Texts That Give God A Bad Name
The occasion was the consecration of the Hebrew priests and the tabernacle. Moses had followed God’s commands (Rules for sacrifices are found in Leviticus 1-7) in consecrating Aaron and his sons (chapters 8 and 9) and now in the climactic moment God indwells the tabernacle before the people. In a sense it is the foundation of the great cry from the throne in Revelation 21 “Now the tent of God is with the people!”.
Leviticus 9:22–24 (NIV)
22 Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down. 23 Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.
This is the moment that God and his people have been waiting for. It is the undoing of the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. It is the reconciliation of people to God. It is a moment of consummation.
And then this happened.
Leviticus 10:1–2 (NIV)
1 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. 2 So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.
Aaron remained silent as he saw the Lord’s fire kill his sons, just recently consecrate with him for the priesthood.
Moses tells Aaron’s cousins to come and take out the bodies.
Leviticus 10:6–7 (NIV)
6 Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the Israelites, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. 7 Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.
What’s Wrong with Religion
Last week we talked about why so many have turned their back on religion in favor of spirituality. The god of religion like we find in the Bible, and especially in the book of Leviticus is
- meets out inordinate punishment for violation of petty rules
- uncaring about human beings or their feelings
- such texts invite modern religious person to be petty about arbitrary rules and uncaring about the feelings even of loved ones.
It is tempting as a pastor to be an apologist for texts like this. I would love to remove the offense that you might feel at reading a story like this, but I doubt I can. If this passage makes you feel strongly it is probably because of the set of moral intuitions that your elephant intuitively feels. Most Americans possess a set of moral intuitions that embrace some implicit priorities and expectations with respect to God. Sociologist Christian Smith distilled these down into what he summarized as Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.
1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
“This moment could have been so cool! This was a moment of great celebration with God finally achieving the goal of being with his people and them with him and on account of messing up a procedure, probably inadvertently two young men lose their lives and their father and brother who witnessed the death have to stifle their natural horror and grief at the incident. What kind of god is this?!”
Many Christians and spiritual people are tempted to contrast old, nasty, petty “religion” with Jesus who embraced sinners, ate with social outcasts and spoke about forgiveness. Where was the forgiveness for Nadab and Abihu?
We might remember, however, that even Jesus was not met with universal acceptance and not just by the religious of his time. He referred to himself as a “stumbling stone”, someone who people are offended by.
I doubt I’ll be able to change the feelings of the elephant in side of you at hearing this story, but I’d like to flesh out the story a bit and add some perspective.
As I’ve already mentioned, the dedication of the tabernacle was a consummation moment between God and his people.
The word “consummate” may seem strange to you. It might be most familiar to you in terms of a couple who “consummate their marriage” which means that after the wedding they have sex. Strange as it might seem to you this “consummation” in many places, including the United States continues to have legal standing.
Moses goes to Pharaoh to let Israel go to meet and worship God in the desert. They meet God at Sinai. It’s described this way.
Exodus 19:16–19 (NIV)
16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
Exodus 20:18–19 (NIV)
18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
It is not uncommon for people when they get “spiritual” to imagine that God is something between a kindly grandpa and a warm puppy. This is not the image we get from the book of Exodus or Leviticus.
I don’t necessarily want to disavow the instinctive offense that people feel when they hear the story of Nadab and Abihu because feeling that offense puts you in touch with the strangeness of God and the discomfort that we would frankly reasonably expect in meeting such a being. The type of being capable of creating the universe is not a being that we can take lightly, have a casual attitude towards or imagine that this being won’t trouble us significantly.
The main character of the book of Job suffered incredible loss only to have his closest friends come around him and blame him for the loss in the midst of his misery. Job spends chapters in angry debate with his friends demanding that God show up and account for the misfortunes that Job has suffered. In the story God does show up but never gives an account to Job for his tragedies. At the same time, however, when God does show up Job’s vibrato, outrage and anger slinks away as Job timidly puts his hands over his mouth.
Relating to God
In any intimate relationship both parties what to bring to the relationship “who they really are. If this consummation of God and his people is to be real then God has to show up as himself. The people also show up as themselves, and therein lies the conflict. The tabernacle and the sacrificial system is the way that the people can adjust themselves to God, because while God adjusts himself to the people by relating to them in ways they can understand.
The sacrificial system that Moses described in chapters 1-7 and initiated in 8-10 is set to administer the relationship between God and his people in ceremonial and symbolic ways. It is high voltage relational stuff.
Who Brings the Fire
Fire is a central expression for how God communicates and represents himself to the people.
- He uses thunder and lightning, fire from the sky on Mt. Sinai to meet them
- In the sacrificial system offerings represent our sin, brokenness and fallenness. The offerings are therefore consumed or purified by the presence and fire of God.
- The priests themselves while they are in the sanctuary likewise consume the sacrifices of God, thus symbolically taking the dead animal, death as symbolized by the sacrifice, consuming it and turning it into life. The priests in their service by the eating the sacrifices they are commanded to eat (the ones not consumed as whole burnt offerings) literally turn death into life in their bodies. It is a process we all live by but it is elevated ceremonially and symbolically by the priests.
- The fire of the altar was supposed to be maintained continually and perpetually. The command is so important it is repeated twice in a row (Leviticus 6:12-13). The question is, whose fire is it?
The consummation of the relationship is not simply symbolized in the ceremony of the tabernacle. The reason for the theophany, the appearance of God himself as fire to light the altar (Leviticus 9:24, where we started reading) was that the fire on the altar, to be maintained perpetually was the literal fire of God present among his people. The fire in a sense was God himself.
Incense was an element of worship. The priests according to the rules were to take burning coals from the altar, place it in the incense dish and then burn incense upon those coals from the altar. In other words, the fire providing the incense was also to be from God himself. The fire that was to be used for every Hebrew sacrifice at the tabernacle was to be the fire provided by God himself so that every offering for sin from the people would be consumed or purified, made holy, by God himself. It was intimate, personal and relational.
Nadab and Abihu’s Adulterous Fire
Given what we now know about the fire it’s a bit easier to understand what Nadab and Abihu did wrong. When they came into the presence of God with the incense they hadn’t taken coals from the altar, coals that would have been lit by the fire of God himself, but they got some fire from some other oven or source. The NIV with its “unauthorized” fire is too weak. The translation “strange fire” I think is better. We might even imagine it is “adulterous fire” because it is fire from another source, from our own source. The coals they brought in violate the intimacy of the moment where God himself is present to his people and God himself purifies the people through their offerings, accepting them, consuming their sin. In a sense the adulterous fire of Nadab and Abihu represent the idea that the people can purify themselves by their own means, or have a symbolic spiritual experience rather than an transactional relationship with a dangerous, living God.
Imagine if you will a man bringing pictures of his past girlfriends into his wedding chamber with his wife. I’d expect in most cases “fire” would come to consume the man and his “bright” idea.
Do we Take God More Seriously Than Physics?
Understanding the relational transaction of the fire of God kept perpetually on the altar at might help us figure out what happened in this strange story. Whether it changes our feelings, that will depend on each of us individually. It still may seem to many of us that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Did Nadab and Abihu do this intentionally? For most of us this is a big question to ask in our quest to judge God. If it was accidental, if they didn’t know what they were doing, then God should have gone easy on them.
To us that might seem like a reasonable approach to the matter. Leviticus recognizes the difference between intentional and unintentional acts.
At the same time I wonder what we’re asking. Every year dozens of electrical line workers die because they unintentionally grab the wrong wire or do the wrong thing with electricity. We all get this. When it happens we mourn but we don’t blame God, the maker of electricity. We accept it as a consequence of the person making a mistake.
Because God is a person, and an all knowing, wise and loving person we want God NOT to act like electricity, but I wonder if we fully appreciate how we are relating to God when we make this request. God is the author of electricity and all of physics. He is greater than it. Ought we not to respect him MORE than we respect the physics of electricity? I think the truth is that we are casual about God and serious about physics and this betrays a spiritual problem in our hearts.
This story of the death of Nadab and Abihu falls into a set of unusual stories in the Bible that deal with this theme.
- God judges Philistines who monkey with his ark attempting to use it as a power-generating station.
- God strikes dead those who foolishly peer into the ark, who are not respecting it.
- God strikes dead a man who tries to keep the ark from falling off a cart for touching it. This makes David nervous and so he keeps it in a tent on a threshing floor.
- God strikes Ananias and Sapphira dead early on in the story of the church.
I think these stories function as warning stories for Israel and later the church to take God more seriously than physics.
God doesn’t act like mere physics
While God doesn’t want us to respect him less than the physics of electricity at the same time he doesn’t want us to imagine that he is impersonal. There are also other stories that if God were acting like mere physics people would have died.
- God could have struck the Philistines who simply grabbed the ark and took possession of it for the temple of Dagon. He didn’t. He let that play out more gradually.
- The ark would eventually be lost. He could have gone all high voltage on whoever eventually plundered the ark from Jerusalem but he didn’t. Why not?
Why Forgive Aaron and Kill His Sons?
Probably for me one of the most interesting comparisons in this story is between Aaron and his sons.
It seems to me the sin of Aaron in creating the golden calves for worship was a far more serious and intentional fault than that of his sons here. Leading Israel into abject idolatry and threatening the whole relationship between God and his people seems of greater consequence to me than the mess up of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. Here in this story we have the greater sinner Aaron, affirmed and installed while two of his sins are executed on the spot in judgment for this misstep, intentional or otherwise. Is this fair?
I have two thoughts on that.
Oh Judgment My Judgment
The first is that my judgments are always my judgments. Our innate capacity and instinct for forming judgments is a great gift, but it’s also a strange power. Are my judgments always right? What does it mean that I always feel my own judgments to be right? If I cannot recognize that my capacity to judge is limited I become a prisoner of my own judging faculties.
I may decide that I am right and God as he presents himself to us is wrong in this. There is a long tradition of challenging God in the Bible. Abraham does it. Jacob does it. Moses does it. Elijah does it. The Psalms do it all the time. God often engages in debates with those he loves. I get the sense that God enjoys this aspect of his relationship with us. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong in challenging God from within our relationship with him.
At the same time in most cases my judgment doesn’t count for things that are not within my control or are my responsibility. This is obviously and especially true in looking at past events. Whatever I think or feel about the matter, well it just stays there. God made the decision, acted upon it and my thoughts are just my thoughts. I’ll have to live with them in the relationship.
Living with judgment, especially differences between judgments in a relationship is something that people in long term intimate relationships grow accustomed to. It seems that God is comfortable with this as well on many things. The Bible is written in a way that often invites discussion and judgment about hosts of things. Nahum celebrates the destruction of Ninevah while God in Jonah shows mercy. Does this mean that God can’t make up his mind or does it mean that God, sometimes like us, probably we like him on a tiny scale, see the complexities of decisions within history and are invited to explore these judgments for our growth, development and the maturing of our relationship with God.
Mercy for Aaron
If you follow Aaron through the story you’ll see again and again how Aaron is on one hand given a position of great importance, responsibility and status. We also see again and again how Aaron falls short. Aaron, like Moses, and the other “heroes of faith” is a very imperfect person.
In spite of Aaron’s flaws and brokenness God uses Aaron. God’s use, however, as is almost always the case comes at a heavy price. God takes the lives of his sons while not taking Aaron’s life. Aaron might have wished that God would take him instead. We don’t know.
Again, we might read this and ponder it and say “well God should arrange all of this differently” but is that complaint much different from many of our other complaints about life?
There are undoubtedly many areas of many of our lives where we would say, by looking at circumstance “God, why didn’t you arrange this differently?”
- Why did that person have to die in an untimely or painful way?
- Why didn’t that good effort bear fruit?
- Why did that calamity befall those good people?
- Why did that pointless evil cut off that situation of promise?
Mercy for Aaron for the Golden Calf and judgment for his sons isn’t that different from the myriad of questions we have about circumstances. Why did that lineman grab the wrong wire?
As Jesus’ reputation among his followers grows they increasingly ask him “insider information” questions. “Who sinned, this blind man or his parents?”
Jesus usually reminds the question askers to not get too sidetracked with second guessing God in order to try to find for themselves an advantageous path through the vicissitudes of life. Better to focus on how your life and your heart are before God and leave the circumstances to him.
Fire and the Day of the LORD
The purifying fire of God that lit up Sinai and then lit the perpetual flame of the altar illuminates the story of God and his people. The Sinai imagery will get picked up again and again by the prophets as the long story of Israel works its way through the Hebrew scriptures. Whenever God comes, as the prophets sometimes call it, the “Day of the LORD” it is a day of smoke and clouds and lightning and fire. When God shows up our impurity and brokenness are consumed and we with it. Nadab and Abihu were just two early reminders of the relational dissonance between ourselves and God.
When Jesus comes John the Baptist it seems imagined Jesus would bring the day of the LORD upon the Romans and wobbly Jews of his day. Certainly many were doing far worse we would imagine than violating ceremonial protocol.
When I quoted the passage I intentionally skipped over what Moses said at the consumption of Nadab and Abihu.
Leviticus 10:1–3 (NIV)
1 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. 2 So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: “ ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’ ” Aaron remained silent.
The quote isn’t hard to figure out in its context. God will maintain his holiness. He can do nothing else, and he will do it publicly.
It was this that John the Baptist was banking on and so he was sure that Jesus would bring the fire of God down upon the sinful community of failed Jews and pagan Romans.
As Jesus’ ministry developed, John was confused. After he was imprisoned he sent his disciples to Jesus.
Matthew 11:2–3 (NIV)
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Jesus and the Sacrificial System
I mentioned before that Americans have a WEIRD culture. We hear the story of Nadab and Abihu and question God. John the Baptist sees Jesus NOT acting like Yhwh consuming Romans and morally wobbly Jews like Nadab and Abihu and he stumbles. We are all prisoners of our judgments and we project them onto God.
Jesus fulfilled what the priests acted out ceremonially. Jesus took in the brokenness and death and converted it into life. That was the point he was making to John the Baptist.
- The death of blindness is undone
- The death of lameness is undone
- the dead themselves are raised
- the poor receive good news instead of what they usually get
Jesus embodied the sacrificial system. But what about the fire?
At Jesus’ crucifixion darkness fell at noonday, the earth shook the rocks split and the curtain of the temple split open. These were signs of the day of the LORD. These were signs of God breaking out of the temple in judgment once again to slay a young man but this time that man was Jesus.
John the Baptist didn’t get it. Jesus didn’t come to bring judgment but to bear it. Jesus came to die for the guilty, to be killed by God in the place of Aaron, John and all of us.
A New Tabernacle
We began by focusing on the consummation of Israel with God.
Christians no longer have a tabernacle with an alter where the fire must be lit. The church, not the building but the people, is the new tabernacle.
At Pentecost God provided the fire once more in the Holy Spirit and the new temple is the new community of the people of God.
1 Peter 2:4–10 (NIV)
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.