Nadab, Abihu and Aaron
God knows our heart. He knows if we are looking for ways to evade His will. And He holds us to account.
Two related events are presented to us in Leviticus chapter 10. (Do I hear you saying, “Are you kidding me? Leviticus?” Well, just bear in mind that Jesus got his teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—from Leviticus 19:18. Yes, it most certainly is a book we still need to pay attention to.)
So, Leviticus 10. On the chance that you tend to skip over Leviticus, I’m going to urge you to stop right here and read the chapter. Otherwise you aren’t going to know who I’m even talking about. Go, read it.
As you now know, the two incidents in the chapter are:
- Nadab and Abihu are priests, sons of Aaron. They do the right thing— they offer incense in the tabernacle. But it’s the wrong incense. God kills them for it.
- Aaron doesn’t do the right thing—he is supposed to eat his portion of the sin offering. (See Lev 6:24-26). Moses confronts him, he makes an excuse, and somehow his action is OK.
What gives? This doesn’t seem right—the specific letter of the law is not done in either case. One time the penalty seems out of proportion to the offense, and the other time there’s no penalty at all!
Let’s look deeper.
Look at verses 8 & 9. Why is this particular law given at this time? (The Law of Moses is not organized by topic—clearly it is a progressive revelation; often statutes are established as result of specific events.) We’re not told the why of this law being dropped here, but it sure makes me suspect Nadab and Abihu weren’t exactly sober. The fact that “lest you die” is added to this law reinforces the suspicion.
Even aside from possibly being under the influence, there’s really no excuse at all for offering the wrong incense. God had made a big deal, in fact a huge deal, about this incense; He reinforced it multiple times, and we’re told in Exodus that by this time the incense had been made and turned over to the priests. So we have to wonder, where did the other incense even come from? Nadab and Abihu would have had to go out of their way to use something else! So what were they doing?
Let’s compare this with the incident at the end of the chapter. In their grief, Aaron and his remaining sons cannot bring themselves to eat the normal sin offering. Without consultation, they burn it instead. Moses is angry with Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithamar, but Aaron steps in and takes responsibility.
Think about Aaron’s action. If he is so upset he can’t eat the sacrifice, what is he going to do with it? Well, he knows the Law, and Leviticus 6:30 directs that the sin offering on the day of atonement is to be burned whole, not eaten. So Aaron treats this offering in that way—there is thought put into what he does. Aaron deems that, in light of the terrible tragedy, going along as if nothing had happened would not please the Lord.
There are crucial differences between the two incidents. Nadab & Abihu can’t be bothered, or are drunk, or don’t believe God really insists on the one incense (maybe Moses made it up?), or even worse, perhaps they are making a statement: “What we choose is just as good.” Whatever the specific motivation, they rebel. In contrast, Aaron in his anguish has his heart in the right place; he does not rebel, he is trying to be conscious of what will please the Lord in this horrible situation.
A key principle is stated by Paul in Romans: real circumcision is of the heart, not the flesh. (Rom 2:28-29, referring to Deuteronomy 10:12-16.) The principle: it has always been the state of the heart that matters to God.
Does this mean we don’t need to concern ourselves about obedience? No! In fact quite the contrary. It means we need to find the meaning and absorb it into our heart, not just follow a rule for its own sake. That’s the force of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount.
So the key question to ponder is: where is my heart? There are things we’re told to do and not do quite clearly—just as Nadab and Abihu were told what incense to use, and Aaron was told to eat the offering. Where is our heart in relation to those things? Are we trying to evade, or do things our own way, or even blur our judgment by being intoxicated? Remember—we are now the “kingdom of priests”. God knows our heart. He knows if we are looking for ways to evade His will. And He holds us to account.
There are other situations that aren’t as clear. Aaron had clear instruction about eating the sin offering—but there were other circumstances in play. He made a judgment call. Did you notice? We’re not even told if he was right or wrong!! He was trying to do right, and he did do the other thing that was done with sin offerings, he burned it. Whether he made the right call or not, his heart was not in rebellion.
God is teaching us, putting these two incidents back to back. Doing God’s will is important. When we fail to do His will—and we do—the reason for our failure makes all the difference. Rebellion is death. Sincere attempts to make the right call are dealt with mercifully—provided we’re trying to glorify God, not justifying doing our own thing.