1 These are the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. 2 These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. 4 But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of Aaron their father.
5 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. 7 They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. 8 They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. 9 And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. 10 And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.”
11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:1-13 ESV
God set apart the entire tribe of Levi to assist Aaron and his four sons, whom He had anointed to serve as priests. All adult males were exempt from military service but were expected to care for the maintenance and transportation of the tabernacle.
“Call forward the tribe of Levi, and present them to Aaron the priest to serve as his assistants. They will serve Aaron and the whole community, performing their sacred duties in and around the Tabernacle. They will also maintain all the furnishings of the sacred tent, serving in the Tabernacle on behalf of all the Israelites.” – Numbers 3:6-8 NLT
While some of the Levites served as priests alongside Aaron and his sons, many were assigned the important task of caring for the tabernacle. They were divided into specific units with instructions to maintain the various elements that comprised the tabernacle and made the worship of Yahweh possible. The entire tabernacle was designed to be portable so that it could be transported from one place to another as the Israelites made their way to the land of promise. When it came time to move, the various clans of the tribe of Levi were assigned different sections of the tabernacle to disassemble and carry to the next location. Once there, they were responsible for the reconstruction of the tabernacle and for the maintenance of the items under their care.
Service in the priesthood was a high honor and was not to be taken lightly. It came with great responsibilities and God held all those who served as priests to an exacting standard.
They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the Lord, gifts of food for their God. – Leviticus 21:6 NLT
One of the greatest responsibilities given to Aaron and his sons was that of providing the offering of atonement for the people of Israel. These men were expected to keep themselves morally and ceremonially pure so that they might intercede before God on behalf of the people. Moses instructed Aaron:
“Come to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering to purify yourself and the people. Then present the offerings of the people to purify them, making them right with the Lord, just as he has commanded.” – Leviticus 9:7 NLT
For Aaron and his four sons to effectively mediate between God and the Israelite people, they had to maintain a holy lifestyle. Leviticus 22 outlines just how careful they had to be in order to keep from offending a holy God through personal impurity or disobedience to His commands.
“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 22:2 NLT
“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy.” – Leviticus 22:9 NLT
They were expected to take their role seriously, knowing that God would hold them accountable for any indiscretion or hint of physical or spiritual impurity. And Moses reveals that two of Aaron’s sons had been put to death for disobeying the commands of God.
Nadab and Abihu died in the Lord’s presence in the wilderness of Sinai when they burned before the Lord the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. – Numbers 3:4 NLT
Leviticus 10 records what happened to Aaron’s two eldest sons.
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkled incense over them. In this way, they disobeyed the Lord by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord. – Leviticus 10: 1-2 NLT
The text doesn’t explain the exact nature of their sin but it makes it clear that they had violated the command of God. They had failed to take seriously God’s holiness and their own call to moral purity. Their offer of “strange fire” was outside the will of God. They had chosen to make an offering that was unsanctioned by God and, therefore, unacceptable. And Moses explained to Aaron that his sons’ unacceptable sacrifice had failed to bring glory to God.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said,
‘I will display my holiness
through those who come near me.
I will display my glory
before all the people.’”
And Aaron was silent. – Leviticus 10:3 NLT
It seems apparent that these two men had tried to glorify themselves. They had chosen to do God’s will their own way and their punishment was death. It’s interesting to note that Nadab and Abihu were executed by the very same heavenly fire that had consumed the offering that Aaron had offered up to God on behalf of the people.
After that, Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then, after presenting the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering, he stepped down from the altar. Then Moses and Aaron went into the Tabernacle, and when they came back out, they blessed the people again, and the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole community. Fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When the people saw this, they shouted with joy and fell face down on the ground. – Leviticus 9:22-24 NLT
It seems that Nadab and Abihu had seen the reaction of the people to their father’s sacrifice and now desired to elicit a similar response by offering up their own unsolicited offering to God. But rather than the people falling on their faces before them, the fire of God fell from heaven and consumed them.
So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord. – Leviticus 10:2 NLT
According to Leviticus 21:8, God considered each and every priest to be holy and they were to be treated as such. They belonged to Him and He expected their actions to reflect their status as His chosen servants.
“You must treat them as holy because they offer up food to your God. You must consider them holy because I, the Lord, am holy, and I make you holy.” – Leviticus 21:8 NLT
And even the Levites were expected to take seriously their status as God’s chosen tribe. They had been set apart by God for His use and they were to treat their role with a healthy dose of reverence and respect.
“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me…” – Numbers 3:12 NLT
And just so they understood the gravity of their position and the danger of taking it lightly, Moses warned them, “any unauthorized person who goes too near the sanctuary must be put to death” (Numbers 3:10 NLT). Their set-apart status would put them in close proximity to the tabernacle, but they were not to take that privilege lightly. Unlike Nadab and Abihu, there were to treat God with honor and reverence at all times. Their behavior mattered. The manner in which they treated His tabernacle was important. They had their God-given role to play and they were to honor Him through their obedience and faithfulness.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.