Punishment in the Place of Forgiveness Leviticus 10:1-20


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Leviticus 10:1-20

Public worship had begun in Israel. The daily round of sacrifices, that would continue without interruption for centuries, was now a fixture of Israel’s public life. But anyone who knows the Bible and who knows human nature expects that it will not be long before something goes amiss. As we pointed out when reading chapters 8 and 9, attention is paid again and again to the fact that Moses and Aaron did everything precisely as they had been commanded to do. Alas that strict obedience would not last.

Chapter 10 begins with the account of disobedience by some priests in the conduct of worship and its tragic aftermath. It follows that with some further instructions regarding priestly conduct. The disobedience of two priests becomes the occasion to remind the priests of their responsibilities.

Text Comment

v.1       It may be that Nadab and Abihu’s sin occurred on the very same day that public worship had begun in the Tabernacle. The “sin offering” mentioned in vv. 16-20 is possibly the very sin offering referred to in 9:3 and 9:15-21. [Levine, 58]

These two men were the oldest of Aaron’s four sons (Ex. 6:3). For that reason they would have been, de facto if not de jure, senior priests and in fact one of them would have been Aaron’s likely successor as the high priest.

Compare this text with Lev. 16:1-2 where the sin of Nadab and Abihu is mentioned again and made a warning for others. The later reference to this same event may be taken to suggest that they actually took their censers into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, where they never had a right to be, though we don’t that for sure. [Sklar, 156-157; cf. Levine, 58-59]

v.2       The fire that had come out of the sanctuary to consume the sacrifices on the altar in the previous few verses comes out again to consume the disobedient priests.

v.3       “Among those who are near me” refers to the priests whose work required them to draw near to the Lord, that is, to his presence as represented by the altar and the sanctuary itself. When they violate the Lord’s holiness, the Lord will make a point of demonstrating their error to the people. They are supposed to be the men whose reverence for the Lord’s presence is a lesson to all the people of Israel, so their failure to respect the divine holiness is a greater sin because it undermines the reverence of everyone for God.

v.4       A point is made that Aaron held his tongue, even though it was his own sons who had been executed. They were lying there dead, his own sons; but He realized the wrong they had done and the justice of their punishment.

v.4       Aaron’s cousins, that is Nadab and Abihu’s uncles, were asked to remove the bodies. It was natural for family members to be asked, but Aaron and his other two sons would have defiled themselves by touching the corpses and would have rendered themselves unfit for work in the sanctuary. There are higher obligations than those of family, however sacred family bonds are said to be in Holy Scripture.

Either the two men had been killed while leaving the sanctuary, or their bodies had been dragged outside the sanctuary, that is, outside and left on the ground between the entrance to the sanctuary and the altar. Upon their removal they would have been buried outside of the camp because of their impurity.

v.5       The bodies had not been consumed by fire; indeed, their clothing hadn’t been destroyed. They could be carried out by lifting them in their outer clothing. The fire from the Lord killed them; it didn’t torture them.

v.6       A failure on the part of the remaining priests to preserve their holiness would bring judgment upon the whole community! That is a biblical doctrine from beginning to end: the ministry bears a responsibility for the spiritual health of the people because they, of all people, have most to do with ensuring it.

v.7       In other words, no acts of mourning were allowed to be performed by Aaron or his two remaining sons. Their holiness as priests and their nearness to God took precedence over their natural sorrow at the loss of his son and their brothers. The rest of the people could mourn for Nadab and Abihu, but not their father or their brothers. It was a matter of putting first the Lord and their sacred duties on behalf of the people.

v.8       This is the only place in Leviticus where Yahweh speaks directly only to Aaron.

v.9       “Strong drink” would have been beer. Distillation had not been invented yet, though the principal certainly would apply to any intoxicant.

v.11     The reason why they were forbidden from drinking intoxicating beverages when they were ministering in the sanctuary was that they needed all their faculties to fulfill their responsibilities, both as superintendents of worship and as teachers of the Word of God. They needed to be on their toes all the time. It is a principal we still fully appreciate today: we expect a judge to be stone cold sober in his courtroom, a professor in his class, and a doctor at the operating table, however much any of them might enjoy a glass of wine at dinner.

No one can say for sure because the text doesn’t say so, but there may be a suggestion in the juxtaposition of these instructions with the Nadab and Abihu incident that those two men did what they did because they were inebriated. Could it have been from eating the feast that was part of the peace offering and drinking wine at that feast? [Ross,235- 236]

v.15     These instructions have been given already so perhaps the Nadab and Abihu episode prompted Moses to repeat them to make sure that no other error was made with respect to the sacrificial ritual that had not yet been completed. “The main idea is that the entire priestly family (Aaron and his children) could eat the holy offering ([the peace] or fellowship offering) in a ceremonially clean place, but only the priests (Aaron and his sons) could eat the most holy offering (the grain offering) and only in a holy place (somewhere near the altar). [Sklar, 160]

v.16     Moses was worried whether all had been done in obedience to the instructions the Lord had given. The sin offering should have been eaten by the priests, but Moses found that it had been consumed on the altar.

v.17     The sacrifice had not been properly made if the priests hadn’t eaten their share of it and so atonement would not have been secured for the people.

v.18     They are using “sanctuary” for that entire bordered area including the courtyard where the altar was and where many other things were done, not simply the tent of The Holy Place and The Most Holy Place which I suppose we might refer to as the sanctuary proper. The point is that, in the case of the sin or purification offering, as we learned earlier, the blood had not been brought into the sanctuary proper. As a result it was a holy offering, not a most holy offering and so was to be eaten by the priests (6:23). The sin offering could be one of either kind and Moses was under the impression it was a holy offering, not a most holy offering, so it should have been eaten by the priests and it was not. It was consumed entirely on the altar.

v.20     The reply can be explained in either of two ways. Some suggest that Aaron thought that it would have been inappropriate for him and his sons to eat the meat of the sin offering given what had happened that day to Nadab and Abihu. Perhaps they thought that they were in some way also responsible for the sin of those two men. In other words, it was an honest mistake, not an act of defiance or even indifference. [Levine, 63] Others suggest that the problem was that, according to the regulations already given, if the sin offering were offered for the priest himself the meat was not to be eaten, but if it were offered for others they could eat the meat (cf. 4:3-5 with 6:24-29). Moses thought the sacrifice was for others; Aaron and his sons had thought thought it was for themselves. Again an honest mistake on the part of either Aaron or Moses depending on which had been correct and which in error. [Sklar, 161]

In any case, Moses agrees that no additional disobedience had occurred. And in this exchange we realize that there is a reason for what God does. He’s not harsh, he’s not peremptory, and he’s not a martinet. If somebody makes an honest mistake, that’s one thing. If someone defies his holiness, it is another thing altogether.

Florence and I have been watching a dramatic reenactment of the history of the English Reformation: the effort of Henry VIII to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled because she had not produced a male heir, his failure to secure a dispensation to that end from the Pope, and his eventual disavowal of papal authority in England, an act that was to have consequences so much more momentous than Henry himself ever imagined at the time. English speaking Protestant Christianity since the 1540s has been God’s greatest gift to the world, literally. But, among other things, the historical drama has reminded me of how visibly reverent people in those days were and had to be in the presence of their king. One didn’t enter his presence without being summoned, no one did; one bowed as one entered the presence of the king and again as one left it; no one spoke until spoken to; and so on. There was a very strictly observed etiquette for how one entered the presence of the king and how one behaved when in his presence. Very few commoners ever were granted an audience, but even the court — those used to being in the king’s presence — never took that presence for granted.

Well, we have something like that here. Yahweh was Israel’s king. He happened to be as well the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And his literally infinite holiness required his servants, his ministers to be scrupulously respectful and reverent in his presence. There was an elaborate etiquette that governed the behavior of the priests who regularly came into the Lord’s presence. And their observing of that etiquette taught all the rest of the Israelites who would from time to time find themselves at the tabernacle to revere and respect and honor the holiness of God, a conviction that was fundamental to Israel’s faith and religious life. The divine holiness was the foundation of Israel’s understanding of salvation, it was her motive for obedience to his law, and it was the reason for her separation from the peoples round about her.

Why are certain events mentioned in the Bible? It’s a big book and it covers some fifteen hundred years of history. No doubt there were a great many other events that might have been mentioned. Why were the events that were mentioned the ones that were? In some cases, to be sure, because they are the key to everything. We have no difficulty understanding why we are given more than one narrative of the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross and of his resurrection from the dead because those two events stand at the very center of the Bible’s message of salvation. In Acts we read that the early preaching of the gospel was the proclamation of the resurrection, that was the nub of their message; and Paul once summarized his entire message as a message about the cross. Obviously we need to know about what happened in those two instances.

But in other cases the answer seems to be that a particular event illustrates a spiritual principle or establishes a precedent. Last week we noticed that in regard to the glory cloud descending upon the sanctuary and the fire from the Lord consuming the sacrifices on the altar. The point of that visible demonstration was to teach Israel that the Lord was present and would be present whenever they worshipped him at the sanctuary, even when they could not see any visible manifestation of that presence. Or consider in the NT the conversion of the Apostle Paul. It is narrated four times in the New Testament because it serves as the flesh and blood example of Christian conversion. As much as any teaching we find in the Bible about conversion, the conversion of Paul teaches us what conversion is, how it comes to pass, and what its implications are for life after conversion.

There are a number of events that were included in the narrative of Holy Scripture because of the lessons that they teach or illustrate. Think of the much misunderstood incident of the man who was executed for picking up sticks on the Sabbath day (Num. 15:32-36). That incident is related immediately following instruction on what to do with someone who sins defiantly or with a high hand. Such persons were apostates in the language of the New Testament. They had self-consciously defied the authority of God and intentionally repudiated God’s covenant. The man who went out to gather wood on the Sabbath — almost certainly to do some work on that day — was such a defiant sinner. The incident was placed where it was in Numbers 15, whether or not it happened then, because it was a flesh and blood example of the instruction that had just been given. He was such a defiant sinner and his punishment, therefore, was the punishment prescribed for people like him, for people who did what he did.

Or think in the New Testament of the judgment summarily visited on Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. At a key point in the early history of the church following Pentecost that incident served to remind believers that the fact that God was merciful and forgiving, that he had conquered sin and death by the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not mean that God’s law was little more than a list of suggestions or that it hardly mattered whether a professing Christian obeyed God’s law. In those heady days of the Spirit’s power the people of God needed to be reminded that God remained the punisher of sin. The requirements of obedience had not been relaxed. One incident is related, among many probably that might have been related, to make that fabulously important point in a dramatically emphatic way.

We could go on. The institution of the church’s diaconal ministry is narrated in Acts 6 both to teach us what the church should be doing on behalf of the poor and where the office of deacon came from and what it is for. The prayer meeting mentioned in Acts 12 serves to teach us that gatherings for prayer, being a feature of apostolic Christianity, should be features of our Christian life and service as well.

So in the same way here. This incident is like several others in the Bible — Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it (Num. 20:9-13) and being severely punished for having done so; Uzzah sticking out his hand to keep the Ark upright when it was beginning to tip and being struck down on the spot (2 Sam. 6:6-8); or the Lord’s prophet who is tricked into disobeying the Lord’s orders by another lying man and was killed by a lion for having done so (1 Kings 13:11-24) — actions that may seem to us of little consequence but whose punishment reminds us both of how little we really grasp the holiness of God and how catastrophic the sins of the church’s leaders can be for the spiritual life of the people of God. [Ross, 230] As Gordon Wenham remarks about the incident before us this evening in his fine commentary on Leviticus:

“This short story is…an affront to liberal thinkers. It should also challenge Bible-believing Christians whose theological attitudes are influenced by prevailing trends of thought more often than they realize.” [153]

It is, I think, significant that we are not told that Nadab and Abihu did what they did in a spirit of defiance or complete indifference to God’s will. Indeed, as we noticed, it may be suggested that they were somewhat tipsy when they did what they did, whatever it was precisely that they did. But they disobeyed and violated Yahweh’s holiness nonetheless. I have been reading an interesting autobiography of Lamin Sanneh, an African from Gambia who converted from Islam to Christianity in his teens and who is now Professor of World Christianity at Yale. One part of his life story is of his time of study of Arabic and African religious history at Birmingham University in England. There he met and became friends with John Hick who was then teaching in the Theology Department of the University. A number of you may recognize John Hick’s name as that of a notorious theological liberal. Sanneh acknowledges Hick’s liberalism, indeed, Hick moved still considerably further away from Christian orthodoxy in the years that followed Sanneh’s acquaintance with him in Birmingham, but he has much to say about Hick’s hospitality, his kindness to a lonely African student far from home, and his practical encouragement of that student even though he wasn’t one of his own students and wasn’t studying theology. [Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African, 165-166] Life would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it, if people who were supposed to be Christians but who betray the faith were always cruel and disgusting people. But it is not so. In the same way, it would be easier for all of us if only Nadab and Abihu were presented here as rascals — cynical, conniving, and uncaring of God or man; if they went into the sanctuary chuckling to one another about what they were going to do. But we have no reason to think they were so or did so.

Many ministers who have done incalculable harm to the faith of the church were impressive men who were at some level and who struck others as deeply sincere. Even heroes of the faith can do terrible damage. On this Reformation Sunday think of Luther’s anti-Semitic rants which have so bedeviled the testimony of the gospel in Europe in the years ever since or think of Alexander Whyte’s defense of the early liberals in the Scottish Free Church whose teaching was to cut the heart out of the faith of that once great church. He didn’t think it would; he was apparently sure that those sincere men wouldn’t do anything to undermine the faith, but in that opinion he was terribly wrong and culpably wrong. Here were good men, even great Christian men, who, for all the great good they did, also did terrible harm to the cause of truth and the gospel. But disobedience is disobedience and disloyalty to God is disloyalty to God, whatever the appearances may be, whatever the motives or lack of same may have led to the disobedience in the first place.

I don’t even know, and you don’t either, whether we ought to think of these two men, Nadab and Abihu, as unbelievers, as lost men. Must we believe that Uzzah was a man without faith in God because he did what any sincere believer might unthinkingly do in the moment, reach out to steady the ark — the throne of God, after all — to keep it from falling and smashing to pieces on the ground? Has anyone here read that episode and not wondered why in the world the Lord was so hard on Uzzah? He might have had the purest motives, the motives of a man who loved God and revered him; but what he did was to violate God’s holiness in a way he had been commanded not to do. And in that a lesson was taught to the church for all the ages to come.

The fact is, these two men, whatever may have been their spiritual condition at the moment — and remember, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s two younger sons, were both faithful men (so it is not unlikely that their brothers were as well) —  were executed for their violation of the divine holiness.

Gordon Wenham is right. However much this is an affront to the mushy, sentimental liberalism of the mainline churches, churches that cannot bring themselves to believe that God would punish anyone except perhaps someone who condemns divorce without grounds, or abortion, or homosexual practice or who believes that there is but one way to heaven, it is also a direct affront to western evangelicalism’s comfortable outlook on life and its far too tolerant attitude toward the overt disobedience of both ministers and lay Christians.

Not only here in Leviticus 10, but again and again throughout the Bible, we are brought up short by the severity of God. Or perhaps we aren’t. Perhaps far too many Christians never read themselves, or hear read in church such passages as Leviticus 10, or pay any attention to them when they are read, so alien do they seem to their own spiritual outlook. In my experience even American Christians who ought to know better find it easy to assume that an incident like this one was peculiar to the Old Testament, an epoch of redemptive history they have been taught to regard as more primitive, harsher, and less gracious. But Leviticus 10 is hardly an incident unique to the Old Testament. Not only do we have the summary execution of Ananias and Sapphira, a very similar incident at the headwaters of the post-Pentecost church, but we read in 1 Cor. 11 of the Corinthian Christians some of whom had already died because they had violated God’s holiness in their behavior at the Lord’s Supper. Then there are the Christians in Laodicea whom the Lord was ready to spit out of his mouth not because they had in some egregious and public way blasphemed the Lord but because they were spiritually lukewarm!  Such texts as these, scattered through the New Testament as they are, serve as a solemn warning to Christians today as similar incidents warned the Israelites in their day. We are just as obliged to be holy because God is holy as were the Israelites, and it is as true of us as it was of them that, as we read, again in the New Testament, in Hebrews 12:14: “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

“Behold the kindness and the severity of God,” Paul exhorts us in Romans 11:22. And no Christian can afford to forget either attribute of God because both are constantly on display in the entire Bible’s account of God’s dealings with his people. That is why throughout the Bible we are taught, exhorted and urged both to love God and to fear him, to rejoice in his mercy and never to take that mercy and grace for granted.

I wonder about the location of this incident in the book of Leviticus. True enough, it may be placed where it is because it happened on the same day as the events narrated in chapter 9, though anachronism or dis-chronologizing is common enough in the Bible. By that I mean that it is not uncommon for events to be narrated out of order to serve some thematic purpose. But the fact that it is narrated here, immediately following chapters 1-9, is significant I think. It think it is significant in the same way that the Ananias and Sapphira incident in Acts 6 is significant for its location. What, after all, are all those chapters about but the sacrifices that provided Israel forgiveness of sins and secured their fellowship with God? Day in and day out at the sanctuary forgiveness, mercy, and grace was being dispensed as atonement was made for the people of Israel. This was done in a general way with the morning and evening burnt offerings and it was done in specific ways for the Israelites who, motivated by conviction of sin or thanksgiving for God’s mercies, brought their sin offering or guilt offering or peace offering or grain offering to the sanctuary. They went home justified, in the language of the Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. They went to the sanctuary carrying the burden of their sins and they left it forgiven, with a clean conscience and a lighter step. In other words, God’s forgiveness was pouring out of the sanctuary from morning to night, and, since the evening burnt offering cooked all night long, it poured out of the sanctuary 24/7, as we would put it today. People were streaming into the sanctuary to get forgiveness and they were streaming out of the sanctuary having been forgiven.

The inevitable tendency of the human heart is to begin to take that forgiveness for granted. The fact that when we sin we can obtain God’s forgiveness no matter what we have done, that we can have it immediately and completely, inevitably tempts us to worry less about our sins. Paul acknowledges this universal problem in another way in his letter to the Romans. After his magisterial exposition of sin and justification by faith in the first five chapters of that great letter, he begins the next section by warning his readersand he had probably talked to enough believers to know that this was something that had to be brought up — that they were going to be tempted to think that if God stands ready to forgive their sins, all of them, again and again and again because of what Christ has done; if our forgiveness is based on Christ’s sacrifice and not on anything we do, then what difference does it make really whether they sin or not. Whatever sins we commit, even as Christians, Christ has covered and God will forgive.

No Christian of any experience can deny the reality or the power of that temptation, because he or she knows very well that how easy it is to succumb to it. When faced by a temptation to sin, how subtly does the thought insinuate itself: “I can always repent later,” or “God will forgive me,” or “I know I shouldn’t do this, but there is forgiveness with God.” This is perhaps especially a conversation we have with ourselves concerning our besetting sins, the sins that have defeated us so many times before.

To be sure, the Bible has a number of answers to that line of thought, attractive as it is even to devout Christians. Paul’s in Romans 6 is not the same one we are given here in Leviticus 10. But this one in Leviticus is one the Bible repeats often enough. Don’t ever think that offending God is a matter of no great significance because you can have his forgiveness! His holiness is such that when you offend God, when you belittle his holiness, when you betray the reverence that you owe him, as Nadab and Abihu did, you risk summary punishment. Not everyone, of course, is struck dead. Those situations, so far as we know, are much rarer, they are exemplary rather than customary; designed to teach us to fear disobedience, as here in Leviticus 10. But, don’t for that reason take them lightly. Think of Nadab and Abihu’s wives and children as the news reaches them that their husbands and fathers are dead; and not dead in an accident, not dead from some crime, but that the Lord himself had struck them down because of what they had done improperly in the sanctuary! But whether the punishment is one thing or another, the Lord is regularly presented in the Bible as the punisher of his people’s sins. As we read in Psalm 99:8-9:

“O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy!”

Has it ever occurred to you — I’m sure it has — that the Lord is punishing you or your children for something you have done or failed to do? I certainly have. I have no doubt of the Lord’s love or of his forgiveness, but I know the Bible too well to doubt that he may also punish his people for their sins, and perhaps ministers especially, though Ananias and Sapphira and the believers in Corinth and those in Laodicea were not ministers. Christians in days gone by were more alert to this reality of judgment beginning with the household of God. Thomas Goodwin, one of the greatest of the English Puritans, indeed one of the Westminster Divines, I say his great library was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. “I loved my books too well,” he said, “and the Lord rebuked me.” Goodwin, one of the greatest of the theologians of the period, a man who knew his Bible very, very well. Now, perhaps he couldn’t know for sure that God was punishing him for loving his books too much. But he thought that God was punishing him, in part because he was convicted that he loved books more than he should have loved them, something many minsters can sympathize with, (he could certainly know that, that he had a guilty conscience about his books!) and because he knew that God did punish his people for their sins; and minsters especially.

Here is a good reason not to take God’s forgiveness for granted: he may punish you, even severely, for your sins. We see this happen, in fact, all the time among real Christians, people who love the Lord and desire to serve him: promiscuity leading to disease or pregnancy and the fear and shame and often life-long problems that come with such a pregnancy; one form or another of self-indulgence leading to debt or addiction or broken relationships; and so on. And who are we to say that in one particular case or another, this trouble or that, is not the Lord’s punishment particularly if our conscious is awake and alert to the fact that we have sinned against God. Don’t think it doesn’t happen. It happens all the time.

And here is another good reason to appreciate what a magnificent thing God’s forgiveness really is. You sins are offensive to him; your lack of reverence for him and obedience to his law are deeply perverse; he has every right to punish those sins severely, and yet he stands ready to forgive you again and again and again, to bury your sins in the deepest sea, to cast them behind his back, to separate you from them as far as the east is from the west, to trample them under his feet, and to remember them no more. That is a fact too amazing and too wonderful to take for granted. And to make sure we don’t ever take it for granted Nadab and Abihu were carried dead from the sanctuary.