I’ve been working through the 13 most common words in Leviticus according to the word cloud I made, but after the last post on priests (see here), I have to pause and meditate for a moment on one of the only stories in Leviticus: the story of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-20).
Nadab and Abihu are consumed by fire from the altar because the offered “unholy fire”(NRSV) before Yahweh. Literally, what they offered is “unauthorized coals.” The Rabbis and medieval commentators were horrified that God would strike them dead on the spot for this offense. There were various attempts to explain the severe punishment that these two received: drunkenness (see 10:8-11), celibacy, arrogant impatience for Moses and Aaron to die, neglect of some other aspect of their sacred duties. Ultimately, these explanations are speculative and unfounded in the text. The only exception would be the idea that these Priest brothers were drunk. The text might imply this with the declaration by Yahweh directly to Aaron in 10:8-11: drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die… (NRSV). Even if it is true that the reason they offered unauthorized coals is because they were drunk, it still seems to me that this is a secondary reason. The primary thing the text seems to emphasize is that the coals were “unauthorized.”
So the problem is God commanded things to be done a certain way and Nadab and Abihu did it a different way (perhaps because they were drunk). The emphasis in the text in the explanations of priestly duties (Lev 8-10) is on doing exactly as God commands. Over and over again in those chapters some variation of this refrain is used: And Moses did as the LORD commanded him (8:4 NRSV). Also the people are commended several times for doing “what Moses commanded” (9:5). This shows that when Moses commanded the people he commanded with the full authority of Yahweh since he was only repeating what Yahweh had told him directly. Aaron and his sons are said to do “all the things that Yahweh commanded through Moses” (8:36). This shows that Nadab and Abihu did not make an honest accidental mistake, but knew better since they had already previously done it right. Hence the text says they offered the unauthorized fire “such as he had not commanded them” (10:1). Following this narrative flow of Leviticus heightens the drama of Nadab and Abihu’s death in chapter 10 and shows that it is not “out of nowhere.”
Paying close attention to the narrative flow of Leviticus also highlights another important facet of the Nadab and Abihu story. Directly before their story in chapter 10 the end of chapter 9 describes a beautiful scene set in direct contrast by key words to the story of Nadab and Abihu. Here are both stories side by side and emphasized for clarity:
|Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he came down after sacrificing the purification offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting and then came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.||Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.|
The fire coming forth from Yahweh (i.e. from the Holy of Holies) was in the first instance a sign of his divine approval and in the second instance a sign of his divine disapproval.
What do we do with this story? It used to be taught in some circles of the Churches of Christ that, based on this story, we were not allowed to use instruments in worship because it was an “unauthorized” form of worship. Further, we could not do a bunch of things in worship because they were “unauthorized.” I sympathize with the heart behind this (wanting to please God), but I think it misses the point of how this verse should be applied today and engenders a spirit of legalism.
This verse is NOT and should NOT be used to prohibit the use of musical instruments in worship. This passage is far deeper than that. This passage is a reminder that we are not to take lightly the serious things of God. We no longer have strict tabernacle instructions for how worship is supposed to be administered. Rather, we are given freedom in Christ to worship in spirit and in truth. The point is not to disregard as “not a big deal” the kinds of things God takes as a big deal. For example, why have the Churches of Christ focused so much on whether or not it is allowable to use instruments in worship and neglected the far more serious things like love for the poor, sick, dying, and lost? Are we not like the very people our Lord condemned for getting the focus wrong? We are like those who have “neglected the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23).
This passage is really a warning about being careless with the serious things of God. I am reminded of a passage from the Sermon on the Mount in The Message:
Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege. (Matt 7:6 MSG)
To me, this reminds me of those whose preaching and teaching consists almost entirely of meaningless Christian-esse cliches and those who reduce the faith to thin moralism with a get-out-of-Hell-free card attached. God is alive and powerful and wants to be in a close-quarters relationship with us. That’s the larger point of Leviticus: God wants to live with us in our midst and in our neighborhoods; in our 9-5 daily lives. Wouldn’t you be furious with someone who took lightly your costly efforts to be close to them? Don’t be afraid of God. That would miss the point. Be afraid of living without God or being so careless that you live with God, but treat him like a spouse who’s really just a glorified roommate. God is powerful and beautiful – so powerful and beautiful that it can be dangerous to come before him in a frivolous manner. Fire can warm us and light our way, but it can also burn us if we miss-use it. Don’t play around with fire or you might burn yourself!
Glorious and beautiful God, forgive us for those moments when we come to you in a less-than honorable way. Really, even our best efforts are sub-par to come before a God as wonderful and holy as you. Thank you that in your mercy you forgive us and thank you that in your love you want to dwell with us even when it is not an easy living arrangement. Create in us clean hearts oh God so that you will have a clean and tidy temple to dwell in by your Holy Spirit. Amen.