Our reading today begins with the death of two of Aaron’s sons: Nadab and Abihu. To understand what, exactly, happens here, we need to remember some of what we have already read. In Exodus 30:1-10, in the middle of God giving instructions about the Tabernacle and its service, He tells Moses how to make the Altar of Incense.* In 30:9, God forbids burning any unauthorized incense on this altar. The word “unauthorized” can be translated a number of ways, but the heart of it is that no other incense other than that which God has expressly commanded may be burned on it.
In addition, we have seen through all of the detailed instructions for the Tabernacle, the priestly garments, everything to be used in the Tabernacle, all of the laws for offerings, and the 77 times the word “holy” has been used to describe God, His people, His commands, the worship of Him, etc. from the Exodus through now (there are 71 more usages of “holy” in the last 17 chapters of Leviticus!), the absolute holiness of God, and the holiness He calls His people to, have been emphasized above all things.**
And here in Leviticus 10:1, these two priests offer unauthorized fire (i.e., incense) to the Lord. And the point is not the incense. The point is the inward state of these two men – called to be priests! – as they approach a supremely holy God. This is why God says that for those who are near to Him (the priesthood, those who are physically nearest Him, point us to the true priesthood of those who are spiritually near to Him), He will be sanctified – or set apart – or treated as holy. And through this holy reverence for God, He will be glorified among the people (v. 3). And this is true for us. If we treat God as holy in our lives, the world will see Him and He will be glorified.
But the story doesn’t stop here. In verse 9, we have what seems to be an unrelated interjection about the priests drinking. But I do not believe it is unrelated. I believe that the reason this and verses 10-11 are here is that Nadab and Abihu were drinking wine before ministering to the Lord. Remember, the two previous chapters are about the ordination of the priests and God’s acceptance of them, and if we look back at Exodus 29:40, we see that a daily drink offering was part of the seven-day ordination ceremony of the priests. In other words, it was both Nadab and Abihu’s lack of reverence for the holiness of the drink offering and the incense that revealed their hearts. In casually drinking the wine of the drink offering, they failed to “distinguish between the holy and the common” (v. 10), and as priests, they ran the risk of leading the people of Israel into the same sin (v. 11).
This chapter ends with Aaron refusing to eat the sin offering, and instead burning it up. Now, one would think that this would be the same sin as misusing the drink offering or offering strange fire that the Lord did not command. But what we see is that Aaron gets it. His explanation to Moses in verse 19 shows that Aaron understood that it was the heart that matters. And Moses’ approval in verse 20 shows that Aaron is right. God accepts the heart behind the offering, not the details of the offering itself.
Chapter 11 details the food laws. Much of this is practical as well as religious. Eating pork and shellfish is a more dangerous proposition than eating beef or fish because of the bacteria in them. They need to be cooked more thoroughly. The animals that are allowed are also (generally) higher in protein than those that God restricts (many insects are higher in protein than beef and chicken, ounce for ounce!). But God also wants the Israelites to act differently than those around them. Their dietary restrictions (and many other laws) are designed so that one could look at an Israelite and know they are God’s chosen people. Once again, this outward lifestyle is meant to reflect the inward difference between God’s people and the world. The outward should result from the inward (see verse 44).
Additionally, the distinction between clean and unclean is again a reminder of the holiness of God. Like with the fruit of Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, there is nothing sinful about eating these animals in and of themselves. It is that God forbids eating them that makes doing so sinful. That is why now, since Christ has fulfilled the law, we can eat bacon with a clear conscience. The New Testament’s teaching that the food restrictions are lifted is meant to show us that the single nation that God called to be (ultimately spiritually) different extends in Christ to the whole world.
Now, the fact of the matter is that we don’t know what a lot of these animals are that we have listed in the Hebrew. Some of the translations are based more on tradition than anything else. In verse 20 we see how the Bible uses common language rather than scientific language (thank God!). The Bible debunkers can point out that insects don’t have four legs, but six; but the Bible is using the phrase “on all fours” to communicate crawling. We need to realize that the Bible does not use 21st century American idioms!
In chapter 12 we read of the laws for purification after giving birth. Note that the uncleanness and purification times are doubled for a daughter. Why? Because the times for the daughter represent the sin we are all born into (see Psalm 51:5). Circumcision represents being in covenant with God, which is why the uncleanness ends with the circumcision of the son. Now in covenant, he is, as one of God’s people, partly pure and partly sinful (like we all are on this side of heaven), hence the halving of the purification time.
This (and many, many other laws that are given) also shows us the contextualization of God’s revelation. He called Abraham, and then saved a people according to HIs promise, all in the context of a very patriarchal world. This speaks to our weakness because of our sin. God has to accommodate Himself to us for us to understand Him. And He does that, ultimately, in Jesus Christ, the greatest accommodation, and the greatest revelation.
The chapter ends with the laws for the offering after childbirth. Once the days of purification are done, the mother brings an offering to the priest. Note that, again, God makes it so that the poor are not excluded from fully worshiping Him. Also note that Mary, the mother of our Lord, followed these rules, and could only afford to offer birds (Luke 2:22-24). This shows the context into which Christ came: into a poor, but believing, family.
Thank God He always comes down to our level so we can know Him!
*Here is what we saw last week on the Altar of Incense: “Chapter 30 starts with instructions for another altar: the altar of incense. Notice that this altar is overlaid in gold (v. 3), because it will be in the very presence of God (v. 6). Note the injunction against burning unauthorized incense (i.e., “strange fire” – v. 9). Also notice that this altar – not the altar used throughout the rest of the year – is the one used on the Day of Atonement (v. 10). Again, we have a pointer forward to Christ and His sacrifice in the presence of God.”
**By comparison, God’s grace has been mentioned six times, His mercy five times (unless we count the 18 references to the mercy seat), and His love nine times. It is a shocking realization. And in the modern church, God’s love, grace, and mercy are emphasized above His holiness. Perhaps we need to change that. Because understanding His holiness makes what God did in Christ all that much more amazing. Because for such an absolute holy God to condescend to come to us as One of us is exactly what shows how great His love, mercy, and grace are.