Leviticus 10: Aaron’s sons are killed
In the last chapter, Aaron and his sons began their ministry as priests. Everything went very well; I get so used to reading, in the Old Testament, about the Israelites not following God properly, or almost following His commands but not quite, so it’s always a relief, to me, when I read that they’ve obeyed Him properly. But all that changes, in this chapter.
The chapter begins with Nadab and Abuhu, Aaron’s sons, putting some incense in their censors and offering “unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command” (verse 1). So, as punishment, fire comes out from the presence of the LORD, and burns them to death. Moses then talks to Aaron about it:
Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said:
“‘Among those who approach me
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.’”
Aaron remained silent.
Moses then commands Mishael and Elzaphan—Nadab and Abihu’s cousins—to carry the dead men out of the camp, away from the sanctuary, which they do, with the dead men still in their priestly clothes. Unfortunately, Aaron has a hard instruction to follow: Moses tells Aaron and his two remaining sons—Eleazar and Ithamar—that they are not allowed to mourn for the two dead sons, or the LORD will become angry at the entire community. (According to their customs, they would have let their hair become “unkempt” and torn their clothes, which Moses specifically forbids them from doing.) However, the rest of their relatives—and, in fact, the rest of the community—are allowed to mourn for the men. But because the LORD’s anointing oil is on Aaron and his remaining sons, they are not to leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, else they die.
Moses then passes on some regulations, to Aaron, which seem, to me, to be unrelated: They are never to drink wine or other fermented drink when they go into the Tent of Meeting, else they die. They are to “distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean” (verse 10), and “teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses” (verse 11).
After this, Moses gets back to the present situation: he instructs Aaron and his remaining sons to eat the grain offering and the breast that was waved before the LORD. Basically, he is instructing them to get back to business as usual. He also reminds them of the portion of the sacrifices that are priests’ share from the offerings.
However, later on, Moses inquires about the goat of the sin offering, and finds out that it has been completely burned up—the priests have not eaten the part they were supposed to eat!
When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and asked, “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.
The first thing that strikes me about this chapter is the reason that Nadab and Abihu died: Not because they were worshipping other Gods, or because they had stolen something, or killed someone, but because they had worshipped the LORD in the wrong way. Their hearts were almost in the right place; they wanted to worship Him, they just didn’t do it properly. But it wasn’t enough just to worship Him, they had to do it properly. It reminds me of many modern-day “Christians”, who claim to know the LORD, and yet, because they don’t read their Bibles, they don’t actually know who the LORD is. You can’t claim to worship someone you don’t know. (I put the word “Christians” in quotes simply because there are many who claim to be, but aren’t.)
It also strikes me that Aaron, the High Priest, and his two remaining sons, the priests, were not allowed to mourn for the dead men. This must have been hard for them, and I was trying to figure out why. I think it was something along these lines, although I may not be explaining it very well: As the priests, the one thing they were to value more than anything else was holiness; we’ve seen, in the last few chapters, how important holiness is, and the priests’ job was to deal with holiness (or the lack thereof, when it came to things like sacrifices for sin). As both father and High Priest, Aaron would have mixed feelings: sadness and grief, for the loss of his sons, but also pleasure that the Holiness of the LORD was being displayed, and sin was being punished. (“Pleasure” isn’t the right word, but I couldn’t find a more accurate one.)
However, as we saw in the last verses quoted above, there was still recognition that something terrible had happened, that day, and Aaron wasn’t simply going to pretend that everything was normal. Based on the fact that Moses was mollified by this explanation, I’m assuming that the LORD agree with Aaron’s reasoning, as well, since Moses was the LORD’s direct messenger to the Israelites. Again, I don’t actually understand the nuance of what’s going on; just that the situation is being taken into account, in the performance of Aaron’s duties.