.

Israel, to whom God entrusted his Torah, has a particular responsibility. Indeed, the rabbis have judged that Gentiles such are capable of keeping only seven commandments whereas Israel has been entrusted with 613 mitzvot. And yet it is impossible for Israel to keep all the Torah.

For 19 centuries the Jewish people have not offered to God the sacrifices he prescribed in order for them to atone for their sins. The fact that they can’t offer those sacrifices without a temple and priesthood is not the point; the fact is that God had never repealed his requirement for sacrifice.

So Israel is in a Catch-22 situation. Israel needs a sacrifice for sin but lacks a temple and a priesthood to offer sacrifices. But even if the Jewish people once again recognised the need for blood sacrifices and appointed a priesthood to offer them, they would be in violation of the Torah because only the sons of Aaron can offer sacrifices and the sacrifices have to be offered in the place God has appointed: Mount Moriah in Jerusalem.

Why would the God of Israel, the creator of the universe who is in control of all things and is righteous in all his ways remove Israel’s only means of atonement Israel has while still demanding sacrifice for sin?

Consider this. What if the offerings commanded in the Torah were symbols of a greater, ultimate reality? What if they foreshadowed a final sacrifice, provided by God, that would fully and finally atone for sin, rendering the sacrifices of Leviticus unnecessary? What if the priesthood was a pale foreshadowing of one great high priest who would offer himself for the sins of his people? What if the temple itself was only a signpost toward a final glorious temple to be built without human hands? And what if that to which the temple, the priesthood and the offerings pointed became a reality so that, as an act of kindness, God removed the prototypes in order that the Jewish people should seek the very thing they all anticipated?

Is that just the interpretation of a Gentile who knows nothing of Torah? Then what does the prophecy of Hosea mean when it predicts, ‘For the children of Israel shall sit solitary many days without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without [sacred] pillar, and without ephod or teraphim; afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall come trembling unto the LORD and to His goodness in the end of days’ (Hos. 3:4,5) and, ‘For I will be unto Ephraim as a lion, and as a young lion to the house of Judah; I, even I, will tear and go away, I will take away, and there shall be none to deliver. I will go and return to My place, till they acknowledge their guilt, and seek My face; in their trouble they will seek Me earnestly’ (Hos. 5:14,15).

The children of Israel have been without temple, priest or sacrifice for many days. They still have a religion but it bears little relationship to the religion of Moses. Synagogue has replaced the temple, rabbis have replaced the priesthood and repentance has replaced sacrifice. At its heart, Judaism today is no different to any other religion in the world, apart from one. Everything that once provided atonement for the sins of the people has been removed and God has returned to his ‘place’.

Thankfully, God does not deal with every infringement of the Torah in the way he dealt with Nadab, Abihu and Uzzah because he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Instead, he has provided a final atonement so that not only Israel but also the Gentiles might seek after him and his goodness in the Messiah.

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