IN LEVITICUS 8 AARON AND HIS SONS, under a ritual prescribed by God, are ordained as priests. In Leviticus 9, they begin their ministry. Here in Leviticus 10, still within the seven days of their ordination rites, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, put coals in their censers and add incense, apparently thinking that they will add something to the ceremonies and rituals God laid down. But “fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (10:2). Before Aaron can protest, Moses pronounces an oracle from God: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’ Aaron remained silent” (10:3).
That is not all. Moses insists that Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, must not break the sacred cycle of ordination to participate in the public mourning for Nadab and Abihu. They are not to leave the tabernacle while “the LORD’s anointing oil” is on them (10:7). First cousins once removed will look after the bodies and discharge family obligations (10:4-5).
What are we to think? A cynic might say that this is elevating ritual above people. Isn’t God a bit insensitive when he cuts down two fine sons who are simply trying to jazz up the worship service a little?
I cannot claim to know all the answers. But consider:
(1) God has repeatedly said that everything connected with the service of the tabernacle must be done exactly according to the pattern provided on the mountain. He has already shown himself to be a God who brooks no rivals, and who expects to be obeyed. At issue is whether God is God.
(2) Throughout the Bible, the closer the people are to times and situations of revelation or revival, the more immediate the divine sanction against those who defy him. Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the ark and is killed; Ananias and Sapphira are killed because of their lies. In colder, more rebellious times, God seems to let the people go to extraordinary lengths of evil before reining them in. Yet the former periods bring greater blessing: more of the immediate presence of God, more disciplined zeal among the people.
(3) In context, Nadab and Abihu almost certainly had defiant, willful motives. For when Aaron makes a different adjustment in the ritual, with the best of motives, surprising flexibility is sanctioned (10:16-20).
(4) This firm lesson prepared the priests for the other major component in their ministry: “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” (10:10-11, italics added).