Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Painting by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum/public domain
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.
— Leviticus 10:1-2
Nestled among the long stream of instructions and rules that makes up the book of Leviticus sits the small and tragic story of Nadab and Abihu, assistant priests who made some kind of mistake and were consumed by God's fire as a result. Scholars and theologians have long debated the meaning of this story, which comes out of the blue with little real description of what they did wrong, or why they were so severely punished.
There are some clues from earlier stories. The first recorded act of worship led to the first murder when Abel died at the hands of his brother, and Abraham was ready to sacrifice his own son for his faith. Declaring one's faith then is clearly fraught with danger. In this case it seems there was some ego involved. The brothers offered strange fire, to God, something not asked for, and clearly not desired. They didn't stick to the script, perhaps deciding they knew better.
Leviticus is nothing if not thorough. Step by step it instructs man in precise detail what to do to create right relationship with God. And then, momentarily, a short cut is taken with dire results. In modern terms we can imagine the conducting of a delicate scientific experiment, where all due precaution must be taken for the sake of safety. One small error may lead to disaster. Genuine mistakes can be made, but more often than not such "mistakes" come about due to carelessness, impatience, and arrogance, essentially a lack of reverence. Such seems to be the case with Nadab and Abihu.
"Like nuclear fission, worship generates power, which can be benign but can also be profoundly dangerous." 1
For those of us who are neither scientists nor worshippers what can we draw from this story? For me it is this: that to pursue our purpose without due reverence is to invite problems. Reverence might mean respect for past history or for current-day wisdom; it might mean slowing down to ensure those on your path are with you or aware of you, or perhaps stepping into your observing self to consider the bigger picture, and the impact on family, friends and the wider society of your personal journey; it might mean paying attention to timing, There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens2, or it might simply mean pausing to ask for guidance when the road is hard, rather than pushing on under self-will alone.
1 Quote from Fire: Holy and Unholy by Jonathan Sacks
2 Ecclesiastes 3:1