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Leviticus 10 - The deaths of Nadab and Abihu
35 And Moses was unable to go into the tent of assembly because the cloud settled on it and the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle.
…but Leviticus begins…
1 Then YHWH called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of assembly…
In Hebrew the Leviticus scroll is named va-yikra, “and he called”, from 1:1. The whole book then is about how the priests, who represented the people, could get back into the presence of God after the Golden Calf incident.
We need priests to keep sacred space ritually clean and approach God, in a state of ritual purity, to represent us before God. In our last lesson we went through the ordination of the priests and the inauguration of the tabernacle [8-9]. It was a high point. Now, at last Moses and Aaron can enter the tabernacle…
23 Then Moses and Aaron entered the tent of assembly. When they came out, they blessed the people, and YHWH’s glory appeared to all the people.
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu
1 And Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his censer1 , and they put fire in them and placed incense on it [i.e. the fire]; then they presented before [lit. “to the faces of”] YHWH illegitimate fire, which he had not commanded them.
What might have been wrong with the fire Nadab and Abihu offered [see Leviticus 16:1-2 and Hebrews 9:6]2?
1 Then YHWH spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they had come near before YHWH and they died. 2 And YHWH said to Moses, “Tell your brother Aaron that he should not enter at any time into the sanctuary behind⌋ the curtain in front of the atonement cover [LXX ἱλαστήριον] that is on the ark, so that he might not die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover [LXX ἱλαστήριον].
6 Now these things having been prepared in this way, the priests enter into the first tent ⌊continually⌋ as they accomplish their service, 7 but only the high priest enters into the second tent once a year, not without blood, which he offers on behalf of himself and the sins of the people committed in ignorance.
You cannot approach God just by doing what seems right to you.
Some 1500 years later the veil, or curtain, in the temple would be torn in two as Jesus died [Matthew 27:50-51]. Jesus, the high priest, would enter the most holy space and bring the nations into God’s presence [Romans 3:23-25; Hebrews 9]. But not yet! That was Jesus. The son of a high priest can’t just walk into the presence of God.
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by his grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God made publicly available as the mercy seat [ἱλαστήριον] through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness, because of the passing over of previously committed sins, 26 in the forbearance of God, for the demonstration of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just and the one who justifies the person by faithl in Jesus.
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu
2 So fire went out from before [lit. “to the faces of”] YHWH, and it consumed them so that they died before [lit. “to the faces of”] YHWH. 3 Therefore Moses said to Aaron, “This is what YHWH spoke, saying, ‘Among those who are close to me I will show myself holy, and in the presence of [lit. “upon the faces of”] all the people I will display my glory.’ ” So Aaron was silent.
How would you explain what happened in terms of YHWH’s holiness and sacred space?3
4 Then Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel, Aaron’s uncle, and he said to them, “Come forward. Carry your brothers from the front of the sanctuary to outside the camp.” 5 So they came forward, and they carried them outside the camp in their tunics, just as Moses had ordered.
Why does Moses have to summon others to carry the corpses?4
6 Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “You must not let your hair hang loosely, and you must not tear your garments, so that you will not die and he [i.e. God] will be angry with all the community. But your brothers, all the house of Israel, may weep because of the burning that YHWH caused, 7 but you must not go out from the entrance to the tent of assembly lest you die, because YHWH’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did according to Moses’ word.
Why does Moses forbid Aaron to mourn for his sons!?5
8 Then YHWH spoke to Aaron, saying, 9 “You and your sons with you may not drink wine or strong drink6 when you come to the tent of assembly, so that you will not die—it is a lasting statute for your [pl.] generations— 10 and to distinguish between the holy and the unholy [i.e. “common”], as well as between the unclean and the clean, 11 and to teach the Israelites all the rules that YHWH has spoken to them through [lit. “by the hand of”] Moses.”
How was YHWH teaching the people by the hand of Moses [v11]? How do we teach people by our hands?
12 Then Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “As for the remaining parts, take the remainder of the grain offering from YHWH’s offerings made by fire and eat it, the unleavened bread, beside the altar, because it is a most holy thing. 13 And you shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your allotted portion and the allotted portion of your sons from YHWH’s offerings made by fire, for so I have been commanded. 14 And the wave offering’s breast section and the upper thigh of the contribution offering you [pl.] must eat in a clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you, because they are given as your allotted portion and your sons’ allotted portion from the sacrifices of the Israelites’ children of Israel”] fellowship offerings.
Does YHWH eat? Do the other gods of the ANE eat? Who eats the offering? Where?7
15 They must bring the thigh of the contribution offering and the breast section of the wave offering in addition to the offerings made by fire, consisting of the fat portions, to wave as a wave offering ⌊before⌋ [lit. “to the faces of”] YHWH; and it will be for you and for your sons with you as a lasting rule, just as YHWH had commanded.”
The uneaten sin offering!!
16 Then Moses sought all over for the goat of the sin offering and behold, it was burned up8. So he was angry with Aaron’s remaining sons Eleazar and Ithamar, saying, 17 “Why did you not eat the sin offering on the sanctuary’s site, because it is a most holy thing? And he gave it to you to remove the community’s guilt, to make atonement for them before [lit. “to the faces of”] YHWH. 18 Look, its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary. Certainly you should have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.”
Aaron has messed up again. Two of this sons are dead yet the remaining sons are not following God’s rules!
Why don’t they die? Why aren’t they destroyed?9
19 So Aaron said to Moses, “Look, today they presented their sin offering and their burnt offering ⌊before⌋ [lit. “to the faces of”] YHWH, and things such as these have happened to me, and if I were to eat a sin offering today, would it have been good in YHWH’s eyes?” 20 When Moses heard, it was good in his eyes.
The censer was a portable alter, in effect, as the incense was burnt on the coals on the censer itself. Censers were also used in Egypt to ward off evil. In Cyprus we still have the καπνιστήρι.
Why have they followed Moses and Aaron inside? Are they supposed to be there? Not sure. What is wrong with their offering? Should even have been making an offering? Had they used the wrong incense? Unlikely. Why would some other type of incense have been doing there in the tabernacle area? Had they rushed in after Moses and Aaron and gone too far into the tabernacle? In their enthusiasm had approached or even entered the curtained off most sacred space, the holy of holies, where only the high priest, Aaron would be able to enter once a year?
Those close to YHWH were the priests. The standards for them are exacting less they contaminate the sacred place. Aaron is silent in contrast “in contrast to the loud wailing that usually accompanied mourning” in this part of the world to this day [Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Le 10:3.].
Aaron calls his cousins to remove the corpses outside the camp. Corpses are ritually unclean. They must be moved far from the tabernacle and the camp. Mishael and Elzaphan would have become ritually unclean handling the bodies.
The people can mourn by crying but the High Priest must not be in mourning or even touch a dead body [Leviticus 21:1-12] lest God’s holiness destroy him. This seems harsh! I think the point is that the priests role is to maintain the sacred space so YHWH can dwell behind the curtain, above the mercy seat of the arc so that the priests can approach him on behalf of the people.
It is possible that Nadab and Abihu had been drinking but this is a general prohibition on any of the priests drinking before they enter the tabernacle. Why? Firstly, it is not good to be drunk or tipsy whilst on duty! Secondly, it is a type of ritual purity “to distinguish between the holy and the unholy [i.e. “common”], as well as between the unclean and the clean” [v10]. Thirdly, “[t]here is some evidence of ritual intoxication in ancient Near Eastern literature and the Bible also attests the practice (Is 28:7)” [Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Le 10:8. See also Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 196.]
YHWH does not eat. The priests eat what is left of the grain offering and the bread offering in sacred space. The meat can be eaten with their families “in a clean place” [v14]. The wives and daughters could not enter the tabernacle, the sacred space. Nevertheless, they can eat in a “clean place”. It is still sacred but less so. The point is that the offerings have been in sacred space and cannot enter common space again.
"The purification offering was believed to absorb the impurities that it was presented to remedy. This concept of ritual absorption is common in the ancient Near East. When a great amount is absorbed (as on the Day of Atonement), the entire offering is burned so as to dispose of the impurity. But on most occasions the priest’s eating of the prescribed parts plays a role in the purification process. Milgrom suggests that it symbolized holiness swallowing up impurity. If this is so, Milgrom is right in understanding Aaron’s explanation to Moses here as reflecting his fearful caution. The presence of his sons’ corpses in the sanctuary area may have greatly increased the amount of impurity absorbed by the purification offering, making it lethal to the priest." [Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Le 10:16.]
I would suggest that this is God’s mercy. God wants to draw humans to himself. If it carries on like this all the priests that represent the people will be destroyed. God hold back. He is kind.