The Pursuit of Holiness (Leviticus) - Lesson 6

By Glen Pemberton

Lev 10

Background Information for the Teacher


  1. The student will be able to define the nature of Nadab and Abihu's sin.
  2. The student will discuss the relevance of Leviticus 10 for contemporary Christian life, e.g., similar sins, the special danger faced by those who draw near to God.
  3. The student will be able to explain the difference between God's treatment of Nadab and Abihu and God's treatment of Aaron's disobedience in Leviticus 10.


  1. A Bible for each Student.
  2. A chalk board or marker board.
  3. Copies of Student Handout #6 ("Nadab and Abihu")


The story of Nadab and Abihu is likely to be the story most familiar to the student from the book of Leviticus. This lesson strives 1) to set the story of Nadab and Abihu within the context of the ordination of the priests (Lev 8-10), 2) to define the nature of their sin based on the clues in the text, and 3) to offer the balance for this harsh judgment that is found in the second half of chapter 10, namely, Moses and God's concession for Aaron's disobedience. The story of Nadab and Abihu is often used in contemporary discussions about church practices.We must understand this story correctly. Nadab and Abihu did not make an innocent mistake out of good intentions to serve the Lord. Rather, their actions were flagrant, presumptuous,and in direct disobedience of specific commands. In sum, their hearts were wrong and God killed them. God, however, is not avengeful ogre eager to kill those who imperfectly approach him. Aaron and his remaining sons also deliberately disobey God's command in Lev 10, but God does not kill them. The difference,this lesson maintains, is the heart of the person.

Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class


  1. Welcome visitors and make any necessary announcements.
  2. Spend time taking prayer requests and leading the class in prayer.

Learning Experiences

  1. Review and set the stage for today's study.
    1. Open your Bibles to Leviticus 10. Our study today centers on the best known story from the book of Leviticus: the crime and punishment of Nadab and Abihu.
    2. This story is closely connected to the preceding chapters(Lev 8-9). So, a little review and setting of the context is in order.
      1. Q. What major event is described in Lev 8-9? A. The anointing of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood.
      2. Q. How were they ordained? A. A variety of rituals (e.g.,sacrifices, anointing with blood and oil, putting on special clothes).
      3. Notice two other key features that are important for proper understanding of chapter 10.
        1. Read Lev 8:33-34.
          1. Q. How long does the ordination ceremony last? A. A full week, seven days ? and then one more day. Read Lev 9:1. In total, the ordination takes 8 days.
          2. On the eighth day Aaron offered a sin offering and a whole burnt offering for himself(Lev 9:8,12). Then he presented offerings on behalf of the people: a goat for a sin offering, a whole burnt offering, and the grain offering that accompanies these sacrifices. Read Lev 9:15-17.
        2. Watch what happens at the end of the events of the eighth day. Read Lev 9:22-24.
          1. Q. Where do Moses and Aaron go? A. Into the tent of meeting.
          2. Q. What happens when they come out? A.Fire comes out from the Lord (from the most holy place) and consumes the sacrifice on the altar.
    3. Now, with all this in mind, we are ready to read Leviticus10.
  2. [The story of Nadab and Abihu]
    1. Read Lev 10:1-7
      1. Q. Who were Nadab and Abihu? A. Sons of Aaron.Priests. According to Exod 6:23, they were the two oldest sons of Aaron. (WKSH - Who are they?Aaron's sons, priests)
      2. Q. When do the events in chp. 10 take place? Do you see any clues in the text? A. (Two key clues)
        1. Look closely at Lev 10:7.
          1. Q. What does Moses command Aaron and his remaining sons? A. Do not leave the tent.
          2. Q. Why not? A. Because the anointing oil of the Lord is upon them.
          3. Q. Does this mean they could never leave the tent? A. No, normally this prohibition only applies to the High Priest (Lev 21:10).
          4. Glance back at Lev 8:33. Q. Put it all together ? when is this happening? A. Sometime during the anointing ceremony.
        2. We can be more specific. Read Lev 10:12 and16.
          1. Q. When were these sacrifices offered? A.On the eighth day of the ordination ceremony (cf.Lev 9:15,17; see above).
          2. Summary: If these sacrifices have been offered but not yet completed, then we can pinpoint the events of chapter 10 as happening sometime during the eighth and final day of the ordination ceremony. (WKSH ? When does this happen? On the final day of the ordination)
        3. This is an important point: Nadab and Abihu's actions take place at when they are completing their ordination and beginning their public ministry. One would think that such a person would be especially concerned with their holiness and obedience to theLord!
      3. What did they do? First, sketch out exactly what the text says. Then we will ask what it was about these actions that was wrong.
        1. Q. What does the text say? A. Five specific things:
          1. Each took his censer (10:1; a censer was a portable ladle or shovel-like device for carrying coals) (WKSH ? They took their censers)
          2. They put fire in their censers (10:1)(WKSH ? They put fire in their censers)
          3. They burned incense on their censers(10:1) (WKSH ? They burned incense on their censers)
          4. They offered "unholy fire before the Lord"(10:1 NRSV; we will return to this statement in a moment) (WKSH ? They offered "UnholyFire" before the Lord)
          5. Fire came out from the presence of theLord (from inside the most holy place, cf. 9:24mentioned above) and consumed them (10:2)(WKSH ? They died)
        2. What did they do wrong? What was the nature of their sin? Why was this such a bad thing?(Incidentally, not all interpreters have regarded this event as a bad thing. For example, Philo, who lived at about the same time as Jesus, praised Nadab andAbihu.)
          1. Note to the Teacher: Students may be aware of several proposals that have been made.I would not bring any of these up unless a student says something. The problem with these proposals is the total lack of support for them inLev 10.
            1. They offered the incense at the wrong time of day (Exod 30:7-9).
            2. They offered incense containing improper ingredients (Exod 30:30-34).
            3. They neglected to wash their hands and feet (Exod 30:21).
            4. They were not wearing the proper priestly garments (Exod 28:43).
            5. Their actions were somehow associated with idolatrous worship (incense was often part of such worship).
          2. So what did they do that was so wrong?Look carefully at the clues in the text itself.
            1. The first clue is the description of the fire in 10:1.
              1. Check various translations:
                1. "unholy fire" (NRSV)
                2. "unauthorized fire" (NIV; CEV)
                3. "strange fire" (KJV; NASV)
                4. "different fire" (ERV)
              2. The Hebrew term (zarah) carries the basic ideas of strange, foreign,different, and/or unlawful.
              3. Note carefully that it is not the incense that is described as unlawful, but the fire. How could the fire be strange or unauthorized?
                1. Read Lev 16:12-13. Q. According to this text, where must the fire for offering incense be taken from? A.From the altar in the courtyard of the tabernacle.
                2. It seems reasonable, but not certain, that any source of fire other than the altar would be called "strange, different,unauthorized, or unholy."
                3. Special Note to the Teacher:Students may ask whether Nadab and Abihu knew this to be wrong,after all Lev 16 comes after their death! I think it is safe to assume that they did know or should have known better. In view of later developments in this chapter(10:16-20, see below), God is not unreasonable or out to kill people for minor infractions.
                4. Thus, part of their crime may have been the source of their fire.(WKSH)
            2. Immediately after their death, and before the instructions to complete the sacrifices on the eighth day, the Lord gives a strange warning to Aaron. Read Lev10:8-11.
              1. Q. What warning does the Lord giveAaron? A. Basically, do not be inebriated when you come inside the tent.
              2. Q. Why this warning here? What is the connection? A. Most likely, at least part of what Nadab and Abihu did wrong involved wine or strong drink.In other words, the text suggests that they may have been inebriated when they offered their incense! (WKSH ?They may have been drinking) God warns Aaron if he has been drinking when he enters the tent, he will die too!
              3. This may seem odd to us, but drinking in sacred precincts was apparently associated with pagan worship. You may recall that Samuel was angry withHannah because he thought she was drunk inside the Tabernacle (I Sam1:13-15; see also Isa 28:7; Ezek44:21).
            3. Where were they? Or, perhaps better stated, where were they going with their fire and incense? Read Lev 16:1-2.
              1. Notice that the instructions for Aaron's entrance into the most holy place (the innermost part of the tabernacle) are closely connected to the death of his two sons.
              2. Q. What does this suggest about their actions? In other words, where were they going with their incense? A.Apparently, into the innermost part of the tent. (WKSH ? They were headed into the tent)
                1. Look again at Lev 16:1 ? "when they drew near before the Lord."
                2. The same thing is suggested in Lev10:1 ? "offered unholy fire before the Lord."
              3. Lev 16:12-13 further supports this idea. When Aaron offers incense"before the Lord" (v. 13), this means in the most holy place (v. 12).
              4. Q. Did they make it in? A. No. They died in front of the sanctuary (10:4).
            4. [Summarize briefly to this point] Now, I think, what Nadab and Abihu did andGod's response is beginning to make a little more sense.
              1. Nadab and Abihu did not make an unintentional mistake from good intentions of worshipping the Lord.
              2. Nadab and Abihu, most likely, were inebriated and were in the process of bringing common fire into the most holy place!
            5. Finally, the preceding chapters (Lev 8-9)emphasized obedience to the specific commands of the Lord.
              1. For example:
                1. 8:1 ("The Lord spoke") and 8:4("Moses did as the Lord commanded him")
                2. So also in 8:5 ("This is what theLord commanded to be done")
                3. 8:9,13,17,21,29 and 9:10 ("as theLord commanded")
                4. 8:36 ("Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord commanded through Moses")
              2. In contrast, Reread Lev 10:1e ("such as he had not commanded them").
                1. Q. What seems to be the point? A.God had given explicit instructions for what he wanted. Nadab and Abihu ignored these instructions in favor of what they wanted to do.They were disobedient. (WKSH ?They were disobedient to theLord's commands)
                2. Thus, God's proclamation ? rereadLev 10:3. Nadab and Abihu's position demanded greater attention to holiness, not less.
    2. A conflict between Moses and Aaron develops in connection with the tragic events on this eighth day.
      1. Read Lev 10:16-20
        1. Q. According to Moses (and the legislation of Lev6:24-30), what should Aaron and his remaining sons have done with the sin offering of the people? A. Eat it (10:17).
        2. Q. Did they eat it? A. No, they burned it up(10:16). They disobeyed and did not eat the sacrifice. (WKSH ? What did Aaron and his sons do? Disobeyed and did not eat the sacrifice)
        3. Q. What is Moses' response? A. He is furious!
          1. They have disobeyed a direct command from him and the Lord.
          2. Consider the crisis this disobedience threatens. Aaron's two oldest sons have just died for disobedience. If Aaron and his remaining sons also die for their actions, the priesthood will have been destroyed on the same day that it started!
        4. Q. How does Aaron explain or defend his actions?A. His explanation is not entirely clear.
          1. He may have felt that the death of his sons in the tabernacle courtyard had contaminated the sin offering and, thus, it was improper to eat it (See Milgrom 635-640).
          2. The tragic events that have come upon his family made it inappropriate, in his opinion, to eat the sin offering.
        5. Q. What is Moses response? A. He agrees - and by implication, God agrees. (WKSH - blank space for notes)
          1. Q. What is remarkable about this? A.Nadab and Abihu's disobedient actions brought their death ? Aaron's disobedience brought"agreement."
          2. Q. What made the difference? A. The situation and the heart of the person.
      2. This is an important counterpoint to establish in view of the harsh punishment of Nadab and Abihu.
        1. God is not a prosecuting attorney just waiting for his children to make a mistake so that he can kill them.
        2. God understands the impact specific circumstances may have on his commands and understands the hearts of those involved.


What does Nadab and Abihu have to do with us? (Discuss one or more of the following topics) (WKSH ? blank space for notes)

  1. Q. Could we ever be guilty of the same type of sin or behavior as Nadab and Abihu? How? A. (Allow time for discussion) The following points should be stressed in the discussion.
    1. Nadab and Abihu did not make an "innocent" mistake out of a good intention to worship the Lord. Their action was flagrant and presumptuous.
    2. As priests, Nadab and Abihu were especially charged with living, teaching and promoting holiness (10:3,10-11). Their actions ran counter to the very purpose of their anointing on this eighth day.
    3. God had provided specific instructions for what should be done during the anointing ceremony, there was no ambiguity or silence. This story is really not about the permissive or restrictive nature of silence in the scripture,but willful disobedience of God's directions.
  2. What do you think about Moses concession to Aaron, setting aside a specific command of the Lord in view of the tragic circumstances?
    1. Do you think Moses was right? If not, why did the Lord not kill Aaron the same way he killed Nadab and Abihu?
    2. What does this teach you about God's nature?
    3. Reflect on the following statement by the medieval interpreter Abravanel: "those who serve God more [sic]endanger themselves more. Just as those who are closest to the battlefront are more likely to die so those closest in the service of the sanctuary are more prone to err" (as cited in Milgrom, 603)
        1. Q. Do you agree or disagree with Abravanel's claim? Why o rwhy not? Is it more dangerous the closer one comes toGod? A. (Discuss)
        2. Read James 3:1, I Pet 4:17; Lk 12:48 A. Do these texts change your view on Abravanel's claim? Is it more dangerous to be engaged in service close to God? Q. Yes.Those who draw closer to God are given greater responsibility to uphold his holiness (Lev 10:3). One might also consider the similar story of Ananias and Saphira inActs 5:1-11.
        3. Q. How does this make you feel? What attitudes or actions might we need to reconsider as God's people? A. Discuss.


      Read Lev 11-15

Download Worksheets

Back to The Pursuit of Holiness (Leviticus)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.