In an earlier post I said I wanted to be like Moses and talk directly with God without a lot of barriers between us. After reading the Book of Leviticus, it seems to me that I may have been too hasty. I fear that if I had been part of the camp wandering about in the desert, I probably would have been consumed by fire, stoned, kicked out or cut off from the people early on.
One incident that grabbed my attention involved Aarons two sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10). They were consumed by fire because they did not use the kind of fire that God commanded them to use in a certain kind of ceremony or offering. The King James version says they offered “Strange” fire and it was an offense to God. Now as far as most of us are concerned fire is fire and there is no difference. But God said that the fire that needed to be used had to come from certain source and these guys just used whatever was available. I felt bad for these guys and I must admit I had a degree of sympathy for them because what they did seemed to be a very coyote thing to do. It was probably getting late and they said “Hey lets just use this –no big deal.”
The incident caused me to wonder about some things. The consequence was severe and did not seem to be in proportion to the crime. Furthermore, this is one incident in along list of bad things that happened to the people after God brought them out of Egypt. Recall the business about the snakes, the quails, and assorted plagues. Moses himself was not allowed to enter into the promised land. It is not hard to understand why the people thought they may have been better off had they stayed in Egypt. The people and the world at this point want to know if God is really good and what justifies His harsh dealings with the people.
First, one could say that God, as creator, could do whatever he wants and that all we need to know. But this is not satisfying because it makes God out to be arbitrary and capricious like Zeus or any other gods we could think of and it does not address His just and right character.
From the time of Abraham , or perhaps even Noah, God was trying to call out a unique people in among all people who would be a witness to the rest of the world. These called out people would testify to God’s power and character to all the world. When the people were lead out of Egypt they made an agreement with God that carried duties and responsibilities for both parties and that were not binding on any other people. God would care for and bless Israel and be Israel’s God and Israel would do all that God commanded. Nadab and Abihu violated God’s command and God had the right to take corrective action.
Another interesting thing is that, with this agreement, God was coming to live among a corrupt people. I think all of the rules about the construction of the tent, altars, sacrifices, and the priestly duties were designed to regulate how a corrupt people could interact with God and maintain God’s holiness and honor among the people.
From a legal standpoint God’s action was justified but it seems too harsh by current worldly standards. After all, these days even murder rarely results in the death penalty. If Nadab and Abihu were to be charged in our legal system they probably would have gotten probation or a deferred sentence if found guilty. The Bible itself gives a clue about why the consequences were so severe. God Says “I must be respected as holy by those who come near me; before all the people I must be given honor” (Leviticus 10:3). Prior to this incident God gave very specific instructions about the fire and there is little doubt that Nadab and Abihu knew the requirements (Exodus 30:9). The sin of Nadab and Abihu was not just a minor mistake made out of ignorance. It appears that that they willfully disregarded God’s command and intentionally dishonored God. God’s words also indicate that that they dishonored God before the people–certainly before each other if not before all of the people. I believe the willfulness of the act was what brought such severe judgement.
It is hard for us to accept this hard judgement because we do not really understand or appreciate the holiness of God. How many times each day to we disregard God’s commands, make silly jokes about Him, or take his name in vain? Surely I test the limits of his grace. The Bible says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). I think the word fear means that we understand his holiness and desire to honor him. Aaron understood this and that is why he kept silent about his sons.