Keeping What Is Holy, Holy
Is God just? Does He randomly dole out punishment and reward on a whim? Why does it sometimes seem to us that He reacts rather severely towards some, while overlooking the faults of others?
To many, the names Nadab and Abihu are synonymous with taking liberty in worship - the presumption that one can approach God in whatever means he chooses and still please God. Though some have struggled to circumvent this principle by suggesting drunkenness was the basis of their sin (Leviticus 10:9), or that they died because they had entered the holiest place behind the veil, being "before the Lord" (Leviticus 10:1-2), yet the Bible always associates the death of these two priests with their offering "unauthorized fire" (Numbers 3:4; 26:61). Certainly these brothers stand as an example to all who doubt the necessity of having authority for what we do in worship to God. Yet few realize that not only had Nadab and Abihu failed to keep the Lord's ordinance, but their brothers and father did as well. In the very same chapter which introduces the sin and punishment of Nadab and Abihu we also find Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar refusing to eat the sin offering as the Lord commanded - yet they did so without repercussion from God.
So the question remains: Is God just when He punishes some for disobedience, yet allows others to escape His wrath? The key to this seeming contradiction in God's judgment is seen in the center of the chapter:
"You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses." (Leviticus 10:10-11)
Leviticus 10 - Keeping What Is Holy, Holy
The overriding theme of this chapter, as well as the major thrust of the book of Leviticus, has to do with keeping that which is holy separate from that which is common. Nadab and Abihu sinned in their failure to distinguish between what was holy and what was profane...
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD has said, 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" And Aaron held his peace.
The priest-brothers were engaging in activities suitable for priests. The offering of incense was restricted to the Levitical priesthood, namely Aaron and his sons (Numbers 16). They were the right people, doing the right thing. But something about their offering was amiss. The inspired writer says they offered "unauthorized fire". Some translations call it "strange fire". The text reveals that the fire was not what God had commanded. Bible class teachers and preachers have sometimes stated that the fire they put in their censers was not from the altar, and therefore "strange" (Leviticus 6:9). Yet it could be that it was the incense that they set on fire that was amiss and unauthorized (Exodus 30:9). The Lord had been very specific regarding the recipe for acceptable incense:
The LORD said to Moses, "Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people."
Just as it would be wrong for the people to make incense for themselves according to the formula for this holy fragrance, it would be wrong to take a common perfume and offer it as incense before the Lord.
The fact of the matter remains. These priests had attempted to offer to God that which was unauthorized, unholy. Nadab and Abihu were guilty of failure to sanctify God by rendering to Him what was holy. They had glorified themselves by approaching God by their own design rather than by the Lord's ordinance. Therefore the Lord punished them as an example to all.
Furthermore, as the chapter progresses, Moses forbade Aaron and his living sons from defiling themselves for the dead. They had been made holy with the anointing oil of the priesthood and had duties to perform as priests (Exodus 30:30). Moses called Levites (who were not anointed priests) to dispose of the bodies.
And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, "Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp." So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, "Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the LORD has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you." And they did according to the word of Moses.
Evidently, Nadab and Abihu had died in front of the sanctuary, where these non-priests could retrieve the bodies. Had they entered the holiest place, as some have conjectured, their bodies would have been behind the veil, beyond which only the high priest had authority to enter. It was forbidden for Aaron, the high priest, to defile himself for a dead body (Leviticus 21:10-12), and while other priests could ordinarily make himself unclean in mourning for the dead of his closest relatives (Leviticus 21:1-6), Moses did not allow it at this time. They had been anointed as holy to the Lord, and were not permitted to act commonly. Having just witnessed the consequences of disobedience in this regard, the priests obeyed.
God spoke to Aaron, admonishing him to take his position seriously, for the priests had been given charge to distinguish between the holy and the common, and to teach such distinction to all Israel:
And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying, "Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses."
Rather than this injunction suggesting that Aaron's disobedient sons were drunken delinquents, it offered application to the priests who remained: "Let nothing cloud your mind so that you fail to distinguish between what is holy and what is common." The essence of Nadab's and Abihu's sin was a failure to make this distinction. Therefore, this prohibition against drinking wine was not a reaction to their drunkenness, but to their poor judgment. As has been demonstrated and documented throughout the course of history, consuming alcohol impairs judgment and breaks down inhibitions. God's priests are to be of sober mind and sound judgment. The Lord aptly warned Aaron to judge rightly.
Though the day was darkened by the events which had transpired, Aaron and his sons still had their priestly obligations to perform. Moses reminded them of this...
Moses spoke to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his surviving sons: "Take the grain offering that is left of the LORD's food offerings, and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. You shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons' due, from the LORD's food offerings, for so I am commanded. But the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed you shall eat in a clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you, for they are given as your due and your sons' due from the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the people of Israel. The thigh that is contributed and the breast that is waved they shall bring with the food offerings of the fat pieces to wave for a wave offering before the LORD, and it shall be yours and your sons' with you as a due forever, as the LORD has commanded."
Part of God's provision for the priests was in the sacrifices which were offered by the people of Israel. The grain offering was to be eaten in a holy place (Leviticus 2:3, 10; 6:16). Wave and heave offerings were for the priest and his family (Numbers 18:17-19). Only those who were set apart for this service were to partake of this holy food. Only the holy could partake of the holy.
But Moses' anger was stirred when he discovered that Aaron and his sons had not partaken of the sacrifices which had been offered...
Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron, saying, "Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." And Aaron said to Moses, "Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the LORD have approved?" And when Moses heard that, he approved.
Though it was part of the priest's duty to make sacrifices for the people and to eat of them himself, Aaron and his sons had refused from partaking of this holy food, though it was appointed for them to do so. Why did God not strike them down as He had Nadab and Abihu?
The answer, I believe, lies in Aaron's defense before his brother. Considering the events of the day, had the priests eaten of the sacrifices, they would have done so with an improper attitude, and worshiped in vain. The New Covenant Scriptures shed some light on this principle:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
(1 Corinthians 11:26-29)
In eating of the sacrifices offered to God, priests proclaim God's holiness, since they alone can eat of this sanctified meat. However, due to the circumstances surrounding this appropriated meal, they could not do so in the proper mindset. Eating of the sacrifice without discerning its meaning would have brought judgment on the surviving priests rather than justification.
Moses understood and approved of his brother's decision. We can understand why God punished Nadab and Abihu while excusing Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar. They would have been guilty had they gone ahead and partaken of the sacrifice in an unworthy manner. Therefore it was right for them to abstain.
Let Us Keep What Is Holy, Holy
We, too, may find ourselves in similar situations at times. Perhaps we will be tempted to worship God according to our design and innovation rather than according to His authority. Many have done so, adding mechanical instruments of music to the simple command to sing praises to God, altering the day, manner, or elements of the Lord's Supper, engaging in the appearance of idolatry with icons, beads, and special vestments. From Nadab and Abihu we must learn to approach God only as He has ordained - for He is holy.
Yet, though we may not change the outward nature of our worship to God, we may fail to inwardly regard the significance of our actions. When we fail to focus on prayer when led by a brother in the assembly, does the Lord approve? When we fail to consider the words of the songs we sing to God and each other, does the Lord approve? When we give grudgingly or out of a sense of obligation and duty, does the Lord approve? When we fail to remember Christ's death or discern the Lord's body, does the Lord approve? We may sometimes be guilty of placing more emphasis on the action than the attitude. While many of us would (like Moses) ask why one failed to carry out God's command if we observed some not singing, not praying, not giving, or (more likely) not participating in the Lord's Supper, we would do well to look within ourselves and make sure we are doing these things with a clear conscience and worshipful spirit.
We must, as Aaron and his sons realized, distinguish between the holy and the common, both in manner and method, in attitude and action, in spirit and in truth.
By Stuart N. Tullis
From Expository Files 13.9; September 2006