The Bible Says What? ‘God turns people to ash’

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

The Bible Says What? ‘God turns people to ash’

Rabbi Pete Tobias takes a controversial topic from the Torah and applies a Liberal Jewish response

 An offering in an early Monty Python book was God’s school report. The divinity teacher was not happy with his pupil. He wrote: “Poor. Keeps disputing Biblical facts on the ground that he was ‘misquoted’.”

When I first read this, some 50 years ago, I wasn’t terribly impressed with God either. I found his random zapping of hapless humans somewhat unreasonable.

An example is in Leviticus chapter 10 when Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, commit what seems like a relatively minor crime of entering the Tent of Meeting, but are reduced to ash by an outburst of God’s temper.

But look at where and when this part of the Torah was written down and things become clearer.

Solomon had just died and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had separated. Jeroboam was the first ruler of the Jerusalem-less kingdom of Israel, and said to be at “constant war with the house of Judah”. Jeroboam even set up a shrine at Beth El to prevent his subjects going to the Temple in Jerusalem, part of Judah, and brought in some renegade Aaronide priests to minister there.

Jeroboam’s sons were Nadab and Abijah. Those names are remarkably similar to the two sons of Aaron who got zapped in the wilderness.

Coincidence? Of course not. You see, God didn’t write that Aaron’s sons were zapped. Those words came from a scribe in Judah trying to discredit the hated Jeroboam.

Indeed, I’m pretty sure these two didn’t exist as Aaron’s sons at all… just Jeroboam’s. A Biblical audience hearing that two people with those names went into the presence of God would know just who they were and what the outcome would be.

The Torah is full of vengeful authors having their enemies bumped off by divine wrath. Poor God. He does indeed have every right to claim He was misquoted.

  •  Pete Tobias is rabbi at the Liberal Synagogue Elstree
Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: