Designated Survivors

And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. 10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, 11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.”

12 Moses spoke to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his surviving sons: “Take the grain offering that is left of the Lord’s food offerings, and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 You shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, from the Lord’s food offerings, for so I am commanded. 14 But the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed you shall eat in a clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you, for they are given as your due and your sons’ due from the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the people of Israel. 15 The thigh that is contributed and the breast that is waved they shall bring with the food offerings of the fat pieces to wave for a wave offering before the Lord, and it shall be yours and your sons’ with you as a due forever, as the Lord has commanded.”

16 Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron, saying, 17 “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? 18 Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.” 19 And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?” 20 And when Moses heard that, he approved. – Leviticus 10:8-20 ESV

After His removal of Nadab and Abihu, and their replacement with their brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar, God declared a ban on the consumption of alcohol by the priests while they were on duty. The only logical explanation for the placement of this prohibition at this juncture in the narrative is that it was tied to the “strange fire” incident that led to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. The unacceptable actions of these two men must have been linked to drunkenness. They did what they did because they were under the influence and their cognitive faculties were impaired.

So, with Eleazar and Ithamar anointed and ready to serve as substitutes for their deceased brothers, God warns them to avoid the use of alcohol when performing their priestly duties. And the temptation to imbibe would have been real because the priests would have had access to the drink offerings that accompanied many of the sacrifices.

“…he who brings his offering shall offer to the Lord a grain offering of a tenth of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil; and you shall offer with the burnt offering, or for the sacrifice, a quarter of a hin of wine for the drink offering for each lamb. – Numbers 15:4-5 ESV

With each lamb sacrificed, about a quart of wine was to be poured out on the altar. This would mean that the priests would have ready access to wine while carrying out their priestly duties. But they were to avoid the temptation to consume either wine or strong drink, a reference to what was probably a form of beer made from barley or other grains.

As mediators for God’s chosen people, it was essential that the priests had their cognitive abilities unimpaired at all times. Alcohol has a way of muddling the mind and dulling the senses so that the one under its influence loses full control of his words and actions. This is what led God to speak directly to Aaron, the grieving father and high priest, so that he and his sons could avoid any repeat of Nadab and Abihu’s sin.

You and your descendants must never drink wine or any other alcoholic drink before going into the Tabernacle. If you do, you will die. This is a permanent law for you, and it must be observed from generation to generation. – Leviticus 10:9 NLT

And God followed up this new decree with an explanation.

You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the decrees that the Lord has given them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 NLT

As priests, Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar would need to be clear-headed and capable of performing the duties assigned to them by God. These men had been tasked with maintaining the spiritual purity of the Tabernacle but also of the people of Israel. The slightest deviation from God’s prescribed sacrificial plan or any dereliction of duty on the part of the priest could result in severe consequences. If a priest failed to offer a sacrifice exactly as God had commanded, the penitent sinner could be left without atonement and with no forgiveness of his sins.

The priestly role involved matters of life and death. Their own physical well-being was tied to their faithful compliance with God’s commands. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu provided ample evidence of the dangers inherent in disobedience. But there was much more to God’s ban on alcohol. He was concerned that His priests performed their duties with holy fear and reverence so that His redemptive plan for His people would remain pure and spotless. The right sacrifice offered in the wrong way would never produce the desired results. A drunken priest would make a lousy intermediary for God’s people, incapable of telling the difference between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean.

A drunk makes a lousy communicator and an even worse teacher. And when you’re responsible for teaching the people of God the laws of God, it pays to have all full access to all your faculties.

Next, God turns His attention from sins of commission to sins of omission. He reminds Aaron and his sons that they must accurately carry out every aspect of their sacrificial duties. God knew that Eleazar and Ithamar were going to be overly cautious when it came to performing their new duties as priests. They had been thrust into the limelight and given the unpleasant task of replacing two men who had been struck dead by God for violating His commands. These young men would have been petrified by the thought of doing anything that might bring down the wrath of God, so there would have been a real temptation to minimize risk by avoiding any actions that might increase their chances of making a mistake.

This led God to reiterate His commands concerning the offering of sacrifices.

“Take what is left of the grain offering after a portion has been presented as a special gift to the Lord, and eat it beside the altar. Make sure it contains no yeast, for it is most holy. You must eat it in a sacred place, for it has been given to you and your descendants as your portion of the special gifts presented to the Lord. These are the commands I have been given. – Leviticus 10:12-13 NLT

Yes, God wanted them to follow His commands down to the last detail. But He also wanted them to avoid leaving anything out due to their fear of failure and their desire to avoid reprisals. There were portions of the sacrifices that God had reserved for them.

“…the breast and thigh that were lifted up as a special offering may be eaten in any place that is ceremonially clean. These parts have been given to you and your descendants as your portion of the peace offerings presented by the people of Israel.” – Leviticus 10:14 NLT

And God expected them to consume these gracious gifts with gratitude and according to His commands. There were restrictions about when and where these items could be consumed, and God expected Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar to comply with His wishes. But Moses discovered that they had failed to follow through on God’s command, choosing to burn the set-apart meat rather than consume it.

When he discovered it had been burned up, he became very angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons. – Leviticus 10:16 NLT

This was exactly the kind of action that led to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu and it infuriated Moses to think that the two new priests had made the same mistake. From Moses’ perspective, Eleazar and Ithamar had followed in the footsteps of their older brothers. So, he confronted Aaron and his sons about this serious breach of priestly protocol.

“Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sacred area?” he demanded. “It is a holy offering! The Lord has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to purify the people, making them right with the Lord.” – Leviticus 10:17 NLT

He assumed the worst and demanded an explanation. But the response he received from Aaron was not what he had expected.

“Today my sons presented both their sin offering and their burnt offering to the Lord. And yet this tragedy has happened to me. If I had eaten the people’s sin offering on such a tragic day as this, would the Lord have been pleased?” – Leviticus 10:19 NLT

“Aaron recognized that the special circumstances of the day’s offerings by which his older sons had offered unauthorized fire compromised the sin offering. Therefore, he reasons that it would be unfitting for them to enjoy the meat as a benefit (6:30). What is significant here is that although the details of the Law was altered, Aaron’s decision reflected the purpose of the Law and received divine approval.” – Kenneth A. Matthew, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

Aaron was not drunk and his thinking was not muddled. Although he was still in a state of mourning, his mind was operating clearly and his reasoning was motivated by a desire to do what was right. Aaron understood that the actions of Nadab and Abihu had desecrated the inaugural sin offering and it would have been wrong for him and his surviving sons to enjoy the benefit of eating any meat associated with that sacrifice. So, they chose to offer it up on the altar as an offering to God. They willingly forfeited their right to this gift from God as a statement of their family’s responsibility for the sin of Nadab and Abihu. And when Moses heard Aaron’s explanation, he was pleased.

God expected His priests to do the right thing and to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and Aaron had demonstrated their ability to do just that. Despite all that had happened that day, Aaron and his surviving sons were ready, willing, and able to perform their roles faithfully and in full compliance with God’s commands.

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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