Sunday, August 15, 2021

Everyone Else's Nadab and Abihu Fanfics

A picture of flames, with the text "What is strange fire?" from a good Christian webpage about how God killed people in the Old Testament for worshipping him wrong. Image source.

When I was working on writing Strange Fire, I did some googling to see if maybe there were some other sources, ancient Jewish traditions, stuff like that, stuff I could maybe incorporate into my story. Back when I wrote my Noah's ark fanfic, I used "traditional" names for the wives, even though they are not given names in the bible. I figured maybe I could do the same thing for Nadab and Abihu's story.

But wow. The whole first page of google search results was all about why Nadab and Abihu totally deserved to die for "offering unauthorized fire." I was blown away by how vicious all these articles were. There were no cute details about "did they have wives, what were the wives' names", or at least, I wasn't willing to wade through all that nastiness in order to find out. (So I invented Daniela, Bekah, and Daniela's unborn baby myself. We know the baby will be a girl because the bible says Nadab and Abihu had no sons.)

Wow, it was bad. But really, I should have known that. The whole reason I wanted to write this fanfic is because for a long time it has bothered me how good Christians read the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 and then immediately invent all kinds of fan theories to reassure ourselves that yes, these guys really did deserve to die. For a long time, I've felt there was something really f***-ed up about that. (Wow, yes, a long time- I even mentioned it in this post from 2015.)

Seriously, here's what the bible says:

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

Then later in the chapter it mentions priests aren't supposed to drink alcohol on the job, so, you might infer from that that they were drunk. But that's it, this here is the sum total of what the bible says they did wrong. Apparently, they deserved to die for it.

So yeah, back when I was an evangelical, I would read this story, be very confused because it's unclear what "unauthorized fire" is and why exactly that's a bad thing, and feel like "it looks like God did something unjust here." It was okay for me to think that, temporarily, but then my next step had to be convincing myself that, no, everything is fine, God was totally right to kill them, wow they did such a bad thing, they were very bad people, and so on and so on, embellishing it with things the bible doesn't say at all. Fan fiction.

I'm coming at this from an evangelical background, where one of the most important beliefs is that the bible is authoritative in a way that nothing else is. Yes, the story of Nadab and Abihu is also in the Jewish bible, and Jewish people have probably been grappling with it for thousands of years. Non-evangelical denominations of Christianity surely have their own take on it too. And maybe some of this "they were really bad people" is valid if there's another ancient source regarded as canon that says so. Perhaps these other religious traditions have something like that, so then it's not as much of a problem for them. But not evangelicals, who firmly believe that the bible is the only thing we can trust, and all that "ancient tradition" is just made-up nonsense. Evangelicals who then respond with their own made-up nonsense about Nadab and Abihu's supposed contempt for God or whatever.

It says something really ugly about us, that our first response to "God killed them because [confusing, suspicious reasons]" is to invent additional reasons. Reasons that are not confusing or suspicious, that help us believe that their sin really did deserve the death penalty. Reasons that are completely fictional. Nothing more than fan theories.

It's a Black Lives Matter story, really. We read this passage from Leviticus, and we search desperately for a bible commentary to help us - "Someone, convince me that Nadab and Abihu really were bad people who deserved to die! I can't handle the idea that the bible is wrong about something. I can't handle the idea that I should judge the God that Christian leaders present to me, and I should decide if he is worthy of worship or not."

Oh, it's okay that he was killed, he deserved it. Because he was a suspect in a robbery. Because he had done drugs in the past. Because he was arrested for something, years ago. Because he took goofy photos of himself pretending to make gang signs. Because he didn't do exactly what the police officer said. Because he was "acting suspicious."

All these reasons, some of them based in reality, some of them completely made up, none of them worthy of the death penalty, but this is what we do. We have to convince ourselves, because the alternative is to face the reality of the white supremacist violence that's embedded in our society. 

I have seen the way good evangelicals treat Nadab and Abihu, and the way white people treat black victims of police brutality, and it's the same. We can't ever let ourselves consider that the bible is wrong about something, and we can't ever let ourselves consider that the US is not "the greatest country in the world", built on "liberty and justice for all." So we need to blame the victims. Please, someone, help us believe they deserved it, so we can continue with our lives and we don't have a responsibility to care about injustice.

So I hope the next time you're in a bible study and you read the story of Nadab and Abihu (okay it's not really one of the popular ones that get read in a lot of bible studies...), you're angry like Daniela. I hope you read Moses's line about "Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die" and hear it as an extremely creepy threat, and you think about the impossible pressure that Eleazer was under, and the choice that he made. Wow, I had always read that line as "the Lord is justifiably angry right now, let's lay low for a bit" but now I can't hear anything besides "Nice two remaining sons you got there, be a shame if anything happened to them."

And Bekah. Oh poor Bekah. (A character I completely made up, btw.) The decision she makes at the end is just tragic. Her faith was so strong, she chose her petty, murderous God over her loving husband. I know something about having a faith like that- though I've never, uh, thrown dead relatives under the bus in the name of God. A faith that strong can't last. It will burn so powerful and passionate for a while, and then when it breaks it will break into a million pieces. At some point she will realize she was betrayed- that they took advantage of her trust and innocence and they fed her lies and she actually bought them. And once you realize that, there's no going back.

Another thing I wanted to do in my story is offer a different understanding of what "God's holiness" means. As an evangelical, I learned in Sunday school that "holy" means "set apart" (whatever that means) but really, the way people used it in practical terms, "God's holiness" means "you make 1 mistake, and YOU DIE." And this is, apparently, a good thing. Apparently, God is so incredibly good that he destroys anything that's not perfect. Apparently, that's what "good" means. 

Yeah, I say that's f***-ed up, and I hope my fanfic was able to give a glimpse of Nadab's and Eleazer's understanding of "holiness"- it's more about the respect and awe that they felt at being allowed to come into God's presence and act as a bridge between humanity and God. Not "you make 1 mistake and YOU DIE"- like what on earth? Why did I ever believe that? (Well I guess because the "gospel" I received when I asked Jesus into my heart was "every sin is an infinite offense against a holy God"... like I said, "holy" apparently means "you make 1 mistake and YOU DIE." ... I put "gospel" in scare quotes because that sure as hell ain't good news.)

So yeah, I wrote a Nadab and Abihu fanfic because I don't like everyone else's Nadab and Abihu fanfics. And if you're gonna write fanfic or fan theories about the bible, at least be honest with yourself that the things you're saying are not actually in the bible. You want to reassure yourself that Nadab and Abihu totally deserved to die for the cryptic sin of "offering unauthorized fire"- maybe instead of inventing fan theories to reassure yourself, you ask yourself why you need that. It reveals something inside us that isn't good.



Reading US History Inerrantly 

Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture) 

Yes, I Want Justice (A post about white evangelicals and #BlackLivesMatter)

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