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Why Did God Kill Aaron's Sons Nadab and Abihu?

Why Did God Kill Aaron's Sons Nadab and Abihu?

Who Were Nadab and Abihu?

Nadab and Abihu were the oldest of the four sons of Aaron mentioned in Scripture (Exodus 6:23). They were among the generation of the Israelites whom God delivered from the powerful hand of the Egyptians who held them in captivity for 400 years. After God delivered the Israelites, He led them to the base of Mount Sinai to reveal Himself to the people. Nadab and Abihu were among the people personally selected by God to come before Him and worship at a distance (Exodus 24:1). They had the privilege of being among the first men since the exodus to have fellowship with the Lord. They ate before Him and were allowed to witness His glory (Exodus 24:9-11). These were the blessings afforded by the peace offerings which had been sacrificed to the Lord earlier (Exodus 25:5). This momentous occasion served partly as a foreshadow of the covenantal relationship the people would maintain with the Lord through the system of animal sacrifice. Nadab and Abihu received this honor because God selected Aaron and his sons to serve as priests on behalf of the people (Exodus 28:1). The Levitical priests—as servants of the Lord—facilitated the animal sacrifices and acted on behalf of the people in order to keep them in right relationship with the Lord according to the conditions of the Old Covenant.

What Happened to Nadab and Abihu?

The call to priesthood was no small thing. Along with their father and other brothers, Nadab and Abihu underwent a meticulous seven-day cleansing/consecration ceremony. This assured they might be presented as holy before the Lord and fit for service in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 8). The first service in the Tabernacle began well as Aaron, the High Priest, offered the first sacrifices. The Lord accepted them by consuming them with fire (Leviticus 9:22-24). After Aaron’s sacrifice, however, Nadab and Abihu offered “strange fire” before the Lord—strange because it did not adhere the His specifications or commandments. As a result, fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them both (Leviticus 10:1-2). After they were killed, Moses commanded Aaron’s two cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan, to carry the bodies outside the camp of Israel (Leviticus 10:4-5). Moses then gave warning to Aaron and his two remaining sons not to grieve over the death of Nadab and Abihu lest they too invoke the wrath of the Lord (Leviticus 10:6).

Was God Being Overly Dramatic?

A dull sense of sin and a vast separation of time and culture serve to disconnect us from the happenings of that day and might tempt us to protest God’s decision to kill Nadab and Abihu. It is of the utmost importance to remember all people deserve condemnation and death. A sin against an eternal God is an eternal offense. Scripture tells us all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and the wages of our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Every day we live, every breath we take is the result of God’s mercy and grace.

Nadab and Abihu were called into the unique ministry of priesthood which involved working in the Tabernacle, a massive tent constructed to host the very presence of God to dwell amid His covenant people (Exodus 25:8-9). When a priest served in the Tabernacle, they were, in a sense, serving in the presence of the Lord. Different and unlike anything else, God’s holiness was uniquely represented in the Tabernacle. Sin and disobedience had no place there because sin cannot exist in the presence of God (Psalm 5:4). All priests were given clear warning of the danger of coming into the presence of God (Exodus 19:22; Leviticus 10:3). Furthermore, God gave clear instructions to the priests about what they were expected to do. This included not offering incense which did not meet God’s specifications (strange fire) (Exodus 30:9). Nadab and Abihu blatantly disregarded God’s commands. They carelessly acted on their own authority and did not bother to even consult Moses who oversaw the Tabernacle service that day. God did not overreact. Death is the just consequence of any sinner who rebels against the Lord, Who alone is holy and worthy of our total submission and worship.

What Can We Learn from Nadab and Abihu?

God is hostile to sin. God is holy and He hates sin (Psalm 5:4-6). This brings to light the most fundamental and severe problem every person has. How can sinful people be reconciled to a holy God? The most abhorrent aspect of sin is not how it impacts people, but rather how it offends our holy God. Nadab and Abihu serve as a grim reminder of God’s hostility toward the sinner (Psalm 5:4-5). It is the life-long mission of the Christian to cut sin out of their life. We still sin, but we are no longer slaves to it. As new creations in Christ, we should want nothing to do with the old sin nature which ruled our former life God found so offensive (Romans 6:1-2; Colossians 3:9-10). All praise be to Jesus, Who stood in our place and bore the punishment for our sin. God no longer sees our sin when He looks at us, but instead sees His sinless Son.

God cares about how we worship. It’s easy to think of worship as being confined to the songs we sing during Sunday services. In truth, our entire life should be an act of worship (Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:17). Worship is supposed to be the one essential word which sums up a Christian’s life, and we should all be very cautious about how we approach God in worship. He has given us His word to instruct us both in our attitudes and practices so we can know how to worship in a manner that delights Him. Certainly, we should strive for this because we love Him.

One of the lessons we learn from the Old Testament is worship does not revolve around us. It is not based on our comfort, convenience, or entertainment. It is all about our loving, sacrificial effort given to the Lord. When we read the Old Testament Law, we see how God demands the best (and best efforts) from His people.

Christians can be notorious for having a casual approach to worship. Instead of asking what we can give to the Lord in worship, we tend to ask what we can get out of the Church. Many worship services have transformed into a rock concert with light shows and loud music to appease the carnal desires of the masses. That is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with modern worship, however, there has been a noticeable overall shift in the church’s perception of worship. Numerous congregations seem to focus more on entertaining people and making them feel good about themselves as opposed to a focus on God and His holiness. True worship is hard work. It requires our best as we give our time, money, and efforts to please an audience of One. Nadab and Abihu remind us God is not to be taken for granted and He will not merely accept any casual worship we throw His way.

God judges His own people. Christians make the worst sinners. We have been given the amazing yet terrifying responsibility as Christ’s ambassadors to the world. When we sin, we sin in God’s name. It can be easy for Christians to forget God is to be feared (Matthew 10:28). This fear does not mean we anticipate unjust abuse; instead, we need to understand being called into God’s kingdom is a magnificent blessing, but it carries a tremendous responsibility. God is more than able to strike down the proud believer who chooses to live in contempt of Him. There is no question God loves His children beyond comprehension, but He also asks us to yield our lives to Him (Luke 9:23). Judgment begins with God’s people (1 Peter 4:17), and God can and will discipline His people to make them more Christ-like when they get off track (Hebrews 12:10-11).

One of the most stunning aspects of what happened to Nadab and Abihu is they had all the qualifications to serve in the presence of God, yet they still invoked His wrath. They were part of God’s chosen people. They were called as priests. Their father was the first High Priest of Israel. However, none of those things put them above the reproach of God. Christians would do well to learn from their mistake.

We are so blessed to know Christ as our Savior. He is both our Offering and our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). We have been declared righteous and can enter the holy of holies and stand in the very presence of God with confidence because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We should not be casual in our worship. In an age when we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and Lord’s Word so abundantly available, we have no excuses for being ignorant of what God asks of us. He has given us everything we need to live a life that pleases Him (2 Peter 1:3). This is delightful news. It’s our joy and privilege to worship and serve our Wonderful God. We should all heed the warning given on account of Nadab and Abihu. If we are not diligent to worship the Lord as He demands, we too will offer up the strange fire when we come before Him.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Kesu01

Stephen Baker headshotStephen Baker serves as the Associate Pastor at Faith Fellowship Church in Minerva, OH where he is discipled by pastor Chet Howes. He is currently a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the writer of a special Scripture study/reflection addendum to Someplace to Be Somebody, authored by his wife, Lisa Loraine Baker (End Game Press Spring 2022).

This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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