Preaching Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10

By Garrett Best

If I ever heard a sermon on a passage in Leviticus other than Lev. 10:1-2, I don’t remember it. Since Leviticus is composed of mostly legal material that is other-worldly to a contemporary reader, it makes for difficult reading and even more difficult preaching. Leviticus has destroyed many a New Year’s Resolution to read through the Bible starting in Genesis.

In my faith-forming years, I heard many sermons that referenced the brief episode in Lev. 10:1-2. The story seemed pretty straight forward and made for a powerful point. Nadab and Abihu offered “strange” fire to the Lord “which he had not commanded them”, and they were struck down for their sacrificial violation.

The sermon illustration usually went something like this: “The Bible tells us everything we need to know about how to worship God. We should have a Bible reason for everything we do in worship. Nadab and Abihu show us the danger of disobeying God’s commands about worship. They offered ‘strange fire which the Lord had not commanded them.’ They were struck down for their improper worship. This story teaches us that we should be careful to worship God in the ways He has commanded us or we will be punished as Nadab and Abihu were.”

That illustration always affected me. I was afraid God would punish me for worshipping in a way I couldn’t back up with book, chapter, and verse.

My goal is not to question the idea that God takes the worship of his people seriously. That idea does not stand or fall with this text alone. I am questioning whether that was the primary function of this short passage and whether the sermonic illustration listed above takes the context of Lev. 10 seriously. In the remainder of this post, I want to point out a few of the complexities involved in interpreting this enigmatic episode.

A Few Questions About Lev. 10:1-2

  1. Why did they do this? There is no explanation in the text for why these brothers made this incense offering. In the preceding episode, Aaron successfully installed the sacrificial cult proscribed in Lev. 1-7, and the Lord approved of the sacrificial inauguration by sending down fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar (9:22-24). Without further explanation we are simply notified, “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” (ESV). Did this sacrifice take place immediately after the events of 9:22-24? What motivated them to do this? Ex. 30 says there were two daily incense offerings made on the inner altar and we will learn in Lev. 16 that an incense offering was made once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Is this offering by the two brothers somehow related to these two acceptable offerings?
  2. What does “strange fire” mean? The Hebrew adjective zārâ has been translated into English as “unholy fire” (NRSV); “unauthorized fire” (NIV; ESV); “profane fire” (NKJV); and “strange fire” (NASB; KJV; NET). It is used elsewhere to describe non-Isrealite people or things (i.e. “foreign”; cf. Is. 1:7; Ps. 44:20). Does the adjective indicate they were trying to introduce a pagan worship practice into Israel’s cult? Does it refer to a faulty composition of the incense (cf. Ex. 30:9)? Does it refer to the hot coals taken from a source other than the inner altar? What made the offering strange/unauthorized/profane/unholy/foreign?
  3. What does “which he had not commanded” indicate? Here, there are basically two interpretive options. First, it could be taken to mean that Nadab and Abihu violated an existing command God had given. Ex. 30 is the only passage prior to Lev. 10 which discusses incense offerings. Did they violate something in Ex. 30? Was it a command God gave which isn’t recorded in the Pentateuch? Second, it could be taken to mean that God had given no command on this issue and the brothers offered incense where there was no command. Their sin was their presumption to act where God had not told them to act. What is at stake here is determining the nature of their crime. Were the brothers guilty of willful disobedience (option #1) or were they simply ignorant (option #2)?
  4. Why are Nadab and Abihu punished for their ritual violation while Eleazar and Ithamar are not punished for their equally(?) serious ritual violation in the same chapter? Literarily, there are two sets of brothers who both commit ritual violations in the same chapter which begs for the two stories to be compared and contrasted. In verses 1-2, Nadab and Abihu are struck down for violating some command. In verses 12-15, Moses gives Eleazar and Ithamar very specific instructions about how to make an offering. He specifically proscribes which portions should be waved and eaten and which portions should be burned and offered; however, in verses 16-18 Moses is “angry” with Eleazar and Ithamar because they had violated Moses’s explicit instructions. They had burned the sin offering instead of eating it. In contrast with Aaron’s response to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu (“Aaron remained silent”; v. 3), in verse 19, Aaron speaks up to defend his two remaining sons. “And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the LORD have approved?” And when Moses heard that, he approved.” (ESV) What accounts for the fact that the first set of brothers died for violating a command about an offering and the second set of brothers were shown grace for violating a command about an offering?

Concluding thoughts:

  • Context, Context, Context- I was always taught that studying the entire context of a passage is important. I doubt any of us preachers deny this although our sermons may sometimes betray our belief. Lev. 10 is constructed literarily so that these two stories are juxtaposed. Readers/listeners are supposed to interact with both stories together in the same context. There are two sets of brothers. Both sets of brothers violate a command about a sacrificial offering. In several ways the stories are similar; however, there is an important difference. The first set of brothers die violently for violating a command concerning sacrifices and the second set of brothers do not. Since the stories are intended to be juxtaposed in this way, to take the shorter, enigmatic text as a sermon illustration while making no mention of the second, longer, more detailed text makes for ill-advised praxis especially when the second story might contradict or challenge the point you are attempting to make by using the first story.
  • Wrath with no Grace?- Let’s cut to the chase. The reason the second story isn’t preached is because it doesn’t fit into the narrative, “God will punish those who don’t follow his commands about worship.” In the second story there is no punishment for their sacrificial violation. Eleazar’s descendants go on to become the dominant priestly line in Israel (cf. Num. 3:2, 32; 20:28). Isn’t that what grace is? Forgiveness when wrath is deserved? I believe this text provides us with a wonderful opportunity to ponder and teach the mysterious juxtaposition of grace and wrath, even in a book like Leviticus filled with a preponderance of legal material. “Grace in Leviticus”- What a sermon title! I certainly haven’t figured out the grace/wrath mystery. I’m thankful God is in control of that, not me. As a faithful preacher of the Scriptures, it is my job to preach the whole text, both grace and wrath. I want to teach Lev. 10:1-2 as well as Lev. 10:3-20.

At the risk of being accused of deconstruction, I hope to share what I think Lev. 10:1-3 is doing in Lev. 10, the book of Leviticus, and the Pentateuch as a whole. Stay tuned for the second post.

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7 comments

  1. Welcome back! Great questions and thoughts!

    About question #3, Nadab and Abihu willfully disobeyed God, they were not ignorant of what God has said. They directly disobeyed 30:9.

    The account of Nadab and Abihu has a story to tell, but it is not one relating to things the Bible is silent about.

  2. What do you mean by “directly disobeyed 30:9”? In what way? I’m not sure I see the connection. The instructions in Ex. 30 were directly for Aaron, not his sons. Ex. 30:9 mentions “strange incense” which would refer to the composition of the incense but Lev. 10 says “strange fire”. If the author/editor of Lev. was trying to draw a direct connection with Ex. 30:9, why not make it more clear? I’m not sure I see a direct connection between Lev. 10:1-2 and Ex. 30:9 except for the fact they both involve incense offerings.

    1. Good questions. A few years ago, I looked into the connection. I tried to find anything that showed that these two verses were not connected. I looked at all the different offerings made by the priests. I found that what Nadab and Abihu were doing had to do with Ex 30:9.

      Yes, Ex 30 is about Aaron, but are you saying that those commanded became obsolete when Aaron died? Instead, any instruction given to Aaron would have been for the priests too. And if the instruction was specifically for the high priest, then that would have been for all high priests after Aaron.

      Just because it says strange fire and strange incense, this does not mean they were separate things. Don’t you need fire to make incense? You will see that the context of Ex 30:9 is talking about incense.

      1. This is much more in-depth than I intended to go. Menahem Haran has an article “The Uses of Incense in Ancient Israelite Ritual” in Vetus Testamentum 10 (1960): 113-29. He studies all the specialized vocabulary used in incense offerings in ancient Israel. The Hebrew word “ketoret” used in Ex. 30:9 (as well as Lev. 16 and Num. 16) was a technical term which indicates, “the mixed powder of ground spices which gives off a fragrance when burnt.” It had a specific composition of certain spices. Ex. 30:9 seems to indicate there was something wrong with the composition of spices used in the offering. The “fire” is a second element of the offering which was added to the “ketoret” to make it smoke. Because Lev. 10:1-2 uses “strange fire” rather than “strange incense” (Ex. 30:9), several scholars think the problem lay more in the source of the coals used to burn the incense rather than actual composition of the incense. So, again, I don’t see a direct connection with Ex. 30:9. Check out Lev. 16:12-13 and Num. 16:18 to see that both the incense and the fire were two elements of the same offering, but the point is that they are clearly distinct elements.

        Secondly, the high priest Aaron is the only one to make a censer incense offering in the three places in the Pentateuch where a censer incense offering was made (Ex. 30; Lev. 16; Num. 16) leading some to think this offering was reserved for the office of high priest only. Some have speculated that this was the actual crime of Nadab and Abihu. They presumed to do what only the high priest was commissioned to do. This is an interesting suggestion, but Lev. 10:1-2 doesn’t say anything about that. Ex. 30 says the high priest was supposed to offer an incense offering in the morning and the evening. Did Nadab and Abihu think their offering was taking the place of one of those two censer incense offerings? It is unclear how or if the Lev. 10 episode is related to Ex. 30 other than the fact that they both deal with censer incense offerings.

        I think the most likely hypothesis is that Lev. 10:1-2 by referring to “unauthorized/strange fire” indicates that something was wrong with the coals they used. The best suggestion here is that the coals they used were taken from another heat source other than the inner altar where the priests were supposed to get the coals for burnt offerings. This is conjecture, but it’s at least likely. We’re trying to figure out what they did wrong and all you have to go on is a two word phrase “strange fire” which isn’t a lot to build a case on. Even if that’s right that they took coals from a source other than the inner altar, this still doesn’t answer many of the ambiguities of the text. Where did they get the coals from? Why would they take the coals from there? Why did they make an incense offering in the first place when the Pentateuch only assigns this offering to the high priest? And we still have the issue of which command they actually violated.

      2. Thanks for the great information.

        Interesting, I also like the idea that the incense was only for the high priest and this was their crime. But yes, I think Lev 10 would explain their crime and the closest explanation is the foreign incense.

        Lastly, I want to point out that whenever the OT uses the phase, “which God had not commanded them to do,” this always means, “God explicitly told them not to do it.” Here are the other passages: Jer 3:31, 3:35. The commands that God had given are found here: Leb 18:21, 20:1-5, Deut 12:31. So when I read this phrase in Lev 10, I read it the same way: the brothers directly disobeyed an explicit command.

        Ex 30:9 says, “Do not offer foreign incense.” Do you think Nadab and Abihu said, “We cannot offer foreign incense, so how about offering foreign fire? God didn’t say that foreign fire is wrong.” I don’t think they had that in mind. And I don’t think God intended for the incense to be completely separate and apart from the fire. I think the fire and incense are two parts of the same offering. But we can disagree about this.

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