Murder or deserved death?

Murder or deserved death? Ministry under fire

What is the message in the story of Nadab and Abihu for today's pastors?

Efraín Velázquez II, PhD, is academic dean, Inter-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Puerto Rico

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Leviticus 10:1, 2, NIV ).

Leviticus 10:1, 2 describes two promising young priests of Israel being struck dead by God before the multitude. Nadab and Abihu were killed by fire shortly after being anointed as priests.

Why? Readers have speculated for millennia about the reasons for their deaths. This is the essence of theodicy1—the perennial questions over justice and death.

The story of Nadab and Abihu was known by the Judeans who were listening to Malachi in the fifth century B.C.2They identify themselves with the story because they also had recently returned from living in a foreign land but with a less glorious “exodus.” They had inaugurated a sanctuary, but without any of the fireworks that inaugurated the first one, and they had irreverent ministers who had not been struck dead as were Nadab and Abihu.

Thus, readers of the story of Nadab and Abihu in the early fifth century B.C. had questions about the justice of Yahweh (see Mal. 2:17).3Malachi, in response, presents a “dialogue” between Yahweh and the Judeans. I suggest that Malachi had Leviticus in mind when he proclaimed his oracles.4 Malachi deals with holiness in the context of theodicy and tries to warn his people to be ready for the eschatological Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Nadab and Abihu

 Nadab and Abihu are main characters in two of the four narrative passages of Leviticus. Nadab and Abihu were supposed to be familiar with the holy. They went up to Sinai with the 70 elders (Exod. 24:1), they had the privilege of seeing the wonders of the Exodus (Exod. 13; 14), and even stood in the presence of Yahweh (Exod. 24:9–11). In contrast, the Judeans who had returned to the land had seen no such miracles or wonders. Some in Malachi’s audience had experienced the “second Exodus,” but that was nothing like the first and, now, they were worshiping in a less than glorious temple that had no supernatural demonstrations when inaugurated. Perhaps, for these reasons, they saw no reason to be careful in the cult of Yahweh, and Malachi thunders against them for their shoddy religious practices (e.g., Mal. 1:6–10).

Why did Nadab and Abihu die?

In the eyes of many of Malachi’s contemporaries, the death of Nadab and Abihu was probably murder. The priests of Malachi’s day were doing worse cultic practices and, because no fire was coming down from heaven or elsewhere, the people were being irreverent in their worship to Yahweh as well.

So, why the “murder” of these two priests? In the Judeans’ experience, Yahweh does not seem to be so concerned with the details of the cult.

The Judeans have even suggested that “ ‘Everyone who does evil / Is good in the sight of the LORD, / And He delights in them’ ” (Mal. 2:17, NKJV; cf. Ps. 73; Hab. 1; 2). This idea was also coming from the lips of priests! However, Malachi echoes a solemn call and warning about the importance of holiness.

Nadab and Abihu died due to an improper relationship with the holy. The author of Leviticus states that they offered strange fire before the LORD” (10:1, KJV). The book of Numbers also points to the same reason for the tragedy (see 3:4; 26:61).

Indeed, the Bible describes Nadab and Abihu acting without any command given to them. They go forward to perform worship on their own initiative, without a clear order from Yahweh. There are clear commands for the temple cult given to Moses (Num. 8:2) and Aaron (9:2), which contrast with the defiance of Nadab and Abihu (10:1). The elderly brothers were ordered to act with authorization, while the two young brothers acted without it. What about the “censers” that they used to bring the “fire”? Archaeologists have found pans of different styles and shapes that have been associated with cultic activities.5 In Leviticus 10:1, the term is translated as “snuff dishes” or “trays,” which could refer to just a utilitarian pan or a more sophisticated ritual vessel. The Pentateuch mentions items used in the Israelite tabernacle (e.g., Exod. 25:38; 37:23; Num. 4:9) that were mainly for moving coals and removing ashes rather than for ritual activity. Some of the pans found in the ancient Near East are in the shape of hands, others are of zoomorphic forms, while some are just plain shovels. Iconographical representations in seals, paintings, and carvings provide more variety to the possibilities of the shapes. However, not all decorated fire pans have to be connected with ritual activities; they can simply be examples of human creativity for daily use. Moreover, decoration on the pans was not necessarily a problem. The extreme ban of images by certain contemporary groups that follow Judaism should not be written into biblical history. The Israelite sanctuary cannot be classified as without any imagery as there was a variety of representations of nature in the Yahwistic tabernacle. Nevertheless, an offensive fire pan that was connected to other deities or a rival worship could have been reason enough to deserve punishment, for that was considered blasphemous. Even a simple fire pan that had not been consecrated for ritual use, thus classified as “holy,” could have been a reason to reject the “fire” or the incense on it. On the other hand, in no account of this event in the Hebrew Bible is there an emphasis on the fire pans; the problem was “unauthorized coals,” not “unauthorized pans.”

 The origin of the fire could have been the problem. The word translated as “fire” is not specific. One of the ways that fire was brought from one place to another in antiquity was in the form of burning charcoals. The problem with the coals used by Nadab and Abihu could have been that they had not brought the coals from the fire that Yahweh had just ignited on the altar (Leviticus 16:12). “Fire” here is derived from a word translated as “strange” but had the more precise meaning of “unfit” or “improper.” The text points as the major problem the source of the fire; they did not use the holy fire. They did not differentiate between the common and the holy.

Textual parallels between Leviticus and Malachi

Whatever the specific reasons for their deaths, Malachi clearly had in mind Leviticus when he proclaimed his oracles. Malachi invites his audience, especially the clergy, to remember the Pentateuch (4:4). The story of Nadab and Abihu, central to the book of Leviticus, is echoed in Malachi, who focuses on the unfaithful priesthood of his time.

Malachi describes the priests offering blind, lame, and sick animals for sacrifice (1:8; cf. Lev. 22:19, 20). The priests, the ones who were supposed to inspect the animals, were guilty of permitting these defective animals to be sacrificed.6 J. Berquist notes that “Malachi 1:6–2:9 expressed grave concerns about the current status of the priest’s sacrifices and offerings and condemned them harshly before calling them to a renewed commitment for their vital task.”7Malachi warns the priests and the Judeans that they will suffer a fate similar to Nadab and Abihu.

Several threads in Malachi’s oracles link it to Leviticus. Structured around a “dialogue” between Yahweh and the Judeans, the disputations end with the writing of a book of memories (Mal. 3:16), which is a recurring theme in the Pentateuch (Exod. 12:14; 13:9; 17:14; 28:12, 29; 30:16; 39:7; Lev. 23:24; Num. 5:15, 18; 10:10; 17:5; 31:54). Moreover, there is an expectation of the great day (Mal. 4:5), which will come and that “functions as both warning and comfort, depending upon what one has learned from this story.”8

The theme of the fire, so closely related in the Pentateuch to Yahweh’s appearances (i.e., Exod. 3:2; Lev. 10:6), is followed in Malachi. The fire can reveal Yahweh’s presence or judgment. His fire purifies, as in Leviticus 9:24. On the other hand, Malachi refers to the imagery of fire when he warns of a coming judgment (4:1). In that context, the wicked are reduced to ashes and end up under the feet of the spared (4:3), as in Leviticus 10:1 when Nadab and Abihu were consumed.

In Leviticus, there are detailed instructions about the disposal of the ashes (e.g., 6:11), including the disposal of the burned remains of Nadab and Abihu (10:5; cf. 4:12). This description closely relates to the disposal of dung outside the camp mentioned in Malachi’s indictment of the priests (Mal. 2:3; see above).

The oracles of Malachi reveal concern about the proper worship of Yahweh in post-exilic Judah. There are several allusions to different aspects of worship: the altar (1:7, 10; 2:13), the fire that was kindled (1:10), and the incense (1:11). These are all linguistic echoes of Nadab and Abihu. Moreover, Malachi emphasizes that Yahweh must be honored (Mal. 1:6; cf. Lev. 10:3). In the eyes of Malachi, the priests dishonored Yahweh by accepting sacrifices not in accordance with the traditions on holiness (see Lev. 22:17–25).9 Malachi emphasizes honor in the context of worship, and the priests have dishonored the Deity (e.g., Mal. 1:6). Honor and fear are inseparable (Lev. 10:3).

The author of Leviticus inspires the fear of the Lord with the story of Nadab and Abihu. Malachi also stresses several times that Yahweh must be feared (1:14; 2:5; 3:5, 16). However, the base of the relationship between Yahweh and His people is the love that He declares at the beginning of the book: “ ‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD” (1:2), and ending with the tender “ ‘They will be my people,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘On the day when I act, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares an obedient and dutiful child’ ” (3:17). The questions of theodicy will be totally answered then as “ ‘Then you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not’ ” (3:18).

Ministry under fire

The Judeans should recognize that they are in a process of purification with the ministry under fire. They are becoming holy in order to serve a Holy God. The ministers, the descendants of Levi, have a covenant to fulfill. Malachi has some of the tenderest invitations of the Hebrew Bible from Yahweh to His people.

Proper worship is not synonymous with legalism. Wellhausen presented Yahwism after the Exile as institutionalized and very propositional,10 with the assumption that the second temple religion was separate from daily life. Some tend to contrast the God of the Old Testament with Jesus in the New Testament. However, the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 and the parables of Jesus of Nazareth cast doubt on that idea. Yahweh expects a sincere heart, not just one concerned with the mechanics of ritual activity.

“So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Lev. 10:2, NIV).

Yes, fire fell from God. In Malachi there is the expectation that more fire will come, this time on the ones who have not experienced holiness because some have not been purged by the removal of their iniquities.

The message is clear: clergy that fails to differentiate the common from the holy will suffer dire consequences. The fate of Nadab and Abihu was not murder, but a deserved death; and all who follow their path will experience similar results. Their action of approaching without a clear order, and the fact that they presented other fire that was not sanctified, revealed their arrogance. Many others will be eradicated as they experience the retribution of their actions. However, the invitation still remains open: “ ‘Return to me, and I will return to you’ ” (Malachi 3:7, NIV).


Achtemeier, P. J. Harper’s Bible Dictionary (Electronic Edition). San Francisco: Harper & Row, and Society of Biblical Literature, 1985.

Berquist, J. L. Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Crenshaw, J. Theodicy in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983. ———. “Theodicy in the Book of the Twelve,” in Thematic Threads in the Book of the Twelve, edited by Paul Redditt and Aaron Schart, 183–191. New York: de Gruyter, 2003. ———. Defending God. Oxford: Oxford University, 2005.

Davidson, R. “Assurance in the Judgment.” Adventist Review, January 7, 1988.

DeVries, L. F. “Cult Stands: A Bewildering Variety of Shapes and Sizes.” Biblical Archaeology Review
(Electronic Edition) 13 (1987):04.

Douglas, M. “Poetic Structure in Leviticus,” in Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical,
Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom, edited by David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman, and Avi Hurtvitz Winona, 239–256. Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995.

Friedman, R. Commentary on the Torah. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Gane, R. Cult and Character. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.

Glazier-McDonald, B. Malachi, the Divine Messenger. Atlanta: Scholars, 1987.

Negev, A. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (Electronic Edition). New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Nogalski, J. “Reading the Book of the Twelve Theologically: The Twelve as Corpus: Interpreting
Unity and Discord.” Interpretation 61 no. 2 (April 2007): 125–136.

O’Brien, J. M. Priest and Levite in Malachi. Atlanta: Scholars, 1990.

Paran, M. Forms of the Priestly Style in the Pentateuch: Patterns, Linguistic Use, Syntactic Structures. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1989.

Paulien, J. Title Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets: Literary Allusions and Interpretation of Revelation 8:7-12. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1988.

Radday, Y. T. “Chiasmus in Hebrew Biblical Narrative,” in Chiasms in Antiquity: Structures, Analysis, Exegesis, edited by J. Welch. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981.

Redditt, P. L. “Themes in Haggai–Zechariah–Malachi.” Interpretation 61 no. 2 (April 2007); 184–197.

Shea, W. “Literary Form and Theological Function in Leviticus.” In The Seventy Weeks, Leviticus, and the Nature of Prophecy, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series. Edited by Frank B. Holbrook, 131–168. No. 3. Washington, DC: Biblical Research Institute, 1986.

Smith, C. “The Literary Structure of Leviticus.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 70 (1996): 17–32.

Stern, E. “Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel.” Biblical Archaeology Review (Electronic Edition) 27 (2001):03.

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Leviticus.” PhD diss., Andrews University, 1997.



1 Gottfried Leibniz in the eighteenth century, coined the term “theodicy” when he dealt with the issue
of a powerful God that allowed the existence of evil. (See J. Crenshaw, Theodicy in the Old Testament
[Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983], 17). J. Nogalski suggests that theodicy is at the center of the “Book of the Twelve,” being Malachi at the climax of the discussion of the problem of evil, justice, and retribution (“Reading the Book of the Twelve Theologically: The Twelve as Corpus: Interpreting Unity and Discord,” Interpretation 61 no. 2 [April 2007]: 125–136; on Malachi, see pages 134, 135). Nevertheless, the proposal that the book of the twelve, or even that the Haggai-Zechariah-Malachi
corpus are the fruit of one pen or several redactors cannot be properly sustained (against this see P. L. Redditt, “Haggai–Zechariah–Malachi,” Interpretation 61 no. 2 [April 2007]: 184–197). Redditt recognizes the theme of theodicy in the Haggai-Zechariah-Malachi corpus (on Malachi, see pages 187, 191–193). A full exposition of theodicy with a high view of Scripture can be found in R. Gane’s work Cult and Character (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), which explains theodicy in terms of the Yahwistic ritual. He deals with the experience of Nabad and Abihu in connection with the Yom Kippur as part of the two-stage process where impurities are removed from the people and then from the tabernacle. The question over the justice of God is answered in terms of the balance between mercy and justice.

2 On the suggestion that the Pentateuch was written during the Persian period, see E. Velazquez, “An Archaeological Reading of Malachi” (PhD diss. Andrews University, 2008), 212, 238, 239; cf. J. L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 138.

3 Issues about literacy in ancient Israel are outside the scope of this work. Listeners and/or readers
were the ones that were familiar with the ancient traditions.

4 Not precisely a Midrash as the genre later evolved, but it shares some characteristics of the commentaries that later rabbis did on the Torah.

5 L. F. DeVries, “Cult Stands: A Bewildering Variety of Shapes and Sizes,” Biblical Archaeology Review
13 (1987): 4; E. Stern, “Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review 27 (2001): 3.

6 The role of the priests was central in Yahwistic worship, and Malachi appears to be disappointed
with the performance of the religious professionals of his day. Malachi gives a negative assessment
of the fifth-century Jerusalemite priesthood. The worship that was taking place in Jerusalem’s temple
was not in accordance with Yahwistic stipulations. Malachi denounces the priests for being responsible for the blatant desecration of the sacrificial system in the temple (e.g., 2:1–4). Berquist comments that Malachi “clearly deals with the current status of the priesthood” of Judah (Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, 94). Malachi presents the religious professionals of his day as ethically questionable in their private lives as well as their public office.

7 Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, 95.

8 Redditt, “Haggai–Zechariah–Malachi,” 136.

9 Another theme that can be developed extensively is the covenant (see Velazquez “An Archaeological
Reading”). Malachi alludes to a covenant that Yahweh had established with Levi (Mal. 2:4, 8).
Berquist (Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, 98) notes that “even though the Hebrew Bible records no covenant with Levi known by that name, Moses’ blessing of Levi contains several parallels of note (Deut. 33:8–11).” Redditt notes that Jer. 33:21 speaks of God’s covenant with God’s “ministers the Levites” (“Haggai–Zechariah–Malachi,” 187). See B. Glazier-McDonald, Malachi, the Divine Messenger (Atlanta: Scholars, 1987), 68–80; J. M. O’Brien, Priest and Levite in Malachi (Atlanta: Scholars, 1990), 104–106.

10 Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, 4.



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Efraín Velázquez II, PhD, is academic dean, Inter-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Puerto Rico

October 2008

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