Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.
The very same Shekinah which had consumed the sacrifice now flashes out again to destroy these two priests. What a shock this must have been to Aaron, to his remaining two sons, and to the whole camp of Israel.
What do you think your reaction would have been if you had been part of this scene? Many of us reading stories like this have come up with the idea that God, especially the God of the Old Testament, is a God of vengeful judgment. But God is acting here just as much as a God of love as he is in any other part of the Bible. His nature is love. And he never deviates from what he has revealed himself to be. So this action must be in line with his nature and character of love.
There are several features in this passage which help us: The first is that this sin on the part of these two priests was not a sin of ignorance but one of presumption. They knew better. It wasn’t that they were simply doing something at which they had no idea God would be offended. They had been told emphatically that he would be offended. In Exodus 30:7-9 God had precisely said, Be careful; do not offer the wrong kind of incense. So this was a violation of the direct command of God. God never visits with judgment anybody who is struggling in ignorance to try to find him.
The second thing we need to note is that this sin was dealt with very severely because it distorted God’s revelation of himself. In all these priestly sacrifices and rituals God is explaining something about himself so that we might learn what kind of God he is. But by their disobedience these priests were teaching wrong concepts about the being of God. That is why God judged them.
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The third thing we need to notice about this episode is that this judgment is exemplary. God has made an example of them this once and he never does this again. This is not something which happened every time a priest violated any regulation. It only happened once — at the beginning of the priesthood. You can read that later on in the priesthood of Israel the priests did many very terrible things before the altar, but God never killed them for it. But it is important that it happened at least this one time. For this is an example and therefore it is a manifestation of God’s love and concern. He is trying to stop this kind of thing from happening again, and he is giving fair warning of the eventual consequences to anyone presumptuous enough to sin deliberately in this way.
Father, I feel a sense of awe when I consider that you are a holy God. I pray that this will help me to understand that my life is not a game, and that the priesthood is a very serious matter to which I am called.
Are we carelessly offering a pretense of worship to God? How can we offer Him worship that honors and delights Him? What circumstances best produce the sweet fragrance of burning frankincense?