Examining a Biblical Mystery

Posted on July 2, 2021


By David Ettinger

(The Old Testament account of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu is shocking. The reason as to why God took these men’s lives is indeed a biblical mystery worth examining. You may read the account here.)

The Incident
Nadab and Abihu’s lives came to a sudden end when they “offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command” (Leviticus 10:1). This incident has confused Bible readers for centuries, the nature of the “crime” a puzzle, its consequences seemingly overly harsh. So, what in the world happened?

magnifying glass

The incident took place at the beginning of Israel’s newly inaugurated priesthood. God had appeared to Israel in a remarkable way, accepted the new high priest Aaron’s offering, and the priesthood was off and running (Leviticus Chapter 9). Soon after, possibly on the very next day, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, went to the Tabernacle to submit incense offerings of their own, and it ended up costing them their lives. Why did God kill them?

The Bible doesn’t specifically tell us what the brothers did that was so bad, but the phrase “unauthorized fire” provides a telling clue. When the brothers entered the holy place – home of the altar of incense – they took with them their censers. Censers were ceremonial vessels holding hot coals and used for burning incense. Fire and incense were added to the coals producing a pleasantly fragrant aroma which would rise, symbolically, to Heaven. The smoke represented the prayers of the people rising to God.

Seems like a rather thoughtful thing for the brothers to do. But there’s more to it than that.

First, it seems that Nadab and Abihu let their egos get in the way of their propriety and duty. After all, their father Aaron was the high priest; it was his job to make the incense offering unless he passed the responsibility on to his priest sons. They appeared to have usurped his authority.


Second, Nadab and Abihu most likely violated God’s specific instructions as to how the incense offering was to be made. Exodus 30:7-9 says:

Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it.

This verse is probably the key to understanding what happened. It seems the two sons were not tending the lamps when they burned their incense, a specific requirement of the Lord (v. 8). They also appeared to have been offering something “other” than what God had ordained (v. 9).

Third, there also seems to be a hint that Nadab and Abihu were drunk. Right after Aaron’s sons were killed, God told Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die” (Leviticus 10:9). That this stipulation was not given before the institution of the priesthood as were the other stipulations, indicates it was added because of Nadab and Abihu’s behavior.

Fourth, in doing what they did, Nadab and Abihu were guilty of violating God’s commands to treat Him as holy and worthy of honor. Exodus 19:22 says, “Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.” Unconsecrated and disrespectful, the brothers approached God unworthily, and suffered because of it.


Why So Harsh?
But what of their deaths? For what? After all, Cain killed Abel and God didn’t kill Cain. Later, King David arranged the despicable death of the innocent Uriah, and God didn’t slay David. So why did He treat Nadab and Abihu so harshly? Their death sentence bears a resemblance to another harsh execution, that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). Just because they held back some money, did they deserve to die because of it?

What both incidents have in common is that they came on the cusp of God beginning a new era in Israel – the priesthood in the brothers’ time, and the Church in the couples’ time. The Lord had to make clear to His people that defiance, disrespect, disregard and dishonor were not to be tolerated – especially by those who were to serve Him. As priests, Nadab and Abihu decided to do things their way, something God would not tolerate. He had given them specific instructions and expected them to obey.

Instead, they took matters into their own hands, served their own egotistical whims, and paid a bitter price for their insubordination. God is not to be mocked, and, in this instance, He poured His wrath upon two mockers who should have known better.

May God give you and me a heart which desires to bring Him joy and not anger and disappointment.