Old Testament Passages Good for Everyone to Know, Part 5
Old Testament Passages for Everyone to Know, Part 5
by Douglas Jacoby
This week our series brings us to Leviticus. Today's passage isn't about sacrifice, as you might expect—at least not directly so. It's a key text on obedience, and one familiar from my earliest days as a Christian.
Our passage is full of tragedy. Israel's first high priest, Aaron, loses two of his four sons in a single day. Both are consumed by fire for dishonoring and disobeying God. They are Nadab and Abihu.
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 Yahweh, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before Yahweh and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh.
Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what Yahweh 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 (Leviticus 10:1-3).
Exactly why did these men forfeit their lives? The reasons contain multiple cautions and warnings for the church today.
• The high priest alone—Aaron, their father—was to put incense in the censer (see photo above) once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). What are Nadab and Abihu thinking? (See Exod 30:7, 10.) The Torah was clear; are they ad-libbing?
• The previous chapter, Leviticus 9, culminates in the spectacular consumption of the offering by divine fire. "When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces" (Lev 9:25). It seems Aaron's sons were attempting to usurp some of God's glory. Do we ever do that, say, during a time of worship? Do we proclaim Christ—or ourselves / our spirituality / our church (2 Cor 4:5)?
• Whereas the fire was to be taken from the altar before the Lord (e.g. Lev 16:12), Nadab and Abihu presented "unauthorized fire." Presumably the fire they used came from elsewhere—a different altar, or their own personal fires, or a pagan shrine?
• Or perhaps their sin was ignoring Yahweh's instructions for the composition of the incense (Exod 30:34-38). Yet the passage indicates illicit fire, not illicit incense.
• The point is that this was no accident, but a flagrant disregard for God's Word. They have even less excuse because of their considerable experience of God (Exod 34:9-10)—not to mention their privileged position in the leadership structure of ancient Israel.
• It is likely their heedless neglect was due to intoxication (Lev 10:8-11). Priests were to model holiness—not drunkenness, a problem in the time of Isaiah, 5 centuries later (Isa 28:7).
• Note that Aaron, their father, makes no objection to the divine sentence, even though he has lost two sons. He knows they have committed a serious violation, and that God is not being unfair. On this occasion, Aaron does not let sentimentality cloud his judgment.
One O.T. scholar describes Nadab and Abihu's arrogant attitude: "Our fire is as good as yours, God" (George A F. Knight, Leviticus). They were more than careless; they were disobedient. The divine response: False fire is answered with real fire! Does this seem an overreaction on God's part—recall his wrath in Exodus 32 (last week's passage)? We might think Yahweh is erratic or harsh; and yet in his justice he is, always, totally consistent. The modern tendency to accuse God of punishing disobedience stems from our own lack of a proper horror towards sin, along with a casual attitude towards repentance.
• God expects obedience to his revealed will. He is not being "picky." When we have a command from God, we are expected to obey—whether it is to repent and be baptized, to forgive others, to meditate daily on his Word, not to worship Mammon, or any other specific instruction. Am I consciously and conscientiously striving to be an obedient follower of Christ?
• Do we embellish or attempt to improve on God's will? For example, the N.T. is clear that the weekly Lord's Supper is a true focal point of our time together. What have we made it? Do our traditions determine how this is celebrated (or perhaps shoehorned into the service schedule)? Is the Supper really about the Lord?, or the programs and agenda of the church?
• Sadly, Nadab and Abihu are in leadership, yet are not deeply spiritual persons. Their audacity is shocking. We are reminded of another set of brothers, also priests, Hophni and Phinehas—ungodly men who also died on the same day (1 Sam 4:11). Ananias and Sapphira also come to mind—the husband and wife stuck dead for pretending to be more dedicated than they were (Acts 5:5,10).
• How easily do we place such men and women into leadership? Do we feed their sense of self-importance and habitual failure to live holy lives? How dangerous this is, and how damaging to the spiritual health of the congregation.
We are not talking about minor moral lapses, but fatal errors. Let us not be like Nadab and Abihu, who played fast and loose with God's instruction, making light of the holiness to which all God's people are called (Lev 19:2). Indeed, Leviticus 10 is an important passage for any serious man or woman of God.
Next week: another "striking" passage—from Numbers. (Can you guess which chapter?)