Priests die in a fire
Aaron’s sons die worshiping1 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took an incense firepan, got the coals burning, and then sprinkled fragrant incense onto the coals—an offering to the LORD. But this wasn’t an offering the LORD had either asked for or approved. It was an offering they came up with. 2 The LORD sent a flash fire that burned them to death. 3 Moses told Aaron, “This is what the LORD was talking about when he said:
“Anyone who comes close to me must come as holy.
I will show the people why I deserve this respect.”
Moses to Aaron: Don’t show grief6 Moses told Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Don’t let your grief show. Not in your behavior or in the clothes you wear. We don’t want the LORD to punish you, too, and perhaps everyone else. Let your relatives and all the other families of Israel cry and grieve because of the fire the LORD sent. 7 I don’t want any of you to step foot outside this tent sanctuary. You’ll die if you do because you’ve been anointed; you’re holy.” Aaron and his sons did what Moses said.
8 The LORD spoke to Aaron: 9 “When you or your sons come into this tent worship center, come 100 percent sober. If you want to stay alive, don’t drink wine or any other alcohol before coming here. It’s the law now. And I’m making it permanent. 10 You’ve got to learn the difference between what’s sacred and what’s usual—normal for everyday life. There’s a difference between what’s clean and what’s ritually unclean—and forbidden.
11 I’m giving you the job of teaching the people of Israel the laws I gave Moses.” 12 Moses told Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “You need to finish eating the yeast-free grain offering. There are still leftovers, and the LORD considers this offering especially sacred. 13 It’s holy, and you need to eat it in a sacred place. That’s what the LORD told me.
14 You and your sons and daughters can also eat the breast meat and thigh of the peace offering. But eat it in a ritually clean location. This part of that offering belongs you and your descendants. 15 Take the breast meat and the thigh and raise them to the LORD. You’ll burn the fat, but the breast and thigh belong to you and your descendants. That’s what the LORD says.”
Moses furious over another sacrifice blunder16 Moses began looking for the goat selected for the sin offering. Someone had burned it. Moses was furious with Aaron’s surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar.
17 He told them, “What were you thinking? You were supposed to eat the meat of this sacred offering in a sacred place. The LORD gave it to you as a way of erasing the guilt of those who brought the offering—to atone for their sins. 18 Look, you didn’t bring the blood of this sacrifice into the tent sanctuary to perform sacred rituals I had explained earlier. So, you should have eaten the meat of this sacred offering in a sacred place. I told you that.”
19 Aaron spoke up: “Listen, today my sons have each presented their own sin offerings and burnt offerings to the LORD. But look at what happened to me today. Would the LORD really want me to eat this offering on a day like this?” 20 That made sense to Moses, and he was relieved.
Literally, they offered God “a strange fire.” The original Hebrew word is zar. It can mean: illegitimate, unauthorized, adulterous, foreign, imported, arrogant.
The Hebrew word, ’ēš, can mean: fire, lightning, set on fire, burning coals.
Jewish scholars in earlier centuries said the priests must have done something terribly wrong to justify this: sex sin, drunkenness, or not taking their ministry seriously enough. But some current Jewish scholars argue that it was important to follow God’s rituals to the letter. Creating new worship rituals was not only above a priest’s pay grade, it was heretical. And in this case, fatal.
This quote from God doesn’t seem to show up anywhere in the story of the Israel’s travels out of slavery in Egypt. Some suggest a glimmer of the idea in Exodus 29:43, “I will meet with the people of Israel here at this worship center. This will become a holy place because I am here.”
Just as we have customary ways of expressing deep grief, people in ancient times did as well. We may wear black, while they sometimes dressed in torn and ragged clothing. Ladies today might get a hairdo for the funeral, but people in Bible times would sometimes take off their head coverings, mess up their hair, and cover themselves in a spray of ashes they throw into the air. They would cry loudly, and some would hire professional mourners as a way of expressing their respect for the dead.
Perhaps Moses was concerned that the dead priests, by dying, had ritually contaminated the area outside the tent. Just as science today teaches that matter and antimatter can’t share the same space without destroying each other, Moses seemed to believe that ritual holiness and ritual uncleanness were incompatible and harmful when they met.
This sacrificial offering goes by various names: peace offering, fellowship offering, elevation offering, symbolic offering, special offering, and wave offering. The Hebrew word can mean to wave, lift, or blow. In Exodus 29, this sacrifice represented the culmination of an ordination service authorizing priests for ministry. It was the final act, which some scholars say was mainly an expression of gratitude to God for allowing these men to be assigned to lead the worship rituals for the people of Israel.
Leviticus 4 describes a sin offering as something the people of Israel brought to God after they realized they had accidentally broken one of God’s laws. Some scholars say a better translation is the opposite of “sin” because the sacrifice is intended to “un-sin” people, to purify them. So those scholars call it a “purification offering.”
Not all of the goat should have been burned. Leviticus chapters 4 and 6 give instructions for sacrificing a sin offering. Only part of the animal should have been burned on the altar. Priests were allowed to eat part of it (Leviticus 6:29). The rest of it should have been burned outside the camp (Leviticus 4:11-12, 21).
Moses was apparently referring to instructions he gave in Leviticus 6:26, 30. Moses may have been worried that the new priests were afraid of eating the meat, for fear of taking upon themselves the sins of others, and perhaps attracting the demons and bad magic they may have learned about in Egypt.
BY ROBERT V. HUBER
In the middle of celebrating the ordination of Aaron and his sons, Aaron’s two oldest sons offered incense to the LORD and were struck down by lightning for their efforts. This sure put a damper on the celebrations. What no one seems to understand is why God struck these men dead. Bible scholars have come up with more possible reasons than porcupines have quills, and they agree on none of them. Of the most often cited reasons listed below, which do you think makes the most sense? If you have any further ideas on the matter, feel free to add another quill to the porcupine.
- Instead of using coals from the altar to light the incense, as instructed by God, Nadab and Abihu used coals from an oven or other secular place.
- The brothers offered their incense at the wrong time, failing to follow the prescribed order of offerings or the time of day assigned for offering incense.
- They offered their incense in the wrong place. It may have been on the gold-covered altar of incense, even though this privilege was reserved for Aaron, the high priest. Or perhaps they offered it behind the veil that hung in front of the Most Sacred Room, which is off limits except for the high priest—and then only once a year.
When Nadab and Abihu offered incense to God they may have had good intentions. If so, do you think that this should have made a difference in their fate.
Moses tells Aaron and his surviving sons not to show grief over the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. Why do you think God would want that and Moses would demand it of his own big brother? Doesn’t this seem cruel and unnecessary under the circumstances?
God speaks directly to Aaron, warning him that his sons should always be sober when they go into the worship tent. Is this a hint that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they offered the incense that got them killed? The text certainly doesn’t say as much, but God is suddenly bringing up the subject not to Moses, as usual, but directly to Aaron, whose sons have just died for not acting as they should. What do you think?
LIFE APPLICATION. So, Moses tells Aaron not to cry in public over his dead sons. Some of us have been on the planet long enough to remember Jackie Kennedy forcing herself to be strong in public after her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated as she sat beside him in a parade car in Dallas. What do you think of people who tell others to be strong and don’t cry, when the people they’re talking to have a perfect reason to cry as though the world is ending?