From Triumph to Tragedy (Leviticus 10:1-20)

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In what is, in my estimation, one of the most important books written in the past 50 years, David Wells notes that, in the modern church, “God has been drained of glory, divested of majesty, and denuded of authority.” Wells argues that the fundamental problem of the evangelical church is not inadequate technique, poor organisation or irrelevant music, but that “God rests too inconsequentially upon his church.” And until we restore weight to God, nothing we do will “staunch the flow of blood from [the church’s] wounds.”1

If any Old Testament episode illustrates this modern day problem, it is the story recorded in Leviticus 10.

In that account, two newly appointed priests decided that they could improve on God’s prescribed form of worship—and everybody was given a shocking lesson that God is indeed weighty. What began as a day of triumph (on perhaps the first day of the week) ended in grievous tragedy. The joyful celebration of God’s glorious presence almost immediately morphed into grief and mourning. The Lord’s Day worship was marred. And it was marred because God’s commandment with reference to worship was deemed inconsequential.

This passage in Leviticus, as with all other passages in this book, is given by God to help us in our worship. This is the last chapter of the second of seven sections that form the “worship manual” of Leviticus. This particular manual within the manual deals with the ordination of the priesthood.

We saw previously that the priesthood had been ordained in a seven-day process and that, when their ministry began (with the high priest offering the initiating offerings), the glory of the Lord appeared. This must have been an amazing time of excitement as the Lord “moved into” His house. But on the same day, perhaps even within hours, the triumph turned to tragedy.

There are several accounts in Scripture of God doing a work of extraordinary judgement at the beginning of a new epoch in church or redemptive history. Perhaps most notably in the New Testament is the story of the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). There, we read of two worshippers who violated God’s terms of worship (in their case, honesty) with the result of a very public judgement, followed by sobering reverence. It was also followed by healthy church growth. Worshippers, and would-be worshippers, came to appreciate in a deeper way that God is not inconsequential. They came to learn, by tragic circumstances, that God is holy and must be honoured as holy. Worshippers must obey His Word.

Sadly, church history indicates that we are often slow learners. The result has been a less observable judgement, but a judgement nonetheless. This has often been revealed in the loss of the experiential presence of God as well as a loss of influence in the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.

John Currid notes,

Such an immediate fall is a common story in the Old Testament. . . . The priestly fault so soon after the ordination must be seen in the light of similar stories. There is the Garden, but then the sin in the Garden; there is the release of Noah and all his family from the ark and the accompanying sacrifice, and then comes the story of his drunkenness. Similarly, at Sinai there is first the theophany and the covenant, but then the golden calf. So here, priestly trespass emerges immediately upon priestly ordination. Even priests can go wrong, and they can go wrong in the very aftermath of ordination. The story, then, is designed to warn and thus to save the ministry in Israel.2

And we need the same warning in our day. We, the new covenant priesthood must take God seriously.

If the church will fulfil its glorious mandate then it must obey God’s prescription for worship. His weight must draw us to His Word, and His Word must draw us to His weight in worship. He is not inconsequential.

This is a fairly well-known account, but no doubt many of the details of this account are not so well-known. I trust that, by the conclusion of our study, we will have a better understanding of this account so that we will be better worshippers of our holy God. And though we may find ourselves guilty of similar tragedy, may we also find grace to turn tragedy back to triumph.

The Sin of Aaron’s Sons

Nadab and Abihu were two of Aaron’s four sons (v. 12). They were the eldest sons and were privileged to be on Mount Sinai when the Lord established His covenant with the nation (Exodus 24:1-8). Verses 1-2 record the great sin that led to their death:

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

(Leviticus 10:1-2)

These men had privileges unparalleled by most. They had “seen” the Lord and yet were spared by His amazing grace (Exodus 24:9-11). They had experienced something of His glorious presence. They had recently been ordained in a special and holy seven-day period of preparation within the tabernacle. The Lord had appeared in His shekinah glory and there was no doubt that the Lord was among them. They had been affirmed as priests.

It would be hard to find others with more gospel privileges than these men. And yet, on their first day on the job, they were killed by God because they failed to glorify Him in accordance with His prescribed ways and means of worship. What was this sin and how did it happen?

The Perversion

There is much debate regarding what their particular failure was but it is clearly connected in some way to the phrase “offered profane fire before the LORD.”

The word translated “profane” or “strange” (NASB) is used predominately in the Old Testament to describe someone who is an “alien” or a “stranger.” Here it clearly refers to some use of the incense that was “alien.” That is, it was outside of God’s prescription.

It is possible that they had made their own concoction contrary to God’s recipe or that they offered it contrary to God’s orders. One commentator concludes that “their ‘strange’ incense made ‘strange’ fire. Something didn’t smell right.”3

Others argue that they offered this incense using self-made censers or pans rather than the ones prescribed by God. Others argue that they offered the incense in a wrong place. This particular incense was for the altar of incense inside the tabernacle, whereas here perhaps Nadab and Abihu offered it on the bronze altar.

It is also possible that the “profane fire” was so simply because they may have kindled their own fire apart from the one that was prescribed by God on the bronze altar. Still others maintain that they did offer it at the right place but that their sin was that it was reserved for the high priest. Thus they allegedly usurped authority.

Though there is much that we do not know, what we do know is that what, or how they offered the fire was out of sync with God’s prescribed means. And, true to His Word, they were cut off. In fact, if you read the genealogy of Aaron in Numbers 3 and 1 Chronicles you will note that neither of these men had sons and so they had no progeny to continue their privileged priesthood.

They were one generation priests. God was true to His covenant (Exodus 20:4-5).

Throughout our studies of Leviticus we have continually seen the words like “as the LORD commanded.” But here in v. 1 we read these sad words: “offered . . . which He had not commanded them.” These men were guilty of adding to God’s Word; they were guilty of human innovation in worship. And God rejected both it and them. And He continues to do the same in our day.

The Penalty

Their end was tragic, as “fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD” (v. 2). The same fire that had fearfully but joyfully announced God’s acceptance of the people by His glorious presence now sent the opposite message of rejection. The fire that had consumed the offering in justification (9:24) now consumed in condemnation those who made the offering. Imagine the fear the worshipping congregation would have felt. Perhaps they were now fearful that the Lord would leave them and they would be forever condemned to living apart from His blessings.

The text tells us that Nadab and Abihu died “before the LORD.” Obviously, when anyone dies, they do so in the presence of the omnipresent God. But here, as throughout Leviticus, this phrase means that they died in the tabernacle; either before the bronze altar or before the altar of incense. That is a frightening thought. They were so close to God, surrounded by so many reminders of God’s holiness, but they wilfully disobeyed Him. They were in the right place and yet were condemned by God.

Does that describe you? Have you ever been guilty of gathering in God’s unique experiential presence in the midst of His people (Matthew 18:20; Hebrews 12:24-29) and yet have offered “profane fire” before Him?

Have you ever come to worship with your own agenda? Have you gathered in worship with God’s people and yet you came with a heart hardened to His commands?

Let me put it this way: Have you ever come to this place of worship and left refusing to obey God’s command to repent and believe the gospel (see Acts 17:30-31)?

Is that you today? Then repent before you too are cut off from your only hope for forgiveness and salvation. Don’t delay! You may find yourself one day with absolutely no interest in the things of God until you wake up before God’s judgment bar and He casts you into the everlasting fire. As tragic as the condemnation of Nadab and Abihu was, let it serve you as a message of salvation.

Let us all take note that, just as we don’t get to choose the God that we are called to worship, neither do we get to choose how to worship Him. There is only one way: through Jesus Christ our Lord (Acts 4:12). Don’t let the sin of Aaron’s sons be yours. Beware of tampering with God’s appointed means to worship: His gospel.

God is holy and therefore we must not be surprised at His holy and just wrath. If we reject this biblical revelation of His character then we will eventually deny His gracious gospel.

Richard Niebuhr once lamented the theological decline in his own day as seen in liberal churches. He lamented that they had sought to replace the gospel of God with their social gospel, which he characterised in this way: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” And, of course, such is no gospel at all. If we will be saved then we need to sense our need to be saved. We need to come to grips with God’s judgement before we will embrace God’s Jesus (see Galatians 1:6-9).

The Silence of Aaron’s Sorrow

What a heart-shattering, tragic experience for Aaron. As the high priest he would have been witness to the immediate death of his two sons. Aaron had recently, no doubt, come to appreciate the grace of God’s forgiveness in a very profound way when he offered the calf for his own sins (9:8). He had experienced the wonder of being appointed by this gracious God to be His high priest. He had witnessed the shekinah glory. But now such triumph turned to tragedy. Words cannot express the grief. And perhaps this is one reason for his silence (v. 3). He was shocked by grief into a stunned silence. Verses 3-7 record various responses to God’s judgement.

And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.’” So Aaron held his peace.
Then Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.” So they went near and carried them by their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said.

And Moses said to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons, “Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the people. But let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD has kindled. You shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.

(Leviticus 10:3-7)

Poetic Admonition

Moses immediately gave a word, not of condolence, but of correction. In poetic form Moses said to his brother, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (v. 3). It was for this reason that God executed Moses’ nephews, Aaron’s sons. This was not a time for mourning as much as it was a time for learning: God is holy.

Those in leadership in the church must set the example. They must teach the congregation that God is holy both by their proclamation and by their practice.

When Aaron committed a previous sin concerning the worship of the true God, Moses confronted him—and Aaron had plenty to say. He began to shift the blame. In particular, he blamed the fire (Exodus 32:24).

But now, when Aaron was confronted he “held his peace.” Aaron offered no defence, no excuses; he shifted no blame. Rather than blaming the fire of God’s judgement, he humbly submitted. Aaron was learning to keep silent before a holy God. Aaron was grieving indeed, and yet was also learning.

When God confronts us with our failure in worship we too need to keep our mouths shut and to simply, unquestioningly submit. And if we must speak, then we must only speak words of surrender, confession and praise. Not everything is open to debate.

Rejected by God

Moses immediately stepped in to assist his grieving brother and, no doubt, fearful congregation. He called for two of these men’s cousins to carry their bodies outside of the camp (a place of final rejection). Probably because Aaron’s other sons were also priests—and therefore could not be rendered unclean by contact with a dead body—these cousins were called to this task. The “pallbearers” carried the corpses of these men “by their tunics.” This is interesting for two reasons.

First, obviously the fire that had devoured these men did not burn their priestly garments. The fire that God killed them with was probably like a lightning strike.

Second, since the priestly garments were never to leave the tabernacle precinct, this indicates God’s final rejection of these men. This is a sobering scene. “They are treated like the useless parts of the sacrificial animals”4 (see 4:11-12).

This teaches us that one may even be a so called “servant of God” and yet be rejected by God in the end. It was to drive this point home that Jesus once said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

How can we know for sure that we are “safe in the arms of Jesus”? Jesus said that the one who is saved is “he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” And the Father’s will is that all whom He has given to the Son will come to Him in repentance and faith (see John 6:37-44).  All who do so need not worry about being “carried out by their tunics.” All those who come to worship God through His appointed means of His Son are safe from the fires of God’s wrath.

Dry Your Tears

Verses 6-7 put a restriction upon the mourning of Aaron and his remaining sons. They were on duty and were therefore not permitted to mourn the loss of their son and brother (see Leviticus 21:10; etc.). This may sound unsympathetic, unfeeling and even cruel, but there is a vital lesson to be learned here: God comes first.

If Aaron and his sons were permitted to mourn the deaths of Nadab and Abihu then there was the real likelihood that the congregation would have interpreted their mourning as a complaint against God, as a statement of disagreement over what the Lord had done to these disobedient, innovative worshippers. The people needed to have reinforced to them that God is holy and righteous in all that He does. “Even in a time of great calamity the priests of the Lord must set an example to the nation of strict obedience to the will of God. . . . No matter what their personal feelings might be, nothing must be allowed to interfere with the work of the ministry.”5

This is not to suggest that it is wrong for believers to grieve the death of their loved ones. On the contrary, this passage nowhere indicates that God did not expect Aaron and his other two sons to feel sorrow. In fact, we will see the compassion of God in the closing verses of this chapter. However God was concerned for His people to learn that He is sovereign and that the only righteous response to death is that of Job who said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). God expects us to grieve, but to do so in such a way that glorifies Him; that is, by a grief that is undergirded by faith in Him. How we grieve, please remember, is in many ways the ultimate expression of worship. After all, in His grieving, Job “fell to the ground and worshipped” (Job 1:20).

Does our grief dishonour God by questioning His wisdom or by denying His gospel?

It is testimony to their God-centeredness that Aaron and his sons responded to this Word in humble submission. The text tells us that “they did according to the word of Moses” (v. 7). This was painful, but necessary. They are to be commended for their faithfulness in the time of grief, which ultimately enabled the congregation to continue to experience God’s presence.

We should learn from this the principle of ultimate loyalties for the Christian.

One day a man came to Jesus and said that he wanted to be His disciple, but first he wanted to bury his father. The Lord’s response was unwavering in its call to ultimate loyalty: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).

Such is the radical worldview of those who take the worship of God seriously.

The Statute for Aaron’s Service

The next verses seem to be a rather strange and incongruous, if not harsh, change of subject.

Then the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean, and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.”

And Moses spoke to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons who were left: “Take the grain offering that remains of the offerings made by fire to the LORD, and eat it without leaven beside the altar; for it is most holy. You shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, of the sacrifices made by fire to the LORD; for so I have been commanded. The breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the heave offering you shall eat in a clean place, you, your sons, and your daughters with you; for they are your due and your sons’ due, which are given from the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel. The thigh of the heave offering and the breast of the wave offering they shall bring with the offerings of fat made by fire, to offer as a wave offering before the LORD. And it shall be yours and your sons’ with you, by a statute forever, as the LORD has commanded.”

(Leviticus 10:8-15)

The sons of Aaron had just been killed by the Lord. Their bodies had been discarded outside the camp (along with the refuse that God rejected in sacrifices) and now God evidently wanted to talk about alcohol (vv. 8-11) and feasting (vv. 12-16)! Of course, nothing is haphazard in Scripture. There is a very real connection between what had just transpired and the articulation of these statutes.

Stay Sober

In vv. 8-11, God reveals a previously unrevealed command with reference to the priesthood and their consumption of alcohol. In essence, the prohibition is against drinking on the job.

In discussing this with some church members recently, I was told that most companies have policies with reference to no drinking on the job, but that others put a limit, such as only two glasses of wine at a meal. The reason, of course, is the same as God’s stated reason here: so as to not impede one’s duties. They were not to drink on the job because they were to their jobs well. They were to be focused.

We have all read the labels that warn us to not operate heavy equipment after taking a particular medicine (usually those with an antihistamine). That is essentially what God was doing here. He was prohibiting the priests from consuming that which would hinder their otherwise effective ministry of handling the “heavy lifting” of the glory of God before the people. But why at this juncture in the midst of this story of perverted, innovative and thus rejected worship? I have no reason to doubt that the sin of Nadab and Abihu was in some way related to their consumption of alcohol, to the point that they became unreserved, creative and free in their approach to worship. Therefore, they ventured where they should not have.

Those under the influence of alcohol are generally more unreserved and creative than they normally are. Many an otherwise silent man has become quite the romantic poet when he has had one too many. And the next morning there has often been plenty of baggage to sort out.

When one is intoxicated (whether by alcohol or drugs) he loses the ability to be as discerning as when they are sober. That is why people make foolish purchases when they are drunk, or why they give away that which they should not. In fact, Las Vegas is infamous for spontaneous marriages because they spent too many minutes at Happy Hour!

God was concerned that the priests be men of discernment and therefore he prohibited them from consuming that which might otherwise make them less discerning. God knew that alcohol and wisdom do not generally walk hand-in-hand.

The priests, of course, had to pay attention to the various laws with reference to the tabernacle. They had to discern between that which God prescribed as acceptable and that which He did not. The priests had to give counsel to their parishioners on all kinds of matters, and so they would need to be clear-thinking as they did so. They had to be very careful in their duties in the tabernacle and so they would need to be alert and circumspect. They could not play fast and loose with the matters of worship and so they needed to be sober-minded. Further, it was the duty of the priests to teach the whole counsel of God to the people and so they would need to have the full use of their faculties to rightly divide and effectively declare the truth of God’s law (see Malachi 2:7).

It was for all of these reasons that it was essential for the priests not drink on the job! The glory of God is a weighty matter, and to mishandle it can lead to destruction—even death—to self and to others. Just as we have laws today against driving under the influence, God was instituting the statute against drinking and interceding! We might say, “no discipling while intoxicated.”

The same prohibition, by the way, applies to the new covenant church. Paul wrote both to Timothy and to Titus that a man who is an elder or deacon must not permitted to be “given to” wine (1 Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7).

The prohibition is not against any and all consumption of alcohol by church leaders, but it does prohibit one from serving in such offices if the individual is characterised as a drinker. God’s people need to be led by those who are sober-minded and this requires self-discipline. A man given to alcohol can’t be trusted with weightier matters of godliness. Harrison sums it up well when he comments, “Those who are especially gifted, or who occupy positions of great responsibility in society, must be particularly scrupulous about their general conduct.”6 How much more so when it comes to those responsible for leading the flock of God!

It is instructive that the first mention of alcohol in the Bible is in a negative context: “And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:20-21). The result was sinful and shameful behaviour on the part of Ham. The text is plain that, during his drunkenness, Noah was ignorant of what was happening. That is, he lost his discernment.

Sadly there came a day in Israel’s history when the priests became characterised as those without wisdom. Isaiah records, “But they also have erred through wine, and through intoxicating drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink, they are swallowed up by wine, they are out of the way through intoxicating drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgement” (Isaiah 28:7).

The book of Proverbs warns kings against consuming alcohol due to their need to give discerning and effective leadership. Pay attention to these words from the virtuous woman:

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart.

(Proverbs 31:4-6)

The issue is not whether the Scriptures reveal a wholesale condemnation of the consumption of alcohol; they do not. In fact, some of the offerings called for alcohol and some of the prescribed festivals for God’s people involved the consumption of alcohol. However what the Scriptures also reveal is that those who lead God’s people must not be doing so under the influence of alcohol—or any other intoxicating substance.

I am convinced that the Young, Restless, and Reformed (and all too often inebriated) need to pay heed to this!

It is important historically to note that pagan religions in the ancient world were infamous for drunkenness being associated with their worship. This is still true in some pagan relationships (though the use of narcotics has replaced some of this; for example the Rastafarians). It was for this reason that Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:18, “And be not drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” That is, no artificial stimulants are needed: The Spirit and the Scriptures are sufficient. What is particularly significant is that Paul wrote this in the context of the local church at worship.

If we will worship God then we must give to Him the unreserved use of all of our faculties—including our minds. And a pickled one will not do! The church needs men who think soberly, and the word literally means “free from wine.” That is, such men think clearly according to God’s dictates rather than according to the dictates of a careless, frivolous and undisciplined worldly value system.

If you desire to be a spiritual leader then think soberly, not only about drinking and driving but also about drinking and discipling. If your greatest excitement in turning 18 is the legality of consuming alcohol, then you probably need to grow up before you will be treated as a grown up! Self-restraint in consideration of the glory of God and the good of His people is often the best use of our Christian liberty.

Take, Eat

The second set of restrictions is found in vv. 12-15, where former statutes with reference the eating of the sacrifices are repeated. Moses informs Aaron that he and his sons are to eat the grain offering by the altar (vv. 12-13). And they are also to take home the breast and the thigh from the heave and wave offerings for the family (vv. 14-15).

God reiterates that these are their due. As Paul said hundreds of years later, those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar (1 Corinthians 9:13). This was their “paycheque.” But, again, I must ask, why at this painful and sorrowful juncture does God repeat this statute? I can think of at least two reasons.

First, it seems that the grain, breast and thighs are items that were actually already present on this day. In other words, the sacrifices having just begun, and the ceremony being interrupted by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Moses was saying to Aaron and his sons, “Take and eat.”

Remember that these men had just been assigned the positions that were formerly filled by their now-dead brothers. Thus, they were new on the job and needed to be reminded what to do. They were therefore told to eat.

We have all witnessed the scene of death coming to family and the often attendant loss of appetite. People in the church provide all kinds of food, but so often it remains piling up in the kitchen and in the deep freeze. And, in love, we encourage our friend, “Eat something—you need your strength; it will be good for you.”

I think this is partially behind this admonition. God was compassionately encouraging Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, who had not been permitted to publicly grieve, that he was concerned both for His glory and their good. They were grieving in their hearts, and therefore he compassionately encouraged them to take and eat.

But as they ate, they did so in remembrance of Him. God was inviting them to more than physical nourishment; He was inviting them to spiritual communion.

This is a very tender scene in which God extended care to these sorrowful priests. He desired for them to partake of the sacrifices that was their due.

When we are beleaguered with a sense of our own sorrow for our sin, or for sorrow over sin in the church, then we too are invited to a communion meal: to the Lord’s Supper. We need strength and the Father provides this to us through His Son.

Second, the people needed to know that they were accepted. By virtue of these priests eating their appointed portion of the offerings, the people would be aware that the Lord had accepted them. This, no doubt, was one reason that the Lord reiterated this statute.

The people needed to reminded of mercy in the midst of judgement. But there is perhaps a more significant reason.

Aaron doubtless would have wondered if he and his family were rejected by God. Perhaps he wondered if, in the light of sin of his sons, God had not abandoned His plan. But by reiterating this statute, God was announcing that He was not abandoning either the tabernacle or the priesthood.

Imagine what may have gone through Aaron’s heart as he heard the Word of the Lord speaking words such as “by a statute forever, as the LORD has commanded.” We might be unfaithful, but God is always faithful (2 Timothy 2:13). He had just witnessed how serious the Lord was about His commandment; this sure word may have been a great source of encouragement to him.

Ross summarises: “Without this swift response the corruption of the service would have been rapid and perhaps unstoppable. And yet the priesthood survived this judgment; it did not come to an end because of this disobedience, as the aftermath of the episode shows. On the contrary, the passage turns out to be a confirmation of Aaron’s high priesthood and a reinforcement of his duties.”7

Over the centuries, the church has failed time and again. I am sure that, when the church in Jerusalem experienced the death of Ananias and Sapphira, it might have wondered if there was any future for it.

Perhaps there were some in the church at Corinth who might have wondered the same. And yet here we are, nearly two thousand years later, and the church is marching forward. I am not minimising for a moment the necessity of God-centred and faithful worship, but I also want to make the point that the Lord will persevere with His people. Even though the church has often been guilty of offering “profane fire,” the Lord has not and will not change His modus operandi of making His glory known among the nations. Nadabs and Abihus notwithstanding, Jesus Christ our Lord will build His church.

The Sincerity of Aaron’s Shame

After giving this word, Moses, with “diligent diligence,” made enquiry as to why the meat of the people’s sin offering had not been eaten by Aaron and his sons.

Then Moses made careful inquiry about the goat of the sin offering, and there it was—burned up. And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron who were left, saying, “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in a holy place, since it is most holy, and God has given it to you to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? See! Its blood was not brought inside the holy place; indeed you should have eaten it in a holy place, as I commanded.”

And Aaron said to Moses, “Look, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and such things have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?” So when Moses heard that, he was content.

(Leviticus 10:16-20)

Moses was greatly disturbed that, rather than being consumed in accordance with the law of the sin offering (4:27ff), the meat had been left to burn on the altar. After the debacle of v. 1, Moses was no doubt greatly disturbed at what might now happen.

You may remember that there were four categories of sin offerings: for the priests, for the elders, for the ruler and for the common person. The first two required that the blood be thrown seven times on the veil within the Holy Place and the entirety of the animal (except for the best parts, which were to be burned on the altar as an offering to God) was to be burnt outside the camp. In other words, if the priests of the people were guilty of sin then they were not allowed to benefit from the offering. However, if the people sinned, then the sin offering did not have its blood thrown inside the Holy Place, and the meat was to be eaten by the priesthood. In 10:17 we are clearly given the reason: “God has given it to you to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord.”

In other words, when the priests ate their appointed portion of the people’s sin offering, it was a public affirmation that they were accepted by God. Their sins had been forgiven, removed and out of sight.

When Moses saw that the sin offering for the people had been burned up rather than eaten, he was moved to anger because it appeared that, once again, Aaron’s priesthood had disregarded God’s commandment. This was turning into a really bad day! What would become, not only of the Aaronic priesthood, but also of this people who apparently were still in their sins? In the light of the recent display of God’s wrath, would they survive?

Aaron’s answer gives us some insight into his heart. Perhaps “Aaron had been worried that it had been contaminated by his sons’ deaths and was therefore impure.”8 In other words, because it had been offered by Nadab and Abihu, perhaps Aaron reasoned that it was not acceptable to God.

But perhaps he also assumed that the sin offering in this case was actually for him and his household. That is, he felt the weight of the sin of his sons personally. And so he viewed the sin offering as “on his account.” How then could he benefit personally from a sin offering on his own account? Aaron’s assumption was that, had he eaten of this, then certainly it would not have been “accepted in the sight of the LORD” (v. 19). After all, the sin offering was for unintentional sins, and yet there was nothing unintentional about the conduct of Nadab and Abihu.

Now, it might be argued that Aaron was just as guilty of innovation as were his eldest sons, who were slain for doing so. But there is a big difference: It would seem that, in their case, they were deliberately disobeying a clear command, whereas in Aaron’s case he was using his judgement in a matter that was not clear cut.

We should note that the prescriptions for the sin offering did not explain the scene that now confronted Aaron. Hence “Aaron wanted nothing more than to please the Lord, and consequently he had chosen to err on the side of caution and to make sure that there could be no possible further compromise to God’s honour. . . . Aaron was not being casual about things that had been clearly revealed. He was being cautious about things that were less than clearly revealed.”8

It seems as if Aaron truly understood that God looked on the heart in matters of worship and that he was not sure that he qualified to benefit from the sacrifice. In other words, Aaron was responding in humility, whereas his sons had behaved presumptuously. Whereas “Nadab and Abihu arrogantly and flagrantly disobeyed God’s law . . . Aaron shows true remorse and thoughtful regard for the law. . . . A person’s attitude in worship is as important as the forms of worship.”10

Aaron sincerely did not believe that the Lord would accept his partaking of it. Again, Aaron humbly acknowledged that he was a sinner—even though he was high priest—and thus his contrite response. Aaron’s sense of shame and hence his approach to sacrifice was sincere; it was from a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).

Moses was “content” (satisfied) with Aaron’s reasoning. And since Moses’ word was often viewed as God’s Word, the matter was settled. The high priest was absolved by one who stood as his high priest and the matter was settled. No fire came from the Lord in judgement.

We can learn from this that, in the words of A. W. Tozer, “God is easy to live with.” He remembers our frames and He knows that we are but dust. He is therefore gracious and merciful to those whose hearts are sincere towards him. Wenham summarises this gracious scene well when he writes, “God is more gracious to those who make mistakes because they fear him than to those who carelessly and impudently enter his presence.”11

In other words, the God that we find in Leviticus is the same God we find in every other book of the Bible: one who is full of compassion and mercy, who is slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness (see Exodus 34:6-7). Therefore, when we are sincere in our godly sorrow for sin then God hears our heart and he accepts our penitence in Jesus’ name. He forgives sinners because His appointed High Priest is content to do so.

Aaron was willing to take responsibility. That is always a sign of maturity, a mark of hopefulness and an evidence of grace.

This new experience of growth in grace indicates that no longer would Aaron take sin lightly. He would not presume upon God’s grace. He would not play fast and loose with worship. He had learned to walk in the fear of the Lord all the day long. He had learned that God is gracious. This is a lesson that we too must come to appreciate. The goodness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).

But wherein was Aaron’s hope? Did it lie in the sacrifices? Hardly! His hope, his faith was in the one to whom the sacrifices pointed. His hope was in the gospel of God. This brings us to our final point.

The Saviour of Aaron’s Soul

In conclusion let us note the one to whom this story points: the Lord Jesus Christ who saves the Aarons of this world.

Aaron must have felt pretty hopeless throughout this entire episode, and yet, as we have seen, there have been wonderful glimpses of God’s grace along the way. And the reason is that God was bringing to pass, perhaps slowly but no less surely, His great plan and promise of redemption.

All of this was in preparation for the fulfilment in Jesus Christ His Son. Aaron felt unworthy to serve as high priest, for indeed he was. Aaron had to offer sacrifices for his own sins, but Jesus Christ the Lord did not (Hebrews 7:26-28). Jesus was able to be the sin offering and his offering was accepted (2 Corinthians 5:21).

It is helpful to observe that Aaron was not sure that his participation in the sacrificial offering would be accepted (v. 19), but this was never the case with the Lord Jesus, who always did that which pleased the Father (John 8:29). It was for this reason that, when Jesus died on the cross, the Father was “content.” He was satisfied. And because God was satisfied with the sacrifice of the Son, He is able to look upon us and be satisfied as well. His justice has been satisfied and there is no need any longer for me to pay the penalty for my sin.

We began this study by highlighting the theme that this chapter records: triumph to tragedy. But as tragic as this episode was, tragedy was not the end of the story—at least not for Aaron. And not for those throughout history who have placed their trust in the one to whom these offerings pointed.

The story of the human race is that of falling from the triumph at creation to the tragedy of sin. But triumph is possible again through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The choice is yours. Will you, like Aaron, humble yourself, take responsibility for your sin, repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? If you do, then your life can be the story of triumph, to tragedy, to triumph—forever.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 124.
  2. John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 123.
  3. Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 119.
  4. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 158.
  5. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 114.
  6. Harrison, Leviticus, 112.
  7. Alan P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 230-31.
  8. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 139.
  9. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 139.
  10. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 137-38.
  11. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 160.