“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.”-Leviticus 10:1-2
The main reason many people are shocked at the Lord suddenly killing Nadav and Avihu is because it seems so uncharacteristic of a God who places such a high value on love and mercy.
Why did the Lord exercise the death penalty over what seemed to be a mere breach of protocol?
Right out of the start gate from verse 1 we are introduced to Aaron’s two eldest sons Nadav and Avihu.
Keep in mind that at this point in the Scriptures Aaron is now the fully consecrated High Priest of Israel.
And his sons Nadav and Avihu are now fully consecrated common priests.
Under normal circumstances, Nadav would probably have been the one who would have inherited the High Priest post from his father once he passed away.
But as we’ll see, that was not to be.
We’re told that Nadav and Avihu each took his censor (some translations say “fire pans”) and offered them up to YHVH.
We all know what happened next.
In one blazing instant the Lord spewed forth fire resulting in Nadav and Avihu being burned to a crisp.
They died instantly.
Let’s examine this situation closely because what happened here has everything to do with the character of YHVH.
The first thing I need to point out is although our English Bibles normally use the word “fire” referring to what Nadav and Avihu put in their censors, that translation is not exactly accurate.
The original Hebrew is ESH and it does NOT mean “fire”.
It actually means “hot coals”.
So Nadav and Avihu actually put hot coals into their censors and not little flaming fires as we usually think.
This makes more sense because censors are simply metal vessels used to carry a small pile of hot coals from one place to another.
Now let’s take a look at the phrase “strange fire” or “alien fire” that we find in our English Bibles.
The original Hebrew from which these phrases come from is ESH ZARAH.
Now we just learned that ESH does NOT mean “fire” but “hot coals”.
So what ESH ZARAH is really referring to is the incense from the coals rather than the fire itself.
A more accurate way to render ESH ZARAH in English is to say “a strange incense offering by fire“.
Now the truth be told, there doesn’t appear to be universal agreement among the Jewish sages as to what exactly was wrong with “strange incense offering by fire” that Nadav and Avihu brought.
The Halakic Jewish commentary on Leviticus known as the SIFRA suggests that the nature of Nadiv and Avihu’s offense begins with fact that these two men were ordained priests before the Lord.
In other words, by virtue of their positions of privilege, they were especially NEAR to God and thus should have been much more careful in carrying out their priestly duties.
Throughout Leviticus, there is one specific Hebrew word that is repeated often in connection with the Temple sacrifices and rituals performed before YHVH.
That Hebrew word is KIRVAH.
In English, this word would mean “near”, but in the Biblical context because it is referring to sacrifices, the meaning would be “near-offering”.
The idea being communicated here is that the Levitical Priests were NEAR to God in two ways.
First, as the Lord’s set-apart servants, they were given the privilege to perform duties that the common Hebrew man was not permitted to do.
Second, the priests were given the privilege of literally being physically “near” the Lord because they were allowed to enter the Tabernacle Sanctuary.
To conclude, what is the takeaway here?
It is this.
Those who have been given the privilege of being “near to YHVH” will be held to a higher standard than those who are not.
And we will find this principle all throughout the Scriptures.
Nadav and Avihu were the Lord’s privileged “near-servants”, so to speak.
Hence, there could be no room for error in carrying out their duties.
The closer to the Lord’s holiness one is, the greater the responsibility and the greater the consequences for trespassing the Lord’s holiness.