Playing with Holy Fire

Wendy Widder

The Greek god Zeus is notorious for wielding a lightning bolt to destroy his enemies. The image of the Jewish and Christian God doing the same is not found in the Bible. Yet Leviticus 10 records an event that is strikingly similar. The priests Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the high priest, approach the altar of Yahweh to make an offering. Before they finish, a fire from Yahweh consumes them—not their sacrifice.

This disturbing story comes at the end of a rare narrative section in Leviticus. Tucked between seven chapters on sacrificial law and nearly 16 chapters of laws about uncleanness, the narrative of Leviticus 8–10 describes the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the Israelite priesthood. Leviticus 8 and 9 are a step-by-step enactment of Yahweh’s directions to Moses in Exodus 28–29, including instructions for operation of the tabernacle and priestly ordination.

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The Leviticus narrative emphasizes that Moses and the newly ordained priests follow these instructions point by point—a fact reinforced by the refrain, “as the Lord commanded Moses” (Lev 8:4–36; 9:5–21). Likewise, the ordination process matches the detailed directions from Exodus 28–29. The reward for all this careful obedience arrives in Leviticus 9:24. After Aaron made the required offerings, “Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (ESV).

However, the people’s joy is short-lived. In the very next verse, Nadab and Abihu approach the altar with fire and incense in their censers and are promptly struck dead by fire from Yahweh. The text doesn’t specify exactly what these brothers did to merit an instant fiery death. The narrator simply says, “They offered strange fire before Yahweh, which he had not commanded them” (Lev 10:1). After two chapters of meticulous obedience, this last statement—“which he had not commanded them”—is jarring.

The contrasting accounts in this passage are connected by a key parallel: In both events, “fire went out from Yahweh and consumed” (Lev 9:24; 10:2). The vastly differing endings demonstrate that there are right and wrong ways to approach Yahweh. In the first account, the fire resulted from obedience to Yahweh’s commands; the Israelites looked on in joyful awe as fire from Yahweh completely consumed their sacrifice. In the second account, the fire resulted from disobedience; its outcome was death, as fire from Yahweh “consumed” the two sons of Aaron. The charred corpses of Nadab and Abihu, still adorned in priestly tunics, remained to be carried away (Lev 10:4–5).

God’s consuming fire appears in other passages of the Bible. In Exodus 24:17, Yahweh’s presence atop Mount Sinai was “like a consuming fire.” In Deuteronomy, when Moses reminded the people about the events at Sinai, they were afraid God’s fire would destroy them. They implored Moses to go talk with God alone so they wouldn’t be consumed by His voice (Deut 5:25). God’s fire engulfed the members of Korah’s rebellion during the wilderness years when they inappropriately offered incense to God (Num 16:35). Centuries later, the author of Hebrews entreats us to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28–29).

Being in God’s presence is a fearful thing—especially if we approach Him with irreverence. Nadab and Abihu ignored the way God had created for sinful people to be in His holy presence. The message of Leviticus—and of the entire Bible—is that there is only one way. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God made the way for sinners to be in His holy presence now and forever. It is only when we come to Him through Christ that we can find forgiveness and acceptance, without fear.

Unless otherwise noted biblical references were translated by the author.

For more on this passage, pick up Gordon Wenham’s The Book of Leviticus at Logos.com/NICOT

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 6