Don’t Play With Fire

This is an excerpt from “Gory Stories of the Bible,” my latest book project, coming soon.

What’s your favorite Bible verse? Something inspirational like Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you”)? A comforting passage like Psalm 23 (“The LORD is my shepherd”)? How about the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16? For most of us, our favorite verse could be easily crocheted on a throw pillow, or turned into a flowery Instagram post.

We tend to cherrypick the cheeriest sentences out of what is, by and large, a fairly dark book. This is, I believe, one of the reasons that modern evangelicalism tends towards shallow platitudes: platitudes have become the foundation of our faith. But if you want to think outside the box a little, the Bible has some more interesting contenders for “favorite verse.” Can you imagine a needlepoint print of Genesis38:7 (“Er was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death”) hanging on your grandmother’s wall? What if your mom shared an inspirational sunset picture on Facebook with a quote from Exodus 11:5 (“Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die”)?

Personally, one of my favorite inspirational verses is Leviticus 10:2: “And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” This is the delightful gory story of how two knuckleheaded teenagers found themselves on the menu for a divine barbecue. Yes, you read that right.

The setting of this sad tale is the book of Leviticus, which wins the award for “most animal sacrifices per verse.” Much of it seems esoteric and even bizarre to our modern sensibilities—minutely detailed proscriptions of how and where and what to sacrifice, prohibitions on certain foods, activities, clothing, and more. Don’t eat shellfish, or cloven-hoofed animals, or wear tunics with two different fabrics. It’s like a window into an alien world.

And in the center of the book, a gory story in which Nadab and Abihu, the sons of the high priest Aaron, offer “unauthorized fire” on the altar and become charcoal in the process.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron,each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

In order to understand this story, you need to back up and understand Leviticus as a whole, the ideas it deals with, and its place in the biblical story. Leviticus deals with a fundamental human problem: how sinful people can live in proximity to God. If that doesn’t sound like a “fundamental human problem” to you, it’s probably because you’re approaching life with a completely different worldview than Leviticus. To modern Westerners, being in proximity to God isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s a perk to add on to a successful life. We’ll take our spirituality with a healthy portion of self-centered warm fuzzy feelings, please and thank you. God is a gentle grandfather in the sky, a Santa Claus figure who sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’ve been bad or good… but in the end gives just about everyone presents. The idea that being close to God might not be good—and in fact might actually be disastrous—is foreign to us.

Nadab and Abihu’s mistake centers on Leviticus’ primary theme: holiness. “Holy” is the most important word in Leviticus, and perhaps the entire Bible, yet its meaning is obscured today. If you have any clue at all as to what it means, you probably think it refers to something akin to moral purity—being an upstanding, goody-two-shoes. You may think of snobby religious people who are “holier-than-thou.”

But the word “holy” doesn’t actually refer to morality. It means “set apart” or “unique,”and refers primarily to God, and only secondarily to things or people in relation to God. God is the utterly unique creator and sustainer and life-giver—therefore, he is holy. A helpful way to think of God’s holiness is to picture the sun. In our solar system, the sun is unique, powerful, and life-giving. It literally holds the entire solar system together. The sun, one could say, is “holy.”

If you press the analogy further, you’ll see the danger inherent in holiness. On one hand, the “holiness” of the sun is a good thing—it’s responsible for all the life on earth. But on the other hand, the very things that make the sun good also make it dangerous. If you get to close, you’ll be burned to a crisp.

Which brings us to Nadab and Abihu’s barbecue.

Leviticus ushers us into the conundrum of a holy God dwelling in the midst of sinful Israel. Living with God is kind of like having the sun blazing in your upstairs bedroom, or building a nuclear plant in your backyard; special precautions are necessary. What seems to us like bizarre rituals and rules are simply the protective regulations that permit safe access into the furnace of God’s holiness. You don’t wander into a nuclear power plant in your underwear, or go walking on the surface of the sun with flip flops. And you don’t waltz into the holy and life-giving presence of God contaminated with the detritus of death—blood, decay, pollution, or sin. No, you follow the proper procedures and decontamination protocols, carefully and to the letter, if you don’t want to end up as human charcoal.

This was where Nadab and Abihu went wrong. Because they were nephews of Moses and sons of the high priest Aaron, they thought they were somehow special, and exempt from the safety regulations imposed on “ordinary” people. They didn’t take the danger of God’s holiness seriously. And so they blithely strolled into the center of thesun to “offer unauthorized fire before the LORD;” that is, to perform sacrifices and offerings that didn’t conform to God’s safety codes. The results were as predictable as taking a bath in a pool of nuclear waste: Nadab and Abihu were obliterated by the overwhelming fire of God’s presence.

God, it must be noted, offers no apologies for the two deaths. “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified” (literally, “be regarded as holy”), he announced. “It’s time to start taking me seriously,” God was saying. “This is what happens when you play with fire.”

When you’re a sinful person living in the presence of God, the Levitical regulations—as stringent as they are—are good news. After all, they do provide safe access back into God’s presence. At the end of Exodus (before these regulations are given), we find Moses unable to enter the blazing oven of God’s presence in the tabernacle. At the end of Leviticus, however, Moses can enter the tabernacle again. Access has been restored; a way has been made through sacrifice, ritual, and regulation.

However, the tragedy in the center of Leviticus shows the limited effectiveness of these safety codes, and the unfolding story of God’s people in God’s presence confirms the danger. After Nadab and Abihu, the body count of divine collateral damage continues growing, until the people exclaim desperately, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, shall die. Are we all to perish?” (Numbers 17:12-13)

This is why the biblical narrative doesn’t end with Nadab and Abihu. There’s more story to tell, because Leviticus is ultimately unsuccessful in dealing with the problem of the presence to God. There needs to be a new way of access. As the Old Testament flows into the New Testament, God doesn’t get any less holy or dangerous. The New Testament book of Hebrews, in fact, says that God “is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).

What does change, however, is the way by which sinners can now live in proximity to this consuming fire. Jesus is put forward by the New Testament as the One who perfectly fulfills the Levitical law, bearing all our sins and offering himself as a perfect sacrifice. No additional sacrifices or rituals are necessary. Now, Hebrews says, “a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God”(Hebrews 7:19). His death on the cross is a “better hope” than Leviticus, like the flame-retardant turnout gear that firefighters wear, allowing believers to pass safely through the fires of holiness straight into the presence of God.

Today, God is the same consuming fire that he was when Nadab and Abihu met their toasty demise. But if you’re in Christ, you’re safe inside the fireproof safety of his perfect obedience. The consuming fire is your Father, Savior, Friend, and King. Bow the knee, thank him for his grace, and enjoy the dangerous spectacle of his holiness.

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