Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.X.
(1) And Nadab and Abihu.—Immediately after the Divine manifestation of God’s acceptance of the services connected with the institution of the priesthood, and whilst the congregation are still giving utterance to their profound expressions of thankfulness and joy, the assembled people see a most daring act of sacrilege committed by two of the five newly-installed priests, and have to witness the most awful punishment which befals the offenders. The offenders are the two eldest sons of Aaron, who had received the high distinction to be invited to accompany their father and Moses to the summit of the hallowed mount (Exodus 24:1); the lesson to the Israelites being that the priests, though mediators between God and the people, are beset with the same infirmities as the laity, and must not presume upon their office.
Took either of them his censer.—The sin of Nadab and Abihu was of a complicated nature, and involved and consisted of several transgressions:—(1) They each took his own censer, and not the sacred utensil of the sanctuary. (2) They both offered it together, whereas the incense was only to be offered by one. (3) They presumptuously encroached upon the functions of the high priest; for according to the Law the high priest alone burnt incense in a censer. (Sec Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11.) The ordinary priests only burnt it on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8), or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial. (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16, &c.) The case of Korah and his company was an exception, since it was ordered by Moses for an especial purpose (Numbers 16:6-25). (4) They offered the incense at an unauthorised time, since it was apart from the morning and evening sacrifice.
And offered strange fire.—They filled their vessels with common fire instead of taking it from the holy fire of the altar, which was always to be used in burning incense. (See Leviticus 9:24; Leviticus 16:12.) It is with reference to this practice that we are told—“And the angel took the censer and filled it with fire off the altar” (Revelation 8:5). Ancient tradition says that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too freely of the drink offering, and performed their service in a state of intoxication, when they were incapacitated to distinguish between what was legal and illegal. So general was this tradition that it is actually embodied in the Palestinian Chaldee Version of Leviticus 10:9, which contains the solemn warning against wine to those engaged in the service of the sanctuary, and which is regarded as a sequel to this awful catastrophe. Others, however, suppose that the phrase “strange fire” denotes not offered according to the prescribed law, just as “strange incense” is used in the sense of incense not prepared in the manner ordered by the Law (Exodus 30:9).
Before the Lord.—This may mean before the door of the sanctuary (see Leviticus 1:5), or in front of the holy of holies. (See Leviticus 4:6.) As the dead bodies are said in Leviticus 10:4 to have lain in the court of the tabernacle, the former must be the meaning in the passage before us.
Which he commanded them not.—According to a figure of speech frequently used in Hebrew, where the negative form is used for the emphatic affirmative, this phrase is better rendered, “which he had strongly forbidden them.” Though the command is only expressed in Leviticus 16:12, there can hardly be any doubt that it was previously given by Moses, since it is implied in Leviticus 1:7; Leviticus 6:12. A similar reference to a well known statement, though not here recorded, we have in the following verse.
And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.(2) And there went out fire from the Lord.—By fire they sinned, and by fire they died. The Divine fire which issued forth to consume the sacrifices as a token of acceptance, now descended as the avenger of sin to consume the sacrificers, just as the same gospel is to one a savour of life unto life, and to another a savour of death unto death. (2Corinthians 2:16.)
And devoured them.—That is, slay them, since we are told in Leviticus 10:5 that not only were their bodies in a perfect state of preservation, but even their garments were not burnt. The word consume, however, is used here to keep up the connection between this verse and chap 9:24.
They died before the Lord.—That is, in the court of the sanctuary (see Leviticus 10:1), on the very spot where the sin was committed.
Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.(3) Then Moses said . . . This is it that the Lord spake.—Here we have another instance of a reference to a well-known Divine communication made through Moses, which has not been previously recorded in the Pentateuch. Moses adduces this declaration to explain to the bereaved father the judgment of God.
I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me.—Better. I will sanctify myself in them that come near to me. God had sanctified to himself Aaron and his sons by the holy unction (see Leviticus 8:10; Leviticus 8:12), that they might sanctify Him in the strict performance of their sacred duties as the mediators between God and man. Having failed to do this, God sanctified himself in them by the awful punishment inflicted upon them for their transgression. (See Ezekiel 27:22; Ezekiel 38:16; Ezekiel 38:23.) The phrase, “that come near to God,” is a frequent designation for the priest. (Exodus 19:22; Numbers 16:5; Ezekiel 42:13; Ezekiel 43:19.)
And before all the people I will be glorified.—Better, and I will glorify myself before all the people. By this judgment God vindicated His law, showing that it cannot be violated with impunity, and thus glorified Himself as the Holy One of Israel.
And Aaron held his peace.—He silently submitted to the righteous judgment which bereft him of his two sons. So the Psalmist, “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it” (Psalm 39:9).
And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them, Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.(4) And Moses called . . . the sons of Uzziel.—Uzziel was the son of Kohath, the younger brother of Amram. As Amram was the father of Aaron, Uzziel was the uncle of Aaron. Uzziel had three sons, of whom Mishael and Elzaphan were two (Exodus 6:18; Exodus 6:22). Eleazar and Ithamar, as ordinary priests, might have been employed in removing the remains of their slain brothers. (See Leviticus 21:1-4) Naturally they were too much affected by this appalling scene; Moses therefore wanted to spare their feelings, and hence charged their cousins-german with the task of carrying away the dead bodies. The reason why Izar and Hebron, the two older uncles of Aaron, are here passed over is because the discontent of their children with the choice of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, which afterward broke out in open rebellion on the part of Korah, Izar’s son (Numbers 16, 17), had evidently begun to show itself when they witnessed the imposing ceremonies of the consecration. It was necessary that those who suffered so signally for the transgression of the Divine institutions should be buried by men whose allegiance to God’s law was unimpeachable.
Carry your brethren.—That is, your kinsmen. The expression brother is frequently used in the Bible in the sense of near relation. (See Genesis 13:8; Genesis 14:6; Genesis 24:48; Genesis 29:12-15, &c.)
From before the sanctuary.—In the courtyard of the sanctuary, where the incense was offered in the midst of the rejoicing people, and where they were struck dead. (See Leviticus 9:5.)
So they went near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp; as Moses had said.(5) And carried them in their coats.—Better, and they carried them in their tunics, the long white, garments in which they ministered, and which were the most characteristic part of the sacerdotal vestments. In ordinary cases the cast-off dresses of the priests were converted into wick for the lamps of the sanctuary, but in this case they were buried with the persons, for, apart from their becoming unclean by their contact with the corpses, no one would have used them, having been worn at a time of so awful a visitation.
And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled.(6) Uncover not your heads.—Better, let not your heads be dishevelled. It was the custom for mourners to let their hair grow long, and let it fall in a disorderly and wild manner over the head and face. (See Leviticus 13:45; Leviticus 21:10; 2Samuel 15:30; 2Samuel 19:4, &c.) For this reason the priests who are consecrated to the service of the Lord are even on ordinary occasions not to shave their heads nor suffer their locks to grow long. (Ezekiel 44:20.) On this occasion more especially Aaron and his two surviving sons are forbidden to give way to these manifestations of grief, since it might be considered as a reflection upon the justice of the punishment.
Neither rend your clothes.—This was another ordinary manifestation of sorrow and mourning. (See Genesis 37:29; Genesis 37:34; Joshua 7:6; 2Samuel 13:21, &c.) To this day the Jews observe this custom of mourning for the death of their near relations; they tear their garments, let their hair and nails grow, and do not wash.
And lest wrath come upon all the people.—The transgression of this command would not only bring down upon Aaron and his sons the same awful judgment, but would expose the whole community to the Divine wrath. In virtue of the intimate connection which subsisted between the representative of the nation and the people, a sin committed by the high priest in his official position involved the whole community, and they had to share the consequences of the offence. (See Leviticus 4:3.)
But let your brethren.—The afflicted relatives were, however, not to be deprived of all the customary expressions of mourning. The whole house of Israel, who are here designedly called “the brethren” of the bereaved, to show the depth of their sympathy, were allowed to mourn over the great calamity which had thus befallen them.
And ye shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you. And they did according to the word of Moses.(7) From the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, away from the entrance of the tent of meeting. (See Leviticus 1:3.) But Aaron and his sons are not to quit the court of the sanctuary to take part in the burial.
For the anointing of the Lord is upon you.—The reason why they are not to join in the funeral rites is that they had been devoted by this holy unction to the service of God. Earthly relations were, therefore, not to interfere with the duties to God. Hence, it was sin for priests to mourn when they ministered before the Lord. (See Leviticus 21:10-12.) This law was strictly observed during the second Temple. When an officiating priest heard of the death of a relative, he did not quit the sanctuary, lest it should appear that he had greater love for the dead person than for the living God.
And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying,(8) And the Lord spake unto Aaron.—As half of the staff of the priesthood had thus been struck down, and the other half were not allowed to mourn over the departed, the chief of the survivors might have thought that God was altogether displeased with the newly created pontificate. To comfort him, therefore, as well as to restore the prestige of this sacred office in the eyes of the people, who had witnessed the disobedience and punishment of the spiritual functionaries, the Lord, who hitherto made all such communications to Moses, now honours Aaron with speaking to him immediately.
Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations:(9) Do not drink wine.—As the command that the priests are to abstain from any intoxicating liquors when performing their sacred functions follows so closely upon the death of Nadab and Abihu, the opinion obtained as early at least as the time of Christ that there is a connection between the specific sin and the general law, that the two sons of Aaron drank wine to excess when they offered strange fire, and that the present prohibition is based upon that circumstance. Accordingly, the Apostle enjoins that a bishop “must not be given to wine,” that “deacons must not be given to much wine” (1Timothy 3:2-3). A similar law existed among the ancient Greeks and Persians, enjoining the priests to abstain from wine.
Nor strong drink.—The word (shēchār) here rendered strong drink, is the general name of intoxicating drinks, whether made of wheat, barley, millet, apples, dates, honey, or other fruits. One of the four intoxicating drinks which are prohibited among the Mahommedans in India is called “Sachar.”
When ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, when ye go into the tent of meeting. The Palestinian Chaldee adds here, “as thy sons did who died by the burning fire.” The same precept is repeated in Ezekiel 44:21, “Neither shall any priest drink wine when they enter into the inner court.” The injunction that on these particular occasions the priests are to abstain from taking it clearly implies that, ordinarily, when not going into the tent of meeting—that is, when not performing their sacred functions in the sanctuary—they were not forbidden to use it if required.
And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean;(10) And that ye may put difference.—The motive here assigned for their abstinence from intoxicating liquor is, that by keeping sober they might be able to discriminate between the legal and illegal points in the prescribed observances, which required the greatest care. Thus, for instance, the rules as to which places and days and sundry portions of the offerings were holy or common, or as to holy fire and common fire, which Nadab and Abihu violated; or about ceremonially clean and unclean men, women, animals, and utensils. (See Ezekiel 44:23.)
And that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.(11) And that ye may teach.—The priests were not only to keep sober to be able to decide the questions of ritual, but they were to teach the people, since the ceremonial law affected domestic life and social intercourse (Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:7). For neglecting these duties, the prophet charges them :—“Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned my holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and the profane, neither have they showed difference [i.e., taught the people the difference] between the unclean and the clean” (Ezekiel 22:26).
And Moses spake unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons that were left, Take the meat offering that remaineth of the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and eat it without leaven beside the altar: for it is most holy:(12) And Moses spake unto Aaron.—This communication, which refers to the sacrifices offered on the eighth day, or the day after the consecration was finished, Moses made to Aaron and his two surviving sons immediately after the calamity that had befallen them. As Aaron lost his two eldest sons in consequence of their having violated the sacrificial regulations, Moses is most anxious to guard him and his two younger sons against transgressing any other part of the ritual connected with the same sacrifices, lest they also should incur a similar punishment.
Take the meat offering that remaineth of the offerings.—The meat offering which was offered by the nation the day after the consecration, when the calamity happened (see Leviticus 9:17), and which was not as yet eaten. With the exception of the handful which was burnt on the altar, all belonged to the priests. (See Leviticus 2:1-3; Leviticus 6:14-18.)
And eat it without leaven beside the altar.—That is, in the court of the tent of meeting, where the altar of burnt offering stood. (See Leviticus 6:16.)
For it is most holy.—Hence it could only be eaten by the male members of the families of the priests within the court of the sanctuary. (See Leviticus 6:18.)
And ye shall eat it in the holy place, because it is thy due, and thy sons' due, of the sacrifices of the LORD made by fire: for so I am commanded.(13) And ye shall eat it in the holy place.—Better, and ye shall eat it in a holy place, that is, in any part of the holy court; it was not to be taken out of the precincts of the sanctuary.
And the wave breast and heave shoulder shall ye eat in a clean place; thou, and thy sons, and thy daughters with thee: for they be thy due, and thy sons' due, which are given out of the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel.(14) And the wave breast and heave shoulder.—That is, of the peace offering which was offered by the nation. (See Leviticus 9:18-21.) As they were given to the priests for the maintenance of their families (see Leviticus 7:34), these portions might be eaten anywhere within the camp, provided the place was not defiled by ceremonial uncleanness.
The heave shoulder and the wave breast shall they bring with the offerings made by fire of the fat, to wave it for a wave offering before the LORD; and it shall be thine, and thy sons' with thee, by a statute for ever; as the LORD hath commanded.(15) The heave shoulder and the wave breast shall they bring.—That is, the offerers who devoted these portions of the peace offering to the Lord, are to bring them to the officiating priests. (See Leviticus 7:29-30.)
And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron which were left alive, saying,(16) And Moses diligently sought the goat.—That is, the flesh of the goat of the sin offering which was offered by the nation on the eighth day. (See Leviticus 9:15.)
And, behold, it was burnt.—Being overwhelmed with grief at the loss of their brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar could not eat, and as none but priests were allowed to partake of the flesh of the sin offering, they burnt it on the altar, to prevent its corruption. They did this all the more readily since the flesh of Aaron’s sin offering was just before burnt without the camp. (See Leviticus 9:11.)
And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar.—As it was Aaron’s duty quite as much as his two sons to eat of the flesh, Moses probably omitted to mention his name, because he wished to spare the honour of the pontiff in the sight of the people.
Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD?(17) Wherefore have ye not eaten? . . . —As enjoined in Leviticus 6:26.
God hath given it.—That is, He has given to you the flesh of the sin offering to cat. (See Leviticus 6:29.)
To bear the iniquity of the congregation.—Better, to remove the iniquity of the congregation, which the priests did by making atonement for them before the Lord, as is explained in the next clause. Accordingly the flesh of the sin offering is given to the priests, that by the act of eating it they may visibly show the offerer that God has graciously accepted the expiatory sacrifice, and that it is a most holy thing. The phrase “to bear iniquity” often signifies “to bear away, to remove, to forgive iniquity.” (Comp. Genesis 1:17; Exodus 32:32; Psalm 32:1; Psalm 32:5, &c.) Hence the most ancient Versions translate it here, “that ye may take away or remove” (LXX., the Chaldee, the Syriac, &c.). The rendering of the Authorised Version, however, is that of the Vulgate, which has been followed by the Reformers both in England and on the continent, as well as by several modern expositors. This is supported by the meaning of the phrase “to bear the iniquity” in Exodus 28:38; Numbers 18:1; Ezekiel 4:4-6. Those who follow this rendering take the passage to mean that the priest, by eating or incorporating the victim on which the offerer had laid his guilt, actually took away the sin, or neutralised it in a mysterious way, by virtue of the sanctifying power belonging to the sacerdotal office. Others, again, who also take the phrase to mean that the priest literally takes the sin upon himself, do not explain it, but simply say, that by eating the sin-laden victim the sins of the offerer were, in some sort, laid upon the priest to be taken away by him, thus prefiguring Christ, who should be both priest and sacrifice.
Behold, the blood of it was not brought in within the holy place: ye should indeed have eaten it in the holy place, as I commanded.(18) Behold, the blood of it.—According to the sacrificial law, the flesh of the sin offerings (the blood of which was not carried into the sanctuary) had to be eaten by the priests alone, in a holy place, as a part of the expiatory rites. (See Leviticus 6:25-26; Leviticus 10:17.) It was the flesh of those sin offerings, the blood of which was carried into the sanctuary, which had to be burnt. (See Leviticus 4:5; Leviticus 4:16; Leviticus 6:23; Leviticus 6:30.) Now the blood of the people’s sin-offering which was offered on this occasion was not carried into the sanctuary. (See Leviticus 9:9.)
Ye should indeed have eaten it.—Hence its flesh should have been eaten by Aaron and his two sons in the court-yard of the sanctuary, as Moses commanded in Leviticus 6:26.
And Aaron said unto Moses, Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD; and such things have befallen me: and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?(19) And Aaron said.—Though, according to Leviticus 10:16, Moses only blamed Eleazar and Ithamar for this transgression of the law, yet there can hardly be any doubt that Aaron was included in this censure, and that the lawgiver abstained from expressing his anger against the pontiff because of the supreme dignity of his office, which he would not lower in the sight of the people. Aaron, however, was fully sensible of this, and hence replies to the charge brought against his sons.
They offered their sin offering.—Before proceeding to the transgression with which they are thus charged, Aaron adverts to the fact that all the other sacrificial duties in which he and his sons were engaged on the same day, prior to the great calamity, were performed in strict accordance with the prescribed ritual. His sons assisting him had offered “their”—i.e., the people’s—sin and burnt offerings (see Leviticus 9:15-16) thus far in due compliance with the requirements of the law, and hence could never have meant to transgress intentionally.
And such things have befallen me.—But whilst he, Eleazar, and Ithamar were thus duly performing the sacrificial rites, Nadab and Abihu, his other two sons, transgressed, and were suddenly struck down dead, thus overwhelming the survivors with sorrow, and rendering them unfit to partake of the sacrifices.
And if I had eaten.—Aaron submits that, unfitted as they thus were by mourning and the sense of their own sinfulness, if they had partaken of this solemn meal it would not have been acceptable to the Lord. In consequence of this declaration, the rule obtained during the second Temple, that when an ordinary priest heard of the death of a relative whilst on duty in the sanctuary, he had to cease from service, though he could not leave the precincts of the Temple otherwise he defiled the sacrifice; whilst the high priest, who could continue his sacred ministrations, was not allowed to partake of the sacrificial meal.
And when Moses heard that, he was content.(20) And . . . he was content.—He acknowledged Aaron’s plea to be just, and that he had himself spoken hastily. This is a remarkable instance of Moses’ humility, and of the human side of his nature as a lawgiver. (See also Numbers 32:6, &c.) Hence Jewish tradition from time immemorial ascribes the mistake to Moses, and not to Aaron. The paraphrase of this verse in the Palestine Chaldee Version, which embodies the ancient opinions, is very instructive. It is as follows: “And when Moses heard it, he approved of this explanation. Whereupon he sent a herald through the whole camp of Israel, saying, It is I from whom the law had been hid, and my brother Aaron brought it to my remembrance.”