“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 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 10:1-3
Leviticus is one of the most unique books in the canon of Scripture. This book contains God’s detailed instructions about the Law and how it is to be implemented and lived out. Leviticus is comprised mainly of long passages of quotes from God explaining to Moses how the Law is to be followed, how sacrifices are to be offered, and the penalties for disobedience and breaking the Law. Given the content of the book–God’s instruction regarding the Law– Leviticus contains more of God’s direct speech than any other book in the Bible.
A second unique characteristic of Leviticus is that it represents a break in the narrative that had been unfolding in Genesis and Exodus. Before that narrative could continue, we must first learn about the sacrificial system, the dietary laws, the Day of Atonement, and other observances that would make the Israelites unique from all the other nations–we have to understand what Israel had to do to be holy as God commanded them to be. If we ignore the theology found in Leviticus, we cannot grasp the theology in the rest of the Bible–Christ’s atoning death and the importance of being cleansed from sin cannot be understood without Leviticus.
The only major break in the legal teachings of Leviticus can be found in chapters 8-10, where we find the description of Aaron and his sons being consecrated as the priests of Israel and descriptions of the first offerings they made. Aaron and his descendants would forever make up the priestly class in Israel. Additionally, Aaron and his offspring were from the tribe of Levi, thus giving the book of Leviticus its name, roughly meaning “for the Levites.”
Within this brief bit of narrative in Leviticus, there is a significant scene of God dispensing judgment for improper behavior upon two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Following their consecration as priests and Aaron offering the first sacrifices under the newly enacted sacrificial system, Nadab and Abihu take it upon themselves to offer a sacrifice of their own to God. Up to this point in the book, God had spent a great deal of time–seven chapters, if we use the chapter system as a measuring rod–explaining the proper way in which to offer sacrifices, both for sin and for worship. There were to be no deviations from these rules which God had made quite clear to His people. The fact that these sacrifices that Nadab and Abihu offered were not under the mandated system is plainly pointed out; Moses–the author of Leviticus–refers to them as “strange fire.” Nadab and Abihu–men who were just ordained and consecrated as priests and obligated to know and practice the Law better than anyone else–went out of their way to offer a sacrifice which was not commanded; they offered an illegal sacrifice. This offense resulted in their deaths; fire came from the presence of God and consumed them. If this penalty seems harsh, we must remember that God values–above all else–obedience, and those whom He had called to be the spiritual leaders of His chosen people were expected to be obedient. Straying from His rules, even out of religious zeal and enthusiasm, is unacceptable. In disregarding the Law and offering their own sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu showed disrespect to God and little regard for His commandments. In their actions, Nadab and Abihu dishonored God.
Christ’s atoning death fulfilled the demands of the Law and lifted its burden from our shoulders. However, we are still called to be God’s holy people. There is much in Leviticus which is foreign to us and, in the light of Christ’s actions on the cross, unnecessary for us to adhere to; for instance, we are no longer expected to offer animal sacrifices–to do so would be unorthodox, heretical and inappropriate. Yet, throughout the New Testament, we see that we are called to live differently from the world, to imitate Christ, to offer our lives to Christ as living sacrifices; we are called to complete and total obedience to Christ and to God.
We are the nation of priests that God called out from every nation to draw all peoples to Him. This requires us to be exceedingly mindful of how we conduct ourselves in every way. We must always remember that God is holy, and we must always show Him honor; to do anything short of this is to commit the same sin that Nadab and Abihu were guilty of. We offer God that same “strange fire” when our worship is insincere, when our lives are not in obedience to Him, or when we attempt to usurp the glory which is rightfully His for ourselves. We fool ourselves–just as Nadab and Abihu did–when we think that God will make exceptions for our actions–whatever they may be.
God is a holy God, and He will be honored and glorified. He will not be mocked or taken lightly. Do not offer Him “strange fire;” offer Him what He demands: your genuine and sincere and humble obedience.
Artwork: “Nadab and Abihu Cast into Flames,” etching from Icones Biblicae, c. 1630.