Where did Nadab and Abihu Go Wrong?

From Scribe’s Square – SVM – Fall 2011

By E. J. Malone, JD.

One of the most puzzling transactions and occurrences in the Old Testament is the account where two priests offered a burnt offering before God and were punished by God with death. In Leviticus chapter 10, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered fire before Yahweh, the God of their nation Israel, which God had not ordered them to offer. As soon as Nadab and Abihu did this, fire issued from the presence of Yahweh and devoured them. For millennia, biblical scholars and casual scripture readers alike have wondered what exactly did Nadab and Abihu do wrong, and why their transgression was punished by death. The scribe will herein attempt to answer these questions.

Before exploring theories on this subject, let us review the facts.

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron took each his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered [strange] fire before Yahweh, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the presence of Yahweh and devoured them, and they died before Yahweh. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Yahweh has said, “I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3, Revised Standard Version used throughout, the name Yahweh used instead of “the LORD”).

Various explanations have been offered as to the nature of the offense of Nadab and Abihu, some better than others. Some followers of this story have opined that Nadab and Abihu were drunk with wine when they offered fire before Yahweh. They believe this because of God’s command later in this same chapter that priests drink no wine or strong drink during such time as they exercise their priestly duties in the tent of meeting. (See Leviticus 10:8-11) This explanation is weak because drunkenness is not mentioned in the Nadab and Abihu account and verses 8-11 of Leviticus 10 appear to be unrelated to the previous seven verses, the author appearing to be addressing new subject matter. Others speculate that the brothers’ offense was their failure to prepare their incense using myrrh, aromatic onyeha, galbanum, and frankincense as prescribed in Exodus 30:34-38, but this is not likely because those ingredients were probably unobtainable to the Israelites in the days of their wanderings in the wilderness. Another theory is that Nadab and Abihu went wrong in that they took it upon themselves to enter in the holy place behind the curtain in front of the cover of the ark; but this theory is also inadequate because the Bible does not say that they did this. It has also been proposed that Nadab and Abihu erred in that they presumed to make an incense offering without the authority of Moses or Aaron. While this theory may have a modicum of merit to it, it fails to account for the fact that the Bible places more emphasis on the manner of these priests’ sacrifice rather than the sacrifice itself.

The nature of the sin of Nadab and Abihu may not be ascertained with absolute certainty, but it is apparent that they were guilty of self-will and irreverence.

The self-will of these two priests can be deduced by the statement in Leviticus 10:1 that Nadab and Abihu offered “strange” fire before Yahweh and that Yahweh had not commanded them to offer such fire. The Hebrew word, zuwr, translated in this passage as “strange” or “unholy” means foreign, irregular, or unfamiliar. The New International Version uses the term “unauthorized fire.” Nadab and Abihu made an offering to God using a fire that God had not authorized. As mentioned above, God’s formula for such an offering is provided in Exodus 30, but this formula may have come later. If God’s instructions pertaining to preparing an incense offering had indeed not been given yet or if these instructions did not apply until a future time, then Nadab and Abihu “got ahead of themselves” and proceeded to make a burnt offering to God before receiving instructions from on high as to time, place, and manner. They were determined to worship God in a way that was fit to themselves, not in a way that was fit to God.

Nadab and Abihu’s irreverence is indicated by the post-punishment statement by Yahweh that he will show himself holy among those who come near him and he will be glorified before all the people. In slaying these two priests with fire, God was driving home the point that appearing before him should not be taken lightly and that any person performing a religious duty or rite in front of a group of people must give God the glory, vindicating his honor before the people. (Incidentally, Moses would eventually be excluded from the Promise Land because he did not sanctify Yahweh before the people of Israel; and King Herod would be struck dead because he did not give God the glory during a speech he was making. See Numbers 20:1-13 and Acts 12:21-23)

In this age where burnt offerings and animal sacrifices are not required of Christians, what may we learn from the Nadab and Abihu story?

First, we must be careful to avoid approaching, worshiping, serving, or petitioning God in a “strange” or irregular way “such as he had not commanded” us. The presence of God is so awful that it will kill a man unless he is appointed to approach God and is prepared in body and mind. (See Hebrews 12:29; Leviticus.16; Judges 13:22-23; Genesis 32:30; Exodus3:6; Deuteronomy 5:26) It is not enough to shun those things that God has strictly forbidden, but we must be careful not to “get ahead of ourselves” and proceed to do things without instructions from God. (See also Proverbs 3:5). God’s word cannot be added to or redacted from. Just as the strange fire which Nadab and Abihu offered to God did not have God’s stamp of approval, there are many doctrines, customs, philosophies, and practices in churches today that God never put His Divine stamp of approval upon.

Secondly, we must be careful to always give God and Christ the glory in whatever we do, especially before other people. God did not permit blasphemies and public mockeries of Himself back then, and he does not permit such things today. (See also Colossians 3:17)

Lastly and most importantly, we must remember that we may not approach, worship, or serve God without being accompanied by his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.” (John 14:6) All of the rites, observances, and regulations given to ancient Israel with their sanctions for failing to strictly adhere thereto served as proof that the Israelites, and all of humankind for that matter, could not have a working relationship with God without the intervention of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who died for all our sins. (See Galatians 3:19-24; Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:1-10; Hebrews 10:10; Colossians 2:16-17; Matthew 27:51; Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:18; Ephesians 3:12) Let us thank God for the privilege we have to freely approach, worship, serve, and petition God through his son Jesus Christ.

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