Those were Aaron the high priest’s eldest sons, and they mixed strange fire against the law, and God judged them instantly. Why? Is God a petty tyrant? Most of this post is concerned with this issue, while the rest of Leviticus 10 gives further instructions for the priests generally.
As I note in many of these posts that touch on the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices, the Spirit-inspired writers of the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) encourage us to read the Old Testament, particularly the priesthood and the ministry of the priests, as containing types and shadows of the substance or reality, which is Christ and his heavenly priesthood.
They [priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven (Heb. 8:5)
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. (Heb. 10:1)
Then the author of Hebrews writes many, many verses explaining the realities of the copies and shadows. They are revealed most clearly in Jesus’s sacrifice and his priesthood in the heavenly, eternal sanctuary.
Peter explicitly makes the water of the flood during the time of Noah symbolic:
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. (1 Pet. 3:21)
Paul writes that food and festivals are but the shadow, while Christ is the substance:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)
Even the lives of the people in the OT serve as exemplary warnings for us:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Cor. 10:11)
With their permission, so to speak, I apply their typological and symbolic method here.
For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:
What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?
How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19
The Church Fulfills and Replaces Old Testament Temple
One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant
Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.
The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took the censures and put fire in them and added incense. That was strange fire. “So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (v. 2). According to a Jewish commentator, the two men may have come too close the the Most Holy Place (Holy of Holies) (Torah, p. 800). Then Moses told Aaron that those who approach God must be proved holy; in the sight of all the people he will be honored. Aaron said nothing. Moses ordered Nadab and Abihu’s two cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan, to carry their bodies out. The deceased were still in their tunics, so the fire did not turn everything into ashes. Their cousins were Levites, so they were allowed to carry the dead bodies, but not the two remaining sons because they had been specially anointed.
So why did God act in such a summary way, implementing the death penalty immediately? How are these two men examples for us (1 Cor. 10:11)?
First, it is so important that people in the sleepy and comfortable Western world understand that this was a theocracy, and most importantly, these newly ordained priests represented the apex of the theocracy, long before kings came around. They experienced the highest level of God’s holiness, which must not be trifled with. God’s manifest presence must be taken seriously.
But why did God act so lethally? Moses quoted a saying that Aaron and his two sons knew.
“‘Among those who approach me
I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.’” (Lev. 10:3)
That was the theocratic, religious law, and Aaron’s two sons knew it. They broke it, and they suffered the ultimate consequence.
Second, God implemented the death penalty for law-breaking that we do not implement today. So there is a cultural difference, but let’s not be chronological snobs and always think we’re better (see the third point, below). In the tabernacle in the wilderness, it is about holy living. God’s judgment was not about lashing out irrationally, though it was immediate; rather, God acted as the judge. He evaluated the public sins of these most holy priests and implemented the death penalty. But it is not emotional or a blind fury.
In other words, God’s wrath is judicial and not like this:
But God’s judicial wrath is like this:
That is a picture of God in judgment, showing his protective wrath and love over his people. “Lack of wrath against wickedness is a lack of caring, which is a lack of love” (p. 23 or 160). Down here on earth, as it is now in its sinful state, you can’t have love without anger against injustice and evil.
Please see these posts:
The Wrath of God in the New Testament
The Wrath of God in the Old Testament
Do I Really Know God? He Shows Wrath
Let’s transition to the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament).
Third, God has never relinquished his attribute of wrath, but after the New Covenant was established, he has now channeled it primarily through law enforcement and the court system (the ancient Israelites also had a court system). From Romans 13:
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:4, emphasis added).
So if you get a speeding ticket because you really broke the law, then you just experienced God’s wrath, whether you follow Jesus or not!
Now what about a suspect with a gun or other dangerous weapon? The police are legally allowed to execute judgment on him by an instant death penalty. They have evaluated the situation and determined that the suspect was a “clear and present danger” to society, and they immediately killed him. Yes, it’s sad that the suspect went too far and died, but the officers followed the civil law.
Objection: “But God executed two men for doing something religious! It’s not the same!” The reply is not to be a cultural snob, imposing your First Amendment that guarantees religious freedom on the ancient Israelites. No, police officers don’t execute people for breaking religious laws–and we can be grateful for that!–but back then God did. Those were the rules for high-level priests in a society that taught holiness.
Fourth, the next verse was written in the context of our not living in fear of any shaking, when God will once again shake the earth and heaven, so that what remains will endure: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Heb. 12:28, citing Deut. 4:24), God is still a consuming fire, which speaks of purification and judgment. He won’t strike us down with fire while we are in the New Covenant, but we can experience declining health and die prematurely (see the sixth point, below).
Heb. 12:28 teaches us that we must be grateful and worship him in an acceptable manner with reverence and awe. Dear people of God, we serve a powerful and awesome God. We can’t just show up in our own way with our snarky attitudes. We must approach him in the way he prescribes–with gratitude and worship in an acceptable manner, with a sense of fear and awe.
Fifth, Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead when the new kingdom community got underway. The translation is mine:
1 A certain man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold their tract of land, 2 and he misappropriated some of the proceeds and, with his wife being aware, brought some of the portion and placed it at the feet of the apostles. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why did Satan fill your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, in order to misappropriate the proceeds of the land? 4 Is it not the case that what remained belonged to you, and once you sold it, the money was authoritatively at your disposal? Why did you concoct this matter in your heart? You lied not to man, but to God!” 5 On hearing these words, Ananias fell and breathed out his life-soul. And a great awe spread around all the people who heard. 6 Some young men got up and wrapped him and carried him out to bury him.
7 There was an interval of about three hours. And his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. 8 Peter examined her: “Tell me if this is the amount from the land sale you gave away.” And she said, “Yes, that’s the amount.” 9 And Peter replied to her, “Why did you agree together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Oh, look! The feet of the men who just buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry your out!” 10 And instantly she fell at his feet and breathed out her life-soul. Entering, the young men found her dead and carried her out and buried her next to her husband. 11 And a great awe spread around the entire church and everyone who heard it. (Acts 5:1-11, my translation)
I don’t believe that these two people were saved and filled with the Spirit, because Satan had filled their hearts, not just attacked their minds. However, this is still God’s instant judgment on a Jewish couple that had lived under the law and outside the New Covenant.
Please see the post:
Why Did Ananias and Sapphira Drop Dead?
Sixth, Paul warns that when people partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, they suffer judgment, including dying:
For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. (1 Cor. 11:29-32)
“Fallen asleep” (v. 30) means they have died. Did they die directly from the fire of God? No, of course not, but their failure to discern the bread and cup led to their early demise. The purpose was redemptive, believe it or not–so we are not condemned with the world. In other words, those Christians went to heaven and now live eternally in another place without the effects of sin and drunkenness to contend with. They are saved and safe from all natural harm.
Seventh, here is the better news, which echoes what Paul said in 1 Cor. 11:32.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. (Heb. 12:7-8)
God disciplines those whom he loves, and he lets hardship (first clause in v. 7) be the instrument of discipline. God’s judicial-personal wrath / discipline is done to protect you so you don’t be finally condemned with the world (1 Cor. 11:32). His discipline rescues you from a bad judgment in the afterlife.
Moses told Aaron and his other two sons not to go into mourning, They were under a special anointing of oil. If they were to leave the Tent of Meeting with the oil of anointing on, they would die. Once again, this is a super-holy, theocratic time in God’s divine history. The law included obeying holiness and the clean and unclean. However, the Israelites were allowed to mourn the two men.
How does the oil apply to us? As I noted in other posts, for New Covenant believers, it symbolizes the anointing with the Spirit.
Oil speaks of the sacred anointing for consecrating the priests (Exod. 29:7; 30:22-33).
Next, Samuel took a flask of oil and anointed first Saul (1 Sam. 10:1) and then David (1 Sam. 16:1) to be kings. In 11 Sam. 6:3, we read: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David” (see Ps. 89:20). In Ps. 23:5, David proclaimed that God anointed his head with oil.
Heb. 1:9 says that God anointed his Son Jesus with the “oil of joy.”
Mark 6:13 says Jesus anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. James 5:14 says oil was used to anoint the sick.
In Luke 4:18 Jesus said God has anointed him to carry out the ministry of God. Acts 10:38 says God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Paul said that God anointed them (2 Cor. 1:21). “Christ” means “the Anointed One.”
We, God’s New Covenant people, are also have an anointing from the Holy One, who will guide his people to the truth (1 John 2:20, 27). The Holy One is the Holy Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13).
From these verses oil came to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Oil, the anointing, and the Spirit are linked. Being in Christ, we are all anointed by the Spirit.
Verse 8 says that priests are not to drink wine or other fermented drink (e.g. beer) whenever they go into the tent of meeting, or they will die. This hints that Abihu and Nadab were also intoxicated when they mixed the strange fire.
These next two verses reveal some deep truths, so they are quoted here:
“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.” (Lev. 10:10-11)
Therefore, the priests first have to distinguish between the clean and unclean, so that they can teach the Israelites all the decrees. The priest learn and become teachers. Chapters 11-15 are about distinguishing between the clean and unclean. Intoxicated religious leaders have a difficult time distinguishing between the holy and unholy.
These verses are about what the priests are permitted to eat. Things that are most holy must be eaten by the altar and in the sanctuary area. Then the breasts that are waved in the air can be eaten by their sons and daughters in a ceremonially clean place, their children having a share in the Israelites fellowship offering, which was a celebration.
The waving either happened literally to honor God and draw attention to the worshipper, or it signified a very special presentation and gift. Let’s go a little deeper. This wave gesture may be fulfilled by this verse: “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:8).
Further, Father God fulfills the lifting and waving requirement in his Son, who had willingly sacrificed himself on the cross. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32-33). Then he ascended to the Father’s right hand. “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10). And “therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess”(Heb. 4:14).
However, if restrictive interpreters don’t like this symbolism of the wave offering = lifted up = Christ being lifted up on the cross, then recall the other interpretation. It signifies a very special offering. And no offering is more special than Christ on the cross.
Moses scolded Aaron’s two remaining sons for not eating the sin offering in the sanctuary area. Why? It is most holy, and it was given to “take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord” (v. 17). This verse indicates that eating the sin offering completed the atonement’s effectiveness. Compare this with the Lord’s Supper where he instituted the bread and the fruit of the vine, and then we his people are supposed to eat of it. No, our eating does not effect atonement, but we do remember his death and atoning sacrifice (1 Cor 11:26).
Aaron replied to Moses that his eating the sin offering would have been unsuitable because he had not won forgiveness for the people. God had judged his two sons (Torah, p. 803). He was fasting because of his two sons dying (Harris, p. 568). Moses accepted his explanation.
BTSB says that the priest bore on himself the iniquities of the congregation, and the high priest could confess them and so lay them on the scapegoat to completely remove them on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) (note on 10:17).
In the big picture, I like how these verses in the New Covenant contrast the loss of life for disobeying the details of the law:
17 For this reason he [Jesus] had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 4:17-18)
So Jesus was made like us humans in every way with the purpose of becoming the merciful and faithful high priest in service to God. Since he was tempted, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15), he is able to help us when we are tempted. Aaron the high priest suffered a loss on that day. Jesus suffered on the cross. Now he can help us by sending his Spirit into our hearts, empowering us to live righteously. We are not ritual law keepers, but we do have to follow the moral law.
John heard the twenty-four elders sing this song about God making persons from every tribe and language and people and nation a kingdom and priests:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9-10)
We are qualified to be priests because Jesus redeemed us with his blood.
Peter writes that we are a royal priesthood, serving under king Jesus.:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:9)
How are we qualified to be priests? Paul writes that on our repentance salvation brings us into union in Christ, who becomes our holiness and righteousness:
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:3)
Being in Christ qualifies us to be his priests because we are consecrated and set apart (made holy) from the world and its pollution to serve him with sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:15).
How does this post help us grow in Christ?
We give police officers the legal right to implement the death penalty instantly, when civil laws are broken and lives are in danger. Nadab and Abihu lived in a theocracy, so they got the death penalty instantly imposed on them for breaking religious law. Though the cultural particulars are different from then to now, the underlying principle is the same: a man must not endanger the community, or else the law breaker may instantly die.
First Corinthians 10:11 says that the Old Testament people of God are examples to us. Apparently Nadab and Abihu were intoxicated when they disobeyed the law. These verses tell us not to be drunk with wine which leads to moral degradation, but to keep on being filled with the Spirit:
18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 5:18-20)
Then we are to keep speaking to each other with psalms and hymns and songs from the Spirit, praising the Lord by singing and making music from our hearts. And let’s always give thanks. All of this is the opposite of getting intoxicated and flippantly or casually viewing God.
Ordination of Aaron and Sons in Leviticus 8 from a NT Perspective
First Worship and Inauguration of Tabernacle in Leviticus 9 from a NT Perspective
Rules for Priests in Leviticus 21-22 from a NT Perspective