Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Levitical Interlude #1: Nadab and Abihu

The first historical interlude in the book of Leviticus is the longest of the three and culminates in the judgment-by-incineration of Nadab and Abihu, the elder two sons of Aaron, high priest of Israel.

This is neither the first nor the last time in scripture that God has introduced something new to human society only to have mankind promptly make a shambles of it.

Making a Shambles of It

We do not know the time interval between creation and the Fall, but it is not unreasonable to assume it was a comparatively short period. Man’s first mistake occurred at the first possible opportunity. The first murder occurred in the very first generation after the establishment of the new order brought on by Adam’s transgression. And when God rebooted the world with a global flood, Noah promptly got drunk and ended up cursing his own grandson.

Nor would Nadab and Abihu be the last to experience the judgment of God immediately following the introduction of some new chapter in the divine plan. The first king of Israel forfeited the kingdom a mere two years in. The second brought the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem in the transition period between tabernacle and temple. Along the way, Uzzah touched it in error and perished. Granted the privilege of ruling over a new nation, Jeroboam promptly made God’s people sin and incurred judgment on his entire household. Then, in the days of the early church, the first couple to lie to the Holy Spirit brought God’s wrath on themselves and were struck down in front of the apostles.

Leviticus 8-9: The Consecration of the Priesthood

The Danger of Something New

The presence of God among his people is a wonderful and dangerous thing, but it is especially dangerous when God has just introduced something new. Each initial violation of any new phase in the outworking of God’s plan in the world serves to test whether he is actually serious about showing himself holy before men. The evidence of scripture is that this is very much the case.

The “new thing” here in Leviticus was the ordination of the priesthood. There had been priests before Aaron, of course, and not just priests of the gods of other nations. Hundreds of years prior to Aaron, long before there was an Israelite people, Melchizedek was “a priest of God Most High”, his ministry legitimized by the writer of Hebrews. But we have no idea how or when the mysterious Melchizedek received his anointing or was granted the spiritual authority which the patriarch Abraham immediately recognized. He simply appears on the pages of holy writ and promptly disappears again after having his greatness demonstrated through Abraham, who gave him a tenth of everything.

However, we should be in no doubt whatsoever concerning the God-given authority of the Aaronic priesthood. The first two chapters of this historical interlude detail the process by which Israel’s family of priests was consecrated or set apart to God.

Consecration and the Day of Atonement

The ritual is not wildly dissimilar to the one considered yesterday in our discussion of the first Day of Atonement: the same priestly garments; the same fastidious attention to cleanliness before God; a similar set of sacrifices, in this case a bull and two rams; the same sequence of events with the burnt offering following the sin offering; the same application of the blood to the altar; the same burning of flesh and skin outside the camp.

But there are distinctions to be observed as well. Where the Day of Atonement is concerned with sins and survival of both priesthood and people, the consecration ceremony is more concerned with service. Where sweet incense is prominent in the Day of Atonement, acting as a cloud to cover the mercy seat and protect the priest’s life, the prominent feature of the consecration ceremony is the anointing oil with which the tabernacle, the priest and his sons were all drenched. Psalm 133 compares the pleasure God took in Aaron’s anointing with the pleasure he takes in the unity of the saints. But where the offerings in the Day of Atonement ritual were all God’s and its focus relentlessly Godward, in the consecration ceremony there was also a portion for the priests. Having been made fit for service, the priests were now invited to enjoy fellowship with their God.

Once again, it is safe to say that just about everything in this particular act of the divine play that was the service of the tabernacle anticipates the person and work of Jesus Christ and pictures it for us in one way or another, but it was a one-time event within Israel’s history and requires no comparable equivalent in church life. I do not want to concentrate so much on the ceremony itself as on what followed it.

Leviticus 10: Nadab and Abihu

Where Judgment Begins

The thread of continuity between these three historical interludes in Leviticus is God’s judgment, and it seems likely to me that this consecration ceremony is included among the various sections of the Law only because it is a necessary precursor to the judgment narrative we are about to examine. Other events from this same time period are not included in Leviticus. For example, Numbers 7 gives us a list of the offerings of the tribal chiefs that began to be given “on the day when Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle and had anointed and consecrated it with all its furnishings and had anointed and consecrated the altar with all its utensils”. If we hadn’t noticed it already, this ought to make it apparent that the few historical interludes in Leviticus were not placed there because the writer was interested in preserving an accurate chronology of events, but because they are thematically related. The account of the gifts of the tribal chiefs ends in harmonious communication, not an outbreak of divine judgment. It has no place in Leviticus.

The deaths of Nadab and Abihu would be shocking enough if they had occurred weeks or months later. Coming, as they do, before newly-consecrated priests even had time to eat their designated portion of the sin offering, they are even more unsettling. But judgment begins with the household of God. A witness to God’s holiness must always be preserved and maintained whether or not it offends our sensibilities. Moses observed this immediately following the unexpected and violent outbreak of fire from the Most Holy Place: “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ ”

I do not imagine his brother was much comforted, but it was a lesson that could not wait for a less-sensitive moment.

Strange Fire

The judgment narrative is remarkably succinct, related in a mere two verses:

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”

Garrett Kell comments, “Their ordination processes likely lasted longer than their ministries.” There is no “likely” about it.

Much speculation has been generated by the words “unauthorized fire”. Some look to verse 10 of our chapter, which forbids the priests wine or strong drink prior to or during their ministry, and conclude Aaron’s sons were drunk. Others look to Exodus 30, which forbids offering unauthorized incense (same word) on the incense altar. Others suggest the fire used by Nadab and Abihu did not come from the brazen altar as commanded in chapter 16, but from another source, which seems unlikely considering the instructions about the appropriate source had yet to be given. Still others look to the wording of the first two verses of chapter 16, where God says, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place”, and then goes on to prescribe the method by which Aaron is to enter the sanctuary. They conclude Nadab and Abihu failed to make the necessary preparations before entering the tabernacle. Again, those instructions were given after these events.

The word “unauthorized” is a translation of the Hebrew zûr, which means strange or foreign. It is the same word used to describe a sojourner of another ethnicity. It may be, then, that the meaning of “foreign” in this context is something like “alien to the spirit of God’s process”. Then again, it is not impossible what Nadab and Abihu did was literally foreign, as in ripped off from foreigners; the sons of Aaron may have been mimicking worship rituals they had observed as slaves in Egypt.

Adding to the Word

But all these are mere speculation. If we confine ourselves to the explanation offered by the writer of Leviticus, the essence of the problem with the offering of Nadab and Abihu is not that they violated a command, or even that they had poor spiritual instincts about matters God would later spell out in more detail. The essence of the problem with their offering was this: God had not commanded it. What they did was a creative addition to the divinely-ordered service of the tabernacle and one that was unacceptable for that reason alone.

The dangers of spiritual creativity are well documented elsewhere in scripture both in precept and by example. The third chapter of Genesis has Eve embellishing the command of God concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with the words “neither shall you touch it”, and thereby embarking on the process of self-deception by which sin entered the world. The fourth chapter has Cain engaging in an act of spiritual creativity by bringing the Lord an offering of produce which the Lord did not regard. Had the Lord ever requested that sort of offering, he would surely have accepted Cain’s. The book of Revelation ends with a warning not to add to the words of the prophecy of the book on pain of experiencing the plagues written in it. In Proverbs, Agur writes, “Every word of God proves true. Do not add to his words.” And Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written”, associating spiritual inventiveness with pride.

God gave humanity our ingenuity, but not so that we could exercise it when we worship.

In short, we are highly unwise to introduce into the worship of God any elements foreign to the letter or spirit of the New Testament, whether these originate in our own minds or the worship practices of others. This is the lesson of Nadab and Abihu.

Judgment by Any Other Name

In my introduction I observed that the danger of judgment in this life is especially great when God is doing a new thing. We may be tempted to think, “Well and good. God is not exactly doing anything new these days.” That would be a mistake. I should probably amend my observation: The danger of overt judgment is especially great when God is doing a new thing. The judgment of the errant priesthood was a very obvious and immediate response on God’s part. Nobody in Israel could miss a great column of fire shooting out of the tabernacle. Nobody could miss the stench of burnt flesh or the sight of bodies being carried outside the camp.

But God’s judgment in this life does not always come visibly or audibly during this present day of grace; it may easily go unrecognized. It is an error to assume all suffering is due to the sins of the sufferer. It is equally erroneous to assume none of it is. Paul had to tell the Corinthians why it was that so many among them were weak and ill. Some had even died, but apparently nobody in Corinth was putting two and two together and concluding that a lack of self-judgment was the problem with their church.

The church is not ours to order as we please, and the way in which we worship God is not open to endless modification as we see fit, or to suit the spirit of the age in which we live. The lesson of Nadab and Abihu is that God is holy. It is those nearest to him who most need to keep that in mind.

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