I vividly remember the day my father became a committed Christian. I helped him remove all the bottles of alcohol from the entertainment bar in our basement, and then we dumped them onto the ground in the backyard. I was a young boy, but that moment with him made a deep impression on me.
Leviticus 10 tells a story of coming into the heart of God’s work but mishandling the experience by using alcohol. The Sanctuary had been newly inaugurated with the manifestation of God’s glory, and people could enter for fellowship. In their excitement, Nadab and Abihu partied too heartily, becoming drunk. What should have been a glorious occasion ended in tragedy. They died in the very place where God had wanted to show them that life is His plan for us and dwelling with Him forever our destiny. Their death was no arbitrary judgment, for the theology of Moses professes there is no need to be to afraid of God (Exodus 20:20), but in emergency situations, the Israelites needed God to take swift action.
The Lord had spoken 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” (Leviticus 10:9, ESV). This implies that Nadab and Abihu drank too much and that their intemperance disqualified them from entering God’s presence. Does it also imply that being inebriated is unholy, that alcohol impairs our ability to experience our greatest desire, negatively impacting not only our own lives but also those of others?
If we think about the role of alcohol in today’s world, we can see its results in the devastation of injury and death. As painfully modeled by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the use of intoxicating drink decreases one’s ability to make responsible decisions and may ultimately destroy one’s life. While the Bible does not expressly forbid the drinking of wine, its wisdom texts suggest that it’s best to abstain (Proverbs 31:4–5). Priests were clearly commanded to abstain: “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court” (Ezekiel 44:21, ESV). The reason given is that abstinence allows them to “distinguish between holy and unholy, between unclean and clean” (Leviticus 10:10). God’s law shows us that He values life, and His instructions are essential. Through the tragic deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the people learned that drinking mattered, yet the message of alcohol in the story does not go far enough.
The injunction calls for deeper reflection—to know and teach the laws of clean and unclean to avoid jeopardizing the goal of perceiving and experiencing God’s presence. This call to distinguish between the holy and unholy includes not only understanding the laws of the Sanctuary but also becoming diligent in one’s diet. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the very next chapter (Leviticus 11) is all about applying the laws of clean and unclean to holy eating. This call comes right after the story that warns of alcohol consumption and a story in which Aaron’s two remaining sons do not eat an offering.
The latter story describes how Moses became angry when he learned that a meat offering was not eaten by two priests at a service. Aaron’s first two sons had just died for failing to follow instructions, and these new recruits seemed to be making the same mistake. It seemed that Aaron and his family kept messing things up. The guy who had created the improper golden calf was a high priest, and his sons Nadab and Abihu are now a major part of this sin. It is amazing to me that God made priests of flawed people who were steeped in idolatry and drunkenness. It shows how God’s grace works in our flawed lives. In a moment of sense and reflection, Aaron spoke up about the meat offering, telling Moses, “given all that happened today, with the unexpected death of my two boys, do you really think God would want us to eat this?” (Leviticus 10:12–19). Aaron was right about this one, and Moses admitted so (Leviticus 10:20).
I really like how this story ends because it shows us that some situations call for adaptation. The first part of the story conveys that rules must be taken seriously—that attention to detail matters—but the final message is that rules are adaptive. In effect, I hear Aaron saying to Moses, “Given this specific situation—after the tragic death of my two sons—don’t you think eating the meat offering would be a bad application of the rules?” The rules do not merely serve law; they serve life. God’s expressions of love are not rigid or unreasonable. If the law is in service of His love, we must look at the facts with diligent inquiry and apply it differently in different situations. In other words, the law should not be so unbending as to oppose love or compassion. The tragic deaths of Nadab and Abihu motivated Moses and Aaron to become not only more careful but also thoughtfully adaptive. There are some conditions under which one must ask, “Is this really the right thing to do?”
This leads me to a question. In today’s era, in which alcohol consumption contributes to abuse, injustice, and death and in which meat eating is a denial that an animal’s life belongs to God, shouldn’t the virtue of temperance be rediscovered and reinvigorated? Have we Christians been guilty of sanctioning the use of alcohol and the eating of meat by suggesting that it does not matter because God has abolished these dietary laws? I find it fascinating that some scholars are now recognizing that the dietary laws for clean and unclean animals relate to the creation story, in which life and wholeness is celebrated (Genesis 1:29–30). Might this story’s message of temperance and appeal to sense not only remind us that God discourages alcohol consumption but also clue us about laws regarding the eating of meat? Might these laws suggest that we are a priesthood set apart by God for a more noble way of life than can be found in this suffering and cruel world?
Perhaps we should view this story as presenting the dangers to life, health, and compassion of not only alcohol consumption but also excessive meat eating. This might suggest abstinence from at least some eating and drinking before seeking God in worship or prayer. Like Aaron, we could appeal to love, life, and compassion in today’s tragic circumstances, asking, “if I eat this, would God approve?” Noted examples of this approach are Daniel and his three friends, who refrained from consuming the king’s meat and wine. So as not to defile themselves in their specific circumstances, they instead ate vegetables and drank water (Daniel 1:5–16).
These biblical examples suggest to me that dietary reform is contingent on spiritual reform—that eating and drinking are acts of worship. Might God’s grace play a role in reshaping our appetites and behaviors under His jurisdiction so that we are brought into living connection with Him? It is too bad that many believers do not relate Leviticus 10 and 11 to their bodies, which are temples of God (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). God seems to want our bodies to testify to His glory through what we “eat or drink” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Perhaps we have forgotten that drawing close to God requires great personal commitment. Maybe we have forgotten what few seem to know: that only grace frees us from merit and superficial rigidity, allowing us to see God’s law as a helpful guide that is relevant in our day.
Craig Ashton Jr.