The hardest time to make a decision is when things are going very badly. The hardest time to make a good decision is when things are going well. Woe be unto the one who makes a decision while things are going well shortly after things have been going badly…
The people of Israel have been through a stretch in the recent months—in fact, one thing that is critical to remember when looking at the Old Testament narrative is that a lot of chapters in the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) cover a short period of time. Well, to be more specific: the second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and a decent chunk of Number really fit in under a year. Contrast that with Genesis which covers all of prehistoric times or 1-2 Kings which covers about five centuries, you have a lot of text for a small number of calendar pages.
This is important to remember as we look at Leviticus 10 (link). Here we start with the story of Nadab and Abihu who are struck dead by God Almighty for offering what is called, cryptically, “strange fire” on the altar before Yahweh. The story is one of those slightly odd ones. We have the actions of Nadab and Abihu, which we do not fully know. We have the response of God Almighty. We have the command not to mourn them. Then we have the emphasis on priests not having any intoxicant affecting them while on duty.
What to make of all of this?
1. The identity of ‘strange fire’ is curious, but almost irrelevant. The first chapters of Leviticus, the second half of Exodus, all had addressed aspects of the how-to of performing the duties of priests in the Tabernacle. Nadab and Abihu knew what “acceptable fire” was and had no excuse to offer anything “strange” in its place. When God has been clear about what is appropriate, there is no point in haggling over whether something not in-bounds is a little out-of-bounds or a lot out-of-bounds. Christians are free by Christ in the Spirit to worship God and serve man. There are certain clearly instructed realities in Scripture: if it runs counter, it’s out. Whether out by inches or by miles, does it matter?
2. The power of God. Compare back to Leviticus 9 and see where God shows His approval of the process, through that point, by sending fire to consume the sacrifice. Here He shows the same behavior: the justice and righteousness of the Lord God will be upheld. The power of His own hand is enough to do so. There are times when people ought to influence the behavior of others but we can remember that God can (and will) deal with all behaviors. Letting God handle the timing is most appropriate: who knows but that you might act when repentance was near at hand?
3. We mourn over those we love, but there will be times when we must acknowledge that God has acted to address sin. In those cases, our mourning must look different. Note the end of the chapter: Aaron chooses to adjust portions of what he does based on the events of the day. Acknowledge those moments when seeing the judgment of God brings grief, but continue to focus on doing that which He has commanded you.
4. Clarity of thought is a helpful reality for all the servants of the Living God. Why we think that we should lose our minds before we act in service to the Lord is a mystery—and how we think we can worship without having prepared ourselves for the interaction with the Holy One is an even bigger mystery. It is our responsibility to be guided and controlled by the Spirit of God and not by any other concern in our worship.
Subpoint 4: Man can be intoxicated by many things. If a man be intoxicated by power, than he best NOT dare think he will lead the people of God in anything. Far better to lay out a day and get sobered up about grace than to face the wrath of the Almighty.
Today’s Nerd Note: This chapter gives us a one-off event in Scripture: we do not see God handle sinful worship the same way again, unless we count Ananias and Sapphira in that group. Even so, what I think this gives us evidence for is that beginning rightly is important: mistakes are going to be made, but when the direction is clear and you are starting off the foundation, be certain to get it right.