This is the Story of Aaron and His Sons Nadab and Abihu
Aaron was a “preacher.” Remember, he was the one God chose to be Moses’ mouthpiece in Egypt. He had a gift for words. He spoke words of blessing on Israel, he told their story, he was the priest who mediated between the sin of Israel and their Holy God who would dwell only in a people made holy by the cleansing and purging rituals of the Tabernacle system.
But after what happened very soon after the ordination, Aaron the talker was stunned into silence.
They had just built the Tabernacle, ordained the priests, enacted the first sacrifices and saw the terrible power and presence of their Holy God appear before their eyes. Perhaps when Moses saw the people prostrate themselves, the Levites with them, he had thought the people had seen the light, that there would be no more profaning the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with golden calf or goat idols. Now perhaps he was thinking they could move forward to the Promised Land and receive the full blessing of the Lord.
But more conflict was ahead.
It was during the time of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, after all the sacrifices had been made and the fire of God blazed from heaven and Israel fell on their faces before the Lord. Then the Levites ate the sin offerings, and along with Israel, they all ate from the fellowship offerings.
And they drank.
Nadab and Abihu must have imbibed mightily as they feasted on meat and drank a fermented drink of some kind. In context of the ordination and reference to not drinking too much wine directly after the episode (10:8-9), speaks volumes for this possibility that they were indeed drunk and disregarding the importance of God’s presence.
In their drunken stupor the two sons of Aaron took “strange” fire (translated also as unholy, unauthorized; cf. Ex. 30:9), added incense, then each took a bronze pan full of the smoking incense into the holy place, inside the tent. They were acting on their own, drunk, disobedient, and going before the presence of the Lord with reckless disregard for the proper position of obedience and humility before the Lord.
And God judged their wicked hearts. Lightning or fire crashed down on them and consumed them, burned them to death.
Aaron’s sons had been dramatically killed by lightning (fire) from heaven and dragged dead outside of the camp. Moses comments in the text directly after this, on this very different consuming fire of the Lord: This is what the Lord meant when he said, “Through those who are near me I will show myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified.”
Now Aaron—the “preacher,” the father of these two young men and Moses’ brother who had long spoken for him—was speechless.
Aaron was distraught. There would be no funeral. No dedication of their lives, their souls to God before burial. No recounting of how Nadab and Abihu with Moses, Aaron and seventy elders of Israel reveled in the presence of God, eating and drinking together in fellowship with the Lord (Ex 24:9-11).
Instead they were dragged out of the camp by their cousins. Leviticus 10:4-6 describes the scene, here quoted from The Message:
Moses called for Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel, Aaron’s uncle. He said, “Come. Carry your dead cousins outside the camp, away from the Sanctuary.” They came and carried their dead cousins away, outside the camp, just as Moses had directed.
Moses then said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “No mourning rituals for you—unkempt hair, torn clothes—or you’ll also die and God will be angry with the whole congregation. Your relatives—all the People of Israel, in fact—will do the mourning over those God has destroyed by fire.
In place of the funeral, Moses instructed the Levites to take the remaining fellowship and sin offerings and eat the meat at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Yet Aaron did in fact mourn in his own way. He was deeply troubled, silenced, dismayed over the tragic second fire storm that burned his sons to death. Aaron did not feel like eating and drinking, even the meat that was prescribed for the priest to eat.
Along with the instruction to finish the ordination meal, Moses gave important guidelines about the priests learning to distinguish between the clean and unclean, the sacred and the profane. This was important to Israel because it has been handed down by God from the very creative order of things—for instance, instructions from the beginning about what humankind could eat and not eat.
In particular, the unclean of this passage and the particular context of the Nadab and Abihu story, is the sin of disregarding the Lord’s commands in the heart of man and taking God’s work lightly by entering the entrance of the Tent of Meeting drunk and ignoring the commands of the Lord.
Here is one of the few recorded times God speaks directly to Aaron rather than through Moses, recorded in 10:8-10 (NIV): “Then the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.’”
Fury of Moses Rises and Subsides
Moses was furious at this immediate detour from God’s commands. He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons because he had learned that the goat of the sin offering had been completely burned up—like a burnt offering—and Aaron and his remaining sons had not eaten the portion of the sin offering as commanded (10:16-20). When the Lord speaks, we obey! Moses may have wondered if all of Aaron and his family were going to seed before the whole venture even left the ground.
First, Nadab and Abihu strayed and were swiftly made a chilling example of God’s wrath on those who rebelliously disobey. Now, Aaron himself and his sons were breaking another law! Aaron was to eat the sin offering, but he had refused. Moses confronted him about his disregard for the command of the Lord (10:17-18): “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and God has given it to you that you may remove the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement on their behalf before the Lord. Its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded,” Moses said.
Then Aaron, sullen and grieving, replied to Moses: “See, today they offered their sin offering and their burnt offerings before the Lord; and yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been agreeable to the Lord?”
When Moses heard this, he was satisfied (10:20).
This is one of the most poignant, sad conversations recorded in the Bible between two great men of faith. We often overlook it, but what about the dilemma of the fathers of faith, seeing the text through them and through the eyes of God who will not allow his presence to be defiled?
The importance of the narrative in Leviticus 10 is not as much about what we learn about Nadab and Abihu—though certainly this is an important event—but what we discover about the nature of God. Is he the butler at our beck and call that we often want him to be? Do we have a problem with a God who strikes someone dead?
God has done this in other biblical episodes: a sinful generation was destroyed in the great flood, and only Noah and his family were saved (Genesis 6), Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt for turning her face back toward sinful Sodom (Genesis 19:26), Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to church leaders (Acts 5:1-11).
In each case, what was the sin of the people God struck down? How do we receive these stories today? With fear and trembling? In your experience, how has this story of Nadab and Abihu been applied?
In my experience, this passage has been applied to worship in the New Testament church. Nadab and Abihu are held up as examples of what happens when we mess up worship, when you innovate. In churches of Christ the passage has most often in the twentieth century been applied to instrumental music. The reasoning goes that if we, like Nadab and Abihu, bring “strange fire” of instruments in worship, God will be displeased, and in extremely radical teaching some even believe they will be in danger of death or hell if they stray from a cappella singing.
In my opinion, the story of Nadab and Abihu is not, however, about instrumental music, nor their lack of ritual perfectionism. Instead, God judged their hearts as no human can do and determined they had made a mockery of the rituals and laws by entering his presence drunk with fire that was not from the sacred altar. God speaks the point of this story in verse 3: “I will show myself holy.”
A final point ought to be made that Aaron also broke the law handed down by Moses. He and his sons did not eat the meat of the offering as they were commanded. Why didn’t God also strike them down? If this story is about ritual perfection, then we would expect Aaron and two more sons to be struck by the fire of the Lord. But that doesn’t happen. Aaron is unable to stomach the food of the sacrifice after his sons are killed, and Moses calls him out. But when Aaron justifies his actions by saying, in effect, “How can I be expected to eat at a time like this?” then Moses is satisfied.
And we can be satisfied that this story is more than just a way to bend our modern day religious goals to fit our needs. The few stories of people being struck dead must be handled sacredly and cautiously, not to lose sight of God. God was, is, and will always show himself holy. That’s the point. Can we reconcile this view of God to our view?
Read Leviticus 10 then reflect with others on the following:
1. What do you like about the story?
2. What do you not like about story?
3. What do you think the story is saying to the original audience?
4. What is the story saying to us today?
5. What is the story calling us to believe?
6. What is the story calling us to do?
7. With whom can you share this story this week?
Holy Father, we fear you. We fear to be prideful or arrogant in your presence, drunk physically or spiritually on worldly pleasures and ignoring your greatness and presence. We dare not play with fire. Let nothing stand in the way between us—Almighty God—and you.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg’s wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.