For generations, members of the Lord’s church have found Leviticus 10:1-3 to be a useful, if not a particularly pleasant, text. The dramatic deaths of Nadab and Abihu illustrate a principle that we hold dear: we must serve God according to His commandments, or else He will not be pleased with us.
However, Leviticus 10:16-20 offers an apparent counterpoint. According to 6:24-30, the priests typically were supposed to eat the sin offering. However, in 10:16, Moses finds that the sin offering, rather than being eaten, has been burned up. A conversation with Aaron ensues, but by the end, Moses approves of Aaron’s decision to ignore the ordinance of Leviticus 6.
“Aha!” some critics say at this point. “This is proof that we really don’t have to strictly obey the commandments of God. Aaron disobeyed, yet Moses approved and God didn’t roast Aaron like He had his sons.” In other words, they want to use 10:16-20 to nullify 10:1-3.
In reality, the text doesn’t allow us to create that contradiction. The story of Nadab and Abihu is one of presumptuous sin, of refusing to treat God as holy by ignoring His statutes. That’s not Aaron’s mindset at all. Instead, he explains in 10:19 that he has had the sin offering burned because he believes that God would not have approved if he had eaten it. Unlike his wicked sons, he is determined in his heart to treat God as holy.
Indeed, judging from Moses’ approval, Aaron is right. He hasn’t made a mistake. His choice to refrain from eating the sin offering has pleased God.
We get some insight into Aaron’s thought process earlier in the chapter. In 10:12-15, Moses instructs Aaron and his surviving sons about the priests’ portion of the grain offerings and the peace offerings. He says of the grain offering, “You shall eat it in a holy place because it is your due,” and similarly of the remainder of the peace offering, “It shall be yours and your sons’ with you as a due forever.” In other words, those portions of the offerings were the priests’ fee for serving. Their holy work entitled them to eat.
Moses is about to say the same thing about the sin offering (which is why he is looking for the sin offering in the first place) when he discovers that it has been burned up. Why? In 10:19, Aaron explains, “Today, they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me!” They had carried out the sacrifices that were intended to allay God’s wrath, and yet God’s wrath broke out against Aaron’s own sons.
As far as Aaron is concerned, he has failed in his priestly duty. Because of his failure, he decides that he has lost the right to eat of the sacrifice. He concludes that the proper way for him to address the problem is by burning up the sin offering instead. Basically, Aaron is acting like an honest mechanic who accepts money to fix a car, then returns the money when he can’t do it.
This is a far cry from permission to disobey the ordinances of God! Instead, Aaron’s behavior shows not only a concern for the letter of the Law, but an understanding of its spirit. It stands in bright contrast to the actions of too many Christians today. They approach the law of Christ looking to press every advantage they can, to get as close as they can to sin without putting a toe over the line. Sadly, they forget to ask whether their bold assertion of their rights shows a proper regard for the holiness of God.
If we treat God as holy, we will imitate Aaron’s respect for Him. Moses didn’t demand that Aaron abstain from the sin offering, but Aaron knew it was the right thing to do anyway. So too, our respect for God should go beyond what He demands. The story of Nadab and Abihu illustrates the problem with too little reverence for Him, but there is no such thing as too much.