1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered alien fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.
2 And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.
In a text filled with shocking events this passage is exceptionally jarring. Before and after this passage we are presented with a series of rules and rituals. Then in a celestial mugging two of Aaron’s four sons are wiped out in a flash of fire. Moses makes a cryptic comment that is close to a non sequitur. Aaron mutely accepts his loss.
What had the young men done to mortally offend God? They had performed a religious ceremony that was not in accord with his wishes. It was the use of alien fire which while apparently not prohibited was not commanded by God. It appears that they had violated a rule which they likely did not realize existed.
Hidden rules are actually quite common and we violate them at our peril. Let me start with an ordinary example. Every human society has language. All these languages have complicated rules of grammar. These rules are explicitly known only to grammarians. Yet fluent speakers of a language observe the rules to the letter without be able to state them. Also note that these rules arose spontaneously. Complex order from nothing – it’s like the big bang or Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
When we try to evade these rules there are consequences – instant immolation is not usually among them; they can be silly or serious. Look at the third person singular in English. It’s now impossible to use it without offending someone. If you say he when referring to a person of unspecified gender, you are an insensitive patriarchal fossil. If you say she, you are a wobbly wimp who’s caved to political correctness. If you say he or she you are using unnecessary words and are guilty of a tautology. Those unwilling to take the linguistic heat flee to the genderless third person pleural.
Frederich Hayek, the Nobel Prize winning economist and probably the most profound political economist of the 20th century, was also a sociologist. He observed that society is organized according to rules which are strict and often unseen. These rules are analogous to those for language mentioned above. Human society has taken 10,000 years to reach its current state. In the advanced world we are engaged in an unconscious experiment. We are drastically changing the rules and norms which have existed since before the Bronze Age and doing so without consciously knowing what these rules are. We certainly have no way of knowing what the effects of these changes will be.
Old people commonly assert that the world is falling apart. In a certain sense this has always been true, ie old people have always said this and the world has always been disintegrating. But it is not constant decay that I refer to. Half of ancient Rome was on the dole; so dependence on government for sustenance is nothing new. I refer to the overthrow of institutions that have formed the core of society since we emigrated out of Africa – the family, maturity. The teenager is a recent invention. In Italy a male can be a teenager until he’s 40. The value of life is morphing into something hitherto unknown. Some of our most brilliant thinkers believe that they understand the cosmos and that their understanding has made religion irrelevant.
This change of the rules is part of the utopian dream which has entranced a good fraction of humanity since the time of Plato and which Rousseau accelerated. Every attempt at ordering society from the top down has failed. Changing basic human nature appears impossible. Our current attempts to radically alter behavior over an instant of human history may be successful, but if they break the rules and offer an alien fire another fire may come forth. Human interactions are as complex as quantum mechanics and when abruptly changed as difficult to predict as the simultaneous description of position and momentum.