Leviticus chapter 10:1–3 presents a short yet troubling story. God had previously appeared to the people unveiled, exposing His glory. It was a joyous occasion, as God was clearly eager to be near the people, but the scene suddenly turned tragic. Unauthorized, Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, drew nearer to God with “strange fire,” and they died on the spot. The intensity of God’s fire was so great that it blazed forth and consumed them. How scary!
We might conclude that God was capricious and cruel, displaying His wrath against these well-intended worshipers. Some support this notion of God smiting offenders by sharing tales about how ropes were once tied to ankles so that an erring priest struck dead could be dragged out of the tabernacle feet first. We may develop the idea that when God shows up, the body bags pile up.
Aaron’s sons faced swift and tragic consequences for failing to follow instructions. The required protocols for coming into God’s presence matter. They must not be trivialized because they prepare people to draw near. Leviticus scholar Roy Gane compares entering God’s presence to approaching a nuclear reactor. When God comes to dwell with mortal and faulty people, the detailed instructions about coming close to Him must be followed (Leviticus and Numbers, NIV Application Commentary, 2004, p.188). The story of Nadab and Abihu reminds me of what can happen when we cut corners or ignore details in life-or-death situations.
Why then do some insist that an angry God burned up Nadab and Abihu? I do not believe the story’s message is that God strikes sinners down but that grace and godly fear go together. Fire is a common symbol for God’s presence, perhaps because God told Moses that no mortal man could see His face unveiled and live (Exodus 33:20). More than we fear today, the people in this story must have feared that any mistakes made against God would result in certain death. Participating in this encounter must not have been easy, as what it meant to come into God’s presence remained unknown. Such scary situations can prevent us from seeing grace, leading us to misunderstand God by perceiving Him as capricious.
What does it take to come safely into God’s presence? I think the other details of Nadab and Abihu’s story help us experience God in a way that allows us to overcome our fears. When we dig a little deeper, the story reveals God’s love and grace. Aaron was told to fully focus on God’s holiness, which is an important part of the narrative. Obedience and holiness are linked to grace and blessing. In the subsequent six chapters of Leviticus, we find Aaron preparing to enter the holiest place, where God dwells—the place where Nadab and Abihu could not survive. Chapter 16 describes the Day of Atonement, when Aaron came face to face with God. By performing the rituals correctly and standing in the Holy of Holies, Aaron assured the people that the protocols worked, that they were indeed accepted, and that they did not need to fear God.
What are we to make of Aaron grieving the tragic deaths of his two sons in silence? Aaron was not only the high priest but a grieving father. His silence did not convey a lack of feeling but was a way to honor the terrible anguish of his soul—to hold on to that suffering in a way that allowed him to connect with the heart of the Infinite. Aaron had to intercede as a grieving father precisely because no one else could plead more tenderly. No other could pour forth more tender pity than a father’s grieving heart. His petitions came from a heart wrung with grief and seeking healing. While his mind focused on the details of cleansing the Sanctuary from sin, his heart remained heavy. Aaron painfully undertook the tasks of a high priest as only a father with a broken heart could.
When we focus on the prohibitions of law as means to escape God’s anger, we lose the ability to navigate our fears. If, however, we change our paradigm so that our greatest desire is to come near God’s presence, we can be comforted by the power of acceptance and will not be afraid. Then, we receive the message that God’s heart of love weeps along with us and will help us overcome our feelings of fear and shame. This changes everything!
Jesus is not just our High Priest. Like Aaron, He is touched by our infirmities, for He has a heart that suffers unknown anguish (Hebrews 4:15; 5:7). Jesus not only does what is required of a high priest but exceptionally surprises us with His unexpected grace. His mind does not brood over our sins, for His heart is tender, merciful, and loving toward His erring children. With a heavy heart, He offers the deepest supplications. That’s how I picture Aaron in this story, and I think it’s how we should see the heart of God, as He has conveyed this through Jesus, who suffered the grief and anguish of a broken heart for the sake of His prodigal sons and daughters. The presence of God is not divorced from our pain and suffering; indeed, they are the ways into His presence.
Moses said that God is honored by those privileged to approach Him (Leviticus 10:3). Nadab and Abihu were unprepared for God’s direct presence, and it may be untimely for us, but God wants us in His presence more than we can know. God is committed to redeeming this world from sin and death and is working to infuse it with the light and life of His presence. The only way into the holiest place is through the heart of God’s unfettered love, as He carries all the heartbreak that our sin causes. By clinging to Jesus, our High Priest, we retain the hope that we will someday enter into the holiest place to see His glorious face (Hebrews 10:19–20, ESV).
Craig Ashton Jr.