Why did Nadab and Abihu get smitten by God? (Lev. 10:1-3)

Nadab and Abihu are killed in the Tabernacle, Leviticus - James Tissot

Nadab and Abihu are killed in the Tabernacle

I start a course in a few weeks on the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—the Pentateuch books everyone ignores, including me until this year.  I thought I should re-read these books and so for the past week or so I’ve been moving through Leviticus and have enjoyed learning about the various sacrifices.  Everything was great until I got to the story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.  (Lev. 10:1-3). 

I can read what the text says, that they offered “unauthorized fire” so God consumed them, but it still seems unfair.  People do wrong things all the time, but God doesn’t usually fry them.  It sounds similar to what happened to poor Uzzah, who was smitten by God for trying to stabilize the ark (2 Sam. 6).

It appears that Nadab and Abihu were trying to do the right thing, but God was really picky, so he zapped them.  This is the sort of thing that gives the God of the Old Testament a bad reputation.  If you’re thinking, “Somebody should write a book about that”—I agree.  And I talk about the smiting of Uzzah in God Behaving Badly (pages 27-33), but I skip over the story about Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10.

In my blog I usually attempt to answer, or at least address, these types of questions, but this time I’m just going to ask the question and see what you all can come up with.

What do you think—why’d God kill them?  What was so bad about “unauthorized fire” (also called “unholy fire”).  Did their action really deserve sudden and immediate death?  When you teach on this passage, what do you say?

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9 comments

  1. Hmmm. In the text or from an over arching canonical perspective?

    In the text, they worshiped in a way that was not described. Thus, the text itself (not the event) can support the good life for Israelite peoples by showing the consequences of impromptu worship w/out good reason (elsewhere the Lord seems fine w/sacrifices he didn’t command like in Genesis 4).

  2. I do not remember where I first heard this suggestion, but a possible answer is suggested just a few verses later: “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die” (vs 9). It is part of the instructions given by Moses to Aaron and his two surviving sons. Perhaps this specific instruction is here because Nadab and Abihu had been drinking and hence their actions were less than holy.

    1. That’s certainly a possibility, and maybe that’s what we’re left with. We trust God that he knew what was going on internally. It would be nice if the text clarified that.

  3. This is a tough one. In Exodus 30 and 40, God prescribes requirements for the altar of incense. In that prescription, Aaron or the priest was to burn incense each morning as the lamps in the tabernacle were lit, and again at their lighting in the evening. Those were the only times when incense was to be offered according to Ex 30 & 40. The incense altar’s location in the tabernacle suggests that the incense was to be offered prior to any other worship function of the day – it is almost as if the incense offering “opened and closed” the tabernacle for worship function. Incense was also to be burned using coals from the altar of sacrifice. Given that the fire is described as ‘unauthorized’ in Leviticus 10, perhaps the coals used to burn the incense were not taken from the alter as prescribed.
    As I’ve thought about why such a harsh punishment for their action, it appears that to YHWH, burning incense and the manner in which it was burned mattered greatly. In other ancient cultures like Egypt – incidentally where the Israelites had just escaped – incense was used a lot (perhaps overused). Perhaps the reason for such a stern punishment was to differentiate Israel from the surrounding peoples. They were to be holy – set apart for God. How could they be set apart if their priests could not follow the instructions for burning incense as set forth by God? As spiritual leaders in the community, Nadab and Abihu’s disobedience would demonstrate to the people that God’s prescriptions – what’s important to God regarding how he is worshiped and glorified, really doesn’t matter. If their action went unpunished, It would demonstrate to the people that they could continue the cultic practices that they were familiar with from their time in Egypt, with no consequence – it would allow and even facilitate idolatry. It appears by the punishment, that God may have equated this action of his priests along similar lines to the golden calf of Exodus 32. The actions of the priests call into question God’s holiness – his otherness.
    Yet, their punishment seems harsh. It calls to mind the same questions that are raised when grappling with the Canaanite genocide. Is it possible that the public nature of the sin by such prominent members of the faith community undermined who God is so much, that there was no alternative appropriate punishment?

    1. It’s good to review the final chapters of Exodus. It provides important background. Your comments, while still speculative, are reasonable. I appreciate how you take the problem seriously, and are still troubled. I’m OK with being troubled, the psalmist was often troubled, but kept pursuing God.

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