The Strange Case of the Strange Fire
1. The “strange fire” to which we refer is that which Nadab and Abihu offer.
a. The term gets translated “foreign,” “unholy,” or “unauthorized.”
b. What these two men offered was unholy, not commanded by God and foreign to his purposes.
2. The outcome is, to us, even more strange.
a. The penalty appears weightier than the offense.
b. The response of their immediate family to their demise is out of step with what we expect.
c. Perhaps most importantly, the God who acts this way is strange to us: he is not the comfortable and cuddly One who may be fashioned into whatever we imagine and who will support us in whatever we intend.
3. The people of God learn something from this strange case that cannot be learned in some other way.
1. We will get at the truth only as we read this episode against the background of the last half of Exodus and the first half of Leviticus.
a. The God who acts here has made himself known as the One who works in every way consistent with his own character to take these people to himself as his own treasured possession.
i. Lev. 9:23
ii. Lev. 5:5, 7, 11
iii. Ex. 24:16-17; 40:36-38
b. The two men who are the actors here, Nadab and Abihu, have been entrusted with precious responsibilities and have been granted special privileges.
i. Ex. 24:1-2, 9-11
ii. Lev. 8:1f, 24, 30
iii. Lev. 9:8, 9, 18, 24
2. What Nadab and Abihu did brought and sudden and severe judgment from God because it was so out of step with that background.,
a. The obvious issue is that they “offered...before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.”
i. “As the LORD commanded Moses,” or some form of that saying is the refrain of this entire section os Scripture (i.e., 18 times in Ex. 39-40).
ii. Fire was to be kept burning on the brazen altar continually; it was not to go out (Lev. 6:13). Some think it may have been started by what God did at the end of chapter 9.
iii. Coals from it were to be taken in censers for the burning of incense on the golden altar before the veil (Lev. 16:12, 13).
iv. Aaron, the high priest, was to burn fragrant incense on it (Ex. 30:6).
v. No unauthorized incense was to be offered on it (Ex. 30:9).
b. The presumption that approaches holy things without an authority from the LORD does not come by itself: there is something more wrong with Nadab and Abihu than a minor character flaw.
i. Nothing at all had been said about offering incense in all of the events of chapters 8 and 9; they were each doing what they wanted themselves.
ii. They were assuming first for themselves a privilege that belonged to their father: offering incense before the LORD. They did it at a time other than instructed with fire from the source authorized (Ex. 30:6, 7).
iii. Lev. 10:9-10. Does this suggest they were “under the influence” at such an important time?
iv. Lev. 16:1-2. Did they make an attempt to enter within the veil to the Most Holy Place?
v. Nadab and Abihu were empty of gratitude, had no appreciation for the sacredness of the occasion, and showed no respect for the difference between the holy and the common – and all this from two men who were charged with teaching the people about these very things!
3. What God does is what he has to do, both because of who he is and because of who his people will have to be in order to dwell with him.
a. Moses left no one in doubt about the meaning of the judgment upon Nadab and Abihu: “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (v. 3).
i. Notice that he is saying, “This is no surprise.”
ii. God cannot allow his holiness to be violated, even by anointed priests, and these two men were guilty of approaching the holiest things their own way instead of in a way authorized by the LORD.
iii. The point of the tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and the priesthood is that God graciously works to provide a way for man to abide in the presence of holiness without being destroyed.
iv. What happened to Nadab and Abihu demonstrates what would happen to any of us without the way he provides.
v. “The new community had to be made aware that it existed for God, not vice versa.” (NIV Study Bible, 157)
b. The remainder of the account illustrates that the farther-reaching concern of God is for the well-being of the entire camp.
i. He is unwilling for the people to be misled about reality: “and before all the people I will be glorified” – be seen for who he really is (v. 3).
ii. To Aaron: “lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation” (v. 6).
iii. He wants the priests to be influences who can teach the people to distinguish between the holy and the common (v. 10).
1. That which is holy should still be approached by God’s authority and not our own.
2. It seems that this point was emphasized in a sobering way as new eras in the unfolding history of the people of God were occurring: apparently he wants us to realize that approaching holiness on our own terms has perilous consequences.
a. Achan (Joshua 7)
b. Uzzah (2 Samuel 6)
c. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).
3. “Our God is a consuming fire.” Let us be grateful. Let us think of what is acceptable to him. Let us be loyal to him with faith, reverence, awe, and thanksgiving (Heb. 12:28-29; 13:15-16).