Related readings: Ex. 30:1-9, 34-38; Lev. 16:12-13; Psalm 38; Hebrews 9, 10, 12
Chapter 10 of Leviticus closes the section on the institution of the priesthood, which opened in Chapter 8.
This chapter has three parts: first, the death of Nadab and Abihu; second, some instructions for priests; and finally, a misunderstanding between Moses and Aaron, which resolved without anyone being struck dead.
First Part: The Death of Nadab and Abihu
Everyone was in a heavenly mood by the end of chapter 9. God had shown his glory and consumed what was on the altar of burnt offering, and the amazed people had shouted and fallen facedown.
This mood shifted quickly in chapter 10, as Aaron’s eldest sons broke God’s command while presenting incense, and the glorious divine fire now brought death instead of shouts for joy.
The altar of incense, while not immediately inside the most holy place, was nevertheless adjacent the second curtain and was used during the high priestly activity in the most holy place. The author of Hebrews goes so far as to list the altar of incense with the ark of the covenant behind the second curtain, rather than listing it with the lampstand, the table, and the presentation loaves, which were not in the most holy place. [See Hebrews 9:3,4.]
What did Nadab and Abihu do wrong while presenting incense? Some interpreters say that they were drunk. Others say that they had prepared the incense incorrectly against the commands given at the end of Exodus 30, or that they had offered it at the wrong time. The text only refers to “unauthorized fire,” however, so we should primarily consider the fiery coals they had in their firepans, which were supposed to be obtained from the altar of burnt offering. [See Lev 16:12 and Num 16:46.] It seems that they had obtained fire from somewhere else.
Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that Nadab and Abihu irreverently broke God’s command and needed to be cut off from God’s people.
Moses’ immediate response was not consolation, but to show Aaron the connection between the behavior of the priests and the holiness and glory of the LORD. Aaron remained silent. The death of Nadab and Abihu was a result of God’s direct action to preserve the holiness of the sanctuary.
Moses then asked Aaron’s cousins to carry the dead bodies outside the camp. Evidently, neither the bodies nor their tunics had been burned up by the holy fire. Surely, many Israelites watched as these bodies were carried out, and word would have quickly spread throughout the community.
Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were commanded to not mourn. These anointed priests must not associate themselves with the dead, for the dead are unclean. [See Lev. 21:1-4.]
Second Part: Some Instructions for Priests
The LORD’s instructions for priests given to Aaron in verses 8 through 11 were possibly related to the incident with Nadab and Abihu. God tells Aaron that the priests are not to drink wine or beer before entering the tent of meeting, and that they must distinguish between the clean and the unclean.
If we interpret God’s direct communication with Aaron as an explanation of the incident, then we conclude that Nadab and Abihu had been drinking alcohol when they recklessly offered what was unacceptable to God.
Either way, God showed Aaron that the priests must have a clear head while performing their duties, and that they must discern between the clean and the unclean, as teachers of Israel.
Disheartened as they were, Aaron and his remaining sons needed to listen closely as Moses further instructed them regarding the priestly consumption of the sacrifices. The grain offering that is left over is to be eaten in a holy place by the priests, and the breast and the thigh from the fellowship sacrifices must be eaten in a clean place by the priests and their families.
Third Part: Misunderstanding between Moses and Aaron
Before we look at verses 16-20, let’s refresh our memory of Chapter 9. Aaron had slaughtered the sin offering and the burnt offering for the priests, and then he had presented the people’s sin offering, burnt offering, grain offering, and fellowship sacrifice. His sons were involved in these activities.
If we turn back to 6:26, we read that the priest who offers the sin offering for the people is to eat its meat. Commentator Frank Gorman Jr. explains that this priestly consumption “plays a crucial role in the expiatory process,” because the “holiness of the priest ‘consumes’ the impurity of the remains.”1
On this day, however, the priests had not eaten the goat of the people’s sin offering, but they had burned all of it.
Interestingly, Moses directed his anger at Eleazar and Ithamar, rather than at Aaron.
Nevertheless, it was Aaron who responded in defense of his actions. He indicated to Moses that he was unsure whether it would be appropriate to eat the sin offering on this day that Nadab and Abihu had died. Moses accepted this explanation, because it was clear that Aaron had not deliberately rebelled against God’s command.2
While the holiness of God is an awesome and glorious thing, it is also terrifying. After reading Leviticus 10, a question lingers in our mind: “Does this terrifying aspect of God’s holiness have anything to do with me?”
The New Testament answer to this question is “Yes.” Listen to Hebrews 10:26-31:
For if we deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries. If anyone disregards Moses’ law, he dies without mercy, based on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know the One who has said, Vengeance belongs to Me, I will repay, and again, The Lord will judge His people. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God!
What does it mean to trample on the Son of God, regarding as profane the blood of the covenant, and insulting the Spirit of grace? It means to reject Christ’s sacrifice and yet attempt to stand before God in our sin. Those who are so inclined will learn the meaning of the truth that “our God is a consuming fire.” Only by grace may we serve God acceptably, so let us hold on to grace, remembering that, as Article 20 of the Belgic Confession says, “God… manifested his justice against his Son when he laid our iniquity on him, and poured out his goodness and mercy on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation.”
1 Divine Presence and Community, Frank H. Gorman, Jr., 1997; page 67.
2 It is possible that Aaron sinned, but was forgiven for his misunderstanding about what would be appropriate. However, though commentators have not mentioned this, it is also possible that Aaron was correct that the priests should not have ate meat on this occasion. It was not the LORD who rebuked Aaron, but it was Moses, and Moses could have been wrong.