On Shabbat Jews around the world will be reading the parasha (Torah portion) called Shemini from Leviticus 9:1-11:47. The Haftarah, reading from the prophets is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17. The New Testament reading (for Messianic synagogues) is from the book of Acts 10:9-22.
The reading from the Torah describes one of the most interesting tragedies in the Bible. Moses has just completed seven days of training and instructions for the Priests (the cohanim). Now it is the time for these sanctified servants of God and the people to get to work and practice what they have learned.
In Leviticus 9, Moses provides specific instructions with regard to what sacrifices are to be brought to the Tabernacle for the sacrificial ceremony. The entire leadership of Israel has been gathered together to witness the inauguration of the altar of the Lord. Everyone is dressed for the event.
Aaron is wearing his special priestly garment. He has on the golden breastplate (the ephod) with the names of all of the 12 tribes, the twelve precious stones shimmering in the light of the desert sun. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two eldest sons are next to their father ready to perform their duty as priests and to present the offering in front of all of Israel.
This is the first time that the Tabernacle is going to be fully functional. Everyone is under great pressure and the ceremony starts and the two young priests who have been trained and rehearsed for a whole week, are now expected to do their priestly duty and bring the fire to set on fire the burnt offering which is on the altar.
Here is the tragedy, Nadab and Abihu took a shortcut and brought fire from the wrong place, strange fire, not from the holy fire that was prepared for this occasion. This is how the text in Leviticus 10:1-3, describes what happened:
“Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, saying: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.”’ So Aaron held his peace.” – Leviticus 10:1-3 [NKJV]
Some criticize the harsh punishment that The Lord used against the sons of Aaron. A tragedy without doubt. A tragedy is not an act of no choice. A tragedy is always something that could and should have been avoided and prevented. If some very bad thing happens that is out of our human control, it is “force majeure”, an act of Heaven.
No human being can be punished for a volcano that erupted, or a tsunami that struck a coast line and destroyed a city. The event that brought the Lord to such anger that he took the lives of these two sons of Aaron was something that could have and should have been avoided. These men spent a week with Moses teaching and training and rehearsing their duties as priests serving the Lord Most High! So what caused these young priests to make such a bad mistake?
The text of Leviticus 10 does not say explicitly why Nadab and Abihu did this stupid deed, but it does hint and give us a reasonable explanation of why these well trained young priests did this terrible thing that angered the Almighty God.
“Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: ‘Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.’” – Leviticus 10:8-10 [NKJV]
Because this command of the Lord through Moses comes immediately after the tragic event of the death of the children of Aaron the connection is made and an explanation is given by the ancient Jewish rabbinical authorities that Nadab and Abihu were drunk during the ceremony of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. Therefore the Lord commands Moses and Aaron and his two surviving sons not to drink strong drink (alcohol) when they are preforming their duty and service to the Lord.
I imagine what went on in the minds of these two young priests, sons of Aaron: They probably said to themselves, “This event is so important and so holy that we can’t make mistakes. All of Israel’s leadership will be there watching us. Maybe it would be wise for us to drink a little and be more relaxed and not so tense and nervous when we serve the Lord and the people.” So, they took one glass of whiskey and soda, just to be a little more relaxed, not so tense.
This is a very important message for all those who serve the Lord and the people of God: It is not good to be so tense and full of fear when you serve the Lord. However, it is much more serious to take your service in God’s Kingdom lightly or take lightly the Lord and His serious attitude toward the instructions and commands that He gives us, His servants, in all that pertains to His instructions.
Just take as an example the instructions that the Apostle Paul gives us concerning the communion, and let these instructions put a little more of the fear of the Lord in every servant of God when it comes to our public service to the Lord and His people.
Share with your pastors, rabbis, and preachers!
This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.