Nadab, Abihu, and an Inappropriate Sacrifice
American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Leviticus 8:5-12,30. And Moses said unto the congregation, This is the thing which the LORD commanded to be done. 6And Moses brought Aaron and his sons, and washed them with water. 7And he put upon him the coat, and girded him with the girdle, and clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod upon him, and he girded him with the curious girdle of the ephod, and bound it unto him therewith. 8And he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim. 9And he put the mitre upon his head; also upon the mitre, even upon his forefront, did he put the golden plate, the holy crown; as the LORD commanded Moses. 10And Moses took the anointing oil, and anointed the tabernacle and all that was therein, and sanctified them. 11And he sprinkled thereof upon the altar seven times, and anointed the altar and all his vessels, both the laver and his foot, to sanctify them. 12And he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him. 13And Moses brought Aaron’s sons, and put coats upon them, and girded them with girdles, and put bonnets upon them; as the LORD commanded Moses… 30And Moses took of the anointing oil, and of the blood which was upon the altar, and sprinkled it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon his sons’ garments with him; and sanctified Aaron, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons’ garments with him.
It has been a little over a year since Moses was given the command from the LORD to lead Israel out of Egypt and bring them back to Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai). During this experience Israel had much to learn about the LORD, the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This nation, the descendants of Jacob/Israel, had spent a period of approximately fourteen generations in Egypt and lost virtually all of their understanding of the identity, nature, presence, purpose, and power of God.
Their journey to Mount Horeb was more than eventful, as they experienced the power and provision of God. Their first months at Mount Horeb were a literal disaster. Well-indoctrinated in pagan worship practices, they quickly reverted to them when Moses had left them at the base of the mountain and climbed up to where he met the LORD and received the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Coming back down from the mountain he found that Aaron had, in response to the people’s request, fashioned a Golden Calf idol and led the nation into idol worship and a pagan celebration. This penchant for idolatry was a very difficult cultural pattern to break, and would vex the nation for many generations yet to come.
Israel is now about to embark on the second part of their journey. The LORD has set down some very specific instructions concerning how He is to be worshipped, doing so specifically to separate Himself from the pagan practices that informed Israelite culture, to teach the severity of the consequences of their sinful behavior, and to demonstrate His purpose of salvation for all those who would place their faith and trust in Him, following Him in obedience.
A major part of that teaching involved a relatively complex cult of sacrifices that would teach the people a needed lesson in humility, and the necessity of atonement for their sins. His instructions for Israelite worship were very detailed, and obedience to those instructions was expected. Following these instructions to the “letter” was an expression of obedience, and their recognition that God is a great and holy LORD who is not to be trifled with. Any show of disobedience in worship, or any demonstration of disrespect during the practice of worship would be firmly dealt with, including the possibility of death for those who showed blatant disobedience or disrespect.
Up to this point in Israel’s journey the responsibility for leading the nation in worship of the LORD fell on Moses. However, it was the LORD’s plan that, upon leaving Mount Horeb for the promised homeland in Canaan, this responsibility would be given to a high priest, Aaron, the brother of Moses. Chapter eight of the Old Testament book of Leviticus describes the anointing of Aaron as the High Priest, and the commissioning of his four sons as priests. The names of the sons of Aaron were Nadab the firstborn and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Nadab and Abihu had already set themselves apart as capable leaders, and were second only to Moses and Aaron in their influence among the people, ranking even higher than the seventy elders. As the eldest, Nadab would have thought of himself next in line for the position of high priest. Consequently, the four sons were being groomed for this responsibility. However, the specter of the Golden Calf still hangs like a cloud over their hearts and minds, and would prove the undoing of the two eldest.
This was a very “heady” time for the Israelite leadership. Upon the anointing of Aaron, many sacrifices were offered, meticulously following the LORD’s commands to do so, and these included offerings where the bread and meat were shared in a great festival of fellowship. Aaron and his sons would then spend seven days confined to the Tent of Meeting for a period of consecration and preparation for the anointing. The future looked great for Aaron and his four sons as they would lead the nation in the worship of the LORD who they were still coming to know and understand.
Leviticus 9:6-7. And Moses said, This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do: and the glory of the LORD shall appear unto you. 7And Moses said unto Aaron, Go unto the altar, and offer thy sin offering, and thy burnt offering, and make an atonement for thyself, and for the people: and offer the offering of the people, and make an atonement for them; as the LORD commanded.
After the seven days were completed Aaron and his sons came out of the Tent of Meeting and offered more sacrifices to the LORD, again doing so in meticulous detail to the instructions that they were given. Note that the offerings that Moses instructed Aaron to bring would start with a sin offering and a burnt offering for himself, that He would be personally consecrated for whatever event is to follow. Aaron would then bring a similar sacrifice in the stead of the people. Aaron was fully expecting the offering of the sacrifice to progress as normally done. However, this time the LORD would do something that the people had never seen, as the LORD would present the Shekinah Glory to them in a profound and unique way. Moses gave to Aaron instructions to take the sin and burnt offerings to the altar and burn them according to instruction. However, as Aaron started the fire, the LORD intervened.
Leviticus 9:24. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.
Where the Pillar of Fire had stood over the Tent of Meeting, or filled the Holy of Holies for sacrifices given there, the fire came out of the Tent and drew close to the people as it enveloped the altar and consumed the sacrifice in a very dramatic and graphic demonstration of God’s Holy presence. One can envision an astonished Aaron stepping back from the altar and falling prostrate on the ground as the Glory of God moved to it. The people were astonished, shouted praises to the LORD and fell to their faces in humility. All the people except two, that is, bringing us to one of the more amazing events in the Old Testament narrative.
Leviticus 10:1-2. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. 2And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
What was first a moment of loud celebration and praise, demonstrated at a level that may have never been heretofore experienced, in an instant was brought to complete shock and silence as they saw their newly appointed leaders, two of the most revered and respected members of their assembly draw near to the burning altar with their incense only to be quickly incinerated by the fire.
What did Nadab and Abihu do that was so dramatically evil that caused the LORD to instantly, and without a word of explanation, put them to death? We had already witnessed considerable disobedience by Aaron and his sons at the incident of the Golden Calf where they reintroduced pagan worship in the name of the LORD. The LORD did not strike them dead, though the LORD made it clear to Moses that they deserved death.
Commentators over the years have debated over what sin it was that these two men committed that brought death upon them. Most hold that it is a mystery that will never be solved. “The story of Nadab and Abihu has been called ‘a model of undecidability.’ For many readers it looks like ‘a punishment in search of a crime.’ ” Though scholars have posed numerous suggestions as to why Nadab and Abihu were suddenly incinerated beside the altar, “none has compelled assent.” For centuries the best scholars have tried to determine what Nadab and Abihu did wrong. The simple truth is that, because of their self-centered, unrepentant, and idolatrous nature, they did everything wrong, and it was that nature that brought them into conflict with God.
There has been a pattern in human culture, replicated in the Old Testament narratives concerning the history of Israel, where the first-born son of a leader is expected to be endowed with an inheritance of his father’s position of authority, only to have younger sons realize that inheritance because of the elder’s lack of faith and respect for God. For example, Isaac was blessed over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau. Sons who would traditionally inherit their father’s authority but did not include Eli’s sons, Samuel’s eldest, and David’s eldest. In each event the older son lacked the faith and spiritual integrity of the father, and their inheritance was denied. The situation with Nadab and Abihu is simply an illustration of the same pattern. The LORD gives His blessing to those who trust and obey Him, not to those who are the descendants of those who do so. The LORD’s blessing is predicated upon one’s personal relationship with Him.
When Moses came down from the mountain to observe the Golden Calf, “they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,” referring to their replacement of Moses and the LORD with this calf and its culturally imputed deity. The “they,” those who made this declaration, were led by Nadab and Abihu, and some hold that the Exodus narrative is meant to refer to them specifically. It is clear that these two sons of Aaron were deeply immersed in pagan worship, and their approach to the LORD was synchronistic: simply adding their allegiance to the LORD to the other gods in their pantheon, making Him and equal with their mythical deities. It is this very form of idolatry that the LORD was working to remove from the Israelite culture. If we examine this passage we will find that Nadab and Abihu, even after their anointing as priests, simply continued their pagan worship practice. They rejected the instructions of the LORD and continued their pagan practices even when the Glory of the LORD stood before them.
The first hint of these practices comes with their preparation and presentation of censors that contained burning incense. The rest of the nation was on their knees, prostrate in humility before the Glory of the LORD. However, these two, confident in their new priestly authority, felt no such humility. They took the time to prepare the incense and approached the Pillar of Fire walking together.
The error in their presentation of incense is profound. The LORD set down only one use for the preparation of incense in worship. Perpetually maintained at the altar in the Holy Place, it was to be used at the entrance of the Holy of Holies to create a cloud so that one could not look into the chamber and see the LORD. Consecrated incense was to be burned using only coals taken from that altar. Incense that was burned from coals from any other source is referred to by a term that is often rendered “strange incense” and its use in worship of the LORD was specifically forbidden.
The bringing of incense to the altar by these two sons of Aaron was a commonly accepted practice in the worship of their pagan gods, a rite performed by their pagan priests. It was not a worship rite that was established by the LORD. Up to this point in the Israelite experience all the worship and sacrifices brought by Moses and Aaron were meticulously performed in obedience to the LORD’s requirements. They knew that to disobey these instructions was a form of blatant disregard and disobedience of the LORD. It would never enter their mind to either make up their own worship rites, or import the rites from pagan religions. This import of pagan practice is another of the errors made by the two brothers. By stepping forward on their own, bringing their unconsecrated incense to the altar the two sons were changing the rules of worship, bringing their worship of God down to their own chosen methods, and denying the commands that the LORD had so carefully and completely given to Israel. The two sons were simply mimicking the pagan priest’s practices that they had previously witnessed, choosing to perform their own pagan worship rite at the holy altar of God. Where the LORD demands that we worship Him in “spirit and in truth,” the two sons of Aaron did neither.
The passages to follow will also shed more light on the sins of Nadab and Abihu. Without hesitation, without consolation or remorse, Moses immediately interpreted what Aaron and the rest of the nation had just witnessed:
Leviticus 10:3. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.
Moses noted, rather starkly, that there is a requirement of sanctification for those who come near to the LORD. Where Aaron offered a sequence of sacrifices prior to and after his anointing, there is no evidence that his sons did so. Aaron approached the altar in consecrated humility because of his sincere reverence for the LORD. Lacking this reverence, the sons did not. They were not approaching the LORD in any form of consecrated or sanctified state. They came near to the Shekinah Glory, in front of Moses, Aaron, and all the people, and in their own arrogance literally stepped into the holy ground surrounding the altar, without so much as removing their shoes.
They literally despised this holy ground by their lack of awe and reverence.
This event might bring to mind the death of Uzzah who, when accompanying the Arc of the Covenant, disregarded the rules concerning its care. The Arc, because of its imputed holiness, was to be held only by two rods that passed through its sides. Uzzah disregarded the holy mandate and reached out, taking took hold of the Arc, when he believed it to be unsteady. The LORD struck him dead immediately. This is another example of the LORD’s teaching that His holiness cannot be approached by sinful man. It may not be a coincidence that Uzzah was the son of Abinadab, a name that is a construction of two names: Abi[hu] and Nadab.
It is an honor and privilege to come to the LORD in worship. It is an amazing act of God’s grace, that He, the Creator of the universe, would allow us to have a personal relationship with Him at all. To take this grace lightly is the most grievous of arrogant sins. When we observe what happened to Uzzah, and to the two sons of Aaron, we should be humbled and give praise to the LORD for His gracious gift. We should be inspired to always approach His throne of grace, whether symbolically in a church setting, or in the very real approach of prayer, to do so with the appropriate awe, wonder, and reverence. To do otherwise is to despise the LORD’s glory.
The depths of arrogance and ignorance demonstrated by Nadab and Abihu goes far beyond their simply stepping unworthily into the presence of God. If we read the narrative a little further, we find an inference to the state in which these two did so.
One can only imagine the shock and grief that Aaron experienced as he watched the incineration of his two oldest sons. This is probably something that our minds cannot even approach. Something happened at this point that had not yet taken place in Aaron’s life: the LORD spoke directly to Aaron. Until now, the LORD spoke through Moses, but now Aaron had been anointed as the High Priest. Everything changed. Aaron now heard the words of the LORD. The words were not of consolation, and certainly not of condemnation. They were words of instruction that would have to be related to the tragedy Aaron had just experienced:
Leviticus 10:8-9. And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying, 9Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations1
“It seems that this warning needed clear articulation, because the law had already been violated by Nadab and Abihu. Note also that the prohibition was communicated by God directly to Aaron, not through Moses, implying that it served as an explanation to Aaron for the death of his sons.” Not only did the two sons approach the altar without consecrating themselves, and approached the Glory of the LORD with pride and arrogance using a pagan monk’s practice: they were also drunk.
The “fellowship” that took place after the anointing of Aaron and the ordination of the sons was one that was related to the sin, grain, and peace offerings that had been brought to the LORD. The food they shared had been brought to Moses and Aaron as a sacrifice to the LORD. The LORD established this fellowship meal as a time to reflect on Him, and to share that experience with those who the food was meant to support: the High Priest, the priests, and those Levitical leaders who were assigned to tasks in the Tent of Meeting. This fellowship setting served to prevent a separation from taking place between the “clergy” and the “laity.” Both groups came from the same population, with the former simply set apart to a specific task.
However it is evident that the two eldest sons of Aaron approached this situation quite differently. They interpreted their ordination to the priesthood as an ascension to a form of a throne. To them, their ordination was a coronation. If their father was the king, they were the princes. This meal had no purpose of sincere worship for them. They did not approach the fellowship meal as a rite of worship of the LORD, but as a reward for their own ascension. The two sons treated the holy fellowship meal as a party where they celebrated their newly won power and authority, and did so with utter disregard for the LORD’s instructions surrounding that fellowship as they allowed themselves to become drunk, just as they would have done in a pagan celebration, just as they did in the celebration when the Golden Calf was given to the people. They treated the fellowship at the Tent of Meeting with the same sin and debauchery that they knew from their pagan worship practices.
It is a common, normal, and biblically sound practice for churches to separate out from themselves individuals who will dedicate their time, resources, and work to ministry in the kingdom of God. We anoint or ordain priests, bishops, pastor, deacons, and many other entitled positions. The ordination of people to the LORD’s ministry started with that of Aaron at the Tent of Meeting at the base of Mount Horeb and has continued through faith history with the Holy Scriptures providing numerous examples of such ordination, and also provides literal instructions on doing so.
As we ordain leaders, or as we ourselves experience the process of ordination, what is the appropriate spirit with which to approach the event? When Paul instructs Timothy in the process of ordination he illustrates some of the characteristics of one who is a candidate for being separated to Christian ministry.  He gives examples such as one who is:
· Blameless – one who has no evidence of guilt for ungodly behaviors such as being prideful, arrogant, contentious, or rude.
· The husband of one wife – one who is not a polygamist, a practice that was common in the ancient Near-East.
· Vigilant – one who is aware of the world around them and ready to respond to events in a godly way.
· Sober – one who is not distracted or intoxicated by stimulus that is contrary to the Word of God.
· Of good behavior – one who has a reputation of having a godly attitude, and who’s life exhibits godly behavior.
· Given to hospitality – one who opens his life to others, one who is welcoming of all people.
· Apt to teach – one who is well learned in the Word of God and actively works to share it with others.
· Not given to wine – one who is in firm control of the use of intoxicants and not influenced by them.
· Not greedy – one who has demonstrated generosity with others, one who is not actively seeking personal gain.
· Patient – one who demonstrates patience and longsuffering in their relationships with others and with all events of life.
· Not a brawler – one who demonstrates self-control in times of stress, responding in love and grace instead of reacting with emotion and unwise action.
· Not covetous – one who demonstrates a satisfaction with the means and the state in life that the LORD has provided for them.
· A leader in the home – one who demonstrates godly leadership in his own home. This includes the relationship with the children of the home and the respect that is earned and received from them.
· Not a novice – one who is mature in their walk with the LORD. They have a demonstrated experience with the facets of the ministry to which they are called.
Often a grave mistake is made when we ordain men and women to ministry when we take this list from 1 Timothy 3 and treat it as a checklist of characteristics, thinking if we can check off each of the bullets in this list, the person is qualified. The Bible is not a book of law, and this is not a resume for leadership. It is simply a list of a few of the characteristics of a mature Christian who may be a candidate for leadership.
When we fail to approach ordination with sincere prayer and godly wisdom it is all too easy for us to set apart people who are not spiritually ready for the task. It is these who see ordination as an elevation to a position above the people. It is these that wear their new titles with pride. In my experience with church conflict it is almost axiomatic that the foundation of that conflict rests on individuals that the church has ordained. This danger is addressed frequently in scripture with some notable examples that should get our attention:
Proverbs 6:16-19. These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: 17A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, 19A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
Note that the seventh abomination is “he that soweth discord among the brethren.” Faith congregations are not immune to discord that is sewn by their leadership. When we find the source of discord in the church to be in the leadership, this is a sin that must be dealt with firmly and wisely. If you, as a leader, are sowing seeds of discord, you have brought the anger of the LORD upon yourself, and a swift act of repentance and apology is in order.
The writer of the New Testament book of James also speaks to the gravity of ordination:
James 3:1. My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
Those who have accepted spiritual leadership in the fellowship are held to a firm standard by the LORD because of their ability to damage the work of the kingdom of God, through the teaching of false or heretical doctrine, to usurping the lordship of Christ, and leading the fellowship away from the path that the LORD intends.
What happened to Nadab and Abihu is no mystery. They were not men of faith, but still had both feet planted in this secular and pagan world. Yet, they allowed themselves to be ordained to positions of spiritual leadership, a process that brought them great pride. When called upon to worship the LORD, they took it upon themselves to do so in their own way, one that was informed only by their pagan experience and arrogance, and demonstrated that pride and arrogance to Moses, Aaron and all the people when they simply walked into the Holy Ground of the LORD without a thought of consecration or humility.
What happened to Nadab and Abihu is a lesson for us all as we come to the LORD in worship, that through their example we are reminded of the true Glory of God, His infinite power and authority, and the amazing grace that He has demonstrated to us as He has reached through His created time and space, and both communicated with us, and has brought us to Himself.
To God be the glory: great things He has done.
 Numbers 3:2.
 Bibb, Bryan D. Nadab and Abihu attempt to fill a gap: law and narrative in Leviticus 10.1-7. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 26 no 2 Dec 2001, p 85.
 Milgrom, Jacob. The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1991. p. 596.
 Greenstein, Edward. Deconstruction and Biblical Narrative. Prooftexts, no 9 1989. p. 56.
 Anderson, Gary A. 'Through those who are near to me, I will show Myself holy': Nadab and Abihu and apophatic theology. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 77 no 1 Jan 2015, p 1.
 Greenberg, Martin A. The True Sin of Nadab and Abihu. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 26 no 4 Oct - Dec 1998, p 265.
 Exodus, Chapter 30.
 Exodus 30:9.
 John 4:23-24.
 Though Moses is quoting a previous statement that he had received from the LORD, there is not a historic biblical passage that records it. The grammar of the statement implies that Moses had already taught this truth to Aaron and to the people.
 Exodus 3:5.
 Anderson, Gary A. 'Through those who are near to me, I will show Myself holy': Nadab and Abihu and apophatic theology. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 77 no 1 Jan 2015, p 2.
 Wolak, Arthur J. Alcohol and the fate of Nadab and Abihu: a biblical cautionary tale against inebriation. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 41 no 4 Oct - Dec 2013, p 222.
 Leviticus 10:15.
 1 Timothy 3:1-13.
 Philippians 2:14-15.