Nadab and Abihu – Leviticus 10

Read the Passage: Leviticus 10

Ignoring God’s Holiness (10:1–7)

In this narrative, the Levitical priests Nadab and Abihu, who were the two eldest sons of Aaron, “presented unauthorized fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them to do” (Lev. 10:1). Because of this illicit worship, the narrative records that “flames leaped from the LORD’s presence and burned Nadab and Abihu to death before the LORD” (Lev. 10:2). From man’s perspective, God’s lethal response to the false worship of Nadab and Abihu may seem harsh. Yet, Scripture clearly communicates the fact that man must approach God on God’s terms (see Exod. 30:34–38). While Nadab’s and Abihu’s worship of God may have been heart-felt and sincere, if they had possessed a proper understanding of the Lord, they would never have approached God in such an impulsive, or perhaps even flippant, manner. Observe that it is possible to be sincere and to be sincerely wrong.

A second, similar example that highlights the importance of properly drawing near to God is the account of the death of David’s servant Uzzah in 2 Sam. 6:1–8. In this passage it is recorded that David purposed to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. In so doing, David gathered a procession of thirty thousand choice men, as well as musicians playing all variety of instruments. However, the text reports, “When they came to Nacon’s threshing floor, Uzzah reached out to the ark of God and took hold of it, because the oxen had stumbled. Then the LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah, and God struck him dead on the spot for his irreverence” (2 Sam. 6:6–7). As with the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, so God’s slaying of Uzzah may seem to be cruel and unjust; yet, Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the importance of proper worship and reverence of God.

Observing God’s Holiness (Lev. 10:8–15)

In Lev. 10:8–11 God spoke to Aaron and to the remaining priests about the importance of observing God’s holiness. In his directions to Aaron, the Lord specified that priests were not to drink alcohol, especially during their time of service (see Lev. 10:8–11). It was imperative that the priests not have their minds clouded by alcohol during their service, for God is holy and requires precision. This command about alcohol was later expanded to a call for total abstinence among the Nazarites (see Num. 6:2–3), Rechabites (see Jer. 35:5–6), and Kings (see Prov. 31:4). Following this, in Lev. 10:12–15, Moses instructed Aaron and his remaining sons regarding certain offerings, namely ones that would be consumed by them. In this passage Moses seems to be addressing the peace offerings that were mentioned in Lev. 3:1–17; 7:11–36, as Moses had in mind restoring Aaron and his sons.

Perhaps the best place in Scripture that teaches us about proper external worship is the first and second commandments (see Exod. 20:3-6). Taken together, these two commandments stipulate that believers are not only to worship the correct God; but also that they must worship the correct God correctly. Said differently, the first two precepts of the Ten Commandments teach that believers must not worship a false God, or worship the true God falsely. Indeed, in the divine economy it is clear that how man worships is just as important as whom he worships. These concepts are interrelated, for one’s perception of God will affect one’s worship of God. In the New Testament, Jesus taught that God is Spirit and He desires worshipers to worship him in spirit and in truth—that is, with a proper motive and in accord with His revealed will in the Word of God (see John 4:24).

Respecting God’s Holiness (Lev. 10:16–20)

For God’s people to maintain their relationship with him, the sacrificial system needed to function properly. In light of the recent tragic deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Moses was closely monitoring the details of the daily sacrifices. One of the most important regular offerings commanded by God was the sin offering. Since this offering prefigured the propitiation of Jesus Christ, God had given more specific instructions about this sacrifice than about any of the other daily offerings (see Lev. 4:1–5:13; 6:24–30). In his directions about the sin offering, God had said, “The priests who offer it for sin shall eat it. In a holy place it shall be eaten, in the court of the tabernacle of meeting” (Lev. 6:26). Yet, here in Lev. 10:16–18 Moses learned that the priests had not eaten the sin offering properly, but had burned it. This resulted in Moses confronting Aaron’s sons for their disobedience.

Application Questions:

  1. How important is our external worship to God? Have you ever been guilty of serving God externally, but without your heart focusing internally on the worship of God?
  2. Do you think Nadab and Abihu were sincere in their worship of God? How can we conclude their execution was just (cf. Exod. 30:9; Rom. 10:2; Heb. 12:28–29)?
  3. How do the various sacrifices, offerings, festivals, and laws of the Old Testament highlight God’s holiness, including His exactness, purity, and precision?
  4. In what ways are human priests deficient in comparison to our heavenly High Priest (see Heb. 7:11–28)? What is the doctrine of the priesthood of believers?
  5. Was Aaron right in not eating the sin offering? If you were in Aaron’s position and your sons had been killed, would you have continued to serve as a priest?