PRIESTLY PRESUMPTION MUST BE SEVERELY JUDGED IN ORDER TO PROTECT THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE
Keil and Delitzsch: The Lord had only just confirmed and sanctified the sacrificial service of Aaron and his sons by a miracle, when He was obliged to sanctify Himself by a judgment upon Nadab and Abihu, the eldest sons of Aaron (Ex. 6:23), on account of their abusing the office they had received, and to vindicate Himself before the congregation, as one who would not suffer His commandments to be broken with impunity.
Constable: Chapter 10 records another instance of failure after great blessing (cf. the Fall, Noah’s drunkenness, Abram’s misrepresentation of Sarah, the Golden Calf). This incident was significant, because it taught the people the importance of proper worship at the inception of the priesthood. Because God is holy, we must approach Him only as He directs. We will read of a similar event in Numbers 16 (Korah, et al.).
Mark Rooker: The Israelite priests were not to drink fermented drink, were to distinguish between the holy and profane, and were to instruct the Israelites in the decrees of the Lord. The central position this admonition occupies in the chapter, surrounded by historical narrative regarding the early activities and failures of the priests, suggests that it is the central focus of the chapter.
Calvin: If we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us. Besides, it was necessary that their religion should be sanctioned at its very commencement; for if God had suffered the sons of Aaron to transgress with impunity, they would have afterwards carelessly neglected the whole law. This, therefore, was the reason for such great severity, that the priests should anxiously watch against all profanation.
Allen Ross: The LORD judged Nadab and Abihu for their failure to obey the laws of the sanctuary, prompting Moses to warn the priests about respecting the LORD’s holiness and to instruct them about the observance of mourning and burial customs, the necessity of making clear decisions, and the laws of the sanctuary. . . Those set aside for service to the holy God must sanctify the LORD before the people by how they conduct themselves in ministry.
I. (:1-7) PRESUMPTION OF NADAB AND ABIHU JUDGED
A. (:1-3) The Sanctity of God’s Presence at Stake
1. (:1) The Challenge — Unauthorized Worship
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.”
MacArthur: These were the two oldest sons of Aaron. Though the exact infraction is not detailed, in some way they violated the prescription for offering incense (cf. Ex 30:9, 34-38), probably because they were drunk (see vv. 8, 9). Instead of taking the incense fire from the brazen altar, they had some other source for the fire and thus perpetrated an act, which, considering the descent of the miraculous fire they had just seen and their solemn duty to do as God told them, betrayed carelessness, irreverence, and lack of consideration for God. Such a tendency had to be punished for all priests to see as a warning.
Gordon Wenham: Incense was produced by mixing aromatic spices together, which were then vaporized by putting them in a censer containing glowing lumps of charcoal, i.e., “fire.” According to Lev. 16:12 these coals had to be taken from the altar.
Kenneth Mathews: Our passage characterizes the fire presented by Nadab and Abihu as “unauthorized,” meaning that it did not come from the source sanctioned by God. The word “unauthorized” means “strange, foreign.” The same word is used for a person who is a “stranger” to a family, that is, someone who is “outside the family” unit (Deuteronomy 25:5); it also names a “forbidden woman” who was outside a person’s marriage (Proverbs 2:16).
David Guzik: We don’t know what their motivation was. Perhaps it was pride, perhaps it was ambition, perhaps it was jealousy, perhaps it was impatience that motivated them. Maybe they found the seven-day repetition of the sacrifices (8:35) to be tedious and wanted a new thrill to break what they considered boredom. Whatever their exact motivation, it wasn’t holiness unto the LORD.
John Schultz: What, actually, was their sin? It was not only the fire; the cause was something much deeper. Nadab and Abihu ignored had God’s revelation of Himself, and believed that the fire they made was just as good as the fire that had come from the Lord. They did not distinguish between what was the Lord’s and what was man’s effort. They did not distinguish between what was holy and what was not. . . So, their sin consisted of three fatal offences: they had used alcohol, they had made their own fire, and they had entered the Most Holy Place. Each of these actions alone could have cost them their lives.
2. (:2) The Carcasses — Consuming Wrath
“And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.”
Sailhamer: Just as ‘the fire that came from before the LORD’ had been a sign of God’s approval of the dedication of the tabernacle and the priests in the previous chapter (9:24), so also ‘the fire that came from before the LORD’ in this chapter (10:2) was a sign of God’s disapproval. The writer’s clear purpose in putting these two narratives together is to show the importance that God attached to obeying his commands.
Roy Gane: Nadab and Abihu may have had what seemed to them to be a good rationale for doing what they did under the circumstances, just as Uzzah later had a good reason to grasp the ark of the covenant in order to steady it when its cart jolted (2 Sam. 6:6–7). In any case, the reasons of these three individuals were not good enough to prevent their sudden death by divine agency. For those who came this close to the “nuclear reactor” of divine Presence, there was no leeway for deviations from protocol.
Allen Ross: Nadab and Abihu probably had no malice or wickedness when they did this. They may have prepared for this service with sincerity and reverence as they understood it. But all such claims are worthless before God; they are vain and weak to defend against God’s wrath for setting aside his plan.
3. (:3a) The Commandment — Regulatory Principle
“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘It is what the LORD spoke, saying, By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’”
Perry Yoder: God’s sanctity and honor demanded that God’s very presence be approached only at certain times and in certain ways. Just as one does not enter the presence of an earthly king on a whim, so one does not enter the presence of the Sovereign of the universe carelessly.
R. K. Harrison: Moses used this incident to illustrate precisely what God meant by holiness and separation, in order that the bereaved father and the people as a whole might understand. Whereas for contemporary pagan peoples the concept of holiness meant nothing more than a person or an object being consecrated to the service of a deity, for the Israelites holiness was an ethical attribute of the divine character which had to be reflected in their own lives and behaviour, since they were bound by covenant to the God of Sinai. There are two basic aspects to this relationship which had always to be at the forefront of the Israelites’ minds: the first was that the covenant proceeded from God’s love (ḥesed); the second, that it demanded a response from the Israelites of unhesitating and unqualified obedience. Since certain members of the priestly line had apparently refused to take the human response to God’s covenantal love seriously, everybody had to be taught a lesson which, by its visual nature, would make a lasting impression upon individual minds. Hence Moses’ statement that God will demonstrate the nature and significance of holiness.
Douglas Van Dorn: It is at this point in this verse that the Puritan I quoted above spends an entire book on the subject. Jeremiah Burroughs (1599 – 1646) wrote Gospel Worship. Sproul once said of this book, “[It] has greatly influenced my understanding of biblical worship. It is one of the most important books I have ever read.” Tim Challies explains, “Only a Puritan could write a full book, 300 pages, expositing a single verse of Scripture, or more accurately, a portion of a single verse of Scripture. And only a Puritan could do it successfully. In Gospel Worship Jeremiah Burroughs does just that.” The book is 14 sermons on Leviticus 10:3’s, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh to me.” (I wanted you to be aware of it for your edification if you so choose to buy and read it.) What is the meaning of him being sanctified? John Piper puts it succinctly. “The priests must treat God as holy in their sacrifices, and the result will be that God will be manifested as holy to the people—that is, he will be glorified.” But, I’ll add, even if they do not, he will still manifest his holiness.
4. (:3b) The Compliance — Silent Restraint
“So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.”
Richard Hess: Aaron’s response of quiet demonstrates that despite earlier failures (cf. Ex 32), he is not ignorant of God’s anger and knows that protests will not only be futile but could lead to further judgment. It is difficult to comprehend how someone could remain quiet, but it speaks volumes for the faith that Israel’s priest has in the ways of God. In experiencing the greatest grief imaginable, Aaron does not protest but awaits direction from God.
Jacob Milgrom: Aaron’s silence contrasts starkly with the people’s shouting, only a few moments earlier (9:24*).
B. (:4-7) The Severity of the Offense Required an Extreme Response
1. (:4-5) Disposal of the Carcasses Outside of the Camp
“Moses called also to Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, ‘Come forward, carry your relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to the outside of the camp.’
So they came forward and carried them still in their tunics to the outside of the camp, as Moses had said.”
Roy Gane: “Outside the camp” is where sacred ashes from the altar and incinerated remains of sacrifices were disposed of (cf. 4:11–12; 6:11; 9:11).
2. (:6-7) Denial of Normal Mourning Actions
“Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, so that you may not die, and that He may not become wrathful against all the congregation. But your kinsmen, the whole house of Israel, shall bewail the burning which the LORD has brought about. 7 You shall not even go out from the doorway of the tent of meeting, lest you die; for the LORD’s anointing oil is upon you.’ So they did according to the word of Moses.”
Kenneth Mathews: Moses instructed Aaron and his sons not to engage in mourning rites, such as disheveled hair and torn clothing; these were the customary outward signs of deep grief, as is the dark dress of a mourning widow today. Also, they could not leave the sanctuary to attend the funeral, “for the anointing oil of the Lord [was upon them]” (v. 7; cf. 21:10–12). The significance of the “sacred anointing oil” (Exodus 30:25) was its symbolic value, designating Aaron and his sons as especially consecrated servants to the Lord (Leviticus 8:30). God was not coldhearted about Aaron’s feelings regarding his sons, nor was he punishing Aaron for his sons’ behavior. God was saying that Aaron must put his relationship with him first, above all others. Aaron’s spiritual priority was to remain holy in order to carry out his duties for the sake of the community. With his privileges, however, came solemn, even deadly, responsibility.
John Schultz: Three reasons are given as to why Aaron and his sons were not allowed to attend the funeral: First of all, they were not allowed to leave the sanctuary. Secondly, a priest was not allowed to mourn, and, finally, the touching of a dead body would have made them ritually impure. These stipulations are recorded in ch. 21. Death is an insult to God. A priest was not allowed to have a part in it. Of course, the position of a priest who stands before the Lord and his relationship with death should not be seen as a denial of the reality of death. It is not a question of, “if you do not look at it, it will go away.” It should rather be seen as a reaching forward to the resurrection from the dead of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an expression of the fact that God is the God of the living and not of the dead, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew.
Constable: Aaron and his surviving sons were not to demonstrate any dissatisfaction with God’s judgment (“Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes”; vv. 4-7). But God permitted the people (“your kinsmen, the whole house of Israel”) to “mourn,” because of the loss the nation experienced in the death of these priests, and also so they would remember His punishment a long time.
II. (:8-11) PROTECTING THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE HOLY AND THE PROFANE
A. (:8-9) Integrity of Priestly Conduct – Prohibition of Alcohol While Serving
“The LORD then spoke to Aaron, saying, 9 ‘Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die– it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations—‘”
Mark Rooker: This new paragraph begins with the common formulaic expression for the Lord’s revelation in Leviticus, this time with the recipient being Aaron instead of Moses. This is in fact is the only occurrence in Leviticus where Aaron is directly spoken to by the Lord. This encounter thus places the following instruction in the most solemn terms for the Israelite priesthood because it addresses the role of the priest in the Israelite religion. It also occupies the central section of the chapter, which indicates that this paragraph is of preeminent concern for priestly responsibility.
Constable: The inclusion of this prohibition, in this context, has led some commentators to assume that Nadab and Abihu must have been under the influence of this drink.
Perry Yoder: God provides additional safeguards to prevent such an event in the future. Priests are to refrain from alcoholic drinks before entering the tent. Also, priests are to distinguish between clean and unclean and to teach the Israelites the difference. This instruction is to prevent the unclean from touching the holy.
Allen Ross: The conclusion one could draw from these passages is that the common or regular use of intoxicants is incompatible with spiritual service or spiritual growth. Their use was permissible in ordinary life, especially for great celebrations; but it may not have been wise or advisable. Moses’ warning to the priests of his day should be carefully considered today, in an age when alcoholism is rampant.
B. (:10-11) Integrity of Priestly Functions
1. (:10) Maintaining Critical Distinctions
“and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean,”
Mark Rooker: The concept of holiness in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is related to the idea of separation. In the realm of the “holy” are objects or people set apart for God’s use, while the profane are confined to that which is common or normal. This function of the priest anticipates the next major section of Leviticus, which has as its primary concern the distinction between the holy/profane and the clean/unclean (Lev 11–15).
Gordon Wenham: The essence of the priest’s job was to make decisions, as to what constituted the difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean (v. 10). To make a mistake in these matters provoked God’s judgment and could lead to death. So to reduce the risk of such errors, the priests were forbidden to drink before going on duty.
Allen Ross: The principle given in this passage is that God must be glorified and sanctified by those who come into his presence (i.e., the priests). It makes no sense to pray that God’s name be hallowed (“hallowed be your name”) and then live in such a manner as to make his name or his service common or profane. The priests had the responsibility to make clear decisions about the laws of holiness and to teach the people accordingly. The congregation had to see by their example that entering the presence of the LORD meant being set apart from the profane things of the world.
Peter Pett: Uncleanness covers a wide variety of things and states, from differences between what may be eaten and what may not, and what may be touched and what may not, to bodily imperfections and discharges, to uncleanness resulting from contact with death, and so on, to uncleanness caused by disobedience to God’s commandments, and such uncleanness must be removed before men enter the Sanctuary. For God is holy, and it is the priest’s duty to discern whether men are clean or unclean, and to instruct them on all such matters so that they may themselves discern their own state. The stress is on the importance of keeping the Sanctuary and its precincts holy so as to bring home the holiness of God. It meant that the concern for holiness would become a daily concern for all the people, both physically and morally.
2. (:11) Instructing the Israelites to Obey God’s Commands
“and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them through Moses.”
Gordon Wenham: The priests were not just men who offered sacrifices, but were also teachers. To “instruct” (lehôrôṯ) the people involved teaching the law (tôrāh), which included both teaching the revealed rules and making decisions about difficult cases not explicitly covered in the Sinai revelation (Deut. 17:9ff.).
III. (:12-20) PROPER EATING OF THE OFFERINGS
A. (:12-15) Commands of Moses Regarding Proper Eating of the Offerings
1. (:12-13) The Priests are Instructed to Eat the Grain Offering
“Then Moses spoke to Aaron, and to his surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Take the grain offering that is left over from the LORD’s offerings by fire and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 You shall eat it, moreover, in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due out of the LORD’s offerings by fire; for thus I have been commanded.’”
Richard Hess: The repetition of the command to eat the grain offering in the area of the sanctuary repeats the last part of v.12 and continues the theme of the holiness of the bread. The second part of this verse explains why the priests should eat it and why they should eat it in the sanctuary. The priests eat it because it belongs to them by order of the decree of the Lord (2:3, 10). They eat it in a holy place because it is one of the offerings made to the Lord by fire. Thus they have dedicated and consecrated the grain, and it cannot leave the sanctuary or lie in a place and rot.
Roy Gane: In spite of the tragedy, Moses sought to ensure that the surviving priests completed the inaugural sacrifices on behalf of the people by eating their meat portions, which functioned as “agents’ commissions” (10:12–18). Life must go on. Even deep personal grief, compounded by horror, must be held in check so that the community can be served.
2. (:14-15) The Priests’ Families are Instructed to Eat the Breast and the Thigh of the Wave Offering
“The breast of the wave offering, however, and the thigh of the offering you may eat in a clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you; for they have been given as your due and your sons’ due out of the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the sons of Israel.
The thigh offered by lifting up and the breast offered by waving, they shall bring along with the offerings by fire of the portions of fat, to present as a wave offering before the LORD; so it shall be a thing perpetually due you and your sons with you, just as the LORD has commanded.”
B. (:16-20) Concern of Moses Regarding Apparent Avoidance of Eating
1. (:16-18) Anger of Moses over Apparent Transgression
“But Moses searched carefully for the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it had been burned up! So he was angry with Aaron’s surviving sons Eleazar and Ithamar, saying, 17 ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? For it is most holy, and He gave it to you to bear away the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD. 18 Behold, since its blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, just as I commanded.’”
Roy Gane: In 10:17 the priests must eat purification offering meat to accomplish the following two goals, which would apply to this kind of sacrifice
– to remedy moral fault but not physical ritual impurity:
– to bear the culpability of the community to expiate on their behalf before the Lord
The parallel syntax here indicates that bearing (nśʾ ) the peoples’ culpability (ʿwn) and expiating for them before the Lord mean basically the same thing. So by participating with God in receiving purification offerings, the priests expiated for the people as the Lord does: He bears culpability (nśʾ ʿwn) when he frees wrongdoers from the consequences of their sins (Ex. 34:7), which they would otherwise continue to bear (cf. Lev. 5:1). Thus the priests intimately participated in the process through which God extended mercy to sinners!
Peter Pett: His question was specific. Why had they burnt the flesh of the purification for sin offering offered on behalf of the people, and not eaten it. They should have eaten it ‘in the place of the Sanctuary’, that is, within the tabernacle precincts, for that was all a part of bearing the iniquity of the offeror (Leviticus 6:26; Leviticus 6:29; Leviticus 7:6). The purification for sin offering must be mainly burnt on the altar with the flesh eaten by the priests in order to bear the iniquity of the offerer and to make atonement for him. In this case the ‘him’ was the people of Israel. This description reveals how the holiness of the priests renders even the ‘sin’ content holy. It is neutralised through forgiveness and atonement, through ‘covering’.
2. (:19) Argument Offered in Response by Aaron
“But Aaron spoke to Moses, ‘Behold, this very day they presented their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD. When things like these happened to me, if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have been good in the sight of the LORD?’”
Mark Rooker: Aaron’s proper response regarding the non-consumption of the sin offering suggested that he was capable of carrying out the priestly mandate of “distinguishing the holy and the profane and the clean and the unclean” (10:10). Aaron was “actually doing the kind of thing that sons of Aaron were responsible for throughout Israel’s history.” Even though the refusal to eat of the offering was technically a violation of law, Aaron’s attitude does not reflect that flagrant disobedience represented by the sin of Nadab and Abihu. Hence, God’s response is different. Even though Aaron’s sorrow was based on the just judgment of wickedness, God is sympathetic. The Lord comforts those who have lost loved ones even when death comes as a consequence of their own sinfulness.
Robert Vasholz: The meaning of the priests’ actions has a two-fold explanation. The wording … such things as these have happened to me must refer to the judgment and slaying of Aaron’s sons. How can Aaron’s family perform this sacred duty in light of their family’s guilt and disgrace? Would that not appear somewhat hypocritical? Perhaps Aaron could not eat consciously without the full conviction that he felt no remorse for the fate of his sons?
And, secondly, how could Aaron and his sons feast while the congregation who brought the sin offering is mourning and, presumably, fasting? Wouldn’t that appear to be unfeeling? While the congregation is mourning and fasting, they are eating. Therefore, when Moses heard Aaron’s response, he was satisfied.
Peter Pett: Moses recognised the justice of what Aaron had said. He recognised their dilemma and was satisfied. This had been no rebellion against the will of Yahweh by Aaron and his remaining sons, but a recognition of their own mourning and their own indirect participation in the sin of their son and brothers. The house of Aaron had sinned that day, and were in mourning over the consequences of sin (for in Hebrew thought the sin of one in a family was in some sense the sin of all). How then could Aaron and his sons be seen as partaking of the purification for sin offering of the people, absorbing its holiness and rectifying their sin by ‘covering’ (atonement) and forgiveness? Would it not cause doubt in the people’s minds? Surely it was better that the holiness be absorbed by the altar, and the sin be covered and atoned for by God?
3. (:20) Agreement to Not Pursue this Issue
“And when Moses heard that, it seemed good in his sight.”
Richard Hess: In any case, this is not the day for a public display of the purity of the priesthood and its solidarity with God, as would be seen in the eating of the elevation offering. Aaron’s words of protest, “Would the LORD have been pleased,” translates the same Hebrew as Moses’ response, “he was satisfied.” The similar language provides an intentional comparison, viz., that the dissatisfaction of God has been averted and this is what led to Moses’ contentment at the result. In the end, therefore, the goals of Aaron and Moses are identical. They both want to do what pleases God. The example of leadership seeking to please God through obedience to him remains a powerful example and a means of instruction for Christians as much as for Israel (1Th 4:1).
Roy Gane: Aaron’s abstaining from the meat was not a careless ritual mistake but a choice based on priestly reflection regarding implications of the sin of Nadab and Abihu for the status of Aaron and his surviving sons before the Lord on this occasion. The priests were unworthy to bear the culpability of others on the very day that their family had fallen under divine condemnation. Moses’ approval implies that the sacrifice remained valid despite this departure from the norm.
Kenneth Mathews: Aaron’s response and Moses’ acceptance of his explanation illustrates the discernment that Aaron and his sons were called upon to practice as part of their spiritual assignment (v. 10). Aaron recognized that the special circumstances of the day’s offerings by which his older sons had offered unauthorized fire compromised the sin offering. Therefore, he reasoned that it would be unfitting for them to enjoy the meat as a benefit (Leviticus 6:30). What is significant here is that although the detail of the Law was altered, Aaron’s decision reflected the purpose of the Law and received divine approval. That Moses “approved” signaled that the Lord had “approved” of the decision (vv. 19b, 20).
John Schultz: This brings us to the end of the first part of this book: “Access to God,” in which the problem of sin is considered from God’s viewpoint. A sacrifice and a mediator are needed.