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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Leviticus 10

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The Conduct of Priests

A. Nadab and Abihu.

1. (Leviticus 10:1) The sin of Aaron’s sons.

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.

a. Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it: In the afterglow of the consecration experience (which Nadab and Abihu were part of), these two sons of Aaron sought to connect with God their own way, apart from the specific ceremonies God revealed to Moses.

i. We don’t know what their motivation was. Perhaps it was pride, perhaps it was ambition, perhaps it was jealousy, perhaps it was impatience that motivated them. Maybe they found the seven-day repetition of the sacrifices (8:35) to be tedious and wanted a new thrill to break what they considered boredom. Whatever their exact motivation, it wasn’t holiness unto the LORD.

ii. Nadab and Abihu had a legacy of great spiritual experiences. As first-hand witnesses:

  • They saw all the miracles God did in bringing the nation out of Egypt.
  • They heard the voice of God and saw the fire, lightning, smoke, and felt the thunder and the earthquake with the rest of the nation at Mount Sinai.
  • They went up with Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders for a special meeting with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1-2), where they saw the God of Israel.so they saw God, and they ate and drank (Exodus 24:9-11).

iii. This shows that even a legacy of great spiritual experiences can’t keep us right with God — only an abiding relationship grounded in the truth of God’s word can.

b. Which He had not commanded them: They came in an unauthorized way, coming to God, but demanding to come according to their preference. Therefore, God considered this a profane fire before the LORD.

i. This was a misuse of special incense. This incense was regarded as holy for the LORD (Exodus 30:35-37). It wasn’t to be used in someone’s experiment with God.

ii. Profane fire was a fire not kindled from the altar of burnt offering; it was fire not associated with the atoning and redeeming work of sacrifice. It was easy to think, “fire is fire; as long as it burns, it’s ok.” In the case of Nadab and Abihu, that was literally a deadly mistake.

iii. The fire on the altar of burnt offering was sacred because it was kindled by God Himself (Leviticus 9:24). Nadab and Abihu offered a fire of their own making. Perhaps they thought that all fire was the same, and an undiscerning person may have agreed with them. But all fire isn’t the same and there is a huge difference between the fire kindled by God and a fire conjured up by man.

iv. “Our censers are often flaming with ‘strange fire.’ How much so-called Christian worship glows with self-will or with partisan zeal! When we seek to worship God for what we can get, when we rush into His presence with hot, eager desires which we have not subordinated to His will, we are burning ‘strange fire which He has not commanded.’” (Maclaren)

v. We also should not forget that Satan himself can deceive with fire. In the great tribulation the Antichrist and his associate will be able to make fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men (Revelation 13:13). They will use this fire to deceive the undiscerning.

c. Before the LORD: This may have the sense that they dared even to go past the veil into the Holy of Holies, behind the veil to where the ark of the covenant was. Perhaps they thought they had accomplished so much during their time of consecration, and were now worthy to go right in.

i. In Leviticus 16:1-2, the sin of Nadab and Abihu is mentioned again in connection with the high priest entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. This adds to the idea that one of the sins of Nadab and Abihu was going beyond the holy place into the Holy of Holies, which they were not permitted to do.

2. (Leviticus 10:2) The judgment of God upon Nadab and Abihu.

So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

a. So fire went out from the LORD: The same fire that displayed God’s glory in Leviticus 9:24 now showed His judgment of these unfaithful priests.

i. “Fire from heaven occurs twelve times in the Old Testament, six times in a beneficial way [Leviticus 9:24; Judges 6:21; Judges 13:20; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2; and 1 Kings 18:38] and six times in judgment [Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 11:1; Numbers 16:35; Job 1:16; and 2 Kings 1:10, 12].” (Rooker)

b. And devoured them: The fire of Leviticus 9:24 was a fire of glory and this was a fire of judgment. Yet in many ways it was the same fire. In Leviticus 9:24, God sent fire that said, “I accept your sacrifice and approve of this priestly system.” This same fire came from the LORD and devoured them, saying “I will not accept your man-based, fleshly attempt to imitate My fire; I will bring judgment.”

i. Fire is a figure of searching judgment and purification. Our works for Jesus will be judged by fire (1 Corinthians 3:13-15), and Jesus is described as having eyes like a flame of fire (Revelation 1:14). He has eyes of searching judgment and discernment.

ii. “The surface of the sin was ceremonial impropriety; the heart of it was flouting Jehovah and His law. It was better that two men should die, and the whole nation perish not, as it would have done if their example had been followed. It is mercy to trample out the first sparks beside a powder-barrel.” (Maclaren)

iii. Many of those who cry out to God, “send your fire among us” think only of a Leviticus 9:24 fire, without considering the same fire is present to purify and cleanse in Leviticus 10:2. Truth be known, many of us desperately beg God not to send His fire, so the purity of His judgments will not be known among us. God reads our hearts and not only our pious prayers to send revival fire.

iv. Devoured in 10:2 is the same word as consumed in 9:24. The fire that consumed the sacrifice in approval and acceptance is the same fire that devoured Nadab and Abihu in judgment.

v. Devoured them: “Destroyed their lives; for their bodies and garments were not consumed, as it appears from Leviticus 10:4,5. Thus the sword is said to devour, 2 Samuel 2:26. Thus lightning many times kills persons, without any hurt to their bodies or garments.” (Poole)

c. They died before the LORD: They may have been struck down in the tabernacle, the tent of meeting itself.

3. (Leviticus 10:3) God’s warning to Moses and Aaron.

And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

‘By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.’”

So Aaron held his peace.

a. By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy: Many think they can come their own way before God and do their own thing in His presence. But God demands to be regarded as holy by all those who come near to Him.

i. Make no mistake: We can come to God just as we are, but we may not come to Him any way we please. We must come the way He has provided, the way made by Jesus Christ.

  • I must be regarded as holy means that God will show His holiness.
  • I must be regarded as holy means that God’s servants must honor Him in a way that is fitting for a holy God.

ii. “Sanctified he will be, either in the sincerity of men’s conversation, or else in the severity of their condemnation.” (Trapp)

b. And before all the people I must be glorified: This reminds us that God must be glorified in the meetings of His people. The focus must not be on man, on his cleverness, on his insight, or on his ingenuity. Those who fail to glorify God will not be rewarded.

  • I must be glorified means that God will guard and proclaim His glory.
  • I must be glorified means that God’s servants must be concerned for His glory, not their own glory, thrill-seeking, or curiosity.

c. So Aaron held his peace: Aaron just saw two of his sons struck down dead before the LORD. It was natural for him to question, or even to lament — but God would not allow it. At this moment, the respect of God’s holiness was more important than Aaron’s right to grieve, and Aaron was able to see this wrong from God’s standpoint, not only his own.

i. “How elegantly expressive is this of his parental affection, his deep sense of the presumption of his sons, and his own submission to the justice of God!” (Clarke)

B. Aftermath of God’s judgment on Nadab and Abihu.

1. (Leviticus 10:4-5) The bodies are removed.

Then Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.” So they went near and carried them by their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said.

a. The sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron: The men chosen to remove the bodies of Nadab and Abihu were related to Aaron and his sons, but they were not of the priestly line.

b. They went near and carried them by their tunics out of the camp: Moses would not send a consecrated priest (Aaron or one of his sons) to carry these dead bodies outside the tabernacle courts to burial. The work of burial had to be done instead by these relatives.

2. (Leviticus 10:6-7) Mourning is prohibited.

And Moses said to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons, “Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the people. But let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD has kindled. You shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.

a. Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the people: This perhaps was the hardest day of Aaron’s life. Two of his sons were suddenly killed under the judgment of God, and he could not mourn them. To mourn might have implied — even in the slightest way — that God was wrong in bringing this judgment upon Nadab and Abihu. Aaron or Moses could not communicate this; it would dishonor God.

i. “Because the priests were intermediaries between God and his people, they were required more than all others to avoid contact with death. This included both contact with dead bodies and with the whole mourning procedure.” (Peter-Contesse)

b. You shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die: Aaron perhaps also thought, “I did worse than this at the golden calf incident; why did God judge them?” But Aaron did that before his consecration as a priest. After his consecration, he and his sons had a greater accountability (for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you).

3. (Leviticus 10:8-11) The prohibition of drunkenness.

Then the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean, and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.”

a. Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die: This commandment for the priests of Israel came immediately after the judgment of Nadab and Abihu. This causes us to believe they may have been drunk when they foolishly offered their profane fire before the LORD.

i. “Indeed, common sense itself shows that neither a drunkard nor a sot should ever be suffered to minister in holy things.” (Clarke)

ii. There are some who believe that God did not prohibit the use of alcohol among the priests in all cases, but only when they were “on duty,” performing their priestly service. On this principle, it is a great mystery why some modern churches make the serving of alcohol part of their church meetings.

iii. “Nothing has more power to blur the sharpness of moral and religious insight than even a small amount of alcohol. God must be worshipped with clear brain and naturally beating heart…. Lips stained from the wine-cup would not be fit to speak holy words. Words spoken by such would carry no power.” (Maclaren)

iv. Significantly, these were words that the LORD spoke to Aaron. “This new paragraph begins with the common formulaic expression for the Lord’s revelation in Leviticus, this time with the recipient being Aaron instead of Moses. This in fact is the only occurrence in Leviticus where Aaron is directly spoken to by the Lord.” (Rooker)

b. That you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean: This is the first of two priestly responsibilities listed in verse 11. The priest had to discern and explain the difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean. He had to know it for himself, and explain it to the people.

i. A priest needed all his abilities to think and discern between the good and the evil. God did not want the hearts and minds of His servants clouded with alcohol when they came to serve Him. Since alcohol is a depressant, it takes away the ability to completely give one’s self to God.

c. That you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken: The second priestly responsibility in verse 11 concerned teaching the children of Israel. They were to teach them God’s word as revealed by Moses (all the statutes which the LORD has spoken). As time went on, it would also include what the LORD has spoken through God’s additional appointed prophets and messengers.

i. This responsibility on the part of the priests is often overlooked. We tend to look at them as only those who offered sacrifices. They did that, of course but they also were called to be active Bible teachers. The “teaching priest” is seen in many Old Testament passages.

  • Deuteronomy 33:10: They shall teach Jacob Your judgments and Israel Your law.
  • 2 Chronicles 17:7: Also in the third year of his reign he sent his leaders, Ben-Hail, Obadiah, Zechariah, Nethanel, and Michaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah.
  • 2 Chronicles 15:3: For a long time Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law.
  • Nehemiah 8:7: Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites helped the people to understand the Law.
  • Micah 3:11: Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money.
  • Ezekiel 7:26: Disaster will come upon disaster, and rumor will be upon rumor. Then they will seek a vision from a prophet; but the law will perish from the priest, and counsel from the elders.
  • Malachi 2:7: For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.
  • Ezra 7:25: And you, Ezra [a priest], according to your God-given wisdom, set magistrates and judges who may judge all the people who are in the region beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God; and teach those who do not know them.
  • Hosea 4:6: My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
  • Jeremiah 18:18: Then they said, “Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet.”

ii. “Related to this latter function is the involvement of the priests in copying biblical manuscripts since most of the scribes were also priests.” (Rooker)

4. (Leviticus 10:12-15) The priest’s portions defined.

And Moses spoke to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons who were left: “Take the grain offering that remains of the offerings made by fire to the LORD, and eat it without leaven beside the altar; for it is most holy. You shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due, of the sacrifices made by fire to the LORD; for so I have been commanded. The breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the heave offering you shall eat in a clean place, you, your sons, and your daughters with you; for they are your due and your sons’ due, which are given from the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel. The thigh of the heave offering and the breast of the wave offering they shall bring with the offerings of fat made by fire, to offer as a wave offering before the LORD. And it shall be yours and your sons’ with you, by a statute forever, as the LORD has commanded.”

a. Take the grain offering that remains of the offerings made by fire to the LORD, and eat it without leaven beside the altar: What was left over from a grain offering belonged to the priests, but they could not take it home to eat it. It had to be eaten beside the altar.

b. The breast of the wave offering and the thigh of the heave offering you shall eat in a clean place: These portions of a sacrifice belonged to a priest and to his household. They could be eaten in any clean place.

5. (Leviticus 10:16-20) Confusion regarding what the priests should eat.

Then Moses made careful inquiry about the goat of the sin offering, and there it was—burned up. And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron who were left, saying, “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in a holy place, since it is most holy, and God has given it to you to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? See! Its blood was not brought inside the holy place; indeed you should have eaten it in a holy place, as I commanded.” And Aaron said to Moses, “Look, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and such things have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?” So when Moses heard that, he was content.

a. Moses made careful inquiry about the goat of the sin offering, and there it was; burned up: Moses wanted to know why Eleazar and Ithamar didn’t eat the portions of sacrifice that were given for the priests to eat. Since Aaron replied on their behalf in Leviticus 10:19, it seems they did not eat it because they followed their father’s example.

i. “Apparently after the death of Nadab and Abihu the food on the altar had not been consumed.” (Rooker)

ii. We often find it easy to burn the sin offering, and hard to eat it. Burning hard against sin in a judging manner is easy. To sit down with a brother or sister as a fellow sinner and partake of the sin offering with them means you realize you aren’t any better than them. Only this kind of heart can minister to people.

iii. Jesus had this kind of heart, even though He had no sin! He still identified with His people in His humble birth, simple life, baptism, and death. Moses said the sin offering was given to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD. That’s why he was upset when Aaron didn’t eat it. But Jesus did “eat” the sin offering when He stood as a sinner in our place and received the judgment we deserved.

b. And such things have befallen me: Aaron did not eat of the sin offering because he mourned the loss of his sons. Though Aaron was not allowed to do any of the other signs of mourning, it was appropriate that he fast on the day of his sons’ death — and so he did, and Moses was satisfied with this explanation (he was content).

i. “He was content: literally, ‘and it was good in his eyes.’ (Compare ‘good in the eyes of the LORD’ in verse 19, where the same verb is used).” (Peter-Contesse)

© 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik — ewm@enduringword.com


  1. Clarke, Adam "Clarke's Commentary: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments with a Commentary and Critical Notes" Volume 1 (Genesis-Deuteronomy) (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1826)
  2. Maclaren, Alexander "Leviticus: Expositions of Holy Scripture" Volume 1 (Genesis to Numbers) (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984)
  3. Peter-Contesse, Rene and Ellington, John "A Handbook on Leviticus" (New York: The United Bible Societies, 1990)
  4. Poole, Matthew "A Commentary on the Holy Bible" Volume 1 (Genesis-Job) (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968)
  5. Rooker, Mark F. "The New American Commentary: Leviticus" (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000)
  6. Trapp, John "A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments" Volume 1 (Genesis to 2 Chronicles) (Eureka, California: Tanski Publications, 1997)

Updated: August 2022

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