THE PRESCRIBED WAY: NADAB AND ABIHU
By Max Tarbet


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(The following article is taken in its entirety from TRUTH FOR TODAY, Volume 12, Number 8, January 1992, and was written by Max Tarbet. It is an article that pictures for us that God really does have a "Prescribed Way" which He expects us to follow.)

Leviticus 10:1-11 is in many ways a simple text with a simple application. Nadab and Abihu were newly appointed priests who disobeyed the Lord, and in doing so cost themselves their very lives. They serve as an example to others about God's view of willful disobedience to Him.

While this is the overall lesson that can be drawn from the text and applied to proper worship of God, this is not the limit of our text. We cannot see the depth of the disobedience of these two priests without looking at their background and all that they were privileged to before this incident.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES

While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the law as well as the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, the people were camped at the base of the mountain (Exodus 19:12-25). God warned Moses not to let the priests come upon the mountain until they had consecrated themselves (Exodus 19:24). However, this must have been accomplished in a relatively short time. After Moses had received the law and had given at least the Ten commandments in oral form to the people, God invited Moses, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, plus seventy elders of Israel to come upon the mountain to witness His glory (Exodus 24:1-11). They could not go higher upon the mountain as Moses was invited to do (Exodus 24:12, 13), but they were able to see God, "Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity." (Exodus 24:9-10)

The selection of the Aaronites for the priesthood had been made by God (Exodus 28:1). In giving Moses the various instructions, by which Israel was to worship and live, God had even designed the vestments that the priests, including Aaron as high priest, were to wear (Exodus 28:2-43). The tabernacle had to be completed and dedicated before the priests could take their appointed place as His servants (Exodus 35-40). At this juncture the book of Exodus ends and the book of Leviticus takes up the narrative of God's instructions for the duties and the ceremony that Moses would perform as he ordained the priesthood to office (Leviticus 8). Moses did not first ordain the priests and then give the ritual sacrifices. However, the order proved to be wiser because the sacrifice had to be offered by Moses on behalf of the priests at their consecration rites (Leviticus 8:14-30). Only when the priests possessed the sacrificial manual in its entirety did they have the authority and understanding to carry out its instructions. We read of how precise and exact at every stage the instructions of God were. This pause in the narrative serves as an example of how God demanded obedience to His will.1 

THE CRIME

The death of these two priests is cited in two other Scriptures in the Old Testament. Their names and deed are recorded in the first and second census Moses took of Israel as found in Numbers. These passages do not describe their sin, but the action God took as a result of what they did: "But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered strange fire before the Lord..." (Numbers 3:4, 26:61).

Let us first take the texts and notice the sin or sins that they committed. What is the meaning of "strange fire"? Clyde Woods says it appears to have been incense offered in a manner not prescribed.2  Some Jewish traditions maintain that the fire for the altar of burn offering originated in a divine act and was preserved on the altar until the dedication of the temple, at which time the fire again came from heaven (2 Chronicles 7:1). But the Old Testament indicates that fire for the altar had been lighted before this in a natural way (cf. Leviticus 8:16,20; 9:10,13,14; Exodus 40:29). As Moses described the Day of Atonement, he prescribed that Aaron take the fire from the "altar before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:12). Since he had just described the offering of the sin offering, a bull, we know that this was the altar of burnt offering that was out on the tabernacle grounds. During Korah's rebellion, when the plague broke out upon the people, Moses instructed Aaron to take fire for his censer from this altar (Numbers 16:46). The fire on this altar was to burn constantly (Leviticus 6:13).3  Our first conclusion must be that Nadab and Abihu drew their fire from another source than the altar of burnt offering, making it "strange fire."

Second, it is possible that both the time and the place of their offering were wrong. What had just occurred? It was the end of the day on which they had been consecrated as priests (Leviticus 8). It had culminated in a spectacular blessing and sign from God that all was accepted.

"And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people, and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces." (Leviticus 9:23,24)

After all of this, it is possible that they took it upon themselves to offer incense before the Lord while He was still present. The text says that they were still in their priestly garments (Leviticus 10:5). This would have been at a time not commanded by the Lord; therefore, to Him it was fire which He had not commanded. God was as precise as to the times that sacrifices and incense were to be burned as He was in the kinds of animals and the procedures to be used. Any violation against this part of the law was a violation against God. Just as the Lord had demonstrated His acceptance of Aaron's priesthood by fire (Leviticus 9:24), He also demonstrated His rejection of priestly disobedience by fire.4 

A third possibility might have worked in combination with the idea just presented. The commandments for the Day of Atonement found in chapter 16 specifically state that only the high priest was to approach and go into the Most Holy Place. He had to offer incense (Leviticus 16:12,13), sacrifice an animal for himself, and then sacrifice an animal for all the people. He only had access to the Most Holy Place on that specific day (Leviticus 16:34). In the construction of the tabernacle, the altar of incense was just outside the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Leviticus 10:1 says in describing the actions Nadab and Abihu, that they put incense on their censers. This may indicate that they intended to go inside the Holy Place with that incense, since God's presence was still over the tabernacle (Leviticus 9:23). God, knowing their hearts, did not allow them to proceed any further than the door of the Holy Place, for it was from that place that their bodies were carried away (Leviticus 10:4). Because the Lord had not authorized this kind of sacrifice, He considered it "strange fire."

Thus a combination of sins could have been committed. Their sin could have been an offering not made at the right time, not in the right manner, not in the right place - any or all of which would have been displeasing to the Lord. It is evident that they presumptuously did as an act of worship that which was unauthorized by God.5 

A fourth possibility could have been their actions. We may miss this if we conclude the text of the narrative with verse 7 instead of verse 11. God directed Moses to add an additional requirement for the priestly functions after this incident. That was a prohibition against drinking before coming on duty as God's priests (Leviticus 10:9, 10). The phrase added, "that you may not die," may well have been the punishment God meted out to these two because not only were their actions inappropriate, but their spiritual and mental states had been affected by wine. The warning was appropriate here following the Lord's judgment upon Nadab and Abihu, but there is no clear evidence that intoxication played a part in their sin.6 

Verses 5, 6 and 7 add to the gravity of their sin as they indicate that the rebellious attitude of Nadab and Abihu could have had serious consequences for the nation as a whole. Aaron and his sons were not even to leave the sanctuary to take part in the burial.7

AN OBVIOUS CONCLUSION

This passage clearly states that Nadab and Abihu offered "strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them." Their overall sin, therefore, was disobedience to God. The Lord could neither be honored nor glorified by presumption and disobedience.8  It cannot be denied by anyone that this passage teaches that God expects and demands obedience. He looks at our hearts, but He also looks at our actions. We must do what God has directed.

As we apply this passage to ourselves, let us remember the words of our Lord concerning obedience:

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matthew 7.21-23)

"But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46).

_____________________________

1R.K. Harrison, "Leviticus," in Tyndale's Old Testament Commentary (Leichester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 88.
2Clyde M. Woods, "Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy," in The Living Way Commentary on the Old Testament (Shreveport, La.; Lambert Book House, 1974), 24.
3F. C. Cook, "Exodus-Ruth" In The Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1960),132.
4 Woods, 24
5 S.H. Kellogg, Studies in Leviticus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1988), 248.
6 Woods, 24.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

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