I’ve heard the story before: Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, had offered “strange fire” to the Lord and had, themselves, been consumed by fire from the Lord.
However, while finally reading through the book of Leviticus, where this story is found, the true meaning of the actions of Nadab and Abihu became clearer to me.
The people of Israel were still in the desert. Moses was still climbing the mountain daily to hear from the Lord and relay His messages to the people. The Lord had recently spoken to Moses about consecrating Aaron and his sons as the ones, the only ones, to offer sacrifices of atonement to the Lord. The people would bring their sacrifices to Aaron and his sons and these men would offer the sacrifices of burnt offering.
To anyone who has read the book of Leviticus (or Numbers, or any books of the law specifically) it becomes evident that God has a certain way of wanting things to be done. He is not vague in his instructions. He did not simply tell Noah to build a boat, a really big boat, and leave it at that. He was precise – listing the exact measurements and materials to be used. There is no ambiguity, no questions; it’s His way or no way at all. The same is true in this story. Aaron and his sons were given precise instructions on how to present the burnt offering to the Lord – what animals to sacrifice, which parts to burn, which parts to keep for themselves, where the blood was to be smeared - everything was broken down for them. The only way God could have made this easier would be to send an instruction manual with pictures. There was no questioning of God’s will or what He wanted – they knew!
So on this particular day, Aaron and his sons perform the ritual set forth by God to make atonement for the people. They slaughtered the calf, spread it’s blood in the exact parts, offered up smoke, slaughtered the burnt offering, spread the blood, offered up smoke, slaughtered the goat for the people’s sins, presented the burnt offering, presented the grain offering, offered it up in smoke and so on until all was done and “Then fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:24).
It is directly after this time of sacrifice – the very next sentence in the book of Leviticus – at which point we see Nadab and Abihu – they “took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). Every time I had heard this story previously, my mind automatically jumped to the words “strange fire”: What did that mean? What kind of incense did they use? Did it smell bad? Just because some sparks came out of their firepan they were consumed by a pillar of fire sent from God? Seems a bit harsh to me.
This time, however, I caught on. The “strange fire” they offered to God didn't smell funny, it didn’t emit green smoke, it wasn’t from evil spirits. It was strange to God because it was something He did not ask for. He told them exactly what He was looking for in this sacrifice and Nadab and Abihu gave Him something else, something that wasn’t on the list – and they paid the ultimate price. Upon realizing that, I discover that I am no stranger to Nadab and Abihu – I have been them myself – just call me Abi. I, too, have offered to God things He has not asked for. I have followed paths, made “sacrifices” and offered them up to my Lord when He has asked me to do none of it.
I am not alone. So many people today, in our rush to do everything and be everything to everyone, everywhere, we see or are offered an opportunity to serve and we pounce on it (or accept it grudgingly) thinking the more we offer to God the better off we are. Too often, though, we do not stop to seek His will in the matter. After all, what we want to do is “good”, right? Why wouldn’t God approve? However, these offerings, these “sacrifices” we make to God can become “strange fire” all too quickly. God is precise. He created each of us with a purpose – specific gifts and abilities that He plans to use in specific ways – and we (I especially) flounder about looking for where to go when God is ready and willing to let us know. He knows. He’s not vague.
The final point in this story is the motive behind the sacrifice – this is open to interpretation, but what I saw when reading this story was that Nad and Ab’s daddy, Aaron, offered some sacrifices to the Lord and people cheered. I may be reading too much into this, but what I see is Nad and Ab saying, “Hey, we can do that – we can burn some stuff. We need to keep these people shouting and bowing!” and so they did. They offered their “strange fire” not to please God, but to impress man. Isn’t that just so us?
“Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22