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Q: #592. What was the "strange fire" that Nadab and Abihu made in (Lev 10:1)?

     A: (Lev 10:1-2) “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. (2) And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”

     The Hebrew word for “strange” in this verses is “zarah,” and it means “foreign or profane.” So, what was this “strange fire” that cost Nadab and Abihu their lives? While we are not “clearly” told, here is the most likely reason.

     Any “fire” that was used to offer incense before the Lord was to be taken directly from the altar (Lev 16:12)(Num 16:46)(Isa 6:6)(Rev 8:5). Most scholars believe that rather than following this command, Nadab and Abihu may have gotten their fire from some other place, thus making it a “foreign” (“strange”) fire.

***Note: God commanded that the fire on the altar should never be allowed go out (Lev 6:9,12-13)(Also see: 2 Chr 7:1).

     In addition to the above theory, I can find only one other that seems credible to me. Let’s look at that too.

     This theory is based upon how incense was to be offered in the Tabernacle. The incense offering was to be brought into the Tabernacle in a censer “in the morning, and at twilight” by “one” priest (Ex 30:7-8)(Lk 1:8-9). Therefore, Nadab and Abihu definitely broke one of God’s rules here, and possibly another.

#1. Since “both” Nadab and Abihu are said to have brought in an incense offering together, they broke God’s rule of “one” priest.

#2. They likely offered the incense offering out of God’s timetable for “in the morning, and at twilight.”

     I bought this theory for a while, BUT, notice what (Lev 10:4)(NASB) says, “Moses called also to Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come forward, carry your relatives away FROM THE FRONT OF THE SANCTUARY to an area outside of the camp.”” (caps emphasis mine)

     Based upon this, it seems clear to me to that Nadab and Abihu were never “in” the sanctuary, but God killed them “in front” of it. However, those holding to this theory offer several things to defend this theory.

#1, Perhaps after God killed them, Moses went into the sanctuary and dragged the bodies of Nadab and Abihu out, and then asked that they be carried away. This seems a stretch. 

#2. Since (Lev 10:1) says they “offered strange fire before the Lord, this indicates they were in the sanctuary. This is possible, but there are plenty of verses showing that “before the Lord” does not need to be tied to being “in” the sanctuary (Ex 29:10-11,23-26,42)(Lev 1:3-5)(Lev 4:4-7).

***Trivia Note: The phrase “before the Lord” is used 251 times in the Old Testament, but only twice in the New Testament.

#3. Immediately after Nadab and Abihu were killed by God, we see God giving this command to Aaron in (Lev 10:9-10)(NKJV) “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, (10) that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.”

     Based upon this verse, it is believed that Nadab and Abihu may have entered the Tabernacle drunk, which may have altered their judgment (unable to “distinguish between holy and unholy”). I find this theory interesting, and somewhat persuasive. Again though, this would only apply IF they actually went inside of the Tabernacle.

     Before closing, let me add two interesting details related to this topic.

First, God had a special recipe for making the incense for the Tabernacle, and no one was allowed to use it for themselves. If they did, they were to be “cut off from His people.” (Ex 30:34-38).

Second, when (Lev 10:2) says that “fire went out from the Lord” which “devoured” Nadab and Abihu, “devoured” (“consumed” in other versions) in this verse does not mean that there was nothing left of their bodies. Two things in (Lev 10:5) show us this: #1. their bodies were “carried” away, #2. they were “carried” (dragged) away “by their tunics,” indicating that their clothes were not burned up. The “fire from the Lord” that killed them, which happened in other verses as well, was likely a “lightning strike.”

***Note: The Hebrew word for “devoured” is “akal,” and it is also used to describe being killed with a sword in several places: i.e. (Deut 32:42)(Isa 1:20)(Jer 2:30).

     It is worth noting that Nadab and Abihu held a very special position among the Israelites, and the priests. Prior to this, they were one of a handful of people allowed to go to God’s mountain and “see the God of Israel” (Ex 24:1,9-11). However, it is clear that they lacked respect for God, and His holiness. What happened to them is a lesson for all Christians today. While God may not “kill” people today for their sin, as He did with Nadab and Abihu, and others (see a related parallel with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts Ch. 5), this is an example of how seriously God takes sin against Him. A good verse to remember from (Heb 12:29) is, “For our God is a consuming fire.” (Also see: Deut 4:24)

***Note: This incident with Nadab and Abihu is later recounted in 4 verses: (Lev 16:1)(Num 3:4)(Num 26:61)(1 Chr 24:2).

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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