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Nadab and Abihu offer strange fire before the Lord, and are destroyed: the priests are forbidden wine when they serve at the tabernacle.
Before Christ 1490.
Leviticus 10:1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron— The offence of Nadab and Abihu, according to almost all the commentators, was their kindling their censers from strange or common fire; not from the fire which burned always upon the altar of the Lord: (see ch. Leviticus 16:12.) One may conceive, from the prohibition of wine to the priests immediately following this catastrophe, Lev 10:9 that the too free use of wine had occasioned them to act thus, contrary to what God had commanded; for though there is no law extant prohibiting the offering of common fire, yet it is not to be supposed that they would have been condemned to death had they not done something which God had expressly forbidden, or omitted what he had expressly commanded. Hence the words, which he commanded them not, are thought to imply an express prohibition; as if it had been said, which he had forbidden. See Jeremiah 32:35. As strange incense, i.e. other incense than God had appointed, is forbidden, Exo 30:9 so strange fire is implicitly forbidden, ch. Lev 6:12 as afterwards God sheweth, ch. Leviticus 16:2. We refer to the reflections at the end of the chapter for a further account of this extraordinary event; which, however, a learned writer, in a distinct treatise on the subject, explains in a very different manner: he makes two objections against the common interpretation, remarking, 1st, That Moses gives to the fire, of which the two sons of Aaron made use, the direct name of fire without any qualification; not calling it strange fire till after he had said that they put incense thereon: so that, considering the mode of expression he uses, it seems as if the fire which Nadab and Abihu employed was not in itself a strange fire, and only became such when they had cast the incense upon it. 2nd, He insists, that the last verse of the foregoing chapter destroys the common interpretation; where it is said, that there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the sat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces: to which Moses immediately adds, And Nadab and Abihu, the sons, &c. It seems, therefore, that, as soon as the sacred fire had descended upon the burnt-offering and the fat, in the presence of all the people and in view of Aaron and his sons, then, precisely then, these took each of them his censer, and put fire therein. Now, how does it appear that they could have taken of any other fire upon the spot than that which they attended, and which, it is most probable, God had before expressly commanded them to make use of?
But why, then, should Moses call the fire with which Nadab and Abihu furnished themselves strange? To this the learned divine answers, because they put the incense upon this fire in another manner than that which God had ordained. According to him, the passage should be thus rendered, Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put [sacred] fire therein, and put incense thereon: thus they offered strange fire before the Lord, which had been forbidden them. There are three considerations, which are advanced to confirm this conjecture: 1st, It is certain that the priests were to kindle incense in the holy place upon the golden altar: Maimonides and several rabbies are express on this head. 2nd, It is evident, from the words of the sacred historian, that Nadab and Abihu put the incense upon the fire of their censers previous to their coming before the Lord: this we are led to conclude from the connexion and construction of the passage. Lastly, it is clear, that the Scripture often gives the epithet strange to that which is improperly joined, or mixed with other things. Thus a false worship offered to the true God is called a strange worship, as a prostitute is denominated a strange woman; (Proverbs 7:5.) and the incense, compounded in another manner than God had appointed, whether as to the quantity or quality of the drugs, is called strange incense: (Exodus 9:34-35.) Here, therefore, it is urged in like manner, the strange fire was sacred fire, rendered strange, or impure, by the association of incense put to it, contrary to the rules, and in contempt of the orders which God had given, though Moses does not mention them. See Theodor. Scheltinga, de fato Nadabi & Abihu; and Chais on the passage.
Leviticus 10:2. There went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them— Rather, and destroyed them; blasting them like lightning: for their cloaths were not consumed; see Leviticus 10:5. Hence it is, as Grotius and Lamy observe, that the Jews derive their custom of strangling or suffocating those who were condemned to be burnt, without reducing them to ashes. Bishop Hall observes, that "they were the rather punished as being the sons of Aaron: for if the children of religious parents, after all Christian nurture, shame their education, God takes it more heinously, and revenges it more sharply: the more bonds of duty, the more plagues of neglect."
Leviticus 10:3. Then Moses said unto Aaron, &c.— Aaron, no doubt, must have been pierced with severe anguish upon receiving this dreadful stroke. To alleviate which, Moses desires him to recollect, that this event was agreeable to the divine declaration, (Exodus 19:22; Exodus 29:43-44.Leviticus 8:35; Leviticus 8:35.) as well as to the peculiar sanctity of God; tending to shew, in the most awful manner, that God would be sanctified or had in reverence by all those who came nigh him, but more especially by his priests, who, in a peculiar manner, draw nigh to God, and who, as Dr. Shuckford observes, then only sanctified and glorified God when they dispensed to his people, as parts of his religion, what he had commanded: but when they varied from it, and performed what he commanded not, then they assumed to themselves a power which belonged not to them, then they acted of themselves; and so, instead of glorifying God, sought their own glory. See 1 Samuel 6:20. Ezekiel 28:22. Bishop Hall supposes Aaron to have been addressed by Moses in the following pathetic words: "My brother, this event is fearful, but just: these were thy sons, but they sinned; it was not for GOD, it is not for thee, to look so much who they were as what they did. It was their honour and thine that they were chosen to minister before the Lord; he who called them justly required their sanctification and obedience: if they have profaned God and themselves, can thy natural affection so bias thee that thou couldst wish their impunity with the blemish of thy master? Our sons are not ours, if they disobey our Father: if thou repinest at their judgment, take heed lest the same fire of God come forth upon this strange fire of nature. Shew now, whether thou more lovest God or thy sons; shew whether thou be a better father or a son."
I will be sanctified— i.e. says an eminent writer, "I expect to be worshipped most reverently, with a decorum and rite bearing some resemblance of my separate and eminent Nature. It is not suitable to the majesty and peculiar eminence of God, that his worship should be performed by common culinary fire."
And Aaron held his peace— Nothing can be more emphatic and beautiful than these words. The venerable father, without murmuring or complaint, bows his head, and adores the Divine Providence in this awful dispensation. A passage like this in profane writers, would have been quoted with the highest applause. Something similar to it, is recorded of the famous Xenophon. While he was employed in offering a public sacrifice, a messenger brought him the melancholy news, that his eldest son Gryllus was killed in the battle of Mantinea; upon which he put off his mitre, till he should learn in what manner his son fell; but as soon as he was told, that the brave youth died victorious, he put it on again; and continuing the sacrifice, with hands lifted up to heaven, called the gods to witness, that the grief he felt for the loss of so dear a son, was far from equalling the joy he received from the heroic manner of his death.
REFLECTIONS.—God, who prescribes his own worship, will see it observed, or execute exemplary judgment on the disobedient; of which we have an awful instance in this punishment of Nadab and Abihu.
1. They seem to have been proud of their new office, and in haste to run before God called them; not without suspicion that they had drank too freely in their feasts, and thus rushed, in their iniquity, into the presence of the Lord. A drunken priest is a monster indeed!
2. Their punishment was immediate death in the very act of rebellion. So God sometimes stops the mouth of the profane with the lie and the oath half uttered, and lets the drunkard fall into eternal death. Fire from the Lord destroyed them; not burnt up their bodies, but slew them, like lightning, without singeing even their garments. Thus damned sinners, tormented with fire from the presence of the Lord, continue tormented, yet unconsumed, in everlasting burnings.
Leviticus 10:4. And Moses called Mishael, &c.— Without this special order, these kinsmen of the deceased could not have been admitted into the sanctuary; and it is probable, that Moses rather chose to employ them, than the brethren of Nadab and Abihu, in this melancholy office, not only from motives of tenderness, but because it would have defiled them, and rendered them unfit for the service of the altar. Carry your brethren, means, your kinsmen; for all near kinsmen, we have often observed, are called brethren in Scripture:—out of the camp, to bury them; for antiquity knew not the very improper and prejudicial custom of burying in cities, much less in places appropriated to the assemblies of the living, and the honour of God. "It was an unusual sight," says Bishop Hall, "for Israel to see a linen ephod upon the bier: the judgment was so much the more remarkable, because they had the badge of their calling upon their backs. Nothing is either more consistent with the will of God, or more commodious to man, than that, when he hath executed judgment, it should be seen and wondered at: for therefore he strikes some, that he may warn all."
Leviticus 10:6. Moses said unto Aaron, &c.— All signs of mourning are forbidden Aaron and his sons upon this occasion: the reason of which is given in the 7th verse, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you: "You are immediately devoted and consecrated to the service of God; separated, as it were, from all human ties and relations; and must by no means suffer private concerns to interrupt that duty, to the performance of which you are so immediately dedicated." This affords a striking lesson to all the ministers of religion, upon whom this law, in its spirit, is still binding: they ought to preserve such elevated affections, as to pass, with an unbroken, manly fortitude, through all calamities and afflictions, private and public, which are incident to humanity. Though religion does not require that they should divest themselves entirely of their passions, (for religion never requires impossibilities,) yet they ought to be examples to others how to moderate those passions, and keep them within due bounds; especially shewing, that they are never so swallowed up with the sorrows of this world, as to incapacitate themselves from discharging the duties of their station.
REFLECTIONS.—The punishment of the sons of Aaron was an awful stroke, which must have spread a terror around, and particularly affected Aaron and his family. But Moses beheld the justice of the judgment, and, therefore, takes the proper means to prevent any interruption in the present solemnity.
1. He endeavours to suggest arguments of resignation to Aaron, from the justice of the sentence, and the glory of God therein manifested. God had before often admonished them of being holy in their approaches to him: and if they will not glorify him by obedience to his will, he must glorify himself by some exemplary stroke, for a warning to others. Note; (1.) God's word will surely be fulfilled; and it becomes us to acquiesce in it, however nearly concerned therein. (2.) They who draw near to God, must remember what a holy God they have to do with, that they may approach him with reverence and godly fear. (3.) When sinners, especially wicked ministers, rob him of his glory by their impiety and profaneness, he will sometimes make them fearful monuments of his holy vengeance.
2. Aaron held his peace. Deeply touched as he was with the death of his sons, he acknowledged the justice of God, and, if He was glorified, dared not complain. Note; (1.) When God corrects us, it becomes us to be dumb, and not to open our mouths. We must always own that we have less than our iniquities deserve. (2.) If our children are wicked, and God breaks forth upon them, parental tenderness must be swallowed up in approbation of the Divine holiness.
3. Moses commands the bodies to be removed, to be carried out of the camp, and buried in the clothes. Thus God gave the host a solemn warning: if he began at his own priests, surely no other transgressors could hope to go unpunished.
4. Aaron and his sons are forbidden to shew any token of mourning, on penalty of death, and lest they should bring down wrath on all the people. They were now no longer their own, the holy anointing oil was upon them, and, therefore, all private regards must give way to their present relation to God. Note; (1.) They who would serve the Lord without distraction, must forget their worldly cares and sorrows when they appear before him. (2.) To repine at God's judgments, is to rebel against his government. (3.) The visitations of God upon others, should beget in our hearts holy jealousy for ourselves, not to provoke the like. (4.) The grace of God will restrain all immoderate grief: they who know that God does all things right, will kiss the rod.
5. Though Aaron might not mourn, the people must. That fire which was kindled, might have burnt much farther than these. They might see herein the mercy of God, who had spared them notwithstanding their own deserts; and this would lead them to grieve for their past provocations, while they beheld what a fearful thing it was to fall into the hands of that God who is such a consuming fire. Judgments on others are blessings to us, when they lead us to deeper mourning over our own sins.
Leviticus 10:9. Do not drink wine, nor strong drink— See the note on Leviticus 10:1. By strong drink, is here meant, such inflammatory intoxicating liquors, as were made in imitation of wine; as of dates, figs, honey; with many other sorts of liquors, which Pliny call vina factitia, made wines; particularly palm-wine, which was much used in those countries, and reckoned the most intoxicating of any. "The Lord, by this precept," says Ainsworth, (the spirit of which will always remain in force,) "required sobriety in his priests, and carefulness to administer justly; lest they should drink, and forget the law; should err through wine, and be out of the way through strong drink, Proverbs 31:5.Isaiah 28:7; Isaiah 28:7. Accordingly the ministers of the Gospel must be sober, and not given to wine," 1 Timothy 3:2-3. A learned writer observes, that there was a law among the Carthaginians, which Plato commends, that no magistrate all the year he was in office, nor any judge while he was in action or employment, should so much as taste a drop of wine; which is agreeable to Solomon's maxim, Proverbs 31:4. Porphyry informs us, that the Egyptian priests either drank no wine at all, or very sparingly; alledging, as a reason for their abstinence, that it had a tendency to weaken the nerves, affect the head, prejudice the invention, and inflame the animal passions. The reason, however, why wine is forbidden to the Jewish priests, is given in the 10th and 11th verses. It was, that they might preserve a clear, unclouded mind, and might be able, both for themselves, and for the people, to treat holy things with a due distinction, and to teach others to do the same; which seems much to confirm what was hinted in the first note,—that Nadab and Abihu had sinned, through a neglect of preserving this clearness of mind. Note; 1. Drunkenness is highly criminal in all, but it is in ministers doubly infamous. 2. Intemperance is often attended with sudden death. 3. It is impossible that they should teach sobriety to others, whose practice gives a lie to their preaching.
Leviticus 10:16. Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin-offering— Though the time of Nadab and Abihu's death is not mentioned, yet, from the confusion which happened respecting the sin-offering, which was burnt instead of being eaten, as it should have been, by the priests, (ch. Leviticus 6:26.) one would be apt to conclude, that this fatal event happened at or a little before the time of offering the sin-offering.
Leviticus 10:17. God hath given it to you to bear the iniquity of the congregation— i.e. according to Bishop Patrick, it was given them by God as an encouragement to the careful performance of that part of their duty, whereby they became intercessors for the people, and atoned for their sins: and, indeed, the very eating of the people's sin-offering argued, that the sins of the people were in some sort laid upon the priests, to be taken away by them: which being done, they had reason to rejoice also in a feast upon this sacrifice, which God had been pleased to accept for the taking away the sins of the people: whence the sacrifice of Christ may be explained; who is said to bear our iniquity, as the priest is said here to do; all our sins being laid on him, who took upon him to make an expiation for them by the sacrifice of himself: for the priest here, receiving the guilt upon himself by eating of the sin-offering, may well be thought to prefigure one who should be both Priest and Sacrifice for sin, as was accomplished in CHRIST.
Leviticus 10:19. And Aaron said unto Moses, &c.— Though Moses had addressed Eleazar and Ithamar only; Aaron, convinced that the reproof concerned himself most, offers, in apology both for them and himself, that the misfortunes of the day had prevented him and them from feasting upon the sin-offering, though they had so far performed their duty as to offer it: but, as a cheerful heart ought to accompany festivals, and holy things should not be eaten in mourning, (Deuteronomy 26:14.) he thought it best to omit this festival in his present melancholy circumstances. Conformably to this opinion of Aaron, God expresses his abhorrence of the sacrifices of sinners by saying, they shall be unto them as the bread of mourners; all that eat thereof shall be polluted, Hosea 9:4; Hosea 1:0.e. those who partake thereof shall be legally unclean, and unfit for eating of things consecrated to God. This appears to be the plain meaning of Aaron's apology. The answer satisfied Moses, (Leviticus 10:20.) for where the heart is right, the law of God will overlook some defects in the externals of religion. God always prefers mercy to sacrifice; see 2 Chronicles 30:18-20. Dr. Shuckford, however, takes the import of Aaron's apology to be, that the ministrations already performed, had called down upon him the judgments which had been inflicted: that for this reason he feared they had profaned the services of the day, and therefore he did not presume to go on with them; but had burned the goat, instead of reserving it to be eaten according to the orders which he should have observed, if their officiating had been so conducted, as to give him reason to think it would have been accepted in the sight of the Lord.
Note; 1. Holy zeal in God's cause is laudable: but though we condemn, we should hear what may be alledged in mitigation of the offender. 2. We are not forbidden to feel, though we are forbidden to find fault with God's dealings. 3. Worldly sorrows are often great interruptions to our holy duties: the bitter remembrance breaks in, and discomposes us. 4. Moses is satisfied: and Jesus, our High-Priest, is a gracious Master, and is tenderly touched with the feeling of our infirmities.
Reflections on the sin of Nadab and Abihu.
The crime of Nadab and Abihu is generally thought to have consisted in their kindling with a fire, different from that which burned continually on the altar of burnt-offerings, the incense which their office of priest obliged them to offer up to God every morning and evening in the holy place. It was necessary that the profanation of so august a ceremony should be punished after so exemplary a manner, as might serve for ever to deter all others from celebrating it unworthily for the future. The crimes of persons in eminent stations, and who are exposed to the sight of all the world, spread their contagion upon as many as are witnesses of them. Severity, in some degree and on some occasions, is the soul of a law; especially when it is notified to those who are obliged to submit to it: and indulgence is usually of dangerous consequence, especially at the first enacting of any statute. One of the heralds of the Gospel began his ministry with a clap of thunder: some of the first rays he shot from his eyes were mortal, and the death of two of his perfidious disciples was the seal of his apostleship.
Besides, Nadab and Abihu, upon whom great favours had been heaped by God, had greater motives than their brothers, strictly to observe the laws which were promulgated on that formidable mount, where they had the privilege of seeing the symbols of the Divine Presence without being consumed. Accordingly they were punished for their profanation, at the very instant they committed it. A vapour, subtile and inflamed, like that of lightning, which penetrates porous bodies, and which does not act but upon those matters which have some sort of solidity, pierced their garments, but left no mark upon them, and yet slew the men who wore them, either by suffocation, or some other way not described by Moses; who only says, Leviticus 10:2 there went out fire from the Lord, and destroyed them; and they died before the Lord. It should be observed, that the higher the station of these sons of Aaron was, and the more distinguishing the favours they had received, the more provoking was their affront, in attempting to adulterate an ordinance of God's institution. Common fire, they thought, might serve the purpose of burning incense, as well as that which was held more sacred: at least, in the gaiety or rather haughtiness of their hearts, they were minded to make the experiment, even in opposition to the divine command; and therefore it was just and requisite in God, (especially in the beginning of the priesthood, when one alteration of a divine precept might in process of time be productive of many more,) to inflict an exemplary punishment, that others might hear and fear, and not commit the like abomination.
The stroke which deprived Nadab and Abihu of their lives was sufficient, one might think, to make their father Aaron die with grief: and yet Moses obliged him to set bounds to his affliction. He prevented the excess of it by a terrible maxim; but such a one as ought to be received with an entire submission by all those, who, like worthy disciples of the laws of GOD, love nothing so much as Him. This maxim was, that order requires that God should be glorified, either by the obedience of those who live under his laws, or by the destruction of those who dare to oppugn them; and is the precise meaning of those words in Leviticus 10:3 this is that which the Lord spake, saying, I WILL BE SANCTIFIED IN THEM THAT COME NIGH ME.
Moses forbad Aaron to shew any of those tokens of grief, which might cause it to be thought that he had more love for his children, than zeal for the glory of that GOD who had condemned them to perish after so tragical a manner. He would not allow the high-priest himself, nor the two sons that still remained to him, to rend their clothes, as was the custom in cases of extreme sorrow, or to tear their hair, or take off their priestly ornaments from their heads. He forbad them all such kinds of behaviour as might give room for suspicion, that the death even of such near relations could make them forget the service of their God. As, says a Jewish Doctor, it was anciently an indecent thing to appear before kings with any tokens of grief; so it would have been a profanation for any one to come into the presence of God with a concern, which was capable of making him forfeit the privilege of approaching him. And, above all, Moses would suffer neither Aaron, nor the rest of his sons, to go out of the tabernacle, till they had quite discharged those functions which occasioned their going in.
The command given to these holy men on this occasion, became a law for the future in the commonwealth of Israel. It was a maxim of the Jews, that if the high-priest should happen to be informed of the death of any of his relations while he was in the exercise of his office, he was bound to continue in it. One of their canons speaks thus: in case a priest, of a lower rank, being in the sanctuary, shall hear the death of a friend, for whom he ought to mourn; he shall forbear the exercise of his office, because he is in affliction, though he go not out of the tabernacle.—But if the high-priest continues the service, even when he mourns, he is not guilty of profanation: only it is not lawful for him to eat of the consecrated food. Natural reason has prescribed some of these laws to the Gentiles, at least it has made them imitate the Hebrews therein, and transfer them from one nation to another.*
* See Maimonid. de introitu in Sacrif. c. ii. sect. 6, &c. Apollodor. Biblioth. lib. iii, c. 14. p. 235. and AElian Hist. var. lib. iii. c. 3. p. 63. See likewise in the following authors several examples of the constancy of fathers, &c. Val. Maxim. lib. v. c. 5. p. 251. and Tit. Liv. lib. ii. c. 8. p. 25.
Moses, after having thus satisfied the laws of religion, resolved likewise to satisfy those of nature, which require the shedding tears for unhappy relations, whatever the crime might be which brought their unhappiness upon them. He therefore allowed those of Aaron's family, who were not actually employed in the sacerdotal function, to bewail the tragical death of Nadab and Abihu.
Perhaps it may seem to some, that Moses was too severe in straitening the laws of nature; and perhaps too, that constancy with which he endeavoured to inspire the soul of Aaron, may appear more worthy of those who aim at an heroical ferocity in their great actions, than of such whose hearts, from maxims of religion, ought to be more soft and pitiful. Should not a father in such circumstances, be permitted to give some time to the indulgence of a grief, which the fatal end of two of his children occasioned in him? Should faith and religion restrain our tears, when we see those, whom nature has so closely united to us, die in obduracy and impenitence? Was there any comfort which could balance such a reflection as this, My children are dead in their sins; and the day which I gave them, has opened the way to an eternal night of misery! Can that grief be excessive, which is caused by the loss of a soul?
We answer, men should be extremely cautious in judging or determining concerning the eternal state of their neighbour. But, in case we had been assured by a divine revelation, that those, to whom we were united by the most tender ties of nature, should be sacrificed for ever to the justice of heaven, it would behove us, even in that case, to resign them to the will of God. The excess of grief, which we should feel even then, would be the result of a carnal principle, and a heart self-deceived in the motive wherewith it was inspired. Were our sole concern occasioned by the loss of a soul, or by our zeal for the glory of God; or were it not chiefly on account of those ties which bind between a father and a son; in a word, if the motives were purely spiritual, if a pure and refined charity were the cause or the result of our tears, whence comes it that certain particular objects make us shed them, rather than others of equal importance? How happens it that we see every day, with coldness and indifference, a great part even of nations apparently running headlong in the highway of destruction? Is it less contrary to the glory of God, that such numbers of people should be lost by their sins, than one of our friends?—than our father or our children?—If our zeal were disentangled from carnal bands, would it not diffuse itself far and near? would it not equally extend itself to all who rush forward to their own ruin?—The love we have for God, ought always to be the grand principle of that we shew towards men. We are obliged to love them, because, like us, they bear his image; because, like us, they are called to the same glory. When we see a sinner venturing his salvation by a criminal procedure, then should we be affected. Thus it was that our Lord JESUS CHRIST, placing himself in that period in which mercy was still offered to the ungrateful Jerusalem, and in which she had it still in her power to accept of it; groaned at her obduracy, and deplored the abuse she made of that precious time which he still enjoyed. But if a long series of wickedness, if a total perseverance in rebellion, or rather, if an infallible revelation should assure us, that such a man is finally lost, then ought our love to return to its centre, and be swallowed in the bosom of its Creator, from whence it first sprang:—Henceforth know we no man after the flesh.—If any man love not the Lord JESUS CHRIST, let him be anathema, 2 Corinthians 5:16. 1 Corinthians 16:22.
Aaron had not received any revelation of this nature. He might therefore hope, that the flesh being destroyed, the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, 1 Corinthians 5:5. And, accordingly, severe as were the orders of Moses, Aaron was convinced that they were just. He silently adored the divine hand, which, though armed with thunder, was not the less worthy of his homage. He was dumb, he opened not his mouth, because it was God that did it, Psalms 39:9.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Leviticus 10". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25