Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Midianite Fire

In Exodus, Midrash on February 6, 2012 at 12:12 am

I have Christian friends
who celebrate Passover
with me, and I’m glad.

They sit on cushions,
read the wine, drink the stories,
and journey with me.

We both recollect
all the good things, and give thanks.
Who am I to judge?

Parsha Yitro

Yitro, priest of Midian…
Exodus 18.1

And Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
Exodus 18.12

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor ...

Jethro and Moses, by James Jacques Tissot

What is Yitro, a priest of Midian, doing with a bunch of Israelites? Why does he offer sacrifices to God? Why does God allow Yitro, priest of Midian, to make the offering in the first place, when Nadab and Abihu, pedigreed Israelites themselves, are later killed in the process of making their own?

The text says this about Nadab and Abihu.

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
Leviticus 10.1

An obvious interpretation would seem to be, “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering. Besides, he converted.” See Rashi on Exodus 18.1. The second supposition is contradicted by our passage in Leviticus. Yitro’s religious and genetic status is irrelevant. If it weren’t, Yitro of Midian would have been destroyed, and Nadab and Abihu of Israel would have survived. Things didn’t happen this way. And did Yitro convert in Rashi’s (or our) sense of the word? because Yitro says, Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them. (Exodus 18.11)

What about the first supposition? “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering.” This is the easy way out. How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Onan, who spilled his seed rather than father children on his levirate wife (Genesis 38.8-10) met with his just desserts when levirate marriage wasn’t mandated as law until Deuteronomy 25.5-6? How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Cain, who murdered Abel (Genesis 4.8) got his just desserts when the murder wasn’t explicitly prohibited until the Ten Utterances in Exodus 20.1-17?

In the case of Onan, Onan is told by Judah to do his dead brother’s duty by Tamar, and raise children in his brother’s place. This makes it clear that some social standard dictated this behavior before it was ever set in the Torah. Note that Onan did not just spill it [seed] on the ground, but he knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. (Genesis 38.9) In spite of Judah’s initial command, Onan’s behavior is not prohibited by Godly decree at this point. Why then is Onan punished in verse 10?

In the case of Cain, God offers Cain comfort (If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up?) and counsel (and unto thee is its [sin’s] desire, but thou mayest rule over it.) (ibid. 4.7). What does Cain do? And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him (ibid. 4.8). Cain is made a wanderer and fugitive (ibid. 4.12). In spite of God’s advice, as big a deal as that may be, God made no prohibition. Cain was given an open choice. Why then is Cain punished for his actions?

In the case of Nadab and Abihu, the text clearly states He had not commanded them. Why then did they do what they did? There is no preamble to this story. Aaron had just completed the rituals described in Leviticus 9. All of Israel was gathered to watch the ceremony. What were Nadab and Abihu doing? What makes fire strange (zara): the fire (aish), or the what’s done with it (vayikrivu lifnei ” aish zara – asher lo tziavooh otam)? Note in our text that the fire wasn’t strange until after they’d put fire therein and laid incense thereon and offered it. Were they honoring God, or themselves? Incense offering was mandated by God in Exodus 30: to Aaron.

So the first supposition is contradicted. None of these events are subject to an explicit prohibition at their time but all of the characters suffer consequences for their actions.

These events also have this in common: strange intent. Onan decided to deny his brother a share in the world to come. Cain planned to lure his brother into a field and kill him. Nadab and Abihu prepared their coup d’état as a fait accompli in advance. And if you’re not satisfied on this point: if Nadab and Abihu weren’t given this ritual to perform, why did they have their censers there in the first place?

What did Yitro do? He praises God, makes thanksgiving for the well-being of his children, and shares a meal with his extended family. Our families should all be so ideal.

What does this teach?  Laws define finitely.   Intentions define infinitely.

Does any one person or thing hold the monopoly on good and bad ideas? Who or what judges a thing to be “good”: You, Me, God, Life? Are all laws of morality determined subjectively, or are some axiomatic? Is it one thing to willfully live life, and another to willfully manipulate religion?


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