ABIHU ("He is Father").
He is mentioned in Ex. xxiv. 1, 9, where he and his brother are classed with Moses and Aaron as the leaders or chiefs of the "elders" of Israel, who go up into the mount to eat the covenant meal with YHWH.
In other passages Abihu is designated as the second son of Aaron and Elisheba (Ex. vi. 23), and with his father and brothers is consecrated to the priesthood (Ex. xxviii. 1). With Nadab he is put to death for offering strange fire to YHWH (Lev. x. 1; Num. iii. 2, 4, xxvi. 60, 61). Elsewhere in the Old Testament he is only mentioned in I Chron. vi. 3 and II Chron. xxiv. 1, 2.
The haggadic representation of the death of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. x. 1-6) is wholly an idealization of the Biblical narrative. Despite the fact that the latter ascribes the death of the sons of Aaron to an offense committed by them, an old Midrash applies the verse in Ecclesiastes (vii. 15), "There is a righteous man that perisheth in his righteousness," to Nadab and Abihu, who, it is said, brought an incense-offering into the sanctuary in order to honor God, and while doing so were consumed by fire (Yalḳ. on Eccl. l.c. § 976; so also Jerome, in his commentary ad loc.). In accordance with this, the Midrash places the time of the offering of Nadab and Abihu before the fall of the heavenly fire, and indeed to bring down the fire was the very purpose that Nadab and Abihu had in mind (Sifra, Shemini Milluim, ed. Weiss, p. 44b; somewhat differently Ephraem Syrus; compare Gerson, in "Monatsschrift," 1868, xvii. 102).
The words in Lev. x. 2, "they died before God," are used because the death of the children of pious parents during their lifetime affects God closely (Lev. R. xx. 10). Moreover, since the death of the pious has an expiatory effect (l.c.), the Biblical account of their death is read on the Day of Atonement.
In order that the death of Nadab and Abihu may not appear entirely unjustifiable, the Haggadah seeks to reconcile God's justice with the blamelessness of pious men (Tan., Aḥre, 6, ed. Buber, 7): they died in an attempt to put off corporeality.
Philo testifies to the great age of this Haggadah when, in his customary allegorization of Biblical material, he says: "Nadab and Abihu, who approached God and gave up mortal life in order to receive immortality, were naked; that is, they broke every bond connecting them with mortal needs and passions" ("De Allegoriis Legum," ii. 15, ed. Cohn and Wendland, p. 101). The reference to nakedness is made clear by a Midrash, which remarks that the transgression of the sons of Aaron lay in the fact that they performed their duties without the prescribed apparel of the priests, which they forgot in their ecstasy. They were not necessarily naked, however, as Philo has it. According to another view, the sons of Aaron were killed by fire from God; their bodies and clothes were not consumed, the marvelous fire taking only their breath from them (Sifra, l.c., ed. Weiss, p. 45b; Sanh. 52a).
Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and Akiba find them blameworthy only in so far that they ventured upon so important an act without consulting Moses. R. Ishmael holds the view that they did not bring their sacrifice at the right time (Sifra, l.c., ed. Weiss, 45b, and Aḥre, beginning; Yoma, 53a; 'Er. 63a). The latter explanation made its way into the Peshito, which adds to "strange fire" () the words "not at the right time." Originally, the addition was, of course, an explanatory gloss, which in course of time came to be embodied in the text. Following the trend of R. Eliezer's ideas, the later Haggadah attaches blame to the sons of Aaron because of their too great self-esteem. They remained unmarried, because they did not regard any woman as good enough for them. They even considered themselves more important than Moses and Aaron, and secretly longed for the time when they should stand at the head of the people (Pesiḳ., ed. Buber, pp. 172b et seq.; Tan., ed. Buber, l.c., where the parallels are given in notes).
The endeavor of the old Haggadah to interpret the fault of the sons of Aaron as a trivial offense had, however, an effect contrary to that anticipated. When, at a subsequent period, the varying opinions were all accepted as correct, the sons of Aaron, instead of being represented as models of virtue, came to be invested with many mischievous traits (see Pesiḳ. and Tan. l.c.; especially the opinions of Levi and Bar Ḳappara, which are shared by the Church father Ephraem Syrus, as shown in "Monatsschrift," l.c.).
The death of Nadab and Abihu probably represents the memory of some calamity to a portion of the priesthood, which, in the contest for the establishment of the Levitical law, was a warning to all who might violate that law.