In the book of Leviticus, we read about two of Aaron’s sons: Nadab and Abihu (Ex. 6:23). Nadab and Abihu were priests who ministered by offering sacrifices (Ex. 28:1). For a study of the five different sacrifices, click here. When Nadab and Abihu were making a specific offering, they did so with “profane fire” (Lev.10:1). As soon as they did this, the Lord killed them (Lev. 10:2). This text has puzzled many Bible students with questions as to why God would suddenly and immediately execute judgment on Nadab and Abihu.
UNDERSTANDING THE LEVITICAL PRIESTS
Before we answer this question, it is important to lay some groundwork as far as the Levitical priesthood is concerned. To serve as a priest during this time was considered a “holy” position. In regards to the priests, Leviticus 21:6 says:
“They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God. Because they present the food offerings to the Lord, the food of their God, they are to be holy.”
While all Christians today are considered part of the royal priesthood and holy through the blood of Jesus (1 Pet. 1:16; 2:9), such was not the case during this time. For example, priests had to be from the tribe of Levi (Ex. 28:1-4; 32:26-29; Lev. 8-9; 21:21) and they were held to different and higher standards than the rest of God’s people (Lev. 21:4, 7).
A priest couldn’t be blind, lame, have a marred face, have eczema, or be a dwarf (Lev. 21:18-20). A priest could only marry a virgin (Lev. 21:13). He couldn’t even marry a woman if she was divorced or a widow (Lev. 21:14). For an exhaustive list of requirements for the priests, see Lev. 21. In essence, they were a representation of God to the people of Israel. Their job was a serious one with serious consequences if they failed to meet their requirements.
While it would be an understatement to say that the Old Testament is full of death penalties (Ex. 21; Lev. 16:12-13; 24:17, 2; Deut. 18:20; 19:16-19; 1 Sam. 28:9; etc.), the priests were especially held to death penalties if they presumptuously failed to perform their priestly duties (Lev. 8:35).
NADAB AND ABIHU’S SIN
Now that we understand the Levitical priesthood a little better, let’s discuss the specific sin(s) of Nadab and Abihu. The Bible tells us that Nadab and Abihu sinned by offering “profane fire” to the Lord (Lev. 10:1). Earlier in the giving of the law, “strange” offerings were condemned. Exodus 30:9 says:
“You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.”
While there are many theories about this strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu, no one is exactly sure what this profane fire consisted of. All we can know for certain is that they offered something that they were not supposed to.
Nadab and Abihu were not ignorant in their actions because they understood their duty very clearly (Lev. 7:28-9:24). They were not only witnesses of God and His deliverance from their Egyptian bondage, but they personally went up to the mountain with the seventy elders, Moses, and Aaron and saw God (Ex. 24:1, 9-11). Based upon these passages, there is no reason to believe their sin was unintentional or sincere.
Furthermore, some have concluded, based upon Lev. 10:9-11, that Nadab and Abihu may have even been drunk when this event took place. Others have pointed out, however, that the timeline from Lev. 9 to Lev. 10 doesn’t allow for such. Either way, Nadab and Abihu were punished by God because they willfully sinned by offering profane fire; thus, violating God’s specific and explicit command (Ex. 30:9). But there is more to this story.
ELEAZAR AND ITHAMAR
In Lev. 10, we also read about Aaron’s other two sons: Eleazar and Ithamar. They, too, violated the law. However, they were not condemned like Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:8-16). In regards to the sin(s) of Eleazar and Ithamar, the text says:
“Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not taken into the Holy Place, you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.’ Aaron replied to Moses, ‘Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?’” When Moses heard this, he was satisfied” (Lev. 10:17-20).
Here we have four brothers and two very different outcomes. All four brothers sinned and violated God’s law. Nadab and Abihu were killed on the spot while Eleazar and Ithamar’s sin was pardoned.
Even though they failed to keep the law properly, they were still accepted. It appears that God showed judgment to Nadab and Abihu while showing mercy to Eleazar and Ithamar.
If the sin of Nadab and Abihu was nothing but mere disobedience, then Eleazar and Ithamar should have died, too. Why, then, did God kill Nadab and Abihu, yet spare their brothers?
A HEART PROBLEM
The Bible teaches that God judges our obedience and disobedience based upon our hearts. The Bible teaches that God knows the hearts of men (Jer. 17:10; Jn. 2:24; Mk. 2:8). Consider the following passages:
“…would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?” (Psa. 44:21).
“…for you alone know every human heart… “(1 Kings 8:39).
God doesn’t see as man sees. We have limited understanding while God has endless discernment (1 Jn. 3:20; Psa. 139:4). We can never fully understand what lies within a man (1 Cor. 2:11).
God always has a reason why He does what He does and it is always predicated on the heart of the individual (Rom. 11:33; Isa. 55:8-9). God is ultimately looking at the heart. Notice just a few of the passages that teach this:
“…The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7).
“Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psa. 32:11).
For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him…” (2 Chron. 16:9).
Sometimes we sin ignorantly and sometimes we even sin willfully. To deny such is to deny truth (1 Jn. 1:10). Our spirit is willing, but our flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41). That is why we must work on our hearts. The Bible says:
“My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart” (Psa. 7:10).
While there are still many things we do not know about this story due to the lack of information, we can know several things for certain.
- Nadab and Abihu is an exceptional story found in Scripture.
- God’s judicial judgment against Nadab and Abihu is in reference to this specific instance on earth. We should not automatically conclude that this story speaks to the eternal fate of Nadab and Abihu.
- Obedience is important to God.
- God doesn’t view all disobedience the same.
- God ultimately looks at the heart.
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