From Dust to Glory

1 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. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 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.

And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses. – Leviticus 10:1-7 ESV

Chapter 9 ended with the statement: “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:24 ESV). In this fiery display of divine power, God demonstrated His acceptance of all that had taken place during the last eight days. The ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests had been carried off without a hitch and God gave His approval by consuming the various sacrifices they offered in dramatic fashion. The Tabernacle, the priests, and the people of Israel were purified, consecrated, atoned for, and properly prepared for God to grace them with His glorious presence.

This was a moment of unparalleled joy and reverent worship. Through their careful and faithful obedience to all of God’s instructions, the people of Israel had accomplished His will and been rewarded with a glimpse of His glory. They had not earned the right to witness His glory. Their efforts had not obligated God to show up and grace them with His presence. But everyone involved, including Moses, Bezalel, and Oholiab, as well as Aaron and his sons, had demonstrated their willingness to trust God and carry out His will based on the promise He had made.

“Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. You must build this Tabernacle and its furnishings exactly according to the pattern I will show you.” – Exodus 25:8-9 NLT

God had commanded the people to contribute all the materials needed to build the Tabernacle and the list included “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet thread; fine linen and goat hair for cloth; tanned ram skins and fine goatskin leather; acacia wood; olive oil for the lamps; spices for the anointing oil and the fragrant incense; onyx stones, and other gemstones to be set in the ephod and the priest’s chestpiece” (Exodus 25:3-7 NLT). And Moses records that the people gave willingly and abundantly.

All whose hearts were stirred and whose spirits were moved came and brought their sacred offerings to the LORD. They brought all the materials needed for the Tabernacle, for the performance of its rituals, and for the sacred garments.

So the people of Israel—every man and woman who was eager to help in the work the LORD had given them through Moses—brought their gifts and gave them freely to the LORD. – Exodus 35:21, 29 NLT

In fact, the people gave so freely that Moses was eventually forced to end the fund-raising campaign for the Tabernacle.

“Men and women, don’t prepare any more gifts for the sanctuary. We have enough!” So the people stopped bringing their sacred offerings. Their contributions were more than enough to complete the whole project. – Exodus 36:6-7 NLT

Again, their sacrificial giving didn’t earn them the right to see God’s glory. But their obedience made possible the construction of the place where His glory would eventually dwell. Their willingness to do what God had commanded allowed God’s plan to come to fruition. The Tabernacle, the priests’ garments, the bronze altar, the altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat where God’s presence would dwell, would not have existed if the people had not obeyed. And those various elements had made their atonement possible and God’s holy presence among them probable.

Moses followed every one of God’s commands. Bezalel and Oholiab didn’t miss a detail of God’s design instructions for the Tabernacle and its furniture. They built everything according to God’s will and with an unwavering commitment to excellence that reflected their concern for His glory. Even Aaron and his sons faithfully observed the seven-day ritual of ordination, ensuring that they were properly prepared to serve in their role as priests and mediators on behalf of the people.

But something went drastically wrong. As chapter 10 begins, the Lord’s fire once again shows up, but this time to consume the lives of Aaron’s two sons. These two men, along with their father, had been given the right and responsibility to serve in the house of God. They had been set apart for this special role and given clear instructions as to their responsibilities.

“You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 ESV

Yet, as chapter 10 opens up, Nadab and Abihu are accused of offering “unauthorized fire before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1 ESV). The New Living Translation provides a bit more clarity as to the nature of their sin.

…they disobeyed the Lord by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. – Leviticus 10:1 NLT

Moses provides no timeline for this event. But it would appear that it took place not long after the dedication of the Tabernacle and the ordination of Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. Once these men had completed the final phase of the eight-day-long ceremony God had prescribed, they went to work serving as intermediaries between the people and God. They would have begun their daily responsibilities in the Tabernacle, which would have included carrying coals from the brazen altar in a hand-held censer in order to burn incense on the altar of incense in the Holy of Holies.

“…he will fill an incense burner with burning coals from the altar that stands before the Lord. Then he will take two handfuls of fragrant powdered incense and will carry the burner and the incense behind the inner curtain. There in the Lord’s presence he will put the incense on the burning coals so that a cloud of incense will rise over the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—that rests on the Ark of the Covenant.” – Leviticus 16:12-13 NLT

This role was reserved for the high priest. Perhaps Nadab and Abihu took it upon themselves to enter the Holy of Holies and perform the role that had been strictly reserved for their father. Or it could be that they used coals from somewhere other than the brazen altar. Whatever they did, God deemed their actions as “strange,” using a Hebrew word that means “unauthorized, foreign, or profane.” They failed to follow God’s command.

They probably thought their actions were appropriate and made perfect sense to them. It could be that they chose to cut corners and gather the coals from a more accessible spot. But it could also be that they violated God’s protocol and took on a role that was not rightfully theirs. If they attempted to burn incense in the Holy of Holies, they were overstepping their bounds and attempting to assume their father’s role as high priest.

Whatever they did, it was egregious enough in the eyes of God to call down His divine judgment. It would seem that their offense involved entrance into the Holy of Holies because Moses states that “they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2 ESV). It was only in the Holy of Holies, above the mercy seat, that the presence of God’s glory dwelled. So, this “strange fire” must have been offered in God’s presence, and was done in violation of His clear commands.

These two men decided to play fast and loose with God’s divine dictates and they paid for it with their lives. As His sacred servants, they were expected to pursue holiness at all costs. Their sacred garments, though purified by blood, did not render them holy. They were still required to conduct their lives in accordance with God’s will. Walking around in their “robes of righteousness” did not automatically make their actions righteous. In fact, the prophet Isaiah warns, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

Even in their role as priests of God and dressed in the sacred robes designed for them by God, these men managed to live in disobedience to the will of God. And immediately after God struck them down for their judgment-worthy act, Moses reminded their grief-stricken father of the words of God.

“I will display my holiness
    through those who come near me.
I will display my glory
    before all the people.” – Leviticus 10:3 NLT

As painful as it must have been to watch his sons consumed by the fire of God, Aaron needed to understand that God’s holiness and glory can be displayed through both blessings and curses. Just as the fire had consumed the sacrifices on the altar, it also consumed the lives of these two men, providing vivid evidence of God’s holiness and glory. Nadab and Abihu had been turned to dust by Israel’s glorious and praise-worthy God.

But before the smoke cleared, God ordered that the bodies of the men be removed and demanded that Moses appoint their replacements.

Then Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his other two sons,  “Do not dishevel the hair of your heads and do not tear your garments, so that you do not die and so that wrath does not come on the whole congregation. Your brothers, all the house of Israel, are to mourn the burning that the Lord has caused. – Leviticus 10:6 ESV

Their disobedience and ultimate demise proved to be no problem for God. The show would go on. God’s plan for the people’s atonement would not be derailed by the thoughtless acts of two unrighteous men. And, as difficult as this may sound, God forbade Aaron and his remaining sons from mourning their loss. They were not allowed to display any of the normal signs of grief associated with the death of a loved one. Instead, Eleazar and Ithamar were immediately thrust into the role of replacing their deceased brothers. As the scorched and lifeless bodies of Nadab and Abihu were removed from the Tabernacle and taken to the outskirts of the camp, Eleazar and Ithamar were quickly sworn in as priests. They went through some kind of expedited consecration process in which they were anointed with oil. Then Moses instructed them not to “go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you” (Leviticus 10:7 ESV).

These men had work to do. There was no time for grieving over the loss of their brothers. God would assign that task to the people of Israel. It was up to Eleazar and Ithamar to step into the sandals of their brothers and perform their priestly duties. And the text declares that “they did according to the word of Moses” (Leviticus 10:7 ESV).

God was not going to allow the disobedience of Nadab and. Abihu to stand in His way. His people needed atonement and forgiveness and the priests were indispensable in accomplishing that objective. So, though Nadab and Abihu had disqualified themselves, God raised up replacements. And this entire scene reminds me of a statement made by Jesus. On the occasion of His entrance into the city of Jerusalem, the crowds were cheering, Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Luke 19:38 ESV).

But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, Teacher, rebuke your disciples” (Luke 19:39 ESV). To which Jesus responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:38-40 ESV). God will be glorified, with or without us. As strange as this may sound, Nadab and Abihu brought glory to God even in their deaths. In striking these two men down, God demonstrated His holiness in no uncertain terms. He was glorified in that His greatness was displayed and His intolerance of sin was clearly manifested. Our holy God doesn’t wink at sin. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to man’s indiscretions, especially among His chosen people. Nadab and Abihu were out of sight, but it would be a long time before the memory of their deaths was out of mind or forgotten. Their once pristinely white garments were now covered in the dust of their own annihilation, rendering all who touched them unclean and in need of purification. But because God acted swiftly and justly, cleansing and atonement were still available to all who needed it. Even the unrighteousness of men can never thwart God’s plan to make His righteousness available to all those who seek it.

As the apostle Paul states about the sacrificial death of Jesus, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 BSB).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

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