There is a little mystery in this chapter of Leviticus, and I think it points out something interesting about how we read the Bible. There is a "scandal" in this chapter, but when we get so focused on the fact that Nadab and Abihu "died before the Lord," we could possibly miss something very interesting.
Nadab and Abihu (who had just been ordained as priests, along with their father Aaron) did something very foolish. They took their newly-appointed position, along with their newly-issued censers, and offered "unauthorized fire before the Lord." That was apparently the wrong thing to do. It was "contrary to [God's] command." (vs 1) The brothers paid a heavy price for their actions: "So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord." (vs 2)
Consumed by fire. That doesn’t sound good. Having written last week about scalding my leg with hot liquid, I have to say that I don’t think burning to death is a great way to go. Fortunately, the majority of people who die in fires don’t die because they’re burned alive, but because they inhale smoke. Still... what about these poor boys who were consumed by the fire of the Lord?
It’s easy, perhaps, to be so offended by what happened to Nadab and Abihu that we fail to ask questions. What does it mean that they were consumed? What is the fire that came out from the presence of the Lord? Is it fire like we normally think of fire?
If we continue reading, we stumble upon something odd. After the boys died, "Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, 'Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.' So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered." (vs 4-5)
So, after "fire" came out from the presence of the Lord and totally consumed them, there were still whole bodies left to carry out of the sanctuary... and their tunics were completely intact. Intact enough to make a specific mention of it in the text. How could someone die from being burned (as we think of it), yet their clothes aren’t touched?
When I read this chapter again, it occurred to me that there are many things about God that we can’t fathom right now. What is the fire that came out from His presence? How did it consume the boys? What did that mean? If a coroner had been present, what would he have listed as "cause of death" on the autopsy?
This theme of fire and God is all throughout the Bible. In Hebrews 12:29, Paul says, "Our God is a consuming fire." The book of Revelation describes the wicked being thrown into a lake of fire. Leviticus 10 and other places in the Bible (such as the story of the burning, but not-so-burning, bush) should make us question our preconceived ideas about God and fire. We may think we have God all wrapped up in a neat, little box, but the fact is, there are some things about God
that remain unfathomable to us... at least right now.