by STEPHEN A. NEWMAN
The enigmatic deaths of the sons of the High Priest Aaron while participating in the first sacrifices to the Lord in the recently completed Tabernacle generated many comments explaining why this tragedy occurred. This was the main concern of the Jewish commentators. A lesser concern was explaining how they were actually killed. In this article we will explore the history of the approach that their deaths were caused by the Ark functioning as a “Leyden jar,”1 which acted as a security device for the Ark.
In Exodus 25:8 God commands Moses, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Very exact specifications were given for its construction. The Ark was to be made of acacia wood and it was to be overlaid inside and outside with pure gold with a crown of gold (Ex. 25:10-11). Two cherubim of gold with their wings spread out should be placed on the ark cover, facing one another (Ex. 25:18). The Lord stated, There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you – from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark (Ex. 25:22). Within the Ark itself would be placed the tablets containing the Ten Commandments as well as the original tablets broken by Moses. The Ark was placed in the Tabernacle which also contained the table of the showbread, the menorah and an altar of incense. The Ark, in the Holy of Holies, was separated from the other items of the Tabernacle by a dividing curtain made of blue, purple and crimson wool.
Leviticus 10 describes the death of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron. This occurred on the eighth day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, when Nadab and Abihu each took a censer full of incense and offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them (Lev. 10:1). As a consequence of this act, a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them (Lev. 10:2). However, they were not completely consumed, their bodies remained and had to be removed (Lev. 10:4-5). TB Sanhedrin 52a understands that the fire that came from God only consumed their insides, leaving their body and clothing intact.
In explaining the possible transgression of Nadab and Abihu, Vayikra Rabbah 20:8 explains that the sin took place in the Holy of Holies, in front of the Ark. This approach is also found in the midrash Torat Kohanim and other sources, by way of explaining the meaning of the place where the alien fire was brought, before the Lord.2 This connection between death and the Ark recalls the episode of Uzzah, who when the Ark was moved from Baalah of Judah to Jerusalem reached out for the Ark and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled (II Sam. 6:6). He was struck down on the spot for his indiscretion (II Sam. 6:7).
The understanding that the Ark of the Covenant was an electrical device was introduced soon after the invention of the Leyden (or Leiden) jar in 1745. This was a crude battery, the first device made that could store electric charge, and was made of very simple materials.3 A few years later, one of the founders of electrical science, Georg Wilhelm Lichtenberg (1743-1799) noted that the structure of the Ark of the Covenant is similar to the Leyden jar.4
In physics terminology the Leyden jar is a capacitor, storing large quantities of static electricity. The inner and outer surfaces of the jar store equal but opposite charges. The more it is charged with static electricity, the stronger the voltage becomes in the container. According to Lichtenberg, the Ark was in essence a large, powerful Leyden jar capable of imparting a high voltage discharge to anyone touching the Ark, particularly the area of the gap between the cherubim above the Ark. The wood of the Ark acted as an insulator, separating the highly conductive gold on either side of the wood. The electric charges accumulated in the Ark in the dry desert environment; the charges were obtained by the movement of the wool in the curtain against the exterior gold. The two cherubim of the Ark on the conductive lid of the Ark were the positive and negative terminals. One of the cherubim was connected to the outer negative layer of gold, the other cherub was connected to the inner, positive layer of gold. This would explain why the Ark had to have an inner layer of gold even though it would never be seen.
Lichtenberg’s idea was disseminated through the popular scientific literature of the 1800s. Articles appeared describing the Ark of the Covenant as “a very expensive but very perfect Leyden jar,”5 or in similar terms.6 The theory made its way into the more offbeat religious literature of the day,7 and was reported in newspapers as well.8 This basic explanation was further popularized by the literary figure Francis Ponge in his book Le Grand Recueil, first published in 1961. There he states, “The Ark of the Covenant…might be understood as a very clever capacitor…quite ready to subject the impious to a violent electric shock.”9 These explanations are generally seen as attempts to demystify the Ark, and to replace the power of God with human technology.10
Although some contemporary traditional Jewish authors note that “The ancient Israelites thought about holiness (purity) and impurity much the way we think about electricity…coming too close…meant certain death,”11 the idea of an electrical Ark of the Covenant has not been accepted in the world of traditional commentary. While the splitting of the sea is described as occurring through a strong east wind (Ex. 14:21), and the destruction of Korach’s followers through an earthquake (Num. 16:31-33), no natural mechanism is provided in the Bible for the death of Nadab and Abihu. As far as the Bible presents their death, it was a purely supernatural act, not associated with any natural or physical component.
Dedication: I dedicate this paper to the memory of my parents, Solomon Newman (z”l) and Anna Newman (z”l).
- A. Kimball, A College Textbook of Physics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1917) p. 385.
- Torat Kohanim (Acharei, Parsheta 1). See the parallel sources listed in Menachem Kasher, Torah Shlemah vol. 27 (Jerusalem: The Torah Shelemah Institute, 1992), p. 4, note 5.
- Jeffery Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 30.
- Alfred de Grazia, “Moses and His Elecric Ark”, Midstream (November, 1981), p. 22.
- Electricity: A Popular Electrical Journal, vol. 7, July 25, 1894, p. 16.
- Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, vol. 28 (1894), p. 1088.
- Moses Hull, Encyclopedia of Biblical Spiritualism (1895), pp. 65-66.
- For example, “Was Moses an Electrician?” The Examiner, Launceston, Tasmania, May 24, 1910, p. 3. There the idea is attributed to “an engineer of Munich,” seemingly a reference to Lichtenberg.
- Patrick Meadows, Francis Ponge and the Nature of Things: From Atomism to a Modern Poetics (London: Associated University Presses, 1997), p. 39.
- Meadows, p. 39.
- Seymour Rossel, The Torah: Portion by Portion (Los Angeles: Torah Aura Publications, 2007), p. 221.
Dr. Stephen Newman has degrees in chemical engineering and a doctorate in physical chemistry. His biography appears in Who’s Who in Science and Engineering, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.