Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu

Understanding our ever-evolving relationship with God.

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. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:

“‘Among those who approach me
    I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
    I will be honored.’”

Aaron remained silent.

Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered.

Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the Israelites, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.

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, 10 so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”

12 Moses said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Take the grain offering left over from the food offerings prepared without yeast and presented to the Lord and eat it beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 Eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is your share and your sons’ share of the food offerings presented to the Lord; for so I have been commanded. 14 But you and your sons and your daughters may eat the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. Eat them in a ceremonially clean place; they have been given to you and your children as your share of the Israelites’ fellowship offerings. 15 The thigh that was presented and the breast that was waved must be brought with the fat portions of the food offerings, to be waved before the Lord as a wave offering. This will be the perpetual share for you and your children, as the Lord has commanded.”

16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and asked, 17 “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord. 18 Since its blood was not taken into the Holy Place, you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.”

19 Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” 20 When Moses heard this, he was satisfied.

It is October, the month of Halloween, so I thought we might read some scary Bible stories.  Why I thought this would be a light-hearted idea I’m not sure, because things get real extra-fast.  But I’m going to stick with it, because there are some really thought-provoking stories here.

A little background for this first story about Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron was Moses’ brother, and the first high priest of the New Covenant God made with Israel after delivering them out of Egypt.  He was consecrated as priest, along with his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu.  All three of them literally saw God during a special worship at the base of the mountain.  Now, the first seven chapters of Leviticus go into great detail about how the Lord is supposed to be worshiped in this New Covenant, specifically how offerings should be made.  And there’s a lot: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering – all topics for another day.  Then, chapters eight and nine specifically deal with the ordination of the priests and detail how they begin their ministry in running the offerings.  Everything goes swimmingly – Aaron does all the right things, says all the right words, and the Fire of the Lord comes down to consume the burnt offerings and all of Israel sees his presence and falls down and worships in joy.

Now, the above-mentioned fire from God is important, because it was an unauthorized fire, in other words fire made by man, the Nadab and Abihu brought to altar when it was their turn to make offerings.  As an aside – not only was it unauthorized fire, it was fire all tarted up, if you will, by added incense.  Long story short – actually, short story made longer via explanation, but whatever – by bringing this man-made fire to the altar, Nadab and Abihu were indicating one of two things: either that they held the power to consume the burnt offerings alongside God, or that they didn’t trust God to send holy fire to consume said burnt offerings.

Either way, God literally just established a new covenant with Israel, and can’t have these new priests going rogue so early in the game.  Nadab and Abihu’s deaths were a signal to Israel that God alone is almighty – only God has the power to consume the burnt offerings; and that God is always ready to act – holy fire will always be sent for the burnt offering, and sin can and will be punished when it happens.

That is one punitive God, and I hope not the same one that I’m counting on.  This story has, in fact, opened up some uncomfortable lines of questioning for me, which have lain dormant for some time.  In a nutshell, is God as omnipotent as loving as we would wish Xyr to be?

In college I first came across the idea of the evolution of God in Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God.  I’m paraphrasing like crazy here, but basically there is a line of thought that believes the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.  Either a lesser God was overthrown and replaced with a new God, or the old God turned into something new with the arrival of Jesus.  And there is plenty of evidence to support this idea:  The God of the Old Testament looks nothing like Jesus and the Holy Father.  The Old Testament God is vengeful and punitive – wiping entire villages or nations out because they have committed some offense or stand in the way of God’s chosen people.  Additionally, the Old Testament God “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh and others so that they won’t listen to the warnings of holy men, like Moses, which just seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone involved.

The God of the Old Testament kills his priests after one mistake.  Not a warning, not a demotion or removal from office, not even banishment: straight to an abrupt and painful death without warning.  And then, their father isn’t even allowed to fully mourn for them.  Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, makes it clear to Aaron that he and his remaining sons have to keep on fulfilling their duties in the Temple:  No ripping their clothes or letting their hair grow long (traditional signs of mourning), they must keep up their ceremonial dietary restrictions, and no drinking.  They aren’t even allowed to leave and bury the bodies of these two dead sons because that would make them ceremonially unclean. How poor Aaron must feel I can only imagine.  His marked silence in verse three speaks volumes. The words he must be holding back in grief, in fear, in anger are too much for any spoken language.  When he does finally speak, in verse nineteen, we can still hear his anguish.  “Such things as this have happened to me today,” he says, referring to his sons’ deaths. “Would the Lord be have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?”  Aaron is too deep in mourning to provide the grateful heart necessary for receiving the gifts from God’s altar.  He recognizes that in himself, and instead of bringing further wrath upon his own person, he abstains as respectfully as possible.  Additionally, fasting may have been the only way he could actively and outwardly mourn his sons given the circumstances.

What hard, vindictive God would wound a father so?  Specifically a man he called to be the first high priest of a New Covenant with a chosen people?  Clearly, this is a different God than the God of forgiveness, of pure love, that we come to know through Jesus Christ.

So what happened?  Did God change?  Because an evolution of God would imply that God was not perfect and whole at one point, and therefore may not be perfect now.  It also means it might be possible for our God of Love to change again, into something new and even better than a God of Love, or back into something more demanding and vengeful.  The idea of an imperfect, changeable God – or even worse, a God who can be challenged and even overthrown by another deity – is a terrifying prospect.  It would mean the rock upon which we have founded our faith as Christians is not as stable as we were lead to believe.

I’m not ready to believe the foundation of my faith is unstable.  Perhaps some people will call the explanation I’m about to give a textbook example of rationalizing – but really, isn’t any theological talk just rationalizing in some form or another?  There really is no way to know God, that is why faith is required of us instead.  But here’s the conclusion I came to:  God has not changed, but we have.

Let’s go back to parenting again, my favorite long-running analogy.  Your relationship with your parents changes as you get older.  You go from complete dependence to complete independence.  Their authority goes from total authority to varying degrees of influence, depending upon the relationship you have with them.  As hard as the God of the Old Testament seems, perhaps that was the God that Israel needed then.  The punishment of Nadab and Abihu was swift and severe, especially from today’s standpoint.  But remember: the covenant with Israel had just been established – this is a nation brand new in it’s faith.  Yes, the Israelites had been worshiping Yahweh for some time, but it was a completely new chapter with new rules (literally new rules, like the ten commandments) in a new country.  Boundaries had to be established, and quickly.  The extreme reaction to Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized offering helped establish those boundaries and demonstrate the God was very much in charge.  You know, the more I think about it the less it sounds like parenting (because what newborn is really going to challenge your authority?) and more like training a puppy: as an owner, you have to establish your alpha position early on.  But I think the underlying point is clear:  God was demonstrating Xyr power.

I also want to point out that nowhere are Nadab and Abihu condemned beyond death.  While their brothers and father are not allowed to participate in their funeral rites, they do, in fact, receive funeral rites, officiated by their cousins and uncle.  In this I take great comfort.  I like to think that their death was the only atonement needed for their sin of arrogance, and that on the other side of it God said something to them along the lines of,  “I had to make an example of you two, you understand.  Your presumptuousness could not be the leading example for the new covenant with Israel, and had to be dealt with harshly.  Your deaths have served a great purpose, all is now right and you are fully forgiven.  Come and be with me now, my children.”

I don’t think we’re fully spiritually mature yet, but it’s a phase I’m looking forward to.  I’m blessed with a good relationship with my parents. Getting to know them as adults has been really wonderful. When you think about it, it is an amazing thing to have someone who has known and loved me since before I’ve even known myself.  I’m mature enough now to hear family stories – both funny and sad – that perhaps I wasn’t privy to as a child and allow for a lot of family and personal insight.  They trust me in (most of my) decisions but can still offer sound advice when I need it.  I want that kind of relationship with God, too.  My ardent hope is that we are, collectively, older and wiser than the Israelites wandering around the desert, new in their faith.  I hope that we have grown, and that our relationship with God has grown into one where we are ready for more than just a God of strict discipline, but a God of love and forgiveness.  Like good children, even and maybe especially good adult children, let’s keep working to prove to God that this is true, and in turn I have a feeling that our relationship with God will just keep getting better.  Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to ask God directly about Nadab and Abihu, and fully understand all sides of the story.  Lord, let it be so.

Author: Annie Newman

Radically Liberal Christian. Autism/Toddler/Pitbull mom. FarmHER. Incurable maker of things.

2 thoughts on “Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu”

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