The meaning of Strange, Fire in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
stranj ('esh zarah, "alien fire"): These words are mentioned in connection with the fatal sin committed by the two oldest sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, in "offering strange fire before Yahweh," on the occasion of the formal consecration of the Aaronitic priesthood (Leviticus 10:1-2). The fact is mentioned again in Numbers 3:4; Numbers 26:61. The greatest calamity of all befell them in that they were cut off childless, which for every true Israelite was the darkest fate imaginable. This fact is mentioned twice (Numbers 3:4 and I Chronicles 24:2). The power which cut off the lives of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2) is the same as that which shortly before had consumed the consecratory burnt offering (Leviticus 9:24). What was its true character, whether, as Rosenmuller and Dachsel surmise, it was a lightning stroke or some other supernatural agency, is not worth while debating. It is enough for us to know that "there came forth fire from before Yahweh and devoured them." Yet this latter word is not to be taken literally, since they were carried out for burial in their own linen garments (Leviticus 10:5). They were therefore merely killed, not incinerated. What was their sin? The words "strange fire" have been explained either as common fire, which they placed in their censers, or as unholy incense, which they put thereon (Exodus 39:38). But the text plainly points to the former. The sacred fire, once kindled on the altar, was never to be permitted to go out (Leviticus 6:12 f.). When later the temple was dedicated Yahweh again lighted the fire on the altar from heaven, as in the case of the dedication of the tabernacle. As, however, the injunction to take fire for the censers of the incense offering only from the coals of the altar is not found before (Leviticus 16:12), Rosenmuller's observation would seem to be very much to the point: "Quamquam enim in iis quae praecedunt, non extat hoc interdictum, tamen est verisimile Mosem vetasse Aaroni et filiis eius ne ignem alienum altari imponerent." ("For although his injunction does not hold in regard to the preceding cases, yet it is very probable that Moses had forbidden Aaron and his sons to place strange fire upon the altar.") A verbal injunction of Moses must have preceded the fatal mistake. But the text leads us to believe there was more than a mistake here. Some find here the sin of drunkenness, from the enjoined abstinence from any intoxicating drink before the priests thereafter minister before Yahweh (Leviticus 10:9). The likeliest explanation is that, inflated with pride on account of the exaltation of the Aaronitic family above all Israel, they broke unbidden into the ritual of the consecration of the tabernacle and priesthood, eager to take part in the ceremony, and in their haste bringing strange fire into the tabernacle, and thus met their death (see Oehler, Old Testament Theol., 126, 282). The fire burning on the altar came from God, it might never go out, since it represented "the unbroken course of adoration of Yahweh, carried on in sacrifice." And this course was interrupted by Nadab and Abihu. The fire on the altar was a symbol of holiness, and they sought to overlay it with unholiness. And thus it became to them a consuming fire, because they approached the Holy One in a profane spirit (compare Isaiah 33:14).
Henry E. Dosker
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