Chapter 10

Nadab and Abihu

    • Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, each put fire into their own firepans, put incense on them, and presented the unauthorized fire to the Lord. The Lord had not commanded them to do this. So, flames shot out from the Lord’s presence and burned them to death.

      • Time out! This text conjures extreme emotion from practically everyone that reads it. Many Christians struggle with such an immediate and seemingly harsh judgment- even leading some to visualize a discrepancy between the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament”- a false dichotomy. Skeptics present this as corroboration for their erroneous belief that God is petty, vindictive, and that His actions are in stark contrast to His own proclaimed character. My article, Nadab, Abihu, and Strange Fire, fully addresses the issues related to this incident. However, I will note a few of the important components:

              1. What did Nadab and Abihu actually do?

            • Ellicot’s Commentary for English Readers points out that they actually committed 4 separate transgressions in this one act: (1) they used their own personal firepans instead of the sacred sanctuary utensils; (2) per very specific prior instruction, incense was to be offered by only one priest- yet they offered it together; (3) this function was specifically to be performed by the high priest only; and (4) they offered the incense at a completely unauthorized time. It was specifically to be offered as a part of the morning and evening sacrifice.

              1. We have the tendency to immediately give Nadab and Abihu the benefit of the doubt and assume they were merely inexperienced, yet well-intentioned. Is this deserved?

            • 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 say God, and they ate and drank (Exodus 24:9-11).” It wasn’t exactly their “first rodeo,” so to speak.

          • The article The Mystery of the Unauthorized Fire points out that Nadab and Abihu were actually part of the group that ascended Mount Sinai with Moses when he went to receive the law. They were there when, prior to Moses’ ascent to the Lord, God told him, “…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.” (Exodus 19:21-22) 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. They had no excuse for the disrespect they displayed to the holiness of God. If we view God’s judgment of Nadab and Abihu’s affront to His holiness as extreme, perhaps the issue is that we ourselves do not have the appropriate reverence for God’s holiness- there’s a sobering thought.

              1. This is NOT a contradiction to what God has revealed about His character.

          • While multiple passages proclaim God’s faithful love and willingness to forgive wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin, it is a mistake to ignore His proclamations that He is just and does not leave the guilty unpunished. There is no discrepancy between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God.” They are one and the same. MacLaren’s Exposition notes, “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.’” R.C. Sproul writes, “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.”

              1. In the case of a difficult text, who deserves the benefit of the doubt?

          • Texts like these often stir feelings of indignation and moral outrage, but 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.

    • Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said He would show His holiness to those who come near Him and He will reveal His glory to everyone.” Aaron kept silent.

      • Guzik writes, “Aaron just saw two of his sons struck down before the Lord. It was natural for him to question or even to lament – but God would not allow it. More important than Aaron’s right to grieve was the respect of God’s holiness…Make no mistake: We can come to God just as we are, but we may not come to Him our own way. We must come the way He has provided, the way made in Jesus Christ.”

    • Moses called Nadab and Abihu’s cousins (the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel) Mishael and Elzaphan and had them take their bodies outside the camp.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible commentary explains why Aaron or his other two sons couldn’t attend to Nadab and Abihu’s bodies, “Aaron, the high priest, and the priests Eleazar and Ithamar (Leviticus 10:6) could not defile themselves by making contact with a dead person (Leviticus 21:10-12.)

    • Then Moses told Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Don’t show grief by leaving your hair uncombed or tearing your clothes. If you do, you will die and the Lord will be angry with the entire Israelite community. However, the rest of of your family and the rest of the Israel can mourn over the death of Nadab and Abihu. Don’t leave the entrance of the Tabernacle or you will die because you still have the Lord’s anointing oil on you.” Aaron and his sons obeyed.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains why Aaron and his sons weren’t allowed to have uncombed hair or tear their clothes, “This practice and others like it were ways to show grief in biblical times. As high priest, Aaron was prohibited from participating in these rituals or in any way displaying his grief. This injunction extended to Eleazar and Ithamar; if God’s representatives had shown grief on this occasion, it might have been interpreted by observers as disagreeing with God’s justice. However, the laypeople were allowed to mourn.”

      • Guzik writes, “Aaron must also have thought, “I did worse than this at the golden calf incident; why did God take them?” But Aaron did that before his consecration as a priest. After his consecration, he and his sons had a greater accountability (for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you).”

Regulations for Priests

    • The Lord then told Aaron, “You and your sons must not drink alcoholic drinks before going into the Tabernacle or you will die. You have to make a distinction between what is holy and what is common, between the clean and the unclean, and teach the Israelites all the decrees that the Lord has given to them through Moses.”

      • The placement of this instruction leads many to believe that Nadab and Abihu may have been drunk when they committed offense. Benson’s commentary notes, “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.”

      • However, others such as Guzik in his commentary note, “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 options also fit since Nadab and Abihu were intentionally performing a function reserved only for the high priest.

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “the word common means ‘secular’ or ‘ordinary.’”

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible also makes this note, “God had been communicating only to Moses, but He now accepted Aaron as the people’s representative, and communicated directly with Aaron as well.”

    • Moses then told Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar to take the grain offering that was left over from the fire offering to the Lord and eat it beside the altar because it was their portion from the offerings as the Lord had commanded. However, the breast and the thigh that were lifted up to the Lord (the wave offering which was also their assigned portion) could be eaten in any place that was ceremonially clean and could be eaten by the priest’s sons and daughters.”

      • “What was left over from a grain offering belonged to the priests, but they could not take it home to eat it. It had to be eaten beside the altar…These portions of a sacrifice belonged to a priest and to his household. They could be eaten in any clean place.” (Guzik)

    • Later, Moses was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar and asked them why they had burned the goat from the sin offering instead of eating it in the sanctuary as they were supposed to in order to make atonement for the Israelite community. Aaron responded, “Today my sons presented their sin and burnt offerings to the Lord. However, since I have experienced this tragedy today, would the Lord be pleased that I had eaten the people’s sin offering on a day like today?” When Moses heard this explanation, he was satisfied.

      • Guzik writes, “Moses wanted to know why Eleazar and Ithamar didn’t eat the portions of sacrifice that were given for the priests to eat. Since Aaron replied on their behalf in Leviticus 10:19, it seems they did not eat it because they followed their father’s example…Aaron did not eat of the sin offering because he mourned the loss of his sons. Though Aaron was not allowed to do any of the other signs of mourning, it was appropriate that he fast on the day of his sons’ death – and so he did, and Moses was satisfied with this explanation.”

      • Guzik also makes this insightful notation, “We often find it easy to burn the sin offering, and hard to eat it. Burning hard against sin in a judging manner is easy. To sit down with a brother or sister as a fellow sinner and partake of the sin offering with them means you realize you aren’t any better than them. Only this kind of heart can minister to people…Jesus had this kind of heart, even though He had no sin! He still identified with His people in his humble birth, simple life, baptism, and death. Moses said the sin offering was given to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord. That’s why he was upset when Aaron didn’t eat it. But Jesus did ‘eat’ the sin offering when He stood as a sinner in our place and received the judgment we deserved.”