We are trying to examine the Biblical understanding of Judgment and Forgiveness. So first, let’s look at the story of Nadav and Avihu which is told in the first few verses of Leviticus chapter 10; then we will compare that with the New Testament account of Ananias and Sapphira, as told in Acts 5. In both cases the common element is that Yahweh took the lives of these folks for offending Him. In both cases it involves Believers; in fact Nadav and Avihu were priests—Ananias and Sapphira were early disciples of Jesus. And on the surface, both cases the offenses seem to be little more than breaches of protocol; hardly the thing you would expect a God who places such a high value on life, love, and mercy to pronounce the death sentence over. Let’s read about it:
But Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his censer, put fire in it, laid incense on it, and offered unauthorized fire before ADONAI, something he had not ordered them to do. At this, fire came forth from the presence of ADONAI and consumed them, so that they died in the presence of ADONAI.
Moshe said to Aharon, “This is what ADONAI said: ‘Through those who are near me I will be consecrated, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” Aharon kept silent.
Moshe called Misha’el and Eltzafan, sons of ‘Uzi’el Aharon’s uncle, and told them, “Come here, and carry your cousins away from in front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.” They approached and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moshe had said.
Then Moshe told Aharon and his sons El‘azar and Itamar, “Don’t unbind your hair or tear your clothes in mourning, so that you won’t die and so that ADONAI won’t be angry with the entire community. Rather, let your kinsmen— the whole house of Isra’el— mourn, because of the destruction ADONAI brought about with his fire. Moreover, don’t leave the entrance to the tent of meeting, or you will die, because ADONAI‘ s anointing oil is on you” —Leviticus 10:1-7
Kind of a rude way to meet Nadav and Avihu, but rather sobering too. But you have to realize that Aaron was now the fully consecrated High Priest of Israel, and Nadav and Avihu were fully consecrated common priests. In fact, due to the normal line of succession, Nadav more than likely would have been the next High Priest on Aaron’s death.
We are told that Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan (your Bible may say “censor,” which is simply a vessel designed to house a small pile of hot coals), put incense on it (to create smoke), and then they offered it to Yahweh—as part of the Tabernacle rituals. But, there was a problem; what they offered to Yahweh the Scriptures called alien fire, or strange fire; but more importantly, whatever it was they were doing it wasn’t’ something God had ordained.
Then in a starkly matter-of-fact tone, we see that the Lord spewed forth fire and burned Nadav and Avihu to a crisp—killing them instantly—for offending Him. Imagine the shock and horror Aaron would have felt. But without batting an eye, Moses turned to Aaron and gave him a somewhat cryptic explanation of what just happened—basically explaining that what Aaron’s now smoldering sons had done was an affront to Yahweh’s holiness, and as such wouldn’t be tolerated.
Whoa! Well we had better dissect this for a few minutes, because it is extremely important to understand, because it has everything to do with who Yahweh is.
First, what is normally translated as “fire,” referring to this fire that Nadav and Avihu put into their censors, is in Hebrew esh—and it means hot coals. So, they put hot coals into their censors and not a little flaming fire. Next we are told it was an “alien fire” or a “strange fire” that they used. In Hebrew, this is esh zarah, and it is actually referring to the incense rather than the fire itself. So, a little more precise meaning of this phrase that is usually translated “strange” or “alien” fire, might be an alien incense offering by fire. The significance being that there was something wrong or defective with the overall offering they brought to Yahweh.
Now, truth be known, there is no universal agreement among the great and ancient Hebrew sages, or modern scholars, as to exactly what was defective regarding this “alien incense offering by fire” that caused the deaths of these two sons of Aaron. In the Sifra, which is basically commentary on Leviticus, a number of suggestions are made that might give us some light to the subject—and probably, taken as a whole, these suggestions give us the best possible picture of what happened here.
Now the nature of the offense begins in the fact that these two men were ordained priests. They, by their positions of privilege, were especially close to God (or, in the Hebrew way of saying it, they were near to God); and by implication, whatever they did wrong, they should have known better and were, therefore, without excuse. Sometimes I use a translation of the Bible called the Schocken Bible; it is a very literal translation, and as a result can be a little difficult to follow. But there was a very specific term or phrase that was repeated often when referring to the sacrifices and the associated rituals brought before Yahweh, and to those who were authorized to bring them; in Hebrew it’s the word “kirvah”—in English it is the word “near.” Because it specifically refers to sacrifices, the literal meaning is “near-offering.”
So, what am I getting at? Well, what does “near” in its simplest sense mean? Close-by. Next to. Adjacent to. Near is the opposite of far. A near relative is someone who is genealogically close to you—a close blood relative. So, near can refer to a close association, or it can refer to a close proximity—a close distance. Priests were “near” to God in association with Him—both in the sense that they were his set-apart servants, given duties to perform that only they were permitted to do; and they were given the privilege of being “near” in proximity to Him, by being allowed to enter into His earthly dwelling place—the Tabernacle Sanctuary itself—on specified occasions (and that’s important to note and I will get to this as this study continues).