After the tabernacle had been set up and Aaron and his sons had been anointed as tabernacle priests, Moses told them that they should remain seven days and seven night at the door of the tabernacle.
“God will not allow you to enter completely into His tabernacle service until you have spent seven days in your appointed duties outside the tabernacle,” Moses said to them. “Be sure you do these things exactly as God has directed. If you fail to do so, you may have to pay with your lives” (Lev. 8:1-4, 31-36).
Aaron and his sons faithfully performed their tasks for a week. On the eighth day Moses called the elders of Israel to assemble close to the tabernacle. He instructed Aaron and his sons to prepare to make special offerings the elders would bring to be made for the people (Lev. 9:1-4).
Aaron and his sons obeyed. After these special offering ceremonies, Moses and Aaron entered the tabernacle. Later, they came out to walk through the court and go out to face the huge crowd of Israelites.
“God is pleased with the offerings you have made,” they told the people. “He is always pleased when you obey Him, no matter how much or how little He asks of you” (vs. 22-23).
Suddenly a hissing bolt of fire shot out of the tabernacle, arched upward enough to be plainly seen above the curtained fence, and struck directly on the altar! The smoldering offering there was immediately consumed in brilliant, crackling tongues of fire that flared upward more like lightning than like ordinary flames.
Although the Israelites had witnessed the flaming glory of God at other times in more awesome spectacles, this particular display somehow startled them so much that they sent up a thunderous shout that echoed and reechoed between the mountains. Some of them called out in alarm. Some shouted in surprise. Most of them yelled simply because they were thankful that God was proving that he chose to dwell close to them (v. 24).
Whatever their reasons, most of them felt enough respect for God to fall forward with their faces to the ground. At the same time, there were many who did not want to be present. The Eternal God sternly ordered them to appear whether they wanted to or not. It was for their own good that they were commanded to assemble (Lev. 8:3-4).
Out of the millions of Israelites who had left Egypt, there were many who had no desire to live obediently. These, along with some of the foreigners who had come with them, were the type of people who had caused the incident of the golden calf.
This kind of people, always living by their own violent and selfish desires, have always caused grief and trouble for peace-loving people. Perhaps you may wonder why God allows them, ordinarily, to live and prosper along with those who honor God’s laws.
For one reason, God is more merciful and patient than we can imagine. Another reason is that God often deliberately allows us to fall into trouble with those who laugh at the belief that God exists or others who will admit that He exists, but have no regard for the Creator’s laws. Becoming involved with such people can cause much ill will, arguments, fights and even murders and wars.
Nevertheless, God allows troublemakers to remain in the world so that we can learn to exercise and develop good character. If we never had troubles from those around us, we wouldn’t have so much reason to ask God for help. We would rely less and less on Him, whereas we should learn to rely more and more on Him. Under such circumstances we wouldn’t develop the strong traits of character that result from struggling to do the right things.
Before the fire on the altar died down, Moses told Aaron that it was a sacred fire from God, and that it was never to be allowed to die out.
“It is God’s holy fire,” Moses said. “It is a duty of your sons to see that it keeps burning every minute of every day” (Lev. 6:13). “Twice a day you must put sweet incense on the coals, and take the burning incense into the holy place and put it on the golden altar of incense” (Ex. 30:1-9).
From then on the tabernacle was in constant use. Early each morning Aaron’s sons came to put wood on the altar and remove the ashes to a spot outside the camp area (Lev. 6:10-11). A healthy calf, kid, or lamb was then slaughtered and put on the altar as a burnt offering for all of Israel (Lev. 1). These offerings were made twice every day so there was always an offering being burned on the altar (Lev. 6:9, 12-13).
These unblemished animals used for burnt offerings typified the Messiah who would later come to die for the sins of the people instead of the people having to die.
Besides taking the burning incense into the holy place twice a day, Aaron filled the seven lamps with olive oil two times a day, and set them burning (Ex. 30:7-8). This lamp-filling and lamp-lighting was done in such a way that most of the seven lamps were always burning with the holy fire that had been brought in from the altar after God had struck it with a bolt of flame. While Aaron trimmed one lamp, the others were left burning.
Once a week Aaron placed twelve fresh loaves of unleavened bread on the table in the holy place. Each loaf represented a tribe of Israel. Also on the table were solid gold cups for wine and pure gold pans and dishes. These indicated that God was making this place his home so that he could be close to the Israelites (Lev. 24:5-9).
As for the offerings, there were several kinds. Every one was planned by God to distinctly remind the Israelites of their sins, and to give them an opportunity to worship Him with a feeling of close contact. These offerings were given to teach Israel the habit of obeying God
(Gal.3:24). They also taught the need of a Saviour to come Who would pay for the sins of the world. These offerings were not to pay for sin. Salvation never came through animal sacrifices. They were given to Israel until the coming of the Saviour (Gal. 3:19) and were to remind the people of the fact that One would come to shed His blood to pay for sins (Heb. 10:3-4, 28).
There were burnt offerings, food offerings, peace offerings, offerings for sins of ignorance, trespass offerings and others. For each one there was a special ceremony outlined by God to Moses and carefully passed on by Moses to Aaron and his sons (Lev. 1:5).
For example, if a man wished to make a personal burnt offering as a gift to God or in recognition of the coming Messiah, he was to bring one of three things for a sacrifice. It had to be a healthy male animal from his cattle, a healthy male sheep or goat or turtle-doves or pigeons without any blemish.
There was a certain ceremony for each type of creature. If a man chose to sacrifice an ox, he was to bring it to the door leading into the court of the tabernacle, and place his hand on the head of the animal. The ox was sacrificed. Its spilled blood was to remind its owner of the coming Christ who would shed His blood for sin!
The owner of the ox was then to slay it, and the priests were to use bowls in which to catch the blood that flowed from the animal. This blood was to be sprinkled over the altar, which was by this time to be loaded with wood. The carcass of the ox was to be quickly cut up into pieces, most of which were to be washed, and the priests were to place them over the wood on the altar (Lev. 1:3-(). The animal was then to be burned in the mounting flames and the sacrifice would then be completed.
Although most of the people who brought their offerings didn’t realize it, these sacrifices pointed to a time when the Being in the silvery cloud above them would come to this world in human form and would be sacrificed for the sins of all people.
Animals, however, weren’t the only things to be used in some of the sacrificial ceremonies. Olive oil, flour, (made from wheat, rice, barley or rye), incense and corn were used. Some of these, if they were to be burned, were employed in combinations for such things as unleavened cakes and breads not sweetened by honey.
All of the many rituals that were carried out in connection with the tabernacle were to be done just as God had told Moses. No change could be allowed in these ceremonies. Nothing was to be added. Nothing was to be omitted. Through Moses, God had made it clear to Aaron and Aaron’s sons that all matters were to be carried out in an exact, solemn and reverent manner.
One morning not long after the tabernacle was dedicated, Nadab and Abihu arrived early as usual for their duties as priests. The fire on the altar was barely visible. There were live coals on the metal rack, but they were almost hidden by a heavy layer of gray ashes.
The two men were eager to get the fire going, and so the first thing they did was toss wood on the coals and ashes and wait for flames to sprout up. However, the wood was moist from a heavy night dew, and didn’t catch fire for a few minutes.
“It’s almost time for our father Aaron to arrive to take the live coals into the holy place,” Nadab murmured in a worried tone. “In our hurry to get the altar fire going, we’ve covered up the hot coals!” “I’ll get them,” Abihu said, and picked up some long metal tongs.
However, Abihu wasn’t successful. He tried to jam the tongs down between the heavy pieces of wood, but flames were now beginning to shoot up. He had to stand away to prevent his hands and sleeves from becoming singed.
“We must get live coals right away!” Nadab exclaimed impatiently. “Father will be angry if we don’t have them ready for him when he arrives!”
“Stop worrying about it,” Abihu said, snatching up his censer. “I’ve just thought of something! There’s a campfire burning just a little way outside the gate. Bring your censer, too, and we’ll fill both of them with live coals from that fire!”
Knowing that the only fire to be used in the holy place was the sacred fire from the altar, Nadab started to protest. But he was so concerned about his father showing up for the live coals that he said nothing, and hurried along with his brother to get them from the campfire a short distance from the tabernacle fence.
Their censers filled, the brothers ran back inside the court. They were relieved to find that Aaron hadn’t yet arrived. But now it was Abihu’s turn to become worried.
“These little coals can’t last much longer,” he remarked. “If father doesn’t come very soon to use them, they’ll be nothing but ashes!”
The brothers waited a little longer, but still Aaron didn’t put in an appearance. It wasn’t a case of Aaron being late. It was simply that his sons had decided that it was easier to get live coals from a nearby campfire than it was to pick them from under the burning wood on the altar. The matter of failing to obey a single rule, though it might not have been considered too important by the two brothers at the time, was swiftly developing into something very grave.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Abihu said impatiently. “There’s no choice now but to take the coals into the holy place ourselves. Surely it won’t matter much if we take over a part of father’s duties this one time.”
“But what will he say when he finds what we’ve done?” Nadab asked, obviously more concerned with what his father would think than with what God would think.
“It’s too late to worry about that,” Abihu curtly replied. “If we delay any longer, we’ll have nothing but ashes in our censers.”
“All right!” Nadab agreed. “Let’s get it done. Perhaps we can convince father that we were afraid that he would be too late to carry out his early duties in the tabernacle.”
Carrying their containers of dying coals, Nadab and Abihu walked slowly toward the tabernacle, through the curtained entrance and into the holy place. A feeling of sharp uneasiness suddenly came over them. It was as though they had trespassed into a room where they were quite unwelcome, and where a thousand eyes were intently watching every move they made.
They saw the container of incense, and moved in discomfort across the room to pick it up and sprinkle part of its contents on the hot ashes in their censers. Neither spoke a word as they waited for the smoke to curl up from the ashes and slowly fill the room.
Little by little the terrible realization came over them that it was an awful thing they had done in coming into the holy place with coals of fire from an ordinary campfire. Gripped by a sense of great guilt and alarm, Abihu and Nadab suddenly bolted toward the curtained entrance. But they were too late.
Hissing blades of fire shot out of the inner room and plunged like daggers into the two men. They fell lifeless on the sandy floor under the curtains of the tabernacle entrance (Lev. 20:1-2).
It was not long afterward that Aaron arrived at the tabernacle for his priestly duties. He was somewhat surprised to see that his sons were nowhere in sight, even though the fire on the altar was blazing vigorously.
Then Aaron saw something at the entrance to the tabernacle. He hurried across the court to investigate, and found Nadab and Abihu lying motionless just inside the tabernacle. As he reached down to examine them, he was startled by a stern voice.
“Don’t touch them!”
Aaron glanced up to see Moses approaching and motioning him to stay away from his sons. Now came one of the greatest tests in Aaron’s life.
“You can see that they’re dead,” Moses said. “Those scattered coals and empty censers on the floor make it plain that they disobeyed God by trying to take over a part of your duties. Besides, I was told on my way here that they came to a nearby campfire, just a short while ago, to obtain live coals for their censers. That means that they brought strange fire before God. He has punished them just as He warned that he would punish them if they appeared before Him without proper respect or without proper regard for His tabernacle rules” (v. 3).
Aaron straightened up and stood for a while in silent misery as his sad gaze rested on the two sons on which he had pinned so much hope. Finally he turned away, unable to look any longer on their flame-blackened skins.
Meanwhile, Moses went outside the court and sent for two of Aaron’s cousins, priests, Mishael and Elzaphan, and instructed them to go to the tabernacle and remove the bodies of Nadab and Abihu to a distant spot far outside the camps of the Israelites (v. 4).
There Aaron’s two older sons were buried in the same clothes they had worn when they had been electrocuted by God. Their elaborate and costly robes weren’t saved because they had been polluted by disobedience. Aaron and his two younger sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were warned by Moses not to show any grief because of the death of Nadab and Abihu.
“If you mourn their death before God and the people,” Moses told them, “it will be the same as showing that you feel that God has dealt unjustly with them” (vs. 6-7).
Word swiftly went around that Abihu and Nadab had died by the direct hand of God, and the people were very sobered by the event.
But no funeral or any other event was to interfere with the regular ceremonies of the tabernacle and the great altar. Aaron had to carry on with his duties. His other two sons Eleazar and Ithamar were now to do the tabernacle service in place of their dead brothers. At the same time God gave Aaron a new rule to be observed by him and his sons.
“Hereafter,” God said, “no priest shall drink wine or strong drink while in service inside the tabernacle. If any priest does so, he could die as Nadab and Abihu died” (vs. 8-10).
This new rule from God was to make more certain that the priest would always be as careful as possible in their work. Abihu and Nadab hadn’t conducted themselves wisely. Knowing that a person’s judgment and wisdom can often be affected by too much wine or strong drink, God wanted to rule out this possibility of their becoming careless.
Nevertheless, matters didn’t go too smoothly immediately after that, even though Moses purposely reminded Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar of their various duties.
A goat was used as an offering for the sins of the people. Rules of this ceremony called for the goat to be eaten – at least in part – by the priests in the holy place. Moses went to the holy place after the offering had been made, but there was no one there. Neither was the meat that was to be eaten. Going back to the altar, Moses discovered that the goat had been completely burned. He quickly sought out Eleazar and Ithamar.
“Why did you let the sin offering burn?” he angrily asked. “Why didn’t you eat it in the holy place? Don’t you realize that it was holy meat, given to you by God to bear the sins of the people” (vs. 16-18)?
Eleazar and Ithamar felt guilty and embarrassed. While they silently tried to think of some reasonable answers, Aaron stepped up to the group.
“They have made their offerings and served well today with this one exception,” he said to Moses. “It is my fault, not theirs, that the goat was burned. I gave them orders not to bring it to be eaten. Because of losing my two other sons, I have no appetite. I would have had to choke down the offering meat. Do you think such a thing would have been acceptable to God” (v. 19)?
Moses felt compassion for Aaron. He realized that he had done well to continue his duties while under the strain of losing his sons. And he also knew that God pardons human errors that are not willfully committed. He put a comforting hand on Aaron’s shoulder, and nothing more was said of the matter. And inasmuch as God gave no indication of displeasure, He obviously forgave Aaron of this breaking of a ceremonial rule (v. 20).
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.