John’s Gospel records a brief dialogue between Jesus and his Father in which Yeshua proclaims, “‘Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven [saying], ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (Jn 12:28). When God states that the divine name will be glorified again, the reference is to Jesus’ upcoming death on the cross, which will “take away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Yet, speaking of what has already been done prior to the incarnation, the Father declares, “I have glorified it.” How and when did God glorify the divine name before the death of Jesus? A good case can be made that the first glorification came after the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.
In a famous but mysterious story from Leviticus, the priestly sons of Aaron offer “strange fire” (אש זרה; ‘eish zarah) that God had not commanded (Lev 10:1). As a result of this unauthorized act, “Fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (10:2). After Nadav and Avihu perish, Moses speaks to Aaron, saying, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be made holy, and before all the people I will be glorified (אכבד; ekaved)'” (10:3). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures uses the same word for “glorified” (δοξάζω; doxāzo) that John uses to say that God has “glorified” the divine name. Since the heavenly declaration of past-tense glorification comes immediately after Jesus implies that when he “dies” he will be “glorified” (John 12:23-24), it makes sense that God would be referring to the death of Nadav and Avihu as the previous instance of glory.
In Jewish texts written after John’s Gospel, Nadav and Avihu are understood as righteous individuals whose deaths brought glory to God. Biblical basis for Aaron’s sons being in good standing before the Lord appears when the God calls “Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders” up to Mount Sinai where “they saw the God of Israel” (Exod 24:1, 9-10). Early rabbinic interpretation states that Aaron's sons were exalted above Moses and Aaron because God chose to sanctify the Tent of Meeting through their deaths. Moses tells Aaron, “We find now that your two sons are greater than both of us, since the house [of God] was made holy through them” (Sifra, Shemini 23). According to this early midrash, Nadav and Avihu serve as conduits of divine sanctification in their deaths.
The slightly later Jerusalem Talmud asks why the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are mentioned just before the commandments for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1). This connection, say the rabbis, is to teach that “just as the Day of Atonement atones, so the deaths of the righteous atone” (y. Yoma 2a). This presentation of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths as making atonement for sin is very similar to the Johannine idea that the righteous Jesus' death takes away the sin of the world. These parallels between Jesus and Aaron’s sons in Jewish tradition suggest that John’s Gospel may have been an early witness to the notion that God was first “glorified” through the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Yeshua follows the Levitical precedent when he brings glory to the divine name through his own atoning death on the cross.