Many understand, and rightfully so, that God killed Nadab and Abihu for offering unauthorized worship before Him. This is true, as they did indeed attempt to worship Yahweh in an unprescribed manner. However, for the inquisitive individual, this explanation may be unsatisfactory—not because it is untrue, but because we want to understand why Yahweh would not accept such worship. A parent can give their child instruction, and an obedient child may obey, but the difference between a child and a mature adult is an understanding of why the command must exist. Thus, I believe it is healthy to seek understanding and not be content with mere obedience.
So, let us ask the question again: Why did God kill Nadab and Abihu, and what broader instruction might this offer to the people of God? I would like to propose a theory that deviates somewhat from the typical explanation. I believe that God killed Nadab and Abihu because, through their actions, they were on the verge of jeopardizing the entire priesthood and the camp of Israel. By taking the lives of Nadab and Abihu, the Lord did nothing that they weren’t about to do to themselves inadvertently, and furthermore, He saved the congregation.
First, we note that Nadab and Abihu “took their respective firepans… and offered strange fire before Yahweh” (Leviticus 10:2, LSB). It could be argued from the Hebrew, however, that this might be more helpfully rendered as, “and [they] approached Yahweh with strange fire.” This implies that they were attempting to walk into the Tabernacle with their firepans. Why would they have sought to do this, though? I believe a case can be made that they were attempting to move on to the next “phase” of the ceremony that they were participating in, which would have included their lighting of the altar of incense that is inside the Tabernacle.
In Leviticus 16, God relays additional instructions to Aaron regarding some of his priestly duties. In that set of instructions, it is noted that Aaron was to make a sacrifice upon the altar outside the tent. Then, he was to collect coals from that fire in a firepan, place prescribed incense upon it, bring it into the tent, and place it upon the altar of incense to produce a thick cloud, which would have filled the inside of the Tabernacle. It is noted that he would do this to prevent death (Leviticus 16:13).
In effect, it is as if one function of the produced cloud was to act as a type of barrier or shield, protecting the priest from the close presence of Yahweh while they worked inside the tent. Nadab and Abihu, then, were very likely attempting to fulfill this duty. The problem, however, is that they offered strange fire, rather than the holy fire that was on the altar, which originated from Yahweh himself. To have lit the altar of incense with their strange fire would have been to incorrectly bake the metaphorical cake, resulting in a cloud that could not preserve them from Yahweh.
So, had Nadab and Abihu been permitted to go through with their offering, not only would they have killed themselves anyway, but they would have also killed their younger brothers and Aaron, the remaining priests, when they attempted to draw near to Yahweh as well. With the death of the priests, especially the high priest, the whole congregation would have been open to judgment without recourse, as Moses warns later in the passage (Leviticus 10:6). By killing Nadab and Abihu outside the tent, then, God actually acts to save the whole congregation before the two brothers have an opportunity to effectively slay them. Worship of the creator of the universe is a life and death affair, not to be approached lightly.
What insights might this view of the death of Nadab and Abihu offer us? I suggest that it stresses the life and death nature of our worship on both a spiritual and physical level. When Christians gather to worship, we must recognize that our worship ought to be inherently Biblical in form and procedure. Every component of our offerings, from our songs, music, prayers, preaching, etc., must be thoughtful and biblically ensured. When pastors lead their congregations in reckless worship, and when congregants submit themselves to it, whether knowingly or in ignorance, there is potential for great harm, even physical harm. As Paul warns the Corinthians who were partaking unworthily of the Lord’s Supper, for example, there were many among them who were falling ill and even dying as a result (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Life is promised in worship, but only if accepted on the terms given to us.
I must draw out one more observation: in killing these priests, God saves His people. In this way, Nadab and Abihu become more than the objects of Yahweh’s scorn; they become a type of Christ, pointing us to the perfect priest who would be killed for our sake. As Nadab and Abihu lay smoldering in the dust, there is no doubt that the whole congregation of Israel was distraught at the loss of their perceived saviors, the men who were to reconcile them to God. Truly, it must have been a similar sentiment felt by the disciples as they stood by and looked on at their pierced Lord. In both instances, the onlookers understood not only the horror but also the blessing that the death of these priests proved. The story of Nadab and Abihu stands as a warning and a point of praise. They are a reminder that the death of a priest is horrific, but it is also holy.
For further reading
Austin Rouse is the Pastor of Families and Students at Southern Heights Baptist Church in Russellville, KY, where he and his wife, Addie, reside with their two children, Naomi and Tommy. He will graduate from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary this fall with his BA in Biblical Studies and is on track to graduate with his M.Div in the fall of 2024. Austin shepherds Southern Heights in the areas of family worship and discipleship, mission strategization, corporate worship, and student ministry, and co-hosts The Council podcast with a fellow elder of the church.
September 20, 2023
More from Austin Rouse
Many Christians admit to feeling that they are not growing in their faith. They are frequently given to old sins, and in reality, their life doesn’t look much different to that of their unbelieving counterparts. These five biblically prescribed practices, however, can and will change your life, by the grace of God.
The effects of song and music, namely that of psalms and hymns, are mysterious to me, but they are not to God. This is why He Himself has given us inspired songs to sing, and it is why He has commanded that we should do so.