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.


Nadab and Abihu Pt. 2

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I raised several questions about the enigmatic story of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10:1-2. Why did the brothers do it? Why did their crime deserve such a violent death? What does “strange fire” mean? What command did they violate? The story raises more questions than it gives answers. In this post I hope to deliver on a promise I made to explain what I think the Nadab and Abihu episode is doing in Lev. 10, the book of Leviticus, and the larger Pentateuch.

If you are expecting answers to all these questions, prepare to be disappointed. After studying this passage up and down, frontward and backward, I don’t think we will ever know with certainty the answers to the “Why?” and “What?” Nadab and Abihu did. At best, we can make educated guesses. A few scholars believe that “unauthorized fire” means Nadab and Abihu took hot coals for the incense offering from a source other than the inner alter which made the heat source “unauthorized” and therefore illicit. If this is the answer, where they got the coals or why they did it still remains a mystery.

I believe the story is too enigmatic for us to know what happened exactly. Without further information, we just won’t ever know. However, I actually came to think that observation was significant. I realized that the author/editor’s interests lie elsewhere and he was not exactly interested in answering all my questions. He had his own agenda. In what follows, my thoughts are heavily indebted to James Watts’s research.

I think Lev. 10:1-3 is intentionally ambiguous for literary/rhetorical purposes. It is precisely because the story is short, enigmatic, and outrageous that it calls our attention. Leviticus is a book filled with detailed laws about the sacrificial system, but the truth is that no matter how detailed a code of laws may be, that code of laws will never be able to address every eventuality the priests would face. Inevitably, an issue would arise for which there would be no explicit instruction. This is a problem because a priest’s job is very dangerous. A mishap could result in immediate and violent death.

I believe it is precisely because of the ambiguity of the story and the danger involved in serving as a priest that the reader/listener asks, “If Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, can die so violently for violating some command, then who will be there to interpret the law so that this doesn’t happen again?!”

Here is an important point I became convinced of after studying this chapter: Leviticus 10 is more about Aaron than it is about Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, or Ithamar. The two stories which bookend the chapter are foils by which the writer/editor of Lev. 10 is trying to teach something significant about Aaron. Thus, it is important to note Aaron’s response to the death of his oldest sons.  In verse 3, the text simply says “Aaron held his peace.” He doesn’t say or do anything. Remember that.

The death of Nadab and Abihu points to the need for ritual and legal interpretation. “We don’t want to die like those two brothers for doing something wrong. Who will tell us what to do when there is a ritual ambiguity?” The short three-verse story at the beginning of the chapter sets up the question that the rest of Leviticus 10 answers.

The answer is given in Lev. 10:10-11. These key verses are the central verses of the chapter.  YHWH speaks directly to Aaron and says, “You [Aaron] are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.”

This is significant. In Leviticus, YHWH speaks directly to Moses no less than 28 times. This is the first and only time YHWH speaks directly to Aaron in Leviticus which calls our attention to the importance of what is taking place. YHWH gives Aaron the responsibility of distinguishing between the holy and the common and teaching Israel. In essence, God is giving Aaron the responsibility for the problem that was raised by the Nadab and Abihu episode. Aaron, the high priest, has been granted interpretive authority by YHWH so that the Nadab and Abihu incident never happens to another priest.

In the second story, Eleazar and Ithamar violate Moses’s instructions about making a sacrificial offering. Stated succinctly, the brothers did not eat a part of the sacrifice Moses commanded them to eat. Again, I don’t think it’s important to dwell on the details of what they actually did wrong. I think the point is to focus on the debate that ensues between Aaron and Moses.

Moses inquires whether Eleazar and Ithamar followed his instructions. When he learned they had not eaten the portion of the sacrifice he had commanded, Moses became angry. Remember, after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu Aaron remained quiet; however, in verses 10-11, YHWH has spoken directly to Aaron and given him greater responsibility as a ruler in Israel. With his newly endowed interpretive authority, Aaron speaks up and in essence, challenges Moses on the interpretation of the law regarding this incident. Whoa! Aaron is challenging Moses’s interpretation of the law!

Moses was rightfully angry because under normal circumstances according to the laws regarding sacrifices, Eleazar and Ithamar should have eaten the portion of the sacrifice. Aaron says 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?”

I believe Aaron is saying something like this: “Yes, Moses, if today had been a normal day, you are right to be mad that they did not eat that portion of the sacrifice, but today was not a normal day. Today, two of my sons were struck down and the laws do not provide instruction for such an unusual situation. Did not the dead bodies of Nadab and Abihu laying in the sacrificial area render all the sacrificial meat unholy? This situation was difficult so give my sons a break.”
Both Moses and Aaron are appealing to a law. Moses is appealing to the instructions given for making sacrifices and Aaron is appealing to an exception in which a dead body would render a sacrifice unholy. Both men were right in a sense. The situation was unusual and the right thing to do ambiguous. Which law trumps the other? Apparently, Aaron wins the interpretive dispute. Verse 20 says, “When Moses heard that, he agreed.” With that, the chapter ends.

Summary of what I believe is happening in Lev. 10:

Leviticus 10:1-3 highlights the need for interpretive authority in Israel’s priesthood. Leviticus 10:10-11 addresses the problem by giving Aaron (i.e. the high priest) interpretive authority. Leviticus 10:12-20 shows Aaron asserting his new interpretive authority and winning an argument with Moses over a legal matter. Lev. 10 has been constructed in such a way to show that Aaron has taken a step up the ladder in importance in Israel’s leadership. Prior to this incident YHWH only addresses Moses directly. In 10:10-11, YHWH addresses Aaron directly for the first time. After Leviticus 10, YHWH address Moses and Aaron together (cf. 11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1). In essence, Aaron has been promoted to a prominent role. He has taken on the responsibility of teacher and interpreter of the law which previously had only been Moses’s responsibility. This is what I believe is happening in Leviticus 10, the larger book of Leviticus, and the larger Pentateuch. Aaron and his descendants rise to prominence in Israel’s cult. Leviticus 10 is part of that larger program of boosting the importance and authority assigned to Aaron, the high priesthood, and the Aaronic priestly line.