Okay, we are going to have a confession time this morning. Have you ever overreacted to something? What was it? Was it like a sort-of overreaction or was it more of a major league overreaction? Have you ever overreacted to your kids? Oops, let me rephrase that: how many times have you overreacted to your kids? How many times have they pushed you so hard that you sailed right on past the breaking point and landed in a big puddle of “Well, now I’m going to have to apologize…” I remember one morning when Lisa had taken Noah off to preschool and I was trying to get Josiah out of the house to Page’s so that I could come back and get to work and he was not listening at all. He wasn’t trying to be bad, but I was tired and he wasn’t doing anything I asked with the goal in mind of getting us out the door and I finally hollered at him pretty good. As calm as could be he looked at me and said, “Daddy, why you yell at me?”
You know, the truth is that all of us overreact to something at some point in our lives. We let ourselves get pushed over the edge and explode rather than respond as we probably should have responded. But here’s a question that I want to wrestle with a little bit this morning: does God ever overreact? Does God ever respond in a manner out of proportion to the stimuli in question? Does He ever get pushed far enough that He finally blows up rather than responding as He probably should have responded? Now, since most of this room is full of church folks—folks who have been in church and striving to live out their faith for a long, long time—the temptation might be to offer a kneejerk, “Of course not! God always does everything right and responds just like He should.” But, if you took that question out onto the street you would get a very different answer. My guess is you would encounter someone in pretty short order who would point you toward one passage or another that would for them serve as evidence of God overreacting in one way or another and why should we follow a God like that. What are we to make of this? How should we respond…particularly when we either don’t have a good answer or are inclined to agree with them?
Well this morning we are in the second week of our series, He Said What? (And remember, the inflection needs to be heavy on that last word.) In this series we are taking a look at some of the hard places in the Old Testament in order to see that with a bit of work and the right lens, while they may not be rendered easy, they do not provide nearly the challenge to our faith it seems at first read. In the first part before the holiday we took a look at a really disturbing story in the record of Judges and from this I gave you five principles to help make some sense out similar stories.
Let’s run back over these quickly to make sure we are all starting on the same page this morning. The first principle was that we need to read the story closely to make certain we don’t miss any important details. The second principle was that we need to work to understand the culture and circumstances of both the author and the original audience. When we read the Old Testament we are looking through a porthole around 3,000 years into the past. Things were a little different back then. The text was and is always moving God’s people toward the kingdom (an idea I think we understand better now than they did back then), but sometimes it had to move them there with baby steps. As a result, there are times when the text addresses a cultural feature in order to move it forward, but the end result is still light years behind where we are today. If we assume our culture onto the text, there’s no way we are going to be able to properly understand what God was doing with it. The third principle was related to this. We need to keep in mind that the narratives of the Old Testament often present bad behavior uncritically without condoning it.
The fourth principle is that we need to keep in mind the whole character of God whenever we are reading the text. One of the chief purposes of the Scriptures is to reveal God to His people. And, the God who is revealed in Scripture is one who is above all else holy, just, and loving. He is never not holy, just, and loving. These three characteristics are primary to who God is. If the actions of God in any particular place seem to be unholy, unjust, or unloving, the problem isn’t with Him. It’s with us. We’re not reading the text right and need to come at it with fresh eyes or else get some help with understanding it properly. The final principle is that we need to view all of the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. His words and actions are to be our primary interpretive framework when trying to make sense of what we find there. Everything in the Old Testament is ultimately pointing toward Him and if we keep this in mind we’ll be able to better apprehend much of it.
With all of that in place, this morning we are going to move forward to look at another hard story that is emblematic of a larger collection of hard Old Testament texts. This is the group of texts that seem to show God behaving in a manner that, irrespective of principle four, is inconsistent with His otherwise revealed character. These are texts where God seems to badly overreact to something, bringing down the sledge when a much smaller peen would seem to do. We are going to take a look at this story, apply our principles, and see what happens when we use the right lens.
The story is found in Leviticus 10 if you’d like to follow along with me and I want to be really honest with you about it. This story is personal for me not because I have experienced something like this, but because I have probably struggled more with this story than just about any other hard place in the Old Testament. A few months ago I was studying my way through Leviticus and when I hit this story I stalled out for about a month. I read it over and over. I read all the commentaries on Leviticus in my office. I read the relevant passages in all the books about hard Old Testament stories I have. I read multiple different translations. I looked at the original language for some clues. I tried to go on, but came back to it. I journaled about it. And honestly, it wasn’t until I started preparing for this sermon that I began to make a bit of sense out of what’s happening here. I tell you that not to freak you out, but simply to let you know that I struggle with this too. It was not until I put our principles into play here that I began to make some sense out of this story. Let’s take a look at this together. I’ll narrate the story for you and then we’ll put our principles into practice.
Now, to understand this story you need to understand something about Leviticus. Leviticus is essentially an Israelite’s guide to worship. This document more than any of the other books of law (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is focused on giving the Israelites the instructions they needed to worship God properly. Part and parcel with this is to show why God is worthy of worship. This additional goal comes out in a refrain that is repeated throughout book: You shall be holy as I am holy. The idea here is that God is utterly set apart from this world. This world is soaked in sin yet He knows no sin. His thoughts and words and actions are different from anything we can find in this world. But, this difference is not morally neutral. He is morally superior to this world at every point. He is more powerful than anything in this world. There are no points of contact between God and this world except those which He allows. Because of all this and more, He is worthy of our worship. This worship, though, is on our part designed for a purpose. You see, when we worship something, we become like whatever it is we are worshiping. Thus, God’s command for the people to be holy as He is holy was a call to worship. It was a call to be like Him so that they could relate to Him. The record of Leviticus, for the people of Israel, showed them how.
Well, in a manner similar to in structure but very different in culture to our worship today, the people back then needed worship leaders. These were the priests. The very first priests of Israel were Moses’ brother, Aaron, and his four sons. Thus, after beginning by describing in detail the processes to be followed when offering animal sacrifices—the standard worship practice then—for various occasions, the text shifts gears at chapter 8 to describe the ordination and installation rituals for Aaron and his sons. For several days in a row the quintet made sacrifices on behalf of themselves and the people as part of a complicated process of purification to be able to stand before the holy God on behalf of the people in a worthy manner. When they were most of the way through the process, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for some unknown reason decided to offer some incense to God.
That seems pretty reasonable, yes? One of their jobs was going to be to offer incense before God on behalf of the people and so they were getting a head start. And yet, this was neither something God had commanded nor wanted. As a result, things didn’t go well. Listen to this as I read: “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized [literally, “strange”] fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” If you’re keeping score, the brothers offered incense to God in a way other than what He wanted…and He killed them dead on the spot. As far as identifying overreactions goes, this would seem to qualify.
And, kind of like our last story, things don’t get any easier when you keep reading. Listen to this starting at v. 3: “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord has said: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’ And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, ‘Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazer and Ithamar his sons, ‘Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.’ And they did according to the word of Moses.”
Did you catch all that? Aaron watched his sons get burned to death. All his brother, Moses, who speaks for God to the people, has from God is a reminder of His holiness. Then he tells their cousins to haul the bodies off and gives a strict command to Aaron and his surviving sons to not grieve publically. Now think about this a minute: you just watched your two oldest sons be burned to death…by God…and all God can say in return is that you’d better not grieve publically about it either. As the series title puts it: He said what?!?
There’s just one more part of the story here that we need to see before we can see what kind of sense we can make out of all of this. Look at how the story ends starting in v. 16 after some commands about the next offering to be made: “Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron, saying, ‘Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’” So, what’s going on here is that in the wake of their brothers’ deaths, Eleazer and Ithamar don’t follow Moses’ instructions regarding the next part of the purification ritual. Essentially, after Moses tells them not to grieve, he goes on with the rest of the ordination rituals as if nothing had happened. And, when the surviving brothers don’t do as he tells them, he lays into them about it. Aaron comes to their defense in v. 19: “And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’ And when Moses heard that, he approved.” Here, the text goes on to talk about the kosher laws that many Jews still follow today, and this little episode is never mentioned again.
So then, what on earth are we supposed to do with all of this? What kind of sense are we to make of this story? Isn’t this just God badly overreacting and leaving us to deal with it? I mean, all these guys did was make a sloppy incense offering and they get burned to death on the spot for it? How are you possibly going to justify this? Well, let’s put our principles into play and see what we can do. I’m not going to promise this will make the text easier, but it will give us the ability to better understand what’s happening here.
In order to do this I want to start by applying the first, second, and fourth principles all at once. When Nadab and Abihu make their offering of incense to God, it seems innocent at first read. But when you look a little more closely and take the surrounding context into account, this initial perception unravels a bit. Jump to principle four with me. God is fiercely protective of His holiness. He is absolutely insistent that He will be regarded as holy by the people. This is not arrogance on His part, though, but merely the recognition of who He is. He is holy. If we try and approach Him without an awareness of this, we are likely approaching a different god. Indeed, the only reason the people of Israel weren’t still slaves in Egypt is because of God. As a nation they were not nearly strong enough to make it without Him (as later history would clearly show). If they weren’t staying close to Him, they didn’t have a chance. And, since God’s bigger plans to reveal Himself to the world through Christ so that later generations (us) might know Him rested on this people thanks to His sovereign (meaning we didn’t get any input) choice, He had to make certain they started on the right foot. Indeed, if His whole goal here is for us to be able to interact with Him (and it is), then we need to take Him as He is. To try and take Him otherwise is to miss Him.
Think about it like this. You go to your mailbox one afternoon and in it is a flyer announcing that there will be a meet and greet with Robert Griffin III at the Dick’s Sporting Goods in Colonial Heights the next afternoon, open to the first 100 people in line. Excitedly you throw on your jersey, load up your tent, drive to town, and camp out at Dick’s. The next day you are first in line and can’t wait to shake his hand. When the doors open, you rush inside, locate the big banner that reads “Meet RG3!”, but as you approach it all you see is a skinny, smiling white guy wearing pants held too high by suspenders, a button-down shirt with a polka-dotted bowtie, and thick glasses. He snorts a bit at you and in a nasally voice says, “Hi, I’m local chess champion, Robert Griffin part three! Would you like an autograph?” The name’s right, but the character’s all wrong. When we get God’s character wrong this is essentially what we are doing except that instead of going for an autograph, we are showing up to worship this other…thing. For God to be insistent that we get His character absolutely right isn’t Him being mean to us at all. It is Him helping us to make certain that we are seeking after Him and not someone or something else that will ultimately lead us down the wrong path. His character is what makes Him worthy of worship. So if we get His character wrong, not only do we miss Him, but whoever we get instead isn’t actually worthy of our worship. God wants to be known by us. He gladly encourages and receives feeble and flawed attempts to reach Him, but they must be attempts to reach Him and not someone else for whom He has been confused. Does this make sense? This is critical to understand if we are going to both understand the Old Testament well and worship God rightly.
Jumping back to the second principle and speaking specifically into the cultural situation of Israel, they had recently come out of an intensely pagan context. They had been exposed to Egyptian worship rituals for 400 years. Part of recognizing God as holy for them was to recognize that He was not like any other god. Therefore, in these initial stages of forming what was essentially a new religion, He had to make sure they never even had a chance to think He was remotely similar to the gods of Egypt or they would have never been able to worship Him. They would have been worshiping somebody else in His name…which is exactly what had already happened with the Golden Calf incident.
Let’s go back to principle one, then. The brothers are described as offering God “strange” fire. The meaning of the Hebrew word there isn’t totally clear, but what is clear is this: in spite of God’s very specific descriptions of how He was to be worshiped through an offering of incense (and every religion back then had similarly specific prescriptions), they thought they could do it however they wanted. There were several problems here. First, this meant the brothers were ignoring the commands they had been receiving from Moses. Disobedient priests will lead to disobedient people every time. Second, the people as a whole had heard these specific prescriptions for worship. This means they would have recognized that Nadab and Abihu were not doing things by the book. Had nothing happened guess what their assumption would have been. “Oh, it doesn’t really matter what God said, we can just do our own thing.” And the result of that would have been a disaster as later history would clearly demonstrate. Third, the first thing God says directly to Aaron is in v. 9 and I didn’t mention it before. Listen to this: “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die.” Now why would God say that? Was it just a random thought He threw out in utter disregard of the circumstances? Or, was it because Nadab and Abihu, following after the priestly customs of other religions of the day, made themselves full of spirits in order to better experience the Spirit and as a result of their treating God as common instead of holy made a disastrous error in judgment against which God wanted to warn Aaron and his surviving sons in order that they didn’t make the same mistake? Given that context is king in interpreting the Bible, I’m going to go with the second.
Fourth, at a glance it seems like the author here wanted for us to just take the text and deal with it whether or not we understood it. God was right, they were wrong, end of story. Don’t come back sniveling about how it was mean of God. This is just God’s character and get over it. And, while God certainly was angry with Nadab and Abihu, I don’t think the rest of this should be read through the lens of an angry God. Here are two reasons why. First, at the end of the story, Moses is angry and comes off as a jerk more concerned about rituals than people, but the text doesn’t say God is angry. Furthermore, if we assume Moses was the author of the story, why would he make himself look so bad unless, after time for reflection, he realized his mistake and wanted people to see, not an angry God in all this, but a God who was okay (Moses wasn’t at the time, but nothing here suggests God wasn’t) with giving His people space to wrestle with actions on His part that He knew were just, right, and necessary, but which weren’t going to make any sense on theirs until they were able to see them from His perspective? The answer? I don’t think he would.
Second, have you ever reacted in a big way to something your kids did such that it seemed to them you were flying off the handle but you did it anyway because you knew it was just the right reaction and someday they would understand? I’ve talked before about the time when after not listening to his instructions to not play my original Nintendo on Sunday mornings as we were getting ready to go to church my dad bagged the whole thing up and threw it away. That was an extreme reaction (which he didn’t like taking, by the way). It was tempting to think it was just an overreaction. He was just mad that I wasn’t listening and overreacted. It wasn’t fair of him. There’s just one problem with this: I had cemented in my brain that morning something very important: listening to my parents and doing what they said was really important. I can’t tell you how much better my life has been than it would have been had I not learned that truth so powerfully in that moment. And now as a parent I understand that lesson is important enough to teach my boys that on occasion reacting in such a way that seems wildly overblown to them will actually be just right to make sure they learn it too. In all of this what seems like unadulterated anger to the uninformed observer is really a radical act of love. This doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to understand even for the informed observer, but this is what it is all the same.
Principle number five: how on earth does this point to Christ? Well think about what was going on here. This all happened during the process of establishing a priestly class who through a complex series of rituals would lead the people in seeking God. These rituals had to be established and followed very carefully lest they fall (as they regularly did) to worshiping one or another of the various gods of the peoples surrounding them. The rituals were necessary because the people didn’t have any internal help in overcoming their sinful tendency to do as they please (this was before the Holy Spirit came who provides us with such help). And so God drew a clearly defined box and said, “Stay in here. If you leave these boundaries you’re going to get it, not because I’m going to get you, but because these lines mark out the extent of my character and if you leave the limits of my character you’re not going to let me do anything for you anymore. You’ll be on your own and trust me: you’re no good on your own.” All of this ritual, then, points forward to both the necessity and the coming of someone who could fulfill them such that they all became finally unnecessary. The elaborate external encouragements to righteousness would become unnecessary because this Someone coming would, by the rituals themselves, properly followed, free us from the internal constraints of sin and by His indwelling presence enable us to live righteously without them. He would define by Himself who God was and publically sketch the contours of His holiness such that no one could ever again rationally mistake Him for another god. He would also open the doors to personal forgiveness and justification before God such that even when we publically get His character disastrously wrong total restoration is still possible. Jesus did all this by paying the price Nadab and Abihu paid personally on our behalf so that we no longer have to die for our sins.
So then, with all of this said, how do we make sense out of this story? Was this merely God overreacting? Is this just another example of the angry, bitter Old Testament God who was mercifully replaced by Jesus? Hardly. This is an example of God demonstrating the radical (to us) commitment He has to His holiness in a way that while deadly for the two who by their foolish, selfish distortion of it threatened to lead a whole nation to miss it, in fact kept them from getting His character wrong and as a nation missing Him and the life He offers. Again, does this make it easy to understand? No, no it does not. Even through the lens of Christ this is still a hard passage. We still underestimate the importance of God’s holiness such that seeing examples of His fierce commitment to it (which is entirely for our benefit, by the way) is hard. But with the careful application of these principles, we can begin the process of understanding, confident in our God, confident in our faith in Him, and grateful that He is committed enough to us to make sure we get Him right. Let us worship this God who through Christ we recognize eternally as holy and worthy of our worship.