The death of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 is often ripped from its context and treated as a “shock story.” (I’m sorry to say I know this from personal experience). Along with other incidents (Uzzah touching the ark, Saul offering the sacrifice, and to a lesser extent, Moses striking the rock), it has been used as an illustration of what happens to those whose theology (and practice), deviate from absolute truth. When this happens, God comes off looking like a divine being who sits poised on the clouds with lightning bolt in hand, ready to strike someone down over the slightest error.
I don’t have to tell you that no one really believes this to be true. If it were, I wouldn’t be here to write this and you wouldn’t be here to read it. Our Father is gracious, compassionate, patient, and full of mercy. Nonetheless, the fact remains that these stories do contain severe elements that disturb us. It should be equally apparent that they have something important to teach us. We need to understand them in their context for our own good as well as the benefit of others who hear them twisted and distorted in a way that does violence to the character of God.
Holiness is of central concern in Leviticus (see 11:44-45). God is holy in the sense that He is whole. He is perfection—not only because there is an absence of sin in His character, but also because He is the fullness of grace, truth, love, mercy, patience, compassion, etc. We’re called to image Him and be holy/whole. Sin fragments, divides, and disintegrates. To move away from sin (in any form), is to move toward holiness/wholeness and God.
God’s holiness is not only at the heart of the book of Leviticus, it was central to the priesthood, tabernacle, and sacrificial system. While the laws governing these seem unnecessarily detailed and rigid to us, part of their intent was to remind Israel of the great chasm between them and God. In this regard, they are like all of the sanitation practices of a hospital and how they remind us of all the germs we (unthinkingly) carry around.
In chapter eight, Aaron and his sons are ordained as priests by Moses. Their ordination takes a week (v. 33), and leaving the tabernacle during that time would have resulted in death (v. 35). In chapter nine, the first service takes place in the tabernacle. At its conclusion, Moses and Aaron go into the tent of meeting and come out with a blessing for the people of God. The glory of God appears and fire comes from His presence to consume the sacrifice on the altar (v. 23). The people shout for joy and bow down in holy celebration (v. 24).
It’s clearly a watershed moment in Israel’s history. Much like a wedding, the birth of a child, or the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it is a holy moment full of significance, solemnity, and celebration. This is the background for the story of Nadab and Abihu and without this context, the significance of their actions won’t be fully understood or appreciated.
I think there’s good reason to believe that Nadab and Abihu were intoxicated. Immediately after their deaths, God gives Israel a prohibition concerning the priests using alcohol prior to their ministry at the tabernacle (v. 8-11). It’s possible that this has nothing to do with what has just happened, but it seems more likely to me that it’s given in connection with what occurred. This also offers insight into the cavalier actions of Nadab and Abihu on this holy occasion. They fill their censers with fire and offer “unauthorized” fire before the Lord (v. 2). It is contrary to His command (v.2). It’s not clear to me what it is specifically that is out of order. Did they get their fire from somewhere other than the altar (Leviticus 16:12)? Did they use incense different than what was commanded (Exodus 30:34ff)? Or were they offering incense at the wrong time (Exodus 30:9)? Or, is it their drunkenness that invalidates everything? As you can see, we have several choices.
However, the details are obviously not important and we shouldn’t get distracted by the absence of them. The evidence suggests the following picture: on a most holy occasion, two priests desecrated the occasion by getting drunk and making an offering that was inappropriate. Their punishment was swift and ultimate. And the reason for it is spelled out in v. 3:
Among those who approach me
I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.
As leaders of Israel, their actions dishonored God. They failed to take seriously their service to Him as well as the significance of the occasion. They wouldn’t have an opportunity to make the same mistake again. A precedent has been set for all those who would approach Him. If they became casual, they would become a casualty. We must have a healthy sense of the holy!
But this is just half of the story . . . click here for the rest.