A Consecrated Priesthood - Part 2
Chapter 10 closes out the first section of Leviticus where the manner and regulations concerning the priestly duties of offering sacrifices for themselves and the people are explained in chapters 1 to 7.
In chapters 8 to 10 God provides the process in which the priests were consecrated and ordained into ministry on behalf of the people. As is the case when God prepares a setting and a life for His people, it isn't long before they fall into sin. The high points are followed by low points.
- God gives Adam and Eve Paradise, and they disobey (Genesis 3:1-6).
- Cain and Abel are living freely and in peace until Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4:8).
- God cleanses the earth and sets Noah and his family to restore it – Noah gets drunk and naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20-22).
- The Israelites are miraculously freed from Egyptian slavery and while Moses is receiving the Law directly from God, the people fall into idolatry and drag Aaron, the future High Priest, into their sin with them (Exodus 32:1-6).
The same cycle repeats itself as the period of preparation is completed, Aaron and his four sons are ordained and begin their ministry as priests at the Tabernacle of God on behalf of God's chosen people. Failure mars their first efforts of service.
I. Failures of the Priesthood – Leviticus 10:1-20
1. Failure #1 – Nadab and Abihu – Leviticus 10:1-15
1Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. 2And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3Then Moses said to Aaron, "It is what the Lord spoke, saying, 'By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.'" So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.
- Leviticus 10:1-3
Note that less than a year has gone by since the Golden Calf incident took place and the familiar cycle had occurred.
- God delivered them from Egypt with mighty signs and wonders.
- God had safely led them to Mt. Sinai before bringing them into the Promised Land.
- God makes a covenant with them to be their God and they exclusively His people – this was a situation that guarantees them safety and prosperity in a land that would be theirs.
- All of this for a people who lived as slaves, who had no national identity or leadership and were doomed to systematic extinction by a nation who feared and despised them.
God with Moses is preparing the plans for a place (Tabernacle) where they can worship Him and an acceptable manner to come before the living God who will dwell among them (sacrificial system). God also prepares the Law which will guide and purify their conduct, however, before any of these things can be given to them, they fall into idolatry which sparks a revolt that leads to the death of 3,000 men.
We read further on that Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, effectively turning away God's wrath where God was about to destroy the people and begin again His plan to save mankind, this time using Moses' descendants instead of Abraham's descendants. However, God hears Moses and his pleas on behalf of the people and the cycle turns favorably towards the Israelites once again and we see the signs of this uptick repeat itself. God renews the covenant, replaces the tablets of the Law, begins the building of the Tabernacle, and preparation of the priests for ordination starts in earnest as the work to complete these things is put into motion.
I review these events with you because this cycle is the pattern that continually dominates the history of the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, whether it's material from the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy); History (Joshua – Esther); Poetry (Job – Song of Solomon); Major Prophets (Isaiah – Daniel) or the Minor Prophets (Hosea- Malachi).
The cycle follows the same pattern:
- The people are in trouble or in disobedience to God and are crying out for help. Sometimes there is trouble or decline leading to eventual destruction, but no one is aware or calling out for help (i.e. Noah).
- God intervenes somehow, sends or raises up a savior (Moses, Gideon, Esther, etc.) or He creates a miraculous situation (the flood) which saves the people or changes the situation eventually for the better.
- The people enjoy a period of peace, faithfulness, and prosperity for a time.
- Someone (a king or leader) or the people as a whole slowly drift back into sin, whether it's immoral behavior (i.e. David with Bathsheba) or the curse of idolatry where the Jews didn't abandon the true God altogether but practiced syncretism where they added the worship of local pagan gods (Baal) to their practice of Jewish Temple worship. Usually as an accommodation to spouses who were not Israelites.
- This usually led to more flagrant idolatrous practices, the lowering of moral standards, the loss of God's favor, blessings, and prosperity, which eventually resulted in a weak and unholy society, which God would punish with economic ruin, illness, war and dominance by neighboring countries.
- Someone would call out to God for help, or God would acknowledge the suffering and dire straits of his people and He, in some way, would intervene on their behalf to save and restore them and thus begin the cycle anew.
The differences between the various types of books is that the Pentateuch and history books told this story in real time (chronologically); the books of poetry examined the people and their various experiences and thoughts at different points in the cycle, and the prophets warned of the danger in heading towards the bottom point of the cycle (disobedience, lack of repentance and punishment) however, they always ended their prophesies with the promise of renewal and blessings at the top of the cycle.
Chapter 10 of Leviticus recounts another quick turn of this deadly cycle. Once again, God had renewed the people after the incident with the golden calf with the new tablets, the building and construction of the Tabernacle as well as the service of Aaron and his four sons as High Priest and priests. No sooner had their ministry begun when Aaron's two eldest sons disobeyed one of God's instructions concerning the offering of incense, and as a consequence were immediately put to death by God Himself for their disobedience!
1. What was their sin?
Offering the burning of incense in front of the altar of incense located in the Holy Place before the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place was acceptable and a normal task of the priests. There are many ways they may have knowingly disobeyed or dishonored God that day:
- They required burning coals in their fire pans in order to burn the specially prepared incense. The only coals permitted would be from the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard which had been consecrated and considered holy. They may have obtained their fire or heating element from another source, thus making it unholy or profane in God's eyes.
- Usurping the authority of the High Priest. Some speculate that they performed a rite at a time when only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy Place, thus spoiling the offering.
- They offered unauthorized incense. The incense used for worship in the Tabernacle was made from a Divine formula (Exodus 30:34-38) which was not to be used for anything else but worship. Some believe that they substituted some other kind of incense to burn.
- Serving while Intoxicated. In verses 8-9 God forbids the priests from drinking wine or strong drink while they are on duty so that they will be clear minded and obey the rules as to what is holy and what is profane. Some conclude that Nadab and Abihu may have been intoxicated, thus making their offering unacceptable.
Since the sin was called "strange fire" (in Hebrew the English word strange meant unauthorized, foreign or profane) it would follow that the transgression had to do with the fire used to burn the incense. The conclusion is that it wasn't taken from the fire of the altar of burnt offering whose fire was kept burning 24/7 and considered holy. The fact that they were killed by some type of fire from God also points to the nature of their offense.
To help Aaron deal, not only with their deaths, but also how their bodies were disposed of, God confirms that their offense was serious in degrading and disrespecting the absolute holiness of God, thus truly meriting their punishment. In remaining silent, Aaron demonstrated his own devotion and respect for God's holiness despite his own distress.
Moses enlists the help from Aaron's cousins to remove the bodies outside the camp because Aaron and his two remaining sons cannot leave the Tabernacle complex under pain of death. Aaron and his remaining sons were not to mourn (rip clothes, uncovering their heads) lest it been seen as questioning God's judgement; the people could mourn, but as a sign of grief over the sin committed.
Instructions Following the Failure of Nadab and Abihu – Leviticus 10:8-15
The Lord responded to this failure of the priests by producing further instructions to help them avoid sinning in the future as they carried out their duties.
A. What priests were forbidden to do. – vs. 8-9
They were not to drink alcohol when on duty since this would impair their judgement and be quite disrespectful to God who they were serving, and in whose presence they were ministering.
B. What priests were supposed to do. – vs. 10-11
They were to abstain from wine and strong drink while performing their duties so they would be clear minded in doing an important and complex work which God defined.
- Distinguishing between what is holy and unholy on behalf of the people.
- Holiness was determined by how close to the Lord a person, action, or object was.
- For example, God's people were holy; the Tabernacle where He dwelt was holy; the priests devoted to Him were considered holy; the sacrifices and incenses offered before Him was holy; all that came near or specifically devoted to Him were considered "holy".
- Priests were to think clearly so they could determine what was clean or unclean.
- Cleanness of a person or thing related to a person or thing's ritual condition, which determined if someone or something could participate in worship.
- Because God was perfectly holy, only those people and objects who were ritually clean could approach or be used before Him.
- If something common (unholy – not consecrated by God – i.e. leader of the people, who was not a priest entered the Holy Place) sin would be the result and punishment the consequence. If someone unholy and not consecrated by God drew near to God without permission – sin and punishment resulted.
- Nadab and Abihu – brought unholy/unclean fire into the Holy Place.
- Uzzah – reached out to steady the ark as it was being transported and was struck dead for unlawfully touching it (II Samuel 6:7).
The point is that the rules for clean and unclean were quite numerous and complex, and the priests had to know these and apply them because a mistake could lead to serious consequences. The priests not only had the responsibility to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people and carry out this duty correctly, they were also responsible for teaching the people the differences between what was holy and what was profane, but also all the regulations that governed what was clean and unclean – as well as the procedure followed to make clean what had become unclean for one reason or another. All of these tasks required a sound and clear mind which was reflected in the command to avoid strong drink while on duty.
Therefore, after the strange fire incident God gives the priests further instructions that include:
A) Command forbidding drinking on duty. B) Instructions about additional duties – discern and teach the people concerning holy and unholy/clean and unclean. He then gives them a third instruction:
C. Information about what they were to receive. – vs. 12-15
Moses reassures Aaron and his sons that they would always be compensated and cared for in lieu of the difficult work they performed on behalf of the people.
- Grain Offerings – Aside from the handful of fine flour they threw on the altar, all the bread, cake, or other grain offerings were theirs to keep and eat. Since the grain offering was considered most holy, it had to be eaten in a holy place, so it was eaten beside the altar.
- Peace Offerings – The animals sacrificed as peace offerings held back the breast and right thigh of the offering for the priest. Since it was not categorized as a most holy sacrifice it didn't have to be eaten near the altar – a "clean" place would suffice, which meant that the priest could share this meat with his family at home. A "wave" offering is when the priest lifts up the breast or thigh symbolically offering it to God, but keeps these for himself.
These instructions showed that the work of the priest was quite demanding, but God provided assurance that the priests would be cared for throughout their lives.
2. Failure #2 – An Uneaten Sin Offering – Leviticus 10:16-20
16But Moses searched carefully for the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it had been burned up! So he was angry with Aaron's surviving sons Eleazar and Ithamar, saying, 17"Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? For it is most holy, and He gave it to you to bear away the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord. 18Behold, since its blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, just as I commanded." 19But Aaron spoke to Moses, "Behold, this very day they presented their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord. When things like these happened to me, if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have been good in the sight of the Lord?" 20When Moses heard that, it seemed good in his sight.
- Leviticus 10:16-20
- The Problem – When a "sin" offering was made (for a personal sin) part of the animal was kept back for the priests to eat. Moses notes that Aaron's two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithmar have offered a sin sacrifice but left the entire animal on the altar to burn without taking their portion to eat. It was a serious breach because the atonement and forgiveness of the sin was only completed once the priest had finished the process by eating his portion of the sacrifice. This meant that the sin of the individual (a congregation of people if it was offered on their behalf) was not atoned for or forgiven and a new sin was committed by the priests because of their negligence.
- The Response – Aaron acknowledges that they made the sin sacrifice but felt unworthy to eat the priestly portion, probably due to the fact that he was still feeling the effects of the death of his sons – perhaps also thinking he bore responsibility for their sin. His dilemma was that if he was not in favor with God – would eating the sacrifice just make things worse? Parental guilt is nothing new.
- The Resolution – It was Moses, not God, that was angry at the breech of protocol (God already knew Aaron's heart and that his failing was due to human weakness and not rebellion and carelessness like Nadab and Abihu). Moses, however, accepts Aaron's explanation, thus relieving him of any sin and guilt for this event. No further information is provided but from what we know about the sacrificial system, they could resolve this error by offering another sin offering, this time sacrificing one animal for the priest's sin and then a second animal for the original sin of the people and complete the process by eating the priest's portion next to the altar.
Note that the priest would not eat any portion of the animal offered for his own sin since he was not permitted to profit in any way from his sin. The animal was completely destroyed. He ate a portion of the animal he offered on behalf of someone else's sin.
This brings an end to the information concerning the sacrificial system and the ordination of the Jewish priesthood. In chapter eleven Moses provides another manner of attaining holiness – distinguishing between what is clean and unclean from God's perspective.
As we close out this section, there are three lessons mentioned in my commentary resource book that I'd like to share before we move on to the next part of the book of Leviticus.
Lesson #1 – Leaders are Fallible
Leaders do not equal perfect. God knows leaders sin because there were sacrifices especially designed for secular leaders (heads of families and tribes) as well as religious leaders (priests and High Priests). This obvious situation made it necessary that God send a perfect leader (King and Priest) to offer a perfect sacrifice (Jesus on the cross) to remove all sin forever.
Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.
- Acts 22:16
Let us therefore pray for both our secular and spiritual leaders because, like us, they are weak and need Jesus to help to lead properly.
Lesson #2 – Obedience is Essential for Holiness
God shows His love to mankind in many ways. However, He requires obedience as a Holy God. The first lie Satan told was that there were no consequences for disobeying God. That same lie is promoted and even celebrated today and like Adam and Eve, Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) we are repeatedly reminded that there are always consequences for disobedience. Those who strive to be holy as God is holy, do so consciously practicing obedience to God's commands. It's the first step.
Lesson #3 – Innovation Can Be Dangerous
Innovation in the arts or engineering can be quite rewarding yielding newer, better, and more efficient or pleasurable results. It's part of God's command to multiply and subdue creation – God wants us to innovate in this area of life. When it comes to worship, however, the opposite is what He wants – stick to the instructions given.
Humans innovate in worship to please themselves, not God. In the Old Testament God provided exactly what He would accept as worship and has also done the same in the New Testament. The task is to maintain our obedience to His word concerning worship from generation to generation.