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The Sons of Aaron

Al Maxey

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Eleazar and Ithamar
The Two That Prospered

Nadab and Abihu
The Two That Perished... The Nature of their Fatal Error

 

Eleazar and Ithamar
An In-Depth Reflective Analysis

Within the pages of the Old Covenant writings one will find approximately 26 different genealogical lists. Some are rather brief, others fairly extensive. Genealogies can be either terribly dry and dull, or they can be fascinating. They are the latter when we bother to get to know the persons involved. The genealogy of Jesus, for example, is filled with tremendous instruction and encouragement, as I sought to convey in Reflections #231. But, let's focus our attention upon a family who lived a good many centuries before our Savior came to earth. Let's consider the sons of Aaron. "Aaron took to himself Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Nahshon, as wife; and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar" [Exodus 6:23].

Aaron, of course, as even our young children know, was the brother of Moses. "Now Amram took for himself Jochebed, his father's sister, as wife; and she bore him Aaron and Moses" [Exodus 6:20]. These two brothers would become key figures in the deliverance of the people of Israel from their Egyptian bondage, and vital leaders of the Lord's people for decades thereafter. The Pentateuch is filled with accounts of their exploits, as well as their strengths and weaknesses; their successes and failures. Aaron initially served as the spokesman of Moses unto Pharaoh {Exodus 7:1-2], but would later become the High Priest of God for His beloved people, assisted by his four sons. "Now take Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to Me as priest, Aaron and Aaron's sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar" [Exodus 28:1]. "So they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister to Me as priest" [vs. 4]. In Leviticus 8 we find the consecration ceremony for Aaron and his sons.

    "Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood which was on the altar, and sprinkled it on Aaron, on his garments, on his sons, and on the garments of his sons with him; and he consecrated Aaron, his garments, his sons, and the garments of his sons with him" [Leviticus 8:30].

At the end of seven days, the time of their consecration [vs. 33], this brother of Moses and his sons became the spiritual representatives of God to His people, and the representatives of the people to their God. This was an awesome responsibility for these men, and one, if they were wise, they would never take lightly.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case in the course of human affairs, it didn't take long for things to go horribly wrong within this privileged family. The two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, as a result of a series of horrendous affronts to the holiness of their God, were struck dead [Leviticus 10:1-2]. At this point I would encourage the reader to review the nature of their fatal error, as discussed BELOW. Understanding the true nature of their offense is extremely critical to our perceiving the significance of the Lord's dealings with their two younger brothers later during that same period of time. What many disciples of Christ have seemingly overlooked, or perhaps they simply never knew, is that there were additional failures evidenced on that occasion; failures to fully comply with the directives of God. The two younger brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar, and very likely Aaron as well, deliberately set aside God's will ... and yet they were not struck down. Indeed, they were not even declared guilty. Further, God blessed their lives and their descendants. Why?! Two brothers died; two brothers lived ... and these latter brothers even prospered. Yet both sets of brothers had clearly transgressed the will of their God. Why were the older two cursed and the younger two blessed? This is a question that has deeply troubled scholars for centuries!

    · It also quickly raises some very interesting questions with regard to the application of examples to one's theology. For instance, the consequences that befell Nadab and Abihu have become the proof text for legalistic patternists, as well as advocates of the so-called "law of silence," to demonstrate the severity of God against all who dare to "innovate" in a "worship assembly." But what about the testimony of God's gracious dealings with their two younger brothers?! What does this convey to us with regard to how our God deals with "unlawful innovation"? A minister in the beautiful state of Oregon recently sent me the following question: "I was wondering what you thought about the sin of Ithamar and Eleazar. Does it serve as a counter argument to those who spout Nadab and Abihu as examples of why we are not allowed to do something in a 'worship service,' such as use instruments to accompany/aid singing?"

As one can quickly perceive, there are some rather serious theological matters associated with the divine adjudication of the transgressions of these four brothers. Two perished, two prospered. What is the explanation? We shall seek to provide some insight into that disparity in the course of this brief study. First, however, we need to set the scene and present to view the main players (to use the terminology of the live theater). Historically, we find the people of Israel freed from their Egyptian captivity. They are in the wilderness, where, sadly, they are destined to remain for 40 years. Spiritually, they have entered into a covenant with their God, which occurred at Mt. Sinai [Exodus 19]. They have received the Law of God through Moses; the priesthood has been established in Aaron and his sons; various sacrifices have been ordained, with specific instructions as to how, when, where, why and by whom they are to be carried out. As previously noted, it didn't take long for two of Aaron's sons to violate that divine specificity, and they paid for this affront to the holiness of God with their very lives. Again, if you have not yet read my above mentioned Reflections in which I outline the various aspects of that transgression, I would plead with you to do so before continuing. Understanding why God manifested such severity toward Nadab and Abihu, and then later displayed such leniency toward Eleazar and Ithamar, hinges on the nature of the two transgressions and what was in the hearts and minds of these four sons of Aaron when they departed from God's specificity. More about this in a moment. First, let's get to know the third and fourth born sons of Aaron and Elisheba.

Eleazar
Eleazar is a name meaning "God helps." He was the third son to be born among the four brothers [Num. 3:2]. We know that Nadab and Abihu "had no children" [Num. 3:4], so it was through Eleazar and Ithamar that "the line of priestly descent from Aaron is traced" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 389]. Eleazar, as the older of the two surviving sons, was given the seniority in matters of priestly responsibility over his younger brother, and succeeded to the high priestly office after his father's death [Num. 20:23-29; Deut. 10:6]. Prior to that, however, he was "the chief of the leaders of Levi, and had the oversight of those who perform the duties of the sanctuary" [Num. 3:32]. He was further responsible for "all the tabernacle and of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings" [Num. 4:16]. It was in the presence of Eleazar that Joshua was commissioned by Moses as the new leader of the people of Israel -- "And Moses did just as the Lord commanded him: he took Joshua and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him" [Num. 27:22-23]. After entering the promised land, "Eleazar and Joshua, according to Joshua 14:1 [see also: Num. 34:17], were the key figures in the distribution of Canaanite territories among the Israelite tribes" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 407].

    · "And Aaron's son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and she bore him Phinehas" [Exodus 6:25]. Toward the end of Eleazar's life, it was Phinehas who began assuming more and more responsibility as the spiritual leader of the people of Israel [see: Joshua 22:13f; Judges 20:28f]. After the death of Eleazar it was Phinehas who succeeded him as high priest. "And Eleazar son of Aaron died and was buried at Gibeah, which had been allotted to his son Phinehas in the hill country of Ephraim" [Joshua 24:33]. Eleazar was the ancestor of the Zadokite priests, and that genealogical line is traced all the way down to the time of the Babylonian captivity in 1 Chron. 6:3-15. In David's day, sixteen divisions of priests were associated with Eleazar, while only eight were associated with Ithamar [1 Chron. 24]. Eleazar was also an ancestor of Ezra the scribe [Ezra 7:5], who was one of the great reformation leaders of the people of Israel after their return from the Babylonian captivity.


Ithamar
The fourth and youngest son of Aaron and Elisheba was Ithamar, a name whose meaning is not certain, but "island of palms" or "where is Tamar?" have both been suggested. Although he never rose to the same level of prominence as Eleazar, nevertheless Ithamar had a great deal of leadership responsibility as a priest of God. "Ithamar was made the treasurer of the offerings for the tabernacle (Exodus 38:21), and superintendent of the Gershonites and Merarites in the service of the tabernacle, according to Numbers 4:28, 33" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 939]. He was the founder of the priestly line to which Eli belonged, and his lineage continued through a man named Daniel even after the return from the Babylonian captivity [Ezra 8:2]. Although most of the chief positions in the Levitical priesthood were held by the descendants of Eleazar, "for some unknown reason the descendants of Ithamar seem to have held the chief position among the priests from Eli until the accession of Solomon" [ISBE, vol. 2, p. 54]. Little else is known about this youngest son of Aaron.


Man's Transgression
After God struck down Nadab and Abihu for their flagrant irreverence, Moses called two of their close relatives, "Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron's uncle Uzziel, and he said to them, 'Come forward, carry your relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to the outside of the camp.' So they came forward and carried them still in their tunics to the outside of the camp, as Moses had said" [Lev. 10:4-5]. Moses then informed Aaron and his two remaining sons [vs. 6-7] that they were not to display any visible signs of mourning over what had just happened. The people could mourn the transgression of their priests which had resulted in such a stunning display of God's wrath, but God's representatives, the high priest and priests, must NOT show any sign of disapproval of God's action (which mourning might be interpreted by some of the people as being). Indeed, Moses informs them that they are not even to go out of the doorway of the tent of meeting. In other words, they were to carry on with their duties within the tabernacle, finishing the offerings unto God that had been initiated, but which had been interrupted by the incident that had just occurred. The instructions as to what remained to be done are mentioned in verses 12-15.

"Consternation or resentment might have led Aaron and 'his sons that were left' to leave the remainder of their sacred duties undischarged. This must not be. The sin of the two sons must not interrupt the service of the Most High. His worship must not cease because two men have erred" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 167]. Dr. Paul Kretzmann observes, "To mourn in this particular case would have been equivalent to expressing dissatisfaction with the judgments of the Lord." Aaron and his two remaining sons were not "to join the funeral procession or in any way to permit an intermission to take place in the priestly functions" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The OT, vol. 1, p. 202]. The penalty that would befall them if they failed to heed this instruction was death [Lev. 10:7]. Therefore, Aaron and his sons continued with their duties before the Lord while Nadab and Abihu were carried away. This seems an almost super-human effort on their part, and yet, to their credit, they sought to comply.

    · The sacrifices had not been completed, therefore these men were obligated, on behalf of the people, to finish what had been started. A goat for a sin offering had been slain and the blood sprinkled upon the altar. The meat of this goat was then to be eaten by the priests at a holy place specified within the tabernacle. "The rule was that, when the blood was presented in the tabernacle, the flesh was burned; when it was not (when the blood was sprinkled on the altar), the flesh was to be eaten by the priests" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 161]. In this particular case, the goat's "blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary" [Lev. 10:18]. Therefore, the priests were obligated to eat the meat within the sanctuary, "just as I commanded," declared Moses [vs. 18].

The problem? Instead of eating the meat of this goat in the sanctuary of the tabernacle, as had been commanded, Eleazar and Ithamar had burned it up on the altar. "Moses searched carefully for the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it had been burned up! So he was angry with Aaron's surviving sons Eleazar and Ithamar" [vs. 16]. He confronted his two nephews, saying, "Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? ... Behold, since its blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, just as I commanded" [vs. 17-18]. Moses may well have feared that another two deaths were about to occur. The fact that there is no record of these two sons of Aaron making any response to the angry accusation of Moses could also perhaps be attributed to the fact that they may well have been speechless with fear. Would they now be consumed by fire from above?! This was a tense moment; much was hanging in the balance ... including the very future of the Aaronic priesthood.

Into the midst of this momentous moment steps Aaron, the high priest of God. He has already witnessed the deaths of two sons, and it appears he is about to witness the deaths of his two remaining ones. His statement is a brief one, but it spoke volumes from the depths of his heart. Addressing Moses, Aaron spoke on behalf of himself and his sons, saying, "Look, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?" [vs. 19, NKJV]. The NASB reads, "When things like these happened to me, if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have been good in the sight of the Lord?" The NIV has rendered Aaron's final question this way: "Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?" In essence, we have before us the age-old question of the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Yes, they should have eaten the meat of the goat in the sanctuary as commanded. They chose not to, burning it up on the altar instead. As with Nadab and Abihu, specific instructions had been intentionally violated; that which was commanded had been set aside. Yet, we are told, "When Moses heard this, it seemed good in his sight" [vs. 20, NASB]. The NIV declares, "he was satisfied." The KJV says, "he was content."


God's Grace
"Behold then the kindness and severity of God" [Rom. 11:22]. We certainly behold both on this occasion, don't we?! So, exactly what made the difference? Why did two sons die and two sons live, when both had committed transgression of that which had been commanded? What was it that called forth God's severity in the one case, but His kindness in the other? Dear brethren, the distinction lies in the heart. As Aaron pointed out to his brother Moses, Eleazar and Ithamar had indeed continued their responsibilities before the Lord, even in the face of the sudden, horrific deaths of their older brothers. Aaron too had not shown any visible outpouring of grief, but had continued his priestly responsibilities, lest any such display be perceived as an admission of displeasure over God's judgment. Aaron pointed out to Moses that this was no small feat in light of what had occurred. It showed a dedication to and great reverence for God Almighty. Although outwardly they presented a brave face to the people, yet inwardly their hearts were broken! The people saw their outward actions ... God knew their hearts! They simply couldn't bring themselves to eat when so overcome with sorrow [as per the example of Hannah in 1 Sam. 1:7-8], and so they trusted that they served a gracious Father who would understand and show mercy.

And He Did!! ... And He Does!!

"Aaron replied that though he was forbidden to mourn, he could not eat in good conscience that day. With that Moses was content; for Aaron had acted, not in negligence nor mechanically, but in responsible sincerity. It is noteworthy that in the OT, also, the heart attitude is more important than the mechanics of all the sacrifices" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 567]. You may remember those who observed the Passover "otherwise than prescribed" during the days of Hezekiah, and yet God accepted their worship because even though they had transgressed the rules, they had focused their hearts upon Him [2 Chron. 30]. Aaron trusted God to place sincerity of a heart totally devoted to Him above preciseness of practice under such special circumstances, and Aaron was not disappointed. "The irregularity was not careless, nor was it a violation of the spirit of the law. Aaron was forbidden to desecrate his office by the ordinary signs of mourning, such as rending garments, cutting hair, etc. But to fast on this day of his grief was proper enough. And Moses was satisfied that the Lord's law had not been further broken" [ibid, p 568]. Yes, Moses "spake nothing at all" about Aaron and his two remaining sons fasting on this occasion. But God accepted it because it came from a sincere heart devoted to Him. Even though such an expression broke a particular of a command, yet it was done to a noble end, rather than an ignoble one (as with Nadab and Abihu). Nadab and Abihu failed to show any consideration for either God, His people, or their family, and this under very privileged circumstances; Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, in marked contrast, had shown nothing but love and devotion for them all, and this under some extremely difficult circumstances. Thus, God overlooked the deviation of law in favor of the devotion of love!

"The law of love is the highest law and supersedes all others. It was so in the Old Testament, just as it is in the New, that God desired mercy rather than sacrifice" [Dr. Kretzmann, p. 203]. The spirit of the law will always supersede the letter of it; the legitimate needs of God's children come before rules! "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?" [Matt. 12:3-4]. Jesus Christ then points out that in this special circumstance the letter of the law was set aside in favor of the spirit of it. "But if you had known what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" [vs. 7]. The account of Eleazar and Ithamar, among others, "shows that it is proper to break the Law in the letter, when to do so is necessary to its observance in the spirit" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 166].

Aaron "summoned himself and his sons to continue in the service of the Lord, and only stopped at the point where overcoming sorrow laid its arresting hand upon him. When a spirit of obedience is thus in our hearts, God does not exact a strict measure of work to be accomplished by our hands" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 168]. There is a deeper law at work, one that transcends the letter of it ... it is the law of the Spirit; the law of love! The paraphrase of Lev. 10:20 in the ancient Palestine Chaldee Version provides an interesting insight into this deeper law of God --- "And when Moses heard it, he approved of this explanation. Whereupon he sent a herald through the whole camp of Israel, saying, 'It is I from whom the law had been hid, and my brother Aaron brought it to my remembrance.'" Indeed, Jewish tradition to this day ascribes the "error" on that day to Moses, rather than to Aaron or his two surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. Thus, with Aaron's heartfelt statement "Moses was satisfied, and God, who knew his situation, took no notice of the irregularity which had taken place in the solemn service ... and evidenced no kind of displeasure at this irregularity, which was, in a measure at least, justified by the present necessity" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 1, p. 539]. "It was true that the letter of the Law had been broken, but there was a sufficient cause for it" [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 161].

"For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" [Hosea 6:6]. Aaron and his two youngest sons were the epitome of loyalty unto the Lord God, evidencing a strength of character in service to Him that most men could not have accomplished, given the circumstances. However, they were also mere flesh and blood, and they grieved the loss of sons and brothers. God saw their hearts and overlooked their transgression. After all, it is our hearts the heavenly Father truly desires! "Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousands rivers of oil? ... He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" [Micah 6:7-8]. Nadab and Abihu had failed to walk humbly with their God, showing Him great irreverence in their attitudes and actions. Eleazar and Ithamar, along with Aaron their father, were loyal, humble and devoted ... and, yes, flawed. Like Nadab and Abihu, they too failed to comply with the instructions of their Lord. But, far more than the preciseness of the actions or inactions of these two sets of brothers, God judged the hearts of these men, and at the end of the day we beheld both the severity and kindness of our great God. It is no less true today. Lord, help us to give our hearts fully unto Thee, and show forth Thy grace and mercy when our hands, our feet, and our tongues too frequently fail us in our service to Thy cause. Thank you, Father, for being such an awesome God!

Ips-Bar

Nadab and Abihu
The Nature of their Fatal Error

If I had a dollar for every time those who promote patternism have resurrected Nadab and Abihu to bear witness to the deadly consequences of "innovations" in worship, I could have retired years ago. "Remember Nadab and Abihu!" has been the mantra of rigid religiosity for generations. Those who oppose eating a meal in the church building will quickly cry out, "Remember Nadab and Abihu!" If the teens clap during a song in the "worship assembly" they will need to be reminded of two sons of Aaron "on fire for the Lord." If we support an orphan out of the "treasury," or use more than one cup in the Lord's Supper, or employ four part harmony in our singing, or any one of a thousand other "insidious innovations," we are quickly warned that we tread the same path as Abihu and his brother Nadab (a name meaning "liberal" in Hebrew; a fact some have virtually taken as a "sign from God" in defense of conservatism over liberalism).

There is no question that these two sons of Aaron committed "sin unto death." For our God to punish them as He did (they even died without offspring -- Numbers 3:4; 1 Chronicles 24:2) indicates extreme displeasure on His part with regard to their attitudes and actions. Something was greatly amiss in the lives of Nadab and Abihu. But, what was it? Was it their use of a "worship innovation," as we often hear from those who so frequently appeal to their example? Did God incinerate them simply because they got the wrong fire, or because they got some elusive "order of worship" wrong, or because they violated some so-called Law of Silence? Or, was there something far greater, more evil, lurking in the hearts and lives of these two men? Before one presumes to appeal to Nadab and Abihu as an example, it would behoove one to first determine the exact nature of their fatal error. That we shall attempt to accomplish in this article.

Their Blessings

Before one can truly come to appreciate the deadly sin of these two men, one needs to know something of their blessings and privileges. A study of Scripture clearly reveals these were two truly favored persons. They were, without question, the least likely of the sons of Israel one would expect to be executed so suddenly by their God. On the surface, all seemed so right and so bright for these two.

Nadab and Abihu were the sons of Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel, and thus the nephews of Moses. As such, they were the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We can confidently declare, therefore, these men were of "good stock," from a fine, upstanding lineage, and had the blessing of godly examples of great men and women in their lives. This should have had a tremendous impact upon them for good.

They also had an exalted status among the people. Exodus 24:11 lists them as being among the "nobles of the sons of Israel." In Scripture, their names even appear before that of the Elders of Israel. Some have speculated one of them may well have been slated to be next in line for the High Priesthood after their father Aaron completed his service. They were being groomed for the highest positions of service unto God and His people at that time. Not something to be taken lightly.

In Exodus 24:1 we see God asking for them by name to come and commune with Him on Mt. Sinai. These two men were allowed to worship in the very presence of God Almighty! What a blessing! They ate and drank before Him, and they "saw the God of Israel" (Exodus 24:10). Nadab and Abihu beheld their God, and they were allowed to live!

Few people in the history of mankind can lay claim to such blessings! They were privileged and exalted above other men in many respects. Certainly we would expect such men to be holy, devout, and committed completely to their God. They were regarded highly by deity, thus we would naturally assume they would regard deity just as highly.

Their Fatal Failings

In light of the above, the events of Leviticus 10 come as quite a shock! How could God do this to these two brothers upon whom He had previously bestowed such enormous blessings? Further, how could two men who had been so richly blessed by their God sin so horribly as to cause Him to strike them dead? Just what was their fatal error? Did God overreact, as some claim? At first reading, many assume their sin to have been little more than a minor infraction; hardly worthy of an instant, fiery death.

There has been tremendous debate and speculation through the centuries as to the exact nature of their sin. My personal conviction, after much study of this account, is that there is far more involved than a single, small sin ... what some might term "a little sin." Their punishment, in my studied opinion, was for several highly significant affronts to deity. Thus, their fatal failing was multi-faceted. "The sin of Nadab and Abihu was of a complicated nature, and involved and consisted of several transgressions" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 371).

#1 --- Unauthorized Entry

There is evidence to suggest these two sons of Aaron entered, or attempted to enter, the Holy of Holies to offer their incense unto God. This was an action specifically forbidden by God. The Lord had made it abundantly clear that only certain persons could come into the Holy of Holies, and they could only do so at clearly specified times for clearly specified purposes. Nadab and Abihu would have been well aware of these provisions and restrictions. That they violated these direct commands of God is seen by strong implication in the following passage:

    · "Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the Lord and died. And the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die'" --- Leviticus 16:1-2.

This passage leaves little doubt in the minds of most scholars that one aspect of the sin of these two brothers was that they dared to approach the presence of the Lord God uninvited and unauthorized. They presumed for themselves the authority to pass through the veil and into the most holy place itself before the ark of the covenant. This violated specific commands from the Lord. Nadab and Abihu thus rejected God's specified will with regard to who could enter, when they could enter, and for what purpose they could enter. Perhaps, some speculate, they believed themselves to be on such a familiar standing with their God that they could presume to come before Him whenever they pleased. In so doing, however, they elevated themselves above the position of their earthly father (the High Priest of Israel) and above the precepts of their heavenly Father (the God of Israel). They thus usurped the authority of both. This God would not tolerate!

#2 --- Lack of Reverence

The attitude underlying the above action was a lack of reverence. Nadab and Abihu failed to display reverence for their God and His sanctuary. "You shall revere My sanctuary; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:30). We are informed that "reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). A lack of reverence for Him and for that which He has declared holy, however, can prove fatal, as Nadab and Abihu tragically learned. This is clearly seen in the following passage where Moses is explaining to his brother Aaron how he perceives the tragic event which has just occurred:

    · "Then Moses said to Aaron, 'It is what the Lord spoke, saying, "By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored."' So Aaron, therefore, kept silent" --- Leviticus 10:3. "Moses' words imply that the sin issued from hearts out of keeping with God's holiness and glory" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 354).

Aaron's two sons had not shown proper reverence for the Lord God. This was something God would not tolerate, especially from individuals who had been so greatly blessed and who were in a position to influence so many of the people of Israel. Leaders are to be examples to those they lead, and, as such, must expect stricter judgment when they willfully shirk their responsibility. The lives of their people, for which they are accountable, are at stake. The apostle Peter informs shepherds of God's flock that they must "prove to be examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3). They must lead the way in holiness and faithfulness and in attitudes of reverence for the Lord. This, then, was a major failing of Nadab and Abihu.

#3 --- Offered Strange Fire

Leviticus 10:1 informs us that Nadab and Abihu "offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them." It is this particular transgression that has traditionally been declared to constitute the fatal error of these two men. They "offered strange fire." However, as we have already seen, this was only part of their sin before God; merely a visible symptom of a deadlier disease spreading within their hearts and minds. One reason this incident is appealed to so frequently, however, is that the patternists perceive in the above statement an allusion to their cherished "Law of Silence." Nadab and Abihu had done something "in worship" that was "not commanded." In other words, according to the patternists, God was silent about that which they sought to offer up before Him. Thus, it is reasoned, their "worship innovation" violated God's "Law of Silence." They did what was not commanded. This, however, is "a figure of speech frequently used in Hebrew, where the negative form is used for the emphatic affirmative. This phrase is better rendered, 'which He had strongly forbidden them'" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 371).

Countless times I have seen such men appeal to this story as proof positive of the validity of the so-called "Law of Silence." This is fallacious reasoning, however. God was not even remotely silent about this matter. Indeed, this is not a case of violating silence at all, but of disregarding divine specificity. Had God truly been "silent" on the issue of what He expected in this area of worship, He would have said NOTHING AT ALL. As it was, He was very specific in His commands. He conveyed to His priests and people EXACTLY what He wanted. If they then chose to do something different which He had not commanded, making a substitution, this was not a violation of His "silence," it was a rejection of His "specificity." HUGE difference!

What exactly was this "strange fire" that Nadab and Abihu offered up to God? Simply stated, it was fire (or, more accurately, burning coals) not taken from the brazen altar. Thus, the "strange fire" was burning coals taken from a source other than the one specified by God. What was the source specified? Notice the following:

    · When ceremonial worship was first instituted among the people of Israel, sacrificial victims on the brazen altar were consumed by fire sent directly from God's presence. This was holy fire; fire from the very presence of God Almighty. The people were commanded to keep this fire burning at all times. It was never to go out. The daily incense was to be burned in censers using ONLY this particular source of fire. NO OTHER FIRE was to be used. Leviticus 16:12-13 commands that Aaron, the High Priest, "shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony."

Nadab and Abihu, in a flagrant act of irreverence, presented an offering before God that only the High Priest was allowed to make, in a location where they were clearly forbidden to be, using coals of fire taken from a source other than the one clearly commanded by the Lord God. Saxe & Jensen (Studies In Leviticus) cite this as "no light offense," but rather constituting "flagrant disobedience and presumption." Whether they thought one source of fire was as good as another, or whether they just didn't care, the reality is that these two brothers were in direct violation of a specific command of God. He had specified the source of the coals of fire; they had chosen another. That is NOT a transgression of silence, it is a transgression of specificity. Again, God would not tolerate such visible and blatant disobedience, especially not from a pair of men as influential as Nadab and Abihu. It would set a precedent before the people that could not be allowed.

#4 --- Intoxication

The question that cries out for a rational response here is --- WHY?! Nadab and Abihu knew better! These were not novices! So, why did they commit such flagrant transgression? They were not ignorant of God's will. They knew who could and could not enter the presence of the Lord, and when, and for what purpose. They knew what source was specified for the coals of fire for the offering. This was all common knowledge to them. Why, then, such a horrendous display of irreverence and contempt by two men so richly blessed and privileged by their God?

It is my firm conviction, based on my study of the context of the account, that the answer lies in the fact that their senses had become dulled and their judgment impaired by excessive consumption of alcohol. Simply stated --- They were drunk!

Immediately after the bodies of Nadab and Abihu had been dragged outside the camp, the Lord God made this statement to Aaron, the father of these two men: "Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die --- it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations --- so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean" (Leviticus 10:9-10). There is simply no question, in light of the context, that the Lord is here issuing a dire warning to Aaron and his other sons, with the sins of Nadab and Abihu freshly in mind, that such behavior and irreverence will not be tolerated.

    · "Drunkenness may have been an element in the sin" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 939). "The probabilities are in favor of supposing that Nadab and Abihu had indulged in wine or strong drink ... and, in consequence, were incapacitated for distinguishing between the holy fire and its unholy counterfeit. It is not every one who can stand a 'full cup,' or walk with it steadily" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 152). "The injunction of verses 9-10 implies that the brothers were under the influence of strong drink at the time" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 354).

    · "Ancient tradition says that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too freely of the drink offering, and performed their service in a state of intoxication, when they were incapacitated to distinguish between what was legal and illegal. So general was this tradition that it is actually embodied in the Palestinian Chaldee Version of verse 9" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 371). "There is more than a hint that Nadab and Abihu profaned the Lord's house because they were drunk. This was not the last tragedy caused by the bottle. There is at least one danger of drink and drugs. They rob a man of his reason, and under their influence a man will do things he otherwise would never do. For a man to abdicate his reason for drink or drugs is too grave a risk. From here on the priest entering the tabernacle was to drink no alcohol" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 567).

Nadab and Abihu had failed to distinguish between that which was holy and that which was profane, between the clean and the unclean. They certainly knew the difference, but on this occasion failed to make the distinction. Why? They were intoxicated; their senses were dulled and their judgment impaired; the lines of distinction between holy and profane became blurred .... and it cost them their lives. The High Priest was commanded by God to take steps to assure that such a thing never happened again among those men providing spiritual leadership to His people. When performing their service to God and His people, they were to abstain from strong drink so that their judgment might not be impaired.

    · I find it at least somewhat interesting that the same caution is given by the apostle Paul to those who would be spiritual leaders in the church today! Elders and Deacons must not be men "addicted" to alcoholic beverages (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7). Notice carefully, by the way, that it didn't say they were forbidden to drink wine, it said they were not to be enslaved to it; under its power. There is a distinction. Even Aaron and his sons were not banned from wine forever, but rather were told not to drink when coming into the tent of meeting! Impaired judgment can be deadly, and this is especially so with regard to eternal matters. [Also See The Bible and Alcohol]

Concluding Thought

We have a tendency to read the account of Nadab and Abihu with a sense of either disbelief or righteous indignation. How could two such privileged men become so careless as to forfeit their very lives? However, before we rush too quickly to judgment, before we become too self-righteous in our condemnation, perhaps we should pause for a moment of self examination! We, like they, are blessed by our God beyond measure. We, like they, are priests of God most high (Revelation 1:6). To each of us is given a sacred trust: we serve before our God in matters of eternal import.

How are we presenting ourselves before our God? Have we set aside what He prescribes in order to elevate our own traditional preferences? If so, we invalidate His Word (Matthew 15:6). Are our spiritual senses dulled, and our judgments impaired, by the wine of worldliness? Have we consorted with the Great Harlot and "drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality" (Revelation 18:3), thus failing to distinguish between the holy and the profane? Are we walking about in a spiritual stupor, unable to discern God's true will for our lives, both individually and as the universal One Body? Yes, Nadab and Abihu committed sin unto death. Let us determine not to do the same!

"See then that you walk circumspectly, not as
fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the
days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but under-
stand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk
with wine, in which is excess (Greek: asotia = a disposition
of reckless abandon); but be filled with the Spirit."
--- Ephesians 5:15-18

 

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