3.22 The Priesthood
In Lev 8-10, Aaron and his four sons were ordained as priests, and they then began the cycle of prescribed offerings: sin offering, burnt offering and fellowship offering (Lev 9:22). God sanctified the offerings with His manifest Presence (Lev 9:23-24). Supernatural fire upon the altar also occurred in Elijah's offering and Solomon's (1 Kings 18:38; 2 Chronicles 7:11). This caused joy among the worshippers (Lev 9:24), but not for long.
Unfortunately, another divine fire, the fire of judgment, broke out upon two of Aaron's sons and killed them instantly (Lev 10:1-7). Their sin was offering "unauthorized fire" (KJV - "strange fire"). They were departing from God's prescribed means of worship. Similar examples of God's judgment which occurred later were: Complainers, who were burned with fire (Num 11:1), Uzzah, who was slain for touching the Ark (2 Sam 6:6-7), and in the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira, who dropped dead after lying to Peter (Acts 5:1-11). Notice that the matter of motive was irrelevant in deciding culpability. Uzzah was trying to stabilize the Ark, Ananias and Sapphira were trying to steal from God, and we are not told what the intent of Nadab and Abihu was. Judgment is impersonal once the law has been transgressed -- just as a person dies who touches a live electric wire. God had warned Moses that the priesthood had its risks, and was not to be taken lightly:
"Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them" (Ex 19:22).
After the death of Aaron's sons, God repeated the warning:
"Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored" (Lev 10:3).
Here we see both the severity of the law and its consistency. Violations of the commands concerning worship were treated as seriously or more so than moral or social misdeeds. Indeed, even the expression of grief was forbidden to Aaron and his surviving sons (Lev 10:6-7). Consistency is shown by the fact that two men were struck down at the launching of the Old Covenant, and a man and wife were killed at the start of the New. The effect in both covenants was to strike fear into the hearts of the people (Acts 5:11).
One senses that the Israelites have begun badly in their journey to Canaan, and in their start as a holy nation. The people have learned that they serve an all-powerful Deity, whose rules they must scrupulously obey or suffer the consequences. This had a ring of familiarity -- it's just like back home! Substitute God for Pharaoh, and minute laws of conduct for Egyptian servitude. Indeed, the Israelites frequently complained that they were better off in Egypt (Num 11:4-5, Num 11:18, Num 14:3-4, Num 21:5). It was not really a matter of inability to obey the rituals and laws, it was more a fundamental disconnect with the entire enterprise. We will see throughout the wilderness wanderings repeated outbreaks of anger and frustration, on the part of both Israel and God, resulting in many more casualties like Nadab and Abihu.
Yet God was not Pharaoh: He wanted to dwell in the midst of the Israelites, not dominate and oppress them. The lines of separation that He drew were to protect the people from His holiness. His deeper purpose was made clear when He drew the elders into fellowship with Him (Ex 24) and caused His Spirit to come upon them (Num 11). Pharaoh had made them slaves, hoping to use, degrade, and destroy them to promote his own power, because he feared, and despised them. The Lord made them a nation, hoping to turn them into kings and priests to manifest His power and favor, because He loved them.