Leviticus 10



The Death of Nadab and Abihu (10:1–20)

1–5 Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s two eldest sons. As his sons, they had been given great responsibility for the services in the tabernacle; theirs was a most solemn office. But shortly after the wonderful appearing of the Lord to the people (Leviticus 9:2324), they made an improper offering of fire and incense on the Lord’s altar.25 So fire26 came out from the Lord’s presence and consumed Nadab and Abihu (verse 2)that is, it “consumed” their life but not their bodies.

Why was this terrible punishment given? The brothers couldn’t have made just a single mistake; the Lord must have known their sin was deeper than that. Perhaps they had disregarded the Lord’s instructions deliberately, or perhaps they hadn’t taken the Lord’s commands seriously. Whatever their inner attitude was, the Lord would not tolerate it; such reckless behavior dishonored His name and defiled His sanctuary. It was perhaps in reference to this incident that the writer to the Hebrews wrote: ... let us ... worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28–29).

A second reason for the severe punishment was to set an example for the people. When leaders disobey God, the people also begin to disobey. Leaders receive greater punishment for their sins because their sins do greater harm to the community. Furthermore, leaders should know better; the higher our responsibility before God, the severer will be our penalty for disobedience (see Leviticus 8:35–36 and comment).

Finally, the death of Aaron’s two sons right at the beginning of their priestly ministry stands as a warning for all those in Christian leadership. Sadly, there are still Nadabs and Abihus among us today. They are not teaching God’s word faithfully; they are offering “unauthorized fire.” Let them heed the words of Jesus: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22–23).

6–7 Moses then commanded Aaron and his two remaining sons not to mourn—not to let their hair become unkempt and not to tear [their] clothes, two traditional signs of mourning in biblical times. God had done what was right, and they were to accept it. In particular, the high priest was not to mourn; he had been especially anointed with oil, especially consecrated to God, and therefore he could take no part in any activity connected with the dead. Any contact with a dead body would cause a person to become ceremonially unclean, holy nation (Exodus 19:6), because God and so the high priest in particular had to avoid defiling himself in this way27 (see Leviticus 21:1–4,10–12).

8–11 In these verses Moses gives three important instructions to Aaron and his descendants, the future priests. The first was that they should not drink wine or other fermented drink28 when they were serving in the Tent of Meeting, the tabernacle (verse 9). Notice that alcohol was not totally forbidden to the priests, but only when they were serving within the tabernacle.

The second instruction was that they must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean (verse 10). It was these distinctions that set the Israelites apart from the ungodly nations around them. For further discussion of the distinction between holy and common, clean and unclean, see Leviticus 11:1,44–45 and comment.

The third instruction was that the priests were to teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord had given them (verse 11). This was the priests’ greatest responsibility: they were to teach the people about the character and values of God. In other words, the priests needed to teach the people to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), because God intended that the entire nation of Isarel be a light and blessing to the world (Genesis 12:3).

12–15 These verses restate some of the previous instructions that have been given concerning the priests’ share of the various offerings (see Leviticus 7:28–36 and comment).

16–18 Moses found out that Aaron and his sons had not eaten the meat of the people’s sin offering that had been offered earlier (Leviticus 9:15) but had burned it all up. It was meant to be eaten by the priests (Leviticus 6:24–26,30), since the blood had not been taken inside the Holy Place (verse 18). So Moses rebuked Aaron and his sons for disobeying his instructions.

19–20 But Aaron, speaking for himself and his sons, explained to Moses that because such things as this had happened to him—that is, the death of his two oldest sons—he felt he and his remaining sons should fast out of respect for the dead and also for God. Because Aaron had given a sincere explanation and had not acted negligently, Moses accepted Aaron’s decision. This shows once again that God places greater importance on a person’s motivation that He does on the exact fulfillment of a ceremonial law.