by Pastor David Groendyk
The story of Nadab and Abihu is a tragic contrast to what we read in chapter 9. Whereas Aaron’s offering was accepted by God, Nadab and Abihu’s was not. A fly-by summary of this chapter is that Nadab and Abihu offer a bad sacrifice to God and are killed (vv. 1–3), Moses commands Aaron and his family not to mourn (vv. 4–7), God reaffirms Aaron’s role as priest (vv. 8–11), and Moses is satisfied with Aaron and his actions (vv. 12–20).
There is a lot of debate about what Nadab and Abihu actually did wrong in the first few verses. Some have suggested that the kind of incense itself was prohibited from being burned, which would be the simple and natural reading. Some have suggested that it was the wrong time of day to give an offering, based on Exodus 30:7–9. Some have suggested that perhaps they were drunk when they made their offering, since God makes a point to tell Aaron later that priests should not be drunk (v. 9). The truth is that the text doesn’t tell us precisely. Regardless of why it was illicit, we know that it was something that God had directly commanded against, and Nadab and Abihu did not listen to God.
This is a classic text in Scripture that warns us of worshiping God in ways that he has not commanded. God expects us to worship him only in the ways that he has prescribed. This idea is called the “regulative principle”. That is why we only do certain things in our worship service on Sundays—sing, pray, preach, read Scripture, etc. Human beings don’t get to invent the ways in which God should be worshiped, even if we think we have a really good idea! Why should we be so careful to follow this principle? As Gordon Wenham puts it, “The closer a man is to God the stricter the standard he will be judged by.” God demands to be sanctified and treated differently and held in highest reverence when we come into his presence (v. 3). The best way to do that is to follow what he has already said about worship. This should give us pause when thinking about church on Sunday. What is your attitude when coming to God’s house for worship on Sundays? Do you only want to come to worship if your own personal standards are met—when we sing the right songs or preach a good book of the Bible or your favorite pastor is preaching? How can we grow in learning to let go of our earthly standards and hold more tightly to God’s standards?
We see this desire to please God in two other ways in this text. First, Moses commands Aaron and his two other sons not to mourn at the punishment given to Nadab and Abihu (vv. 6–7). As horrific as it must have been for Aaron to lose two of his sons in one day, by the grace of God he was able to recognize that God was in the right and his sons were in the wrong, and he submitted himself to God. Are you able to accept the discipline of the Lord in such a humble and gracious way like Aaron? Second, Aaron and his two sons refuse to follow the regulations for the sin offering (vv. 16–20). This may seem like a pretty foolish move given what has just happened, but Aaron’s argument seems to be that it had been such an exceptional day that it was too dangerous to perform the full ritual of the sacrifice. Aaron knows that it is a weighty thing to be in the presence of a holy God. Aaron had a holy fear of handling the holy things of God. When God disciplines a fellow brother or sister, how should that cause us to examine our own selves?