A correspondent asks, “Can you give me some thoughts on the fate of Nadab and Abihu, whom God destroyed by fire when they erred in their worship? Could I not receive the same fate as these men if I make a mistake while serving God?”
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This story is frequently used by those who argue for a detailed pattern of Christian worship based on their own logical deductions from various Scripture verses, and who condemn others who do not conform exactly to that pattern. Yet there is not one example in the whole Bible, so far as I can find, of any person whom God punished or even reprimanded, for making an honest mistake while clearly trying to do the right thing with a reverent attitude.
Nadab and Abihu are no exception. These were men of unusual privilege and spiritual background. They had enjoyed a special appearance and view of God, with Moses and Aaron on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:9-11). They were sons of Aaron, the first high priest. The very story of their judgment and deaths in Leviticus 10 itself indicates that they did not reverence God (v. 1-3). The text suggests that they might even have been intoxicated when they went into the Tent of Meeting with their “strange fire” (v. 8-9). Their problem was not the honest mistake of humble men, but the presumptuous acts of men who did not reverence God.
The rest of the story tells how their two younger brothers, Eleazer and Ithamar, also violating a specific command of God by not eating the meat of the sin offering (v.16-18). Moses was angry about this transgression, but Aaron explained that these younger brothers disobeyed the command to eat the offering because they felt unworthy (v. 19). “And when Moses heard that, it seemed good in his sight” (v. 20). Apparently God agreed with Moses about the matter, because these brothers lived on and Eleazar became the high priest upon Aaron’s death.