Meditating on the Judgements of God:
4.4 Casual Priests
Lev 10 1,2 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
Now we move on from Exodus. There we saw two ‘judgments’, the first in all the things the Lord brought on Egypt and Pharaoh, and the second the judgement brought on those who worshipped the Golden Calf. The first judgment was brought directly by the Lord, the second administered by men. When we come to Leviticus, a book full of ceremonial law, we might be surprised to find two judgments in the midst of the law, and again the first is directly from God and the second administered by man.
And so we have, very simply and directly in the record, the death of two of Aaron’s sons. Fire comes from heaven and kills them both. It is that simple. To understand it, we need to pick up and reflect on some of the things we started saying in the previous meditation and which started off in an earlier meditation on the glory of the Lord. Let’s examine the facts of the circumstances first.
First of all note the sons of Aaron: “Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” (Ex 6:23). They all became priests with Aaron: “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests.” (Ex 28:1) After this terrible event the record stood: “The names of the sons of Aaron were Nadab the firstborn and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests, who were ordained to serve as priests. Nadab and Abihu, however, fell dead before the LORD when they made an offering with unauthorized fire before him in the Desert of Sinai. They had no sons; so only Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests during the lifetime of their father Aaron.” (Num 3:2-4) Eleazar went on to become a leader: “The chief leader of the Levites was Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest. He was appointed over those who were responsible for the care of the sanctuary,” (Num 3:32) and after Aaron’s death he took over as chief priest (Num 20:28, Deut 10:6) referred to simply as ‘the priest’. Ithamar’s role appears to have been to oversee the manufacture of the Tabernacle (Ex 38:21) and manage those who moved the Tabernacle (Num 4:28, 33, 7:8) The record of the death of Nadab and Abihu carried on in Scripture – Num 26:61, 1 Chron 24:1,2.
Next look at this particular role of the priests. Aaron’s role was “to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die.” (Lev 16:11-13) The use of the censer was thus a particularly holy thing, going into the Holy of Holies, and the was no mention of anyone other than Aaron dong it. It appears that these two did this with no reference to either Moses or Aaron and so from the outset this was an independent act of these two young men that flouted or disregarded authority and specifically disregarded the sense of the holy in everything to do with the role of the priesthood.
Now in the previous study we saw that Moses was called to take up the mountain with him (Ex 24:1) seventy elders, Aaron AND Nadab and Abihu, so they had been privy to the amazing revelation of the Lord (Ex 24:10) They should have had an amazing sense of the holiness of God. It is possible that they did not use the prescribed incense (Ex 30:34-38) and it is certainly sure that they were not doing it as part of the authorized worship of the people. Thus the condemnation is that “they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.” i.e. they were doing their own thing and utterly disregarding the Lord. In the New Testament, people were dying because at the Lord’s Supper they appeared to be doing exactly these two things (1 Cor 11:29,30) In the light of the instructions that were given shortly afterwards,(Lev 10:6-10) one wonders if they did this without wearing the proper ceremonial robes and maybe even intoxicated. One way or another, they were right out of line!
What is incredible is that in the verses immediately preceding these of their sin and destruction, is a record of how fire came from the Lord to burn up the burnt offering that was being made as part of the procedure for ordaining the priesthood. This was holy fire which is fire from God and it should have created in them an even greater sense of awe. Instead it simply makes their activities even more clearly acts of self-centred folly and of utter disregard of God. Everything in the preceding two chapters spoke of how the priests could only operate in God’s presence in God’s way and recognising the power of the cleansing by blood as part of the ceremonies. These two men were completely insensitive to all this.
Now bear in mind all we have said previously about Israel – and its leaders – representing God to the whole world and revealing Him to them and again we come to a corrective judgment that not only punishes the godless sinner but sends a clear message to the rest of Israel and, indeed, the rest of the world who might hear about it. You are dealing with The One and Only God who is holy, utterly different from any man-made ideas about deities. He has established the world and knows how He has designed it to work best, and all of His laws given through Moses reflect that and show them a better way to live than that which they see in their neighbours. When it comes to the priesthood and the ceremonial laws, they are all designed to reveal this ‘otherness’, His holiness.
Failure to deal with this casual, self-centred and godless behaviour would open the way for a casual, half-hearted approach to God and the start of a downward spiral in their relationship with the Lord. As it was, history shows that Israel had a terrible record in respect of their obedience / disobedience in respect of the Lord but they could never say that the Lord did not warn them and do everything possible to clarify their role as conveyor of the news about the One Creator God who is Lord of all.