Strange Fire

Daily Readings: Leviticus 9-10, Psalms 108-109, 2 Corinthians 1-2

As I delved into the details of Nadab and Abihu’s fiery fate, I was yet again reminded of the miracle of the wisdom condensed in every inspired word of this amazing book! There is a richness of meaning compacted into simple words that reveals oodles of lessons – if we will just dig a little bit. So grab my hand, and let’s explore Leviticus 10 together.

If, ‘Location, location, location’ is of supreme importance in Real estate, then, ‘Context, context, context’ is of supreme importance in Bible Study. 😀 If we are to arrive at valid conclusions, we must always take into account both the immediate context of the passage we are considering, and then the broader scope of the details and lessons reflected in other parts of Scripture. So just what is the context of Leviticus 10? Moses and the Children of Israel are encamped at Mt. Sinai in the wilderness. God is establishing the rituals, sacrifices and means of communion between Himself and His people – especially as it applies to their religious lives and priestly duties. In chapters 8 & 9 Aaron and his sons have been solemnly consecrated as the priests officiating over the religious lives of God’s people. They have offered sacrifices “to make atonement for them, just as the Lord has commanded.” ch. 9:7 In a very dramatic conclusion to the offerings, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people” and “fire came out from the Lord” to consume the sacrifices. ch. 9:23-24 This context is vitally important to bear in mind as we read about Aaron’s erring sons.

Nadab (Aaron’s firstborn) means “spontaneous” or “liberal”, and his brother, Abihu, means “God is my Father.” I found these meanings to become particularly relevant as I searched out the story. These two get it into their heads (the night of the above described ceremony – apparently) that they will go into the Holy of Holies (presumably) and offer their own version of worship to this powerful God they have just been ordained to minister before. The Bible describes their actions as offering “strange fire.” Just what in the world is strange fire?! Inquiring minds want to know. 😀 (Note: Here’s where we go to a wider version of context for our story.) Significantly, the ESV version translates it, “unauthorized fire.”

I looked up that word “strange” in the Concordance. It means; “to turn away”, “to depart”, “loathsome”, “to be a stranger.” Hmmm. That’s interesting. Is it talking about the condition of their hearts? When I looked at other uses of this same word it had these types of meanings:

laymen (i.e not priests), offensive, strange gods, adulteress/unfaithful, turned away, illegitimate, estranged through idolatry (cp. Ex. 30:33, Deut. 32:16, Pro. 2:16, Isa. 1:4, Ex. 14:5, Hos. 5:7 – among many others)

Question answered -it definitely does have to do with the condition of their hearts toward God. It tells us they were estranged and offensive in their belief/understanding of Him and His character. Now we’re getting somewhere!

I then looked for other Bible connections to incense, censers or fire from the Lord. I discovered that it was ONLY Aaron and only AFTER this incident (as recorded in Leviticus 16:11-14) that incense was to be taken into the Holy of Holies and only ONCE a year on the Day of Atonement. Hmmm. Where did Nadab & Abihu get this idea, then?? That answer was an easy discovery.

The rest of the Old Testament is riddled with passages decrying the innumerable times wayward Israel “burned incense on high places” to false gods like their pagan neighbors. Do a Concordance search of the word “incense” and you’ll see what I mean. This was a BIG stumbling block for the nation. And sadly, it already had roots right here, at the first ordination of godly priests – some of them not so godly after all. 🙁

When I looked for censers in other stories, I found two really relevant incidents. The first is in Numbers 16, when Korah’s rabble and 250 leaders of Israel questioned the authority of Moses and Aaron. They were told to bring censers (along with Aaron’s) and God would show who was designated as His chosen. Long story short – they were all either swallowed up by a Divine earthquake, or consumed by “fire from the Lord” – just like Nadab and Abihu. And Aaron had to use his censer to “take a stand between the dead and the living” to stop the plague and make atonement for the people.

The second interesting story was that of Uzziah King of Judah – much later in the nation’s history. We are told God helped him defeat his enemies and grow his country to be a powerful force in the region.

“But when he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”

– 2 Chronicles 26:16

Uzziah’s pride caused him to presume he could offer incense before the Lord – even though he was not a priest. In his case, God mercifully only struck him with leprosy (rather than death) for his sinful attitude. His fate again declared ; “no layman (same word as “strange”) who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the Lord.“ Num 16:40

In my enjoyable Bible ramble, I have also been reminded that incense is a symbolic representation of the prayer of righteous people that ascends to God like a sweet smell. Cp. Ps. 141:2, Rev. 5:8 So to presume to approach the very presence of God Himself with unholy hearts in our own way, is a prideful, loathsome thing indeed!

One last thing I noted in the context of this passage was the somewhat odd discussion of priestly drinking habits as the first thing that God speaks about to Aaron after the death of his sons. vv.8-11 I do not think this is out of context. It obviously was particularly relevant to institute this new command at this particular moment. Keep that in mind as we reconsider the events that day.

So here is my current potential reconstruction of this story, based on my research. Nadab and Abihu had no respect for the distinction between what is holy and what is profane. They possibly were celebrating the night of their anointing – thinking they were “set for life” in this new job. They would have power, wealth and all the fleshly benefits inherent to worldly status. They decided to celebrate in the way the world celebrates – by drinking too much. In their drunken stupidity their actions reflected their inner hearts. They questioned their father’s authority as High Priest and figured they too, could enter the Holy place “before the Lord.” Is this how they knew the nations around them approached their gods? Were they curious? Did they think they could get God to do things for them? Or were they just so full of unbelief that they felt impervious to God’s judgment now that they were His priests? We won’t really know the answers to many of the questions.

What we do know is that their liberal and idolatrous hearts were always exposed to God – but they had gone too far and were now without remediation. Judgment Day had come for them. God is to be approached in His way – not in the way presumptuous humans might wish. So they were judged and instantly killed by the angel of God’s presence – in the same way the sacrifices had been consumed earlier in the day. Note that the Bible is specific to tell us that they were carried out “still in their tunics.” This is pointing out the fact that they are wearing the same clothing that had been consecrated by sprinkling with the sacred anointing oil earlier in the day! “How dare they?!”- the text seems to be shouting.

I found an interesting passage in 1 Chronicles 24:2 which describes these men as having “died before their father”. This means they died chronologically before Aaron, but since I am in the middle of this research I found an additional meaning. Given that Abihu’s name meant “God is my Father” I find it an ironic thing that he/they died “before the Lord (THE Father)” – physically and literally. Lev. 10:2

Unfortunately, this inauspicious start to the priesthood was just a premonition of things to come. Books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel outline so many of the offenses of the priests of their days. And somehow, when we think of the Chief Priests and Rulers of Jesus’ day, they were also a great deal like Nadab and Abihu. They were men that were called to a holy priesthood and yet were waylaid by the temptations of power, prestige, and the praise of men rather than the praise of God. Strange fire people. They refused to believe even miracles done by the Son of God himself. Human pride blinds people to even the most obvious truths!

And think of poor Aaron in the middle of all this! He humbly accepted both his older brother’s rebuke, and God’s restrictions on mourning for these sons. He submitted himself to God’s commands for the rest of his life – ministering in a place that constantly would remind him of his sons, and their deaths. He was a man who lived Jesus’ words:

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

– Matthew 10:37

He is a man that we see going through times of weakness, crisis and tragedy in his life, but who dutifully obeys and continues to grow in faith. At the end of this chapter, when Moses thinks Aaron is rebelling, he discovers instead that he is humbled and broken. He felt it more fitting to abstain from the offering – given the choices his sons had made that day. He lives his life ministering as the first faithful (albeit imperfect) High Priest of the Living God – foreshadowing the perfect High Priest Jesus.

Lessons I draw from this story in my own words:

  • Guard our hearts from human pride and turning away. It’s an insidious sin.
  • Thinking we can approach God “in our own way” can lead to sin and even death. (cp. Pro.14:12)
  • Do not do stray from God’s word – it makes it hard to distinguish between the holy and the profane.
  • Do not drink too much. It can lead to serious, even life-threatening stupidity.
  • Have a life characterized by offering faithful incense-prayer to God.
  • Recognize your exalted position and do not loose it by bad choices.
  • Remember the miracles you have seen God perform in your life.
  • Love God and His Son Jesus more than even your family.
  • Commitment to God is a life well-lived over the long haul.

I’d like to close with a beautiful verse I discovered in the course of this research-journey. It reaffirms that God will be sanctified and worshipped in spirit and truth by a great company of people who deliberately choose to honor Him. This is His plan for all who would come to Him with contrite hearts and tremble at His word:

For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD of hosts.

– Malachi 1:11