The Word Made Fresh
1Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, filled their incense burners and lit them and entered the sanctuary and presented the incense before the LORD in an unauthorized manner. 2Fire erupted from the LORD in the most sacred place and they were burned to death.
3Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when he said, ‘I will use those who come near me to demonstrate my holiness, and I will be honored before all the people.’” Aaron said nothing.
4Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan who were Aaron’s cousins, sons of his uncle Uzziel. “Gather your relatives’ remains,” he said, “and remove them from the front of the sanctuary. Take them outside the camp.” 5Taking hold of them by their priestly gowns, they carried them out.
6Moses told Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar not to uncover their hair or rip their clothing. “If you do,” he said, “you will die, and the LORD will be angry with us all. But the people will be allowed to grieve the burning the LORD has sent. 7And you,” he continued, “must not leave the meeting tent or you will die because you are anointed by the oil of the LORD.” They did as Moses said.
8Then the LORD said to Aaron, 9“Do not enter the meeting tent filled with wine or other strong drink, neither you nor your sons. If you do you will die. This is a permanent rule for all your descendants to come. 10You must learn to tell the difference between what is sacred and what is common, what is acceptable and what is not, 11and you are responsible for teaching the people all the rules and regulations I have given Moses.”
12Moses said to Aaron and Eleazar and Ithamar, “Take the grain offerings left over from what was burned on the altar and eat it unleavened beside the altar. It is sacred, 13and you must eat it in a sacred place. I have been instructed that it is your share of the offerings given the LORD. 14But the breast and thigh that were waved may be eaten by both you and your children in a ritually clean area. These are gifts to you and your families, your share of the offerings brought by the people of Israel. 15The thigh and the breast that were brought with their fat you must lift up to the LORD, and then the meat belongs to you and your children.”
16Then Moses asked about the goat that was brought for a guilt offering. He was told it had already been burned on the altar, and he was angry with Aaron’s remaining sons. 17“Why didn’t you eat it in the sanctuary area?” he fumed. “It is very sacred! It was given to you to cleanse the people of their guilt before the LORD! 18The blood had not been carried into the most holy place. You should have eaten the goat outside the sanctuary. Those were my orders!”
19Aaron responded, “Look, today they sacrificed their guilt offering and their burnt offering to the LORD, but these things have befallen me. Would the LORD have been pleased if I had eaten the guilt offering today?”
20When he heard the explanation, Moses was satisfied.
1-3: Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, are tragically burned to death while burning incense in the tabernacle. Their death is attributed to their having offered “unholy fire before the LORD,” a phrase that is difficult to understand, but may mean no more than that they didn’t follow the prescribed procedure (which probably includes certain safety factors, one of which we will see a few verses down) and disaster follows. Aaron is poised to complain, as would any father, but Moses stays him and says that through their death God is somehow glorified.
4-7: Moses orders two of his and Aaron’s first cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan, to carry the bodies outside the camp. No burial is mentioned, which makes me wonder if they are so badly burned that no burial is needed. Moses allows the family and the congregation to mourn, but Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, are not permitted to assume the visible signs of mourning (torn clothes and disheveled hair) and are not permitted to leave the tabernacle. Their duty as God’s servants is to take precedence over their grief.
8-11: The LORD tells Aaron that he and his sons must not drink wine or other alcoholic beverages when they go into the tent of meeting. The reason for this rule is not given, but is likely related to the incident that caused the death of Nadab and Abihu. It could be that they were drinking on the job while playing with fire – a dangerous mixture indeed.
12-15: Moses issues a ruling regarding the priests’ portions of the sacrifices and where it is to be eaten. He rules that the unleavened grain offering is to be eaten within the enclosure where the altar of burnt offering is located. The meat portions may be shared with their families in any “clean place.” Moses’ callous refusal to acknowledge Aaron’s grief is striking to me.
16-20: But now something happens to make Moses a little more caring. He discovers that the sacrifice of the goat for the sin offering has not been properly carried out. The portion that was to have been eaten by Aaron and his sons was burned on the altar instead. Moses is angry with Eleazar and Ithamar. Aaron’s response is that it would not have been right for them to have eaten the sin offering because it is a day of mourning for them. Moses is mollified and lets the matter drop.
Serving the LORD is a serious, and sometimes dangerous, business.