The story of the eldest sons of Aaron is a tragic tale that is described in the Torah in the vaguest of terms. On the grand day of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Torah records that “Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer (offering pan), and put fire in them and laid incense on then, and offered strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before God and devoured them, and they died before God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Nothing further is written concerning their deaths, and no specific explanation is given. This ambiguity has resulted in a great deal of explanation that is extrapolated from the text by the commentators. Some of the interpreters imply that Nadav and Avihu were taken because of their righteousness. Thus, according to the Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 12:2, Moses said to Aaron: “My brother, at Sinai, I was told that I would sanctify this House, and through a great man would I sanctify it, and I thought that either through me or through you would this House be sanctified, but now [I see that] your two sons are greater than you or I.”
Other opinions, however, find fault in the behavior of Nadav and Avihu. One often-cited Midrash describes them as having been intoxicated at the time of the inauguration. This is extrapolated from the subject of the verse that immediately follows God’s instructions to Aaron and his sons not to mourn,* in which He warns Aaron: “Drink no wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, that you do not die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Leviticus 10:9).
*Aaron and his remaining two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were commanded to continue with the inauguration service and not to mourn since their role to the nation superceded their individual tragedy. (After the inauguration, Nadav and Avihu were mourned by the nation.)
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