This passage relates the puzzling story of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, who have just been ordained with him into the priesthood in the previous chapters. They offer "unholy fire" in their censers "before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them" (10:1). Then "fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD" (10:2). Aaron and his remaining sons are forbidden to mourn, as they are still serving as priests in the tabernacle, but the congregation of Israel is permitted to mourn.
It is unclear what is meant by "unholy fire" and why the two priests are killed. Is it because the Lord did not command them to offer the fire? Is it because they are offering it at the wrong time or in the wrong way? Is it that they are drunk, as some interpreters have inferred from 10:9, which prohibits priests from drinking alcohol while serving in the sanctuary?
There is no clear answer to these questions, but two things can be said. First, the priests have a dangerous job, approaching the Lord in the sanctuary. God's holiness is so absolute and so powerful that one must approach it only after much preparation, following God's instructions exactly. Like a strong electrical current, God's holiness will destroy anyone who approaches it carelessly. Secondly, whatever Nadab's and Abihu's error, it mirrors other biblical accounts of creation and sin. Nadab and Abihu are ordained in a seven-day ritual, and on the eighth day they sin and are destroyed. In Genesis 1-3, the world is created "very good" in seven days, and on the eighth day (or later), Adam and Eve sin and are banished from the garden. At Mount Sinai, God establishes a covenant with the people of Israel and begins to give them instructions for the tabernacle (Exodus 19-31), and they immediately sin by making and worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32). In each instance, God creates, human beings immediately sin, and then God re-creates and reestablishes relationship with the people. The story of Nadab and Abihu, in spite of the unanswered questions it raises, fits into this pattern.
10Now Aarons sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them.
2And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.
3Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord meant when he said,
Through those who are near me
I will show myself holy,
and before all the people
I will be glorified.
And Aaron was silent.
4 Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, Come forward, and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp. 5They came forward and carried them by their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had ordered. 6And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, Do not dishevel your hair, and do not tear your vestments, or you will die and wrath will strike all the congregation; but your kindred, the whole house of Israel, may mourn the burning that the Lord has sent. 7You shall not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, or you will die; for the anointing-oil of the Lord is on you. And they did as Moses had ordered.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011