After providing regulations for mandatory and free will offerings, Moses anointed and ordaining his brother Aaron and Aaron's sons as priests. The priests then performed the atonement sacrifice for all of the Israelites, and there was much rejoicing.
With the initiation out of the way, the daily rituals and oblations began, but things didn't go according to plan...
The Wrong Way = The Dead Way
Jesus, and the God of the New Testament, are often presented figuratively with welcoming and open arms, spliced with a “come as you are” yet “acknowledge your need for forgiveness” attitude. This is perhaps best exemplified in the “Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker. Also, let us not forget that God is love per 1 John 4:16, and the perfect father per Matthew 5:48.
The God of the Old Testament thought pretty nicely of Himself too. As you may remember from the Biblical Ten Commandments study, Exodus 34:5-7 shows God bragging about how He is slow to anger, abounding in love, and ready to forgive wickedness, rebellion, and sin, among other things.
In contradiction to both of these perspectives comes Leviticus 10. In this charming chapter, the story begins with Nadab and Abihu, who were priests and sons of Aaron, offing incense with “unauthorized fire” to God (Leviticus 10:1). So how does God treat these two men who wanted to give God an offering, but did not do so according to the regulations?
God did what any slow-to-anger, abounding-in-love, ready-to-forgive, perfect father would have done; He slew His wayward sons on the spot, burning them to death with magic fire (Leviticus 10:2)!
Moses goes on to add insult to Aaron's injury in Leviticus 10:3, saying that this is what God meant when He said “Among those who approach Me I will show Myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.” Reading between the lines, God is saying that you had better worship Him correctly or else He will kill you!
This action speaks of a God who demands perfect adherence to His laws from His imperfect creations with zero tolerance for mistakes. Is that a God who is slow to anger? Is that a God who is ready to forgive? Is that a God of love? No to all three. And God is certainly not a perfect father, for what father would kill his child for not perfectly following newly learned directions or committing a victimless crime?
Christian commentaries on this passage suggest that this punishment was somewhat deserved because they were drunk as well, that God needed to provide a stern example to show seriousness of sin and to ward off future divergence, and that this shows the imperfection of the priesthood from the very beginning and the inherent need for Jesus. Yet all of these commentaries fail to speak on how this action contradicts God's own self-ascribed characteristics noted above.
That Nadab and Abihu were drunk is pure speculation based on the newly made ordinance that priests abstain from alcohol when going into the Tent of Meeting which appears a little later in Leviticus 10:8-11. However, if they were drunk, that would mean that their judgement was impaired, and they may not have even done that under normal circumstances. Does that make it worthy of capitol punishment?
If God had intended for this to be a warning, it seems to have failed in getting the message across. As further study of the Bible reveals, the Israelites would go on to do far worse than offer unauthorized fire.
And finally, if this was to highlight the imperfection of man and the need for Jesus, why bother establishing an imperfect system from the beginning? To which is given the unsatisfactory reply: have faith in the providence of God.
God chooses no action of love. He does not use the rod of correction (Proverbs 29:15) to teach Nadab and Abihu, and inherently the rest of the Israelites, a lesson by making them temporarily blind, or burning only the hands that held the illegal incense, or any number of other temporary but effective punishments. Instead, God chooses death.
Apparently to make God's image even meaner, God tells Aaron and his remaining sons (through Moses in Leviticus 10:6-7) that they are forbidden to mourn for the loss of Nadab and Abihu, and even goes on to say that if they do mourn their deaths then God will kill them and be angry with all of the Israelites. God told them to suppress their feelings of love lost under penalty of death for not doing so. That is sick, and certainly not love.
I pray that nobody “loves” me like that!