These are some thoughts on a passage from Lev (8: the dedication of the altar of the tabernacle).
Everyone has just finished building the tabernacle, and sacrificing a lot of animals on an altar where God is said to have appeared, as in the burning bush, in the presence of fire on the altar. Aaron, the high priest, has two sons who are also priests. They approach with what is said to be foreign fire and are consumed by the altar fire. Aaron, their father, is silent. Later, he is enjoined by Moses that he must not mourn his 2 sons, but that the entire community will mourn them. A lot of struggle with this passage…Is it the individual desire to express sacredness battling and losing against an authority definition of what is sacred? Does it therefore stifle all creative effort? An orthodox interpretation is read which infers that reform may be punished. Is it the fact that the men had been drinking inside the tabernacle, and thereby profaned the tabernacle – the fire reaching out and enveloping the alcohol cloud that surrounded them? Is it a conspiracy? A Mushite vs. Aaronite plot to remove successors to the priesthood? One struggles with the arbitrary action of authority, unsure whether this authority is safe in this passage. One man remembers telling his father that he wishes he were dead as a 4 year old child, and the father dying 3 days later. Indeed, one can look at this passage and be tempted to wish for such arbitrary authority to disappear. Aaron is told not to mourn his 2 sons – the passage defining a priestly calling to supersede family relations, whereas all others in the congregation are to mourn them – respectfully. The priest owes his respect to God, and not humans. In the end, one looks at the passage and wonders who felt the dedication of an altar required human blood? Did not God settle this question once and for all with Abraham and Isaac? Were Aaron and his sons somehow being punished for the golden calf?
One is struck by the change in tone from a God who might arbitrarily ask for what we value the most in Abraham, to one that requires a reason for such sacrifice. The passage is replete with attempts to explain the death of the sons – more than once, in fact, redundant explanations are offered. Was it the “foreign” fire – Baal-like sacrifice to God/mingling with God that was problematic? The impurity? The alcohol? The lack of attention to protocol? One wonders how anyone knew that the fire was foreign? Was this line not added after the fact – as a means of emphasizing the importance of protocol?
The question of sacrifice is indeed problematic. From the 3rd story of Genesis, one is confronted with the fact that although God preferred Abel’s sacrifice, it does not confer so much favor upon Abel that his life is not taken in jealousy by his brother Cain. One might be tempted to simply throw up one’s hands and say, sacrifice causes problems. Why bother? When the temples were destroyed, rabbinical Judaism came into being. Priests who butchered animals were replaced by teachers. Prayer replaced sacrifice. Without priests, individuals became their own voluntary intercessors in negotiation with God, according to rules outlined by rabbis. More recently, a definition of sacrifice has evolved that respects life. In some religious constructs, God becomes almost synonymous with life.
Easy answers? I don’t think so. I see the taking of the lives of Aaron’s sons as a dedication of the temple, much the way that Christianity views the taking of Jesus’ life as the establishment of a religion of salvation. In my mind, as sacrilegious as this may sound to some, both actions, although likely compatible with some historically true human impulse, seem unethical. And yet, death exists. Something has placed a limit on our existence both as an individual and a species, and we seek to explain this. We seek to give our passage meaning.