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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 10

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-7

“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before Jehovah, which he had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before Jehovah and, devoured them, and they died before Jehovah. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is that Jehovah spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them, Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp. So they drew near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which Jehovah hath kindled. And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest ye die; for the anointing oil of Jehovah is upon you. And they did according to the word of Moses.”

“Which he had not commanded them” This is the true key to understanding the sin of Nadab and Abihu. Whatever they did here, it was totally upon their own PRESUMPTUOUS initiative, unsupported by any word whatever from the Lord. The many speculations about what their sin actually was are idle. All that they did here was SINFUL. Their taking of censers, unbidden, their putting incense upon censers carried by themselves, instead of sprinkling it upon the proper altar, their intrusion into the sanctuary in the circumstances and at the time of these events, their taking coals of fire from some place other than from the brazen altar where God had commanded the coals to be taken - all of these things were exceedingly sinful. Why? God had not authorized or commanded a single one of the things that they did.

Can people today commit this sin? Of course, it is impossible for people to commit exactly this sin in the form it appears here, but we must agree with Kellogg that, “As regards the inner nature and essence of this sin, no sin in all the ages has been more common.”(F1) What about the countless innovations and variations of Christian worship today? How many things there are which so-called Christian churches are doing “as worship of God,” which are absolutely nothing else than the teachings and doctrines and practices invented by men and imposed upon the true worship! The frightful example of these unfortunate sons of Aaron serves as a grim warning in such matters.

Those who wish to specify exactly what the transgression of these two sons was cannot go wrong by accepting the comment of Clements: “They transgressed the divine command regarding the altar fire by offering unholy fire before God. In Hebrew, the expression is literally `strange,’ or `foreign’ fire.”(F2) This established the principle that when God has commanded a specific action, the doing of something else additionally or instead of what he commanded is the worst form of disobedience. For example, when God commands His church to sing, that also means, do NOT play instruments of music additionally or instead of the singing.

Some have tried to make out that this error for which God visited the penalty of death upon Aaron’s sons was, by modern standards, understandable and forgivable. Seizing upon the instructions later given in Leviticus 10:9, it is alleged that, after all, Nadab and Abihu had simply had a little too much to drink. Of course, in the modern view, drunkenness excuses everything from murderous driving on the streets and highways to rape, incest, and wife-beating! First, it is totally incorrect to ascribe drunkenness to these disobedient sons. There is no connection whatever between Leviticus 10:9 and this episode, as attested by Clements and many others.(F3)

Knight’s comment on the sin of these two brothers was as follows:

“Theirs was a flagrant piece of disobedience and disloyalty to God. These men were virtually saying, “Our fire is as good as yours, God! We don’t need yours.” This is an acted parable of the way secular man thinks about his relation to God.”(F4)

The same author added that their sins came under the category of “sins with a high hand” and so were worthy of death.

“Fire from before Jehovah… devoured them” (Leviticus 10:2). Certainly, this was a case of instantaneous divine judgment against presumptuous sin, but the whole conception of the wrath of God and divine judgment against sinners is almost totally foreign to the popular theologies so widely received in today’s world. Therefore, as Wenham said, “(Such examples) are upsetting to the cozy-bourgeois attitudes that often pass for Christian. In many parts of the church, the Biblical view of divine judgment is conveniently forgotten.”(F5)

There are a number of other such judgments recorded in the Bible. God slew the first two sons of Judah for failure in their duty to Tamar (Genesis 38:7-10). In the early church, Ananias and Sapphira were stricken with sudden death for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). Uzzah’s laying hands upon the ark of the covenant was likewise thus punished (2 Samuel 6:7-8). The startling example here should “challenge Bible-believing Christians whose theological attitudes are influenced by prevailing trends of thought.”(F6)

“Devoured them” The meaning here is simply that they were instantly killed. As evidenced by Leviticus 10:5, neither their bodies nor their ceremonial dress (the coats) were consumed. It seems to have been resembling a stroke of lightning.

Jamieson based an opinion upon the use of the words “from before the Lord” in Leviticus 10:2, that, “This fire issued from the most Holy Place.”(F7) Of course, God does not punish gross and presumptuous sinners in these days as he did in the instance here, “but that is no reason to think that the sinner will not have his reckoning yet at some time in some place.”(F8) “Some men’s sins are evident, going before unto judgment; and some men also they follow after” (1 Timothy 5:24). “We must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

It perhaps may be a gross error to conclude from such O.T. judgments as this that the objects of such prompt and total punishment were also to be condemned to eternal death at the time of the final judgment, and, although no one can deny that such an eventuality might indeed ensue, there are some hints in the Bible that such might not be the case. For example, the following words by Kellogg point out such a hint:

“In 1 Corinthians 11:30-32, we are told that among the Christians of Corinth, many, because of their irreverence for the Lord’s Supper, slept the sleep of death (physical death). The judgment was sent not to assure their eternal destruction, but in order that they might not finally perish. The apostle’s words are explicit: `But when we are thus judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.’“(F9)

Kellogg’s argument might not be correct, but the total absence in the Word of God regarding the eternal state of any person thus judged leaves the matter unresolved as far as any positive teaching is concerned. It will be remembered in this connection that the apostles of Christ never mentioned Judas after his death, except in prayer. The awful question remains unanswered.

“Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel” The pedigree of these men is given in Exodus 6:18; Exodus 6:22. They were cousins of the stricken brothers. “Being Levites, they were forbidden to defile themselves by contact with the dead. Aaron, as High Priest, was explicitly forbidden to do so, whereas ordinary priests were allowed to defile themselves for near relatives (Leviticus 21:2 ff).”(F10)

“Let not the hair of your head go loose” (Leviticus 10:6). This is a disputed passage, and there is ample reason for believing it means “do not shave your head.”(F11) The shaving of the head was a common mode of expressing great grief.

“Rend not your garments” Aaron was strictly included in this prohibition, the tearing of garments being absolutely forbidden to the High Priest. In the light of this, how hypocritical and shameful was the action of Caiaphas who, upon hearing the confession of Jesus under oath, to the truth that he was the Divine Messiah, “rent his clothes” (Mark 14:63).

Some of the church fathers think that by this action Caiaphas involuntarily typified the rending of the priesthood from himself and from the Jewish nation.(F12)

“This is that Jehovah spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me” (Leviticus 10:3). Wenham’s paraphrase of this is: “The closer a man is to God, the more attention he is to pay to holiness and the glory of God.”(F13) By this, Moses surely inferred that Nadab and Abihu should certainly have known better than to act so presumptuously.

“And they did according to the word of Moses” Aaron and his remaining sons accepted with all grace and humility the stern demands of Moses, and no higher credit to them could have been given than the magnificent words here.

Verses 8-11

“And Jehovah spake unto Aaron, saying, Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not: it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations: that ye may make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which Jehovah hath spoken unto them by Moses.”

The significance of this little paragraph is out of all proportion to the size of it. Here it is revealed that the very first time that God spoke to the newly-invested High Priest, he was enjoined to, “Drink no wine nor strong drink” And despite the injunction here being primarily concerned with what people today call “drinking while on duty,” the priority of it points squarely at the incredible dangers of indulging in the use of alcoholic beverages. When it is remembered that the “wine” and “strong drink” spoken of here were weak indeed compared to the burning liquors sold under those labels today, the dangers loom larger and larger. Distilled liquors were unknown in those times; fermented wines have only a fraction of the alcohol content that distinguishes the powerful concoctions that men call “wine” today. The facts are known to all, but the evil desire of men clouds their thinking on this question. America today faces no greater problem than the alcohol problem.

Drinking alcohol has shed enough blood to turn the ocean red. Eighty percent of all traffic fatalities are caused by it. Millions of homes are impoverished and blighted by it. It has filled jails, halfway houses, mental institutions, and hospitals all over the world. The bill of particulars against this vice is endless. Who can challenge the declaration of Seiss that, “It has done more, perhaps, in bringing earth and hell together, than any other form of vice”?(F14)

Verses 12-15

“And Moses spake unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons that were left, Take the meal-offering that remaineth of the offerings of Jehovah made by fire, and eat it without leaven beside the altar; for it is most holy; and ye shall eat it in a holy place, because it is thy portion, and thy sons’ portion, of the offerings of Jehovah made by fire: for so I am commanded. And the wave-breast and the heave-thigh shall ye eat in a clean place, thou and thy sons, and thy daughters with thee: for they are given as thy portion, out of the sacrifices of the peace-offerings of the children of Israel. The heave-thigh and the wave-breast shall they bring with the offerings made by fire of the fat, to wave it for a wave-offering before Jehovah: and it shall be thine, and thy sons’ with thee, as a portion forever; as Jehovah hath commanded.”

“For so I am commanded” (Leviticus 10:13) is the statement of Moses that he had been commanded by Jehovah thus to instruct Aaron and his sons. It is therefore the equivalent of the last clause of the passage (Leviticus 10:15), “As Jehovah hath commanded.”

Verses 16-20

“And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron that were left, saying, Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and he hath given it to you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before Jehovah? Behold the blood of it was not brought into the sanctuary within: ye should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded. And Aaron spake unto Moses, Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt offering before Jehovah; and there have befallen me such things as these: and if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of Jehovah? And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight.”

In Leviticus 10:9-11, we had the very first heavenly communication from God to Aaron, and, in this passage, we have the very first action of the newly constituted High Priest. Significantly, Aaron’s action here was one of mercy and forgiveness. The sins of Eleazar and Ithamar in not eating the sin-offering as they were commanded to do, was assumed by Aaron and taken upon himself! “If I had eaten… etc.” Nothing had been said by Moses to the effect that Aaron had sinned in this particular. His anger was directed at the two sons (Leviticus 10:16). These words by Aaron were profoundly appropriate. He took upon himself the sins of the errant sons. No wonder Moses was pleased by this. Herein also lies a perfect picture of the blessed Christ who took upon himself the sins of the whole world. The very first action of Christ, after he was risen from the dead was that of forgiving and restoring Peter.

Clements suggested that this passage demonstrates that, “Common sense was to prevail over rigorous legalism in the interpretation of sacrificial regulations.”(F15) Perhaps it would be better to say that mercy ranked higher than God’s law, even in the O.T. The glorious proof of this is seen in the placement of the mercy-seat above and on top of the ark of the covenant containing the sacred law.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 10". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-10.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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