Nadab, Abihu, and Strange Fire

The Leviticus 10 story of the fiery demise of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, troubles many Christians and draws accusations from skeptics that the Old Testament God doesn’t live up to His Exodus 34:5-7 claim of being slow to anger, abounding in love, and willing to forgive sin.

In the preceding chapter, Aaron and his sons have been successfully ordained into the priesthood through the week long, highly regulated ritual precisely described in Exodus chapter 29 culminating in the appearance of the Lord Himself to all the people of Israel in the form of fire blazing forth from His presence and consuming the burnt offering that the priests had placed on the altar according to His command. In response to this amazing revelation of the Lord, the people of Israel shout with joy and fall face-down on the ground.

On the very same day that the Israelites participated in this awe-inspiring scene, they also witnessed a horrific calamity. Leviticus 10:1-2 reads, “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own firepan, put fire in it, placed incense on it, and presented unauthorized fire to the Lord, which He had not commanded them to do. Then flames leapt from the Lord’s presence and burned them to death before the Lord.” I doubt that there is a single soul who reads this story that doesn’t feel taken aback with the initial reaction that the Lord’s immediate punishment certainly sounds shockingly extreme.

Let’s Go Through the Objections

  1. God acted with a very petty and unloving display of capitol punishment for what many consider to be an unintentional, minor infraction from two well-meaning priests.
  1. This story exhibits a clear contradiction between God’s own described characteristics, and what we see Him demonstrate here.

With these objections in mind, let’s examine the story.

Why Do We Automatically Give Nadab and Abihu the Benefit of the Doubt?

A common thread to almost every opposing argument is that they have deemed capitol punishment to be too severe a judgment for this situation. The following defenses of the priests are routinely given: they were young and inexperienced in these new rituals; it was only their first offense; it seems that they were well-intentioned- just trying to please God with by worshiping Him; and the offense was seemingly minor. One skeptic compares the mistake to “using the wrong brand of charcoal.” Are these assumptions logical? What are we basing them on?

Why do we assume that Nadab and Abihu are innocently naive? They certainly weren’t new on the scene. As David Guzik points out in his commentary, “Nadab and Abihu had a legacy of great spiritual experiences. They saw first-hand: All the miracles God did in bringing the nation out of Egypt; the voice of God and saw the fire, lightning, smoke, and felt the thunder and the earthquake with the rest of the nation at Mount Sinai; they went up with Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders for a special meeting with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1-2), where they saw the God of Israel . . . so they saw God, and they ate and drank (Exodus 24:9-11).” This was not their “first rodeo,” so to speak.

The article The Mystery of the Unauthorized Fire notes, “Just before God gave His Ten Commandments, He told Moses that He soon would come to him in a thick cloud so that the people might hear Him speaking and believe (Exodus 19:9). To prepare for that stupendous vision, God commanded the people to consecrate themselves (v 10). He also set strict borders around Mount Sinai, saying that whoever touched the mountain would die (v 12). When God came, ‘there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” (v 16). God called Moses to ascend the mountain, but before revealing His law, God sent Moses back down the mountain to repeat and expand the warning. He said: ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.’ (vv 21-22).” With these experiences in mind, we have no reason to assume Nadab and Abihu hadn’t been taught or were ignorant of the scope and gravity of the judgment that not adhering to the precise, priestly procedure would invite.

As David Murray writes in his article, R.C. Sproul Defends the God of the Old Testament, God’s judgments were pre-announced and in the case of Nadab and Abihu, “God gave clear instructions and unmistakeable prohibitions…(Exodus 30:9-10). These were not innocent men and these were not sins of ignorance.” Exodus 30:9 specifically reads, “You must not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt or grain offering; you are not to pour drink offering on it.” (emphasis mine) In fact, Leviticus 16:12-13 specifically indicates that the incense must be placed correctly or the priest will die.

What Exactly Did Nadab and Abihu Do?

Ellicot’s Commentary for English Readers explains that this “one mistake” actually consisted of four individual transgressions: “ (1) They each took his own censor, and not the sacred utensil of the sanctuary. (2) They both offered it together, whereas the incense was only to be offered by one. (3) They presumptuously encroached upon the functions of the high priest; for according to the Law the high priest alone burnt incense in a censor. (See Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11.) The ordinary priests only burnt it on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8), or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial. (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16.) …(4) They offered the incense at an unauthorized time, since it was apart from the morning and evening sacrifice.”

David Guzik explains in his commentary that unauthorized fire was, “a fire not kindled from the altar of burnt offering; it was fire not associated with the atoning and redeeming work of sacrifice…The fire in the altar of burnt offering was sacred because it was kindled by God Himself. Nadab and Abihu offered a fire of their own making.” Gill’s Exposition on the Entire Bible notes the information given in a Jewish Targum (recorded Jewish oral tradition), “…this fire was not that which came down from heaven, and consumed the sacrifice, as related at the end of the preceding chapter (Leviticus 9:24), but common fire, and therefore called strange; it was not taken off the altar of burnt offering, as it ought to have been, but, as the Targum of Jonathan, from under the trivets, skillets, or pots, such as the flesh of peace offerings were boiled in, in the tabernacle…”

We really don’t know for sure why Nadab and Abihu did what they did. Guzik writes, “We don’t know what their motivation was. Perhaps it was pride, perhaps it was ambition, perhaps it was jealousy, perhaps it was impatience that motivated them. Whatever their exact motivation, it wasn’t holiness unto the Lord.” These motivations certainly seem plausible since Nadab and Abihu were intentionally attempting to perform a function reserved for the high priest only.

Some believe the Lord’s response to Aaron may be a clue. In verses 8-9, the Lord tells Aaron that he and his sons are never to drink alcoholic drinks before going into the Tabernacle. Could Nadab and Abihu have been drunk? Many commentators note this hypothesis. Benson’s Commentary states, “Some think they had drunk too freely at the feast upon the peace-offerings, which made them forget themselves; because of the prohibition against drinking wine or strong drink, which immediately follows the relation of this event.” The placement of this instruction certainly seems to corroborate this theory.

Should God have cut them some slack if this is the case? Many people think so, tending to believe that God should have shown leniency in such a circumstance. Perhaps this is due to the fact that many of us don’t have an appropriate reverence for the holiness of our all sovereign, Creator God. Indeed, Moses’ verse 3 response to Aaron reads, “…This is what the Lord meant when He said, ‘I will show My holiness to those who are near Me, and I will reveal My glory before all the people.’” As R.C. Sproul said, “Lots has changed since Moses and Aaron’s conversation, but not the character of God. He has never, and will never, negotiate His holiness.” This is a theme not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. Perhaps the problem is that we tend to minimize the seriousness of sin while lacking the appropriate reverence for the holiness God.

Is This Incident a Contradiction to What God Has Revealed About His Character?

Only if you’re selectively tuning out one set of His revealed attributes. Exodus 34:5-7, the passage so many skeptics like to point out as a blatant contradiction is a prime example. Verse 7 reads, “maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (emphasis mine) Judgment is just as much a part of God’s character as His loving mercy and grace.

Some try to create a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. This is a false dichotomy.

R.C Sproul provides this example, “Sometimes it seems like God boils over in temper tantrums that are inexcusable. From our perspective, we can think the God of the Old Testament was brutal- some kind of demiurge. Just look what warranted the death sentence in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, God seems to have become more easy-going.” Sproul continues, “Our view is so distorted. Let’s go back to creation where the list of capital offenses was unending. Any sin was death…We are so accustomed to grace. Like the Israelites, we need God, ask for grace, receive it, forget it, and go back to sinning- despising God’s holiness without fear of His judgment…We are shocked by judgment and presume upon grace.”

MacLaren’s Exposition illustrates how the fire of the Lord is used for both acceptance and judgment, “There is a very striking parallel between Leviticus 10:2 and the last verse of the preceding chapter. In both the same expression is used, ‘There came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed’ [the word rendered devoured in Leviticus 10:2 is the same in Hebrew as consumed]. So, then, the same divine fire, which had graciously signified God’s acceptance of the appointed sacrifice, now flashed out with lightning-like power of destruction, and killed the two rebel priests. There is dormant potency of destruction in the God who reveals Himself as gracious. The ‘wrath of the Lamb’ is as real as His gentleness. The Gospel is ‘the savour of life unto life’ and ‘of death unto death.’” Sproul gives this apt reminder, “Christ called the Old Testament God, ‘Father.’ It was the Old Testament God who sent His son to save the world, and the Old Testament God’s will that Jesus came to do.” A sobering, yet necessary reminder indeed.

Where Does the Benefit of the Doubt Belong?

Upon reading such a text, it seems our knee jerk reaction is to grant humanity the benefit of the doubt and vilify God’s judgment as harsh or undeserved. But, is this where the benefit of the doubt belongs? The previous life experience of Nadab and Abihu leaves no excuse for not grasping the severity of their actions or for not realizing the judgment that would be incurred.- just as we will have no excuse when the time for our judgment rolls around. Paul tells us in Romans 1:20, “For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.”

The Bible tells us what sin is, and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Since we are all sinners, death is what we all deserve. This revelation stirs a feeling of indignation and moral outrage in many, but again Sproul provides humbling perspective, “As God’s justice is according to His holy character, His justice is never divorced from His righteousness. He never condemns the innocent, clears the guilty, or punishes with undue severity…The most powerful act of divine vengeance in the Bible, and the most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice, is seen at the cross. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be focused on the cross. Yet, the cross was the most beautiful and most horrible example of God’s wrath. It was the most just and the most gracious act in history.”

There may be judgments in the Bible that I don’t fully understand. But with the proper perspective, I will never be confused about where the benefit of the doubt belongs.