Fire That Does Not Answer Our Questions

People with tidy minds, including mine and those of many other people of untidy habits, dislike uncertainty, unanswered questions, and questions with multiple possible answers. We prefer that our answers, like our ducklings, remain in place, unchanging, once they’ve been set in place. Nail down your duckies, please. We’re too conservative to really enjoy being intellectuals.

    An example of this begins with the story of a couple Hebrew priests:

Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the priest, took their incense pans, put fire in them, and laid incense on the fire. Thus they offered strange fire before the LORD, which he had not told them to do. And fire came out from the LORD’s presence and burned them up, and they died right there in the LORD’s presence. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

These two priestlings must have done something wrong, but what was it? It seems impossible to us of the tidy minds that it can’t be known. God gave us the Bible, and so we must be able to understand it (Otherwise, why bother giving it, God?), and a question once answered remains so.

    The answer, as I’ve always heard it, is the “strange fire.” Apparently, instead of getting the fire from the altar, like they were supposed to do, one of the boys just pulled his Zippo out of his pocket, lit his little pile of incense the same way he would light a cigarette, and handed off the lighter to his brother. So, in response, God lit up Nadab and Abihu. Flick, flick, fooosh. The standard sermon goes on, then, to say that that’s what you get if you don’t follow God’s prescribed method for receiving the blessings of salvation, which is Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and instead reach for some other means. You have to follow the rules of offerings before God, even the one offering of God’s Son. I’ve preached it myself.

    But what do I do when I find out that that answer, the one that is certain enough to be preached, is one of several probably wrong answers and that nobody quite knows what was wrong in what Nadab and Abihu did? That is, what do I do other than not preach that sermon again?

[I]f we could know [what Nadab and Abihu did wrong], our propensity to theurgic hubris would not be lessened (which is the intention of our text), but rather abetted. The biblical author does not want us so much to “learn” from their example (that is, they did X wrong and I will never do that again) as to develop a sense of wariness about the altar of God (I will never master all that is required for this job).

In other words, perhaps not knowing is the point, because, if I think I completely understand the negative lesson of the story, I might also think I have a positive lesson figured out. And that positive lesson would have to be what is the only sure-fire way to get to heaven. And that would be, if anything would  be, “theurgic hubris.” Knowing what you have to do entails knowing what you can get away with. Or maybe having a technique of salvation figured out is itself part of what got Nadab and Abihu burned. Is that clear? I hope not.

    But tidyness of mind is affronted by this kind of uncertainty. Just like Adam and Eve, we want to know. If there’s a way to get saved, we want to know  it so that we can follow it step-by-step. Because knowing is a good thing, isn’t it? And the better we know, the better, right? That’s why we sing (at my church anyway), several Sundays a year, that song that tells God “I want to seeee you,” as if, despite Moses, Isaiah, and John 1:18, seeing God would be a good thing, at least for those of us who got up for church that week.

    Another example: Years ago, I read a New Testament scholar saying that until we know when a given New Testament document was written we can’t say much about it at all. Chronology is necessary for exegesis. My immediate response was “but what if we can’t?” And, of course, we can’t for an embarrassing number of the New Testament documents: we can’t nail down dates for them any more specific than a range of a half-century or so. There is not sufficient evidence.

    So what do we do? Obviously, we lay aside the ideal of orderliness that requires beginning with chronology. Then we step away from our historicism long enough to read whatever New Testament document we’re looking at as it wants to be read, not as that ideal leads us to read it.

  • “We’re too conservative to really enjoy being intellectuals.” I’ve recently learned that we editors, even of works of scholarship, are supposed to let authors split infinitives. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, §5.106, grammarians quit worrying about the practice in 1925: I feel old, very old. As an aid to my professional development, I have allowed that “really” in there. The anesthesia hasn’t worn off yet.
  • “[I]f we could know”: Gary Anderson, “‘Through Those Who Are Near to Me, I Will Show Myself Holy’: Nadab and Abihu and Apophatic Theology,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly  77 (2015): 1-19 (online here). The quotation is from p. 17.
  • “despite Moses [and] Isaiah”: We’re not meant to think of what Moses (Exodus 3:6; 33:18-20) and Isaiah (ch. 6) experienced as enjoyable or to be sought or emulated, but that will have to be a separate post.
  • “a New Testament scholar saying”: I don’t say who this was because I’ve been unable to find the statement in print so as to confirm that he wrote it.