We end off this series in Leviticus with a pretty heavy study. Most, if not all of us would find this a difficult text to read. What is so hard about this text? What would you do if you read this in your QT? Perhaps this passage has confusing practices and conversations. Perhaps it really feels like a different God is present in this text. Perhaps we want to find out why things happen and the reasons for the event, but Scripture is silent here. Whatever your questions may be, remember the words of Rom 15:4-6, that Scripture is given for our instruction and encouragement, so that through endurance, we may have hope. Scripture does not really tell us all that we want to know, and it is for us to work through and pray through. Scripture is not like our encyclopedia of ready answers. Most importantly in our Bible studies and personal devotion, the aim is not to come up with clever explanations of obscure parts of the Bible, but to meet the living God. We know that He speaks through His Word, and though we may not always understand, we know that we must.
(A) Tragedy falls (10:1-3)
After all the ordination and the successful first acts of the priests in Lev 8 and 9, Lev 10 picks up right where chapter 9 ends. Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, disobeyed God and died (v.1). Specifically, they offered "unauthorised" fire (v.1). It was described as "unauthorised" and not "bad", "unworthy" etc. What this meant was that they did not comply with the express intent of God. It was not what God said and wanted. Right in verse 1, we might struggle with this, because we live in a culture that celebrates strangeness and individuality. Leviticus confronts us and our culture, by reminding us that God alone is God. It is also important to notice the repetition of the phrase "before the Lord" scattered in verses 1-3. This highlighted the holy presence of the Lord. The actions of Nadab and Abihu were serious enough to warrant death, because it was not just a matter of doing things at the wrong time. It meant that they disregarded the holy presence of the Lord with their disobedience. Building up from Leviticus 1-9, this God has authorised and established patterns of living, and what He has authorised does not flow from His stuffy taskmaster nature, but from His character of love, kindness, goodness, holiness. God is not a God that sits in heaven with His book of Law, keen to catch us not keeping up to His laws. He is not God the taskmaster. He is a holy God, whose presence is with His people.
In verse 3, Moses draws attention to what God has said in his interaction with Aaron, the High Priest of Yahweh. He wanted to make the holiness and intimacy of God's presence, together with the need for sanctification crystal clear. It was a reminder that God's presence needed to be honored with the holiness it deserved, in order to show His weightiness and value. It was a reminder especially to Aaron as God's priests that when the priests (and even the people) are holy as God is holy, they glorified God. How did Aaron reply? "And Aaron held his peace" (v.3b). Aaron knew that only God is holy, and there is none beside Him. Even in his grief, he would know that the tragedy that fell was because of his sons' ignorance and disobedience.
What does this mean for us? Leviticus, once more, confronts us with God's holiness. It is a matter of holiness, not "goodness" and "doing the right things". God continues to make it clear for His people that He wants His people to be holy. Do you wonder what God's will for your life is? He has the same will and purpose for you and me today -- to be holy, just as He is. What is God's holiness like in the Bible? How do you measure up? Look at the words that come out of your mouth. How do you spend your money, and time? How do you relate to your loved ones, or those in authority? How do you live out your online life? Are you doing these in an unauthorised way?
(B) Two messages are spoken (10:4-11)
Verses 4 to 7 contain a series of instructions to Aaron's cousins and sons from Moses. Mishal and Elzaphan were told to take the dead brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp (v.4). But this exchange with Moses begins with the words "come near". These were words of tenderness, and sought to allay their fears for they would naturally be afraid because they just witnessed the deaths of fellow priests! Moses then speaks too Aaron's sons Eleazar and Ithamar (v.6-7). They were told not to mourn so that they would not die (v.6-7) and so that the wrath of God would not come upon all the congregation. Remember that in this culture, mourning is tied to outward manifestation of grief -- involves the hair and tearing of clothes. The priests were not to rend their clothes, because they had a holy duty to perform, and their priestly garments were specially put on in Lev 8 in their ordination ceremony.
When we read this, we might naturally feel that God was being too harsh, and that they were not even given time to manifest and deal with their grief. John Calvin, in his commentary on Leviticus 10 has some helpful words to help us understand the situation:
“If we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us. Besides, it was necessary that their religion should be sanctioned at its very commencement; for if God had suffered the sons of Aaron to transgress with impunity, they would have afterwards carelessly neglected the whole law. This, therefore, was the reason for such great severity, that the priests should anxiously watch against all profanation."
In verse 8, God speaks directly to Aaron for the first time. God gives him a series of commands:
- Aaron and his sons were to drink no wine or strong drink when they go into the tent of meeting, lest they die (v.9).
- They had to distinguish between the holy and common and between the unclean and the clean. (More of this will be unfolded in the book of Leviticus) (v.10).
- Also had to teach the people of Israel all the statutes (v.11).
In this confusing, disorienting and overwhelming situation, God had a specific word for Aaron. He reminds him of his calling as priest, and calls him to walk the path of holiness. Don't forget that Aaron knew idolatry and disobedience firsthand, when he built the golden calf in Exo 32. Aaron had only one job, and this was reiterated here. Aaron had to obey, but he didn't have to obey a distant God who was interested in cold, calculated actions. This was a God that revealed to Aaron in the midst of his grief, to remind him of something greater. We catch glimpses of the gospel here, don't we? We see a holy God calling and giving instructions to unclean and unholy people, and calls them to be clean and holy.
(C) Tender mercy is revealed (10:12-20)
Moses proceeds to check on the thanksgiving offering that was offered earlier in the day (v.12). As we have studied in previous studies, the priests had no land and no real way of providing for themselves. God provides for them through the sacrificial offering system. Moses reminds them of the due that is theirs forever, not in the form of land as the other tribes have it, but as a portion of the sacrifices of the people (v.15). Once more, we see reiterated the same mercy and grace that God extended by speaking to Aaron. It was a word of comfort to the priests, Aaron's sons, that through the grain offering, they will always be taken care of.
However, Moses gets angry when he checks on the sin offering, because it was burnt up. Gordon Wenham (The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament’) helps shed some light on the different treatment of offerings, as well as Moses' reaction:
“In the case of purification offerings priests did not have an automatic right to the meat. It depended on what was done with the blood of the sacrifice. If the blood was smeared inside the tent of meeting, the animal’s carcass was burned outside the camp (4:1-21). If however, the blood was smeared on the altar of burnt offering outside the tent of meeting, the priests were entitled to eat the meat (6:18)…Moses’ anger is roused because they have not followed the rules with the second offering. They have burned the meat instead of eating it themselves as they were entitled to.”
God made provisions for His priests, but they were so afraid that they burnt it up. They did not follow the specifications of the law, and this made Moses angry (v.16b). Thus, this passage shows us priests who disobeyed in their carelessness, but also priests who disobeyed in their grief. How did Aaron reply? So much has happened in just one day to him, and we see his human frailty in his response.
At the end of this passage, the writer intends to highlight the fact that the people of God are continually missing a priest that can really mediate between a sinful people and a holy God. Again and again, there is no priest worthy for the sins of man. Priests like Aaron will be careless and disobedient, or remiss in the way they perform their duty in their grief. Will there be one that is the right priest, perfect and holy in every way, one who knows the law, has the zeal for God's holiness and a heart for the people who are blind in their sin and helpless and vulnerable? This was the question in the minds of the people, and years later, we know that after generations of waiting, God sent the perfect priest -- His Son, Jesus. Luke 9:51 shows us the one who set His heart toward Jerusalem, that great altar, and with all of His resolve, He decided and headed there. God answered those prayers to provide the priest that the people longed for. In John 17, we read of Jesus' own priestly prayer. Jesus taught God's people (Jn 17:10), and those teaching words could make His people most holy (Jn 17:17). For the sake of the people, Jesus consecrated Himself (Jn 17:19), and because He has prepared Himself for the final offering, He could make the final sacrifice. Through this offering, consumed by the final fire, the sins of the people could be atoned finally. We need him, because otherwise, we will always be carrying the burdens of our sins. There is no other priest than Jesus Christ. Do you place your faith in Him, the Great High Priest above all other High Priests, or do you expect people or yourself to be that righteous priest?
1 Pet 2:9-10 also tells us that we have a job as priests too. This is the second lesson that we can learn from this passage. We have a job to come before the holy God and to bring before Him a world that is tattered and broken and to mediate. How do you feel tonight? Perhaps you feel like Aaron, like an utter failure. God uses people like these -- people who are broken and weak and wholly dependent on His grace -- to bring grace to a world that needs it desperately. We need to pray for the strength and holiness to do what we cannot do as we see our priestly duty in light of the holiness of God.