It was during the inauguration of the High Priest of Israel and the induction of his sons as officiating priests. It was the most solemn, yet festive event ever to be held for the nation of Israel. Then tragedy struck. The sons of Aaron, in all their priestly regalia approached the Altar of God and were suddenly struck dead by a supernatural blast of fire that consumed them from within.
For thousands of years, Christian and Jewish scholars have argued, debated and speculated on what,exactly had been their offense. Was it simply a procedural error, or did it represent a deep-seated spirit of rebellion?
It may be that it reveals in us one of the most rudimentary flaws in human character: we want to affix blame and be justified in condemning someone else for their wrong-doing. We focus our attention on the aspect of the story that offers no explanation. We would rather invest our time guessing about what isn't there than we would try to understand what is there.
The narrative of Leviticus chapter 10 spends the rest of the chapter describing how the two great men of God, Moses and Aaron, respond to this tragic event. Moses responds as a leader. Aaron responds as a father.
The conflict between them is a conflict between two men who are absolutely right, uncompromising in their commitment and character, and dedicated to the success of the nation. They are both absolutely necessary. If we did not have the opportunity to see this played out before us in such graphic display, we miss the example of what true biblical leadership entails.
It is strange fire. It is surreal and other-worldly: staying firm to the mission before us, while dying inside.
Remember that Nadab and Abihu, the priests who died, were not just a couple of disposable characters in a story. These were men with families,they were Aaron's sons. They were Moses' nephews. They walked, worked and struggled together in weaving the fabric of Jewish identity (a distinctiveness that has withstood both holocaust and assimilation). Nadab and Abihu were great men on any terms that we could describe.
Moses' instruction to Aaron and the people was harsh and cold. "Stay the course if you want to live." This wasn't just a party. It wasn't simply a ceremony. It has been suggested that the greatest spiritual battle of all time was raging unseen as Aaron and his sons conducted the first religious service of Judaism. There was more than just the lives of two men at stake here. There was something powerful going on. Moses, though he may not have fully understood it, knew that it was the moment that would define whether Israel would succeed or fail.
Aaron knew this as well. He did everything exactly as had been legally described he should do. The portion of the sacrifice that was not eaten was to be burned. Aaron didn't waver from his obligations. He did not mourn or wail in the ways that his culture and his heart demanded that he should. He followed through and focused on every detail of worship, toward the Divine Lord who had just executed his sons. If anyone in the world who ever lived had the right to turn his back on God, it was Aaron that day. What a strange fire.
But, Aaron didn't eat the sacrifice that he had been commanded to eat. Moses was pissed. Moses had suspected that his brother might find some procedural loophole to defy the ceremonial order, so he carefully examined all that Aaron had done to make sure that it had been done exactly as Moses had imagined it should be. He found that Aaron had not eaten the sacrifice as instructed but had burned it entirely (all that he didn't eat was to be burned).
Moses demanded an explanation. His brother said, "This day have they (Nadab and Abihu) offered their sin offering (themselves) and their burnt offering (themselves) before the Lord. And such things have befallen me. Had I eaten the sin offering today, should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?"
More than anything else, God wants us to be real with Him:not going through the motions, not putting on a good show, but sincerity in our relationship with Him. Aaron did all that was required of him for the nation of Israel; but he did more. He did what was necessary for himself, as a parent, in the most horrific of circumstances. He faced the strange fire of friction between commitment and conviction and saw it through.
This may be the defining characteristic that has enabled the Jewish people to endure. It is the same sense that we see in Messiah when he prayed with great sweat drops of blood in the garden. It is the strange fire that we must all face, in some way, at some point, if we are really to understand what it is that we believe.