There is a part of me that feels guilty for forcing my church to study the book of Leviticus, specifically during the Christmas season. That guilt is at least partially relieved when I think about the meaning of Christmas. After all, Jesus was born to “save His people from His sins” (Matthew 1.21), and He did that by becoming the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1.29). The atoning death of Jesus would really make absolutely no sense without the backdrop of Leviticus for this book like no other describes the sacrificial system in such great detail. With that in mind, Christmas would not be Christmas without the book of Leviticus. Well, that might be stretching it, but you get my point.
In our study, we have already looked at the first three voluntary offerings (Leviticus 1-3) and the offerings for unintentional sins (Leviticus 4-5). I chose to spare my congregation the elaborate details and procedures for handling the sacrifices described in Leviticus 6-7. So our study brings us to the next major section: the consecration of the priests (Leviticus 8-10).
The Consecration of Aaron and His Sons
Allow me to summarize the three chapters as follows. Moses, carrying out the Lord’s instructions, placed the priestly garments on Aaron (the robe, ephod, breastpiece, Urim and Thummin, turban, and golden plate) to set him apart as the High Priest (Leviticus 8.5-9). He then anointed the tabernacle and all that was in it, including Aaron and his sons, with oil (Leviticus 8.10-13). He then offered several burnt offerings for the sins of Aaron and his sons.
It is impossible for the reader to forget the sins of Aaron, and I can only imagine that it must have been impossible for him to forget them either. The great sin of Aaron was his decision to join the unfaithful children of Exodus in the “golden calf” debacle at Mount Sinai (see Exodus 32). While Moses was on the top of the mountain speaking with the Lord, Aaron was down at the base camp leading the people to build an idol out of the very gold they had plundered from the Egyptians on their way out of Egypt. Even though Aaron tried to turn the worship of the calf that he created (and called “the gods who brought you up out of Egypt”) into a day of feasting to the Lord (see Exodus 32.4-5), and even though he tried to reject his responsibility by telling Moses that he simply threw the gold into the fire and “out came this calf” (see Exodus 32.24), the calf would forever be called “the calf, the one that Aaron made” (Exodus 32.35).
What seems to be a glaring omission from the exodus story is some type of event where Aaron was “restored” by the Lord. The reader is left wanting a “Peter and Jesus” moment where Aaron would be restored by the Lord, perhaps even given a new name. But alas, that is missing. Aaron’s name shows up a few times in the remaining chapters of Exodus, but only as a bystander to what Moses is doing. His fifteen moments of fame ended horribly, until this incredible moment in Leviticus 8. Aaron became the anointed High Priest of God, despite the fact that he had been the “Anointed High Priest of the Gold Calf” just a few years before. Can you imagine how Aaron felt when he placed his hands on that bull of the sin offering? (see Leviticus 8.14). His sin had been atoned for.
After two sin offerings, a third offering called the “ram of ordination” was offered. Moses took some of this blood and placed it on the lobes of their right ears, the thumb of their right hands, and the big toe of their right feet (Leviticus 8.14-25). Moses offered two wave offerings and anointed Aaron and his sons with oil (Leviticus 8.26-30). Finally, Moses instructed Aaron and his sons to remain in the tent of meeting for seven days until the “days of your ordination are complete” (Leviticus 8.31-36).
Then, Aaron and his sons led the people in offering a sin offering to the Lord “so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you” (Leviticus 9.4). After a detailed description of how Aaron and his sons prepared and offered the sacrifices, Moses and Aaron came out of the tent of meeting to bless the people, and “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people, and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offerings” (Leviticus 9.23-24). Naturally, when the people saw this, “they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9.24).
The Blood on the Lobe, Thumb, and Big Toe
Two items stand out to me in this section of Leviticus. The first is the placing of the blood on the ears, thumbs, and big toes of Aaron and his sons. Unfortunately, we are not told why Moses did this, but the context of the moment seems to suggest that the blood of the ram of ordination (the word means “setting or installing”) was setting apart Aaron and his sons for their high calling to the priesthood. Their ears were set apart to hear the commands of God. Their feet were set apart to go where He had commanded them to do. And their hands were set apart to do what the Lord had commanded them to do. As priests of the Lord, they were to listen to God, do what He said, and go where He told them to go. Their job was to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” and to “teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10.10-11).
This same idea is repeated in the New Testament by the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6.19-20). Aaron and his sons were no longer “their own” but had been bought by the blood of the ram of ordination. As a result, their ears and feet and hands now belonged to God. In the same way, we are no longer our own selves because we have been bought by the blood of the Lamb of God. And now, our ears and hands and feet belong to Christ, and they ought to bring glory and honor to God.
The Death of Nadab and Abihu
Which brings us to the second part of this story that stands out, the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons. Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized fire” or “strange fire” before the Lord (see Leviticus 10.1-3). Very few details are given, but evidently these two sons of Aaron put fire in a censor, fire that did not come from the altar of the Lord, fire that was “strange” to the Lord, fire that was not commanded them by the Lord. Because they used that fire to burn incense before the Lord, it was offensive to the Him. As a result, “fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10.2). The Lord explained to Moses the reason for this harsh and immediate action: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10.3). In other words, the Lord expected the anointed priests to follow His commandments to the letter and to set Him apart from the pagan worship that surrounded Israel. He would not be treated with disrespect, and by preserving His holiness, the people would see the beauty and greatness of who He is. Even the father of these two boys understood, for “Aaron held his peace” (Leviticus 10.3).
Moses commanded Aaron and the rest of the family not to mourn for the death of his sons, at least not to wear the traditional signs of mourning (unkempt hair and torn clothing). Instead, they were to bewail (weep, mourn, lament) the burning the Lord had kindled. He further commanded them to remain in the tent because the anointing oil was still upon them, which leads me to think that the death of Nadab and Abihu actually occurred before the events of chapter 9 since Moses and Aaron left the tent of meeting to bless the people (see Leviticus 9.23).
Because Moses instructed Aaron and his remaining sons to avoid wine or strong drink when they went into the tent of meeting (see Leviticus 10.8-9), some have thought that the error of Nadab and Abihu was that they were drunk when the approached the Lord and this was the cause of their death. However, the text says that the reason for their death was the “strange fire” contrary to the commands of the Lord. Nadab and Abihu were not killed because they were drunk or had wrong motives. No, they were burnt by the Lord because they failed to obey His commands to the letter. The Lord is holy, and He demands to be respected as such by those who have been set apart to be near Him.
Remember the blood of the ram placed on their ear lobes and big toes and thumbs? The actions of Nadab and Abihu were taken during the seven day period of ordination, so it is entirely possible that they had brought strange fire before the Lord with the blood of the ram of ordination still on their lobes, thumbs, and big toes. They had not taken seriously the Lord’s charge to listen to all of His commandments and to be very careful to obey all of them.
The Heart of Worship
What follows this turn of events is an interesting interaction between Moses and Aaron. Moses told Aaron and his surviving sons to eat the portion of the offering that was their “due” portion (see Leviticus 10.13). When Moses returned and saw that Aaron had not eaten his portion but allowed it to be burned up on the fire, he was angry with Aaron and his sons. Aaron defended his son’s actions by saying, “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?” (Leviticus 10.19). In other words, Aaron defended their decision to not eat by pointing out that they had offered their sin offering, as required, but they had lost their appetite due to the horrible events of the day, the death of his son and their brother. Aaron’s question about the Lord’s approval of an action taken devoid of a right heart is the reason Moses approved of his decision to not eat his portion. Evidently, even in the old covenant, the Lord looked at more than just the external action of the worshipper. The Lord looked into the heart.
As we have been reading Leviticus, we have been seeking to learn how to worship the One True God. Even though we read these words on the other side of the cross, and even though Jesus was the “once and for all sacrifice” for our sin, we still seek to learn how it is that the Lord desires to be worshipped. We have already seen that the worship the Lord desires is costly, participatory, and confessional. What can we learn from these stories about the kind of worship the Lord desires?
I think we see two truths about worship that we hold in tension. First, it is by grace and grace alone that we are even allowed into the presence of God. Aaron was the least likely person in all of the descendants of Israel to be chosen as the first High Priest, and yet He anointed him as the one priest to enter behind the veil on the Day of Atonement. The Lord graciously forgave his horrible sin, and welcomed him into his presence. At the same time, we see the jealously of the Lord regarding his holiness. Despite whatever good motives Nadab and Abihu might have had, they attempted to worship the Lord in a way not commanded by Him. Not only did the Lord refuse their incense, he preserved his holiness by taking their life. He would be held in high, holy regard by all who would come near to Him.
In our new covenant worship, we must balance the grace and holiness of God. He has welcomed us into His presence by opening up a new and living way into the Most Holy Place (see Hebrews 10.19-20), but it is still a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (see Hebrews 10.31). How can we draw near to Him in confidence and in joy but with fear and awe and respect for His holiness? And how can our outward actions and our inner heart both reflect “spirit and truth” as we worship Him? (see John 4.23). This is where the followers of God must still have ears and hands and feet consecrated to Him and to His commands. We must listen closely to what the Spirit says. We must go where He tells us to go, and we must do what He tells us to do, for we have been bought with a price. It is impossible to say that “proper worship” must include only songs from this book or this certain type of clothing, but it is equally impossible to say that God honoring worship has no restrictions at all. There ought not to be a “music free for all” or a total disregard for the appearance of the worshipper. The heart is reflected in the actions of the worshipper, but prescribing once and for all actions is another pit to avoid. We still seek to discover what it means to worship in spirit and truth, celebrating the grace of Christ and honoring the holiness of God.
May we hear more of God’s heart for worship so that we may be found to be pleasing to Him.