by John Calvin
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[a] fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 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.
4 And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” 5 So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. 6 And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. 7 And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.
8 And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, 9 “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. 10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, 11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.”
12 Moses spoke to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar, his surviving sons: “Take the grain offering that is left of the Lord's food offerings, and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 You shall eat it in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons' due, from the Lord's food offerings, for so I am commanded. 14 But the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed you shall eat in a clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you, for they are given as your due and your sons' due from the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the people of Israel. 15 The thigh that is contributed and the breast that is waved they shall bring with the food offerings of the fat pieces to wave for a wave offering before the Lord, and it shall be yours and your sons' with you as a due forever, as the Lord has commanded.”
16 Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron, saying, 17 “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? 18 Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.” 19 And Aaron said to Moses, “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?” 20 And when Moses heard that, he approved.
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron A memorable circumstance is here recorded, from whence it appears how greatly God abominates all the sins whereby the purity of religion is corrupted. Apparently it was a light transgression to use strange fire for burning incense; and again their thoughtlessness would seem excusable, for certainly Nadab and Abihu did not wantonly or intentionally desire to pollute the sacred things, but, as is often the case in matters of novelty, when they were setting about them too eagerly, their precipitancy led them into error. The severity of the punishment, therefore, would not please those arrogant people, who do not hesitate superciliously to criticise God’s judgments; but if we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us. Besides, it was necessary that their religion should be sanctioned at its very commencement; for if God had suffered the sons of Aaron to transgress with impunity, they would have afterwards carelessly neglected the whole Law. This, therefore, was the reason of such great severity, that the priests should anxiously watch against all profanation. Their crime is specified, viz., that they offered incense in a different way from that which God had prescribed, and consequently, although they may have erred from ignorance, still they were convicted by God’s commandment of having negligently set about what was worthy of greater attention. The “strange fire” is distinguished from the sacred fire which was always burning upon the altar: not miraculously, as some pretend, but by the constant watchfulness of the priests. Now, God had forbidden any other fire to be used in the ordinances, in order to exclude all extraneous rites, and to shew His detestation of whatever might be derived from elsewhere. Let us learn, therefore, so to attend to God’s command as not to corrupt His worship by any strange inventions. But if He so severely avenged this error, how horrible a punishment awaits the Papists, who are not ashamed obstinately to defend so many gross corruptions!
3.Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake Moses restrains his brother from giving way to excessive grief; for this was a very bitter stroke after their recent joy to see himself at once deprived of two sons on the same day, and at the same moment, he might, too, have been disposed to murmur against God for the cause of their death. Lest, therefore, He should give way to such want of self-control, Moses reminds him that he must submit to the just judgment of God. We shall, however, seek in vain for what is here referred to, (416) “I will be glorified in them that come nigh me.” He had often threatened the priests witlt death if they departed in the least degree from the prescribed rule: He had often set before them the sacredness of their office, lest they should defile themselves by any sacrilegious act; in a word, He had chosen them to be His ministers in holy things, on the condition that they should know themselves to be subject to greater guilt and punishment than the rest of the people. By this consolation, then, Aaron’s grief is quieted, that God had not dealt cruelly with his sons, but had shewn forth in them a just and profitable example, in order that their successors might be more attentive in their duties; for thus should the sentence be paraphrased: In order that I may be glorified before the whole people, I must be sanctified by those of the highest degree and consequence; or, When I shall have been sanctified by the priests themselves, whose dignity is the highest, my glory will shine forth before the whole people. And, in point of fact, although God may punish whole bodies of obscure persons, such lessons have but little effect; but the punishment of men of more noble and illustrious condition draws almost all eyes to the judgments of God. For God is said to be sanctified in us in many ways, whether He shews Himself to be a pitiful or a severe Judge. This declaration, then, is an exhortation to those whom he has dignified with peculiar honor, to walk in fear and trembling; for, since “judgment begins at the house of God,” the greater are the gifts and the higher the pre-eminence is with which any one is blessed, the greater is his obligation to God, and his ingratitude worthy of severer punishment.
3.And Aaron held his peace Much is this silence of Aaron to be applauded, whereby he confessed that his sons were slain by the just judgment of God; for Moses indicates that he yielded to his admonition, and was thus restrained from complaining against. God. Thus Paul teaches us that Scripture is given to teach us patience. (Romans 15:4.) Wherefore, whenever our passions are too much excited, let us learn that this is the best remedy for quieting and repressing them, to submit ourselves to God, and to humble ourselves beneath his mighty hand. David invites us to this by his own example when he says,
“I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” (Psalms 39:9.)
4.And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan Lest Eleazar and Ithamar should carry (417) forth the corpses, Moses commanded these others to anticipate them. It may also have been the case that all were stupified by terror. He forbids the father and brothers to mourn their death, not so much in accordance with the law, whereby all except the high priest were permitted to mourn for their own brother, as to prevent this memorable lesson from being obscured by their grief, since thus was the sanctity of their religion magnificently asserted. Nevertheless, God allowed the dead men to be bewailed by the people, lest the recollection of their punishment should too soon be lost.
When he forbids (Aaron (418) and his sons) to go out from the door of the tabernacle, he does not mean so to fix them to that place as to banish them from their own private tents, but he withholds them from all pollution which might have compelled them to desert or interrupt their duty.
9.Do not drink wine, nor strong drink. The second cleanness required in the priests is that they should abstain from wine, and strong drink; (188) in which word Jerome says that everything intoxicating is included; and this I admit to be true; but the definition would be more correct, that all liquors espressed from fruits are denoted by it, in whose sweetness there is nearly as much to tempt men as in wine. Even in these days the Orientals compose of dates as well as of other fruits, liquors, which are exceedingly sweet and delicious. The same rule is, therefore, here prescribed for the priests, whilst in the performance of their duties, as for the Nazarites. Both were allowed freely to eat of all the richest foods; but God commanded them to be content with water, because abstinence in drinks very greatly conduces to frugality of living. For few are intemperate in eating, who do not also love wine; besides, an abundance of food generally satisfies the appetite, whilst there is no limit to drinking, where the love of wine prevails. Therefore, abstinence from wines was enjoined upon the priest, not only that they might beware of drunkenness, but that they might be temperate in eating, and not luxuriate in their abundance. But, inasmuch as sobriety is the main point in moderate living, God especially limited His priests in this respect, lest the rigor of their minds, and rectitude, and integrity of judgment, should be impaired by drinking. Hence it appears how great is man’s proneness to all defilements. Wine is very wholesome as one of our means of nutriment; but by the too free use of it many enervate their strength, becloud their understanding, and almost stupify all their senses so as to make themselves inactive. Some, too, degrade themselves into foul and brutish stupidity, or are driven by it to madness. Thus a pleasure, which ought to have incited them to give God thanks, is taken away from them on account of their vicious excess; and not without disgrace, because they know not how to enjoy God’s good gifts in moderation. He afterwards confirms the fact, that He interdicted wine to the priests when exercising their office, that they may distinguish “between clean and unclean,” and be sound and faithful interpreters of the Law. On this score it became them to be abstemious throughout their whole life, because they were always appointed to be masters to instruct the people; but lest immoderate strictness should tend to disgust them, so that they might be less disposed for the willing performance of the rest of their duty, God deemed it sufficient to admonish them by this temporary abstinence, that they should study to be sober at other times. Thus, then, it must be concluded that none are fit to teach who are given to gluttony, which corrupts the soundness of the mind, and destroys its rigor. The comment of Jerome is indeed a childish one, that “A fat belly does not engender a quick understanding:” for many corpulent men are of vigorous and active intellect, and indeed leanness is often the consequence of drinking too much. But those who stuff their bodies will never have sufficient activity of mind to execute the office of teaching. In conclusion, we gather from this passage, as Malachi says, (Malachi 2:7,) that the priests were interpreters of the Law, and messengers of the Lord of hosts, and not dumb masks For though the Law was written, yet God would ever have the living voice to resound in His Church, just as now-a-days preaching is inseparably united with Scripture.
Lorinus, however, in loco, refutes the notion from Tostatus, and so also Willet. It appears to have been of Jewish origin; and the principal arguments against it are, — 1. That it is not mentioned in the Scripture; and 2. That the offenders had been ministering from an early hour in the morning.
12.And Moses spake unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar Lest hereafter the priests should transgress through ignorance, Moses admonishes them of their duty; and perhaps he was moved by some immediate reason to give these particular injunctions rather than any others. As yet they were but little practiced in the observance of the rites; and what had happened to their brethren must have rendered them anxious. Now, this consternation at the death of their brethren might have so confounded their senses, that they could not apply themselves with so much composure as they ought to the service of God; and thus the offering would have been improperly made. Lest, therefore, their grief should so disturb them as to prevent the due performance of their office, he commands them to eat what remained of the meat-offering with the burnt-sacrifices. Whence we gather that he endeavored to prevent them from transgressing on that day in consequence of their minds being occupied by their recent grief. And in order to induce them to obedience, he sets before them the authority of God, to which it was fitting that the priesthood should be subject, as being founded upon it.
16.And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin-offering Moses had not omitted to tell them what was to be done with the goat; and the sacrifice which he had himself performed, was a visible instruction to them. He had set before them what they should imitate, and this would have been enough even for children. But, as I have said, in such serious matters Moses had not spared labor and care, whereas the sons of Aaron, as if they had neither heard nor seen anything of the sort, pervert the whole order of them, although they had been just before reminded that they had been appointed to keep the charge of God. Perhaps they were impelled to this error by the trouble arising from their grief; but we gather from hence that however exquisite may be the ability of masters and teachers, it may be often fruitless unless they have obedient scholars with retentive memories. And hence also we learn that when God often inculcates the same thing, His labor is not superfluous, because we do not understand what we seem to understand; or what has been clearly shewn to us soon afterwards escapes.
Further from the anger of Moses, which is mentioned in his praise, we may infer that the transgression was no light one, although it was not so severely punished as the presumption of Nadab and Abihu. The excuse which some make for them, or allege in extenuation of their crime, that they thought they were deprived of the right before accorded to them, and therefore abstained through modesty, is refuted by the answer of Aaron himself. It was, therefore, grief alone which impelled them to this error. But the reason why God was more merciful to them than to their brethren, is only known to Himself. Conjectures may, indeed, be advanced; but at last we must come to this, that because God’s judgments are hidden, they are not therefore unjust; but that we must humbly adore their depth into which the minds of men cannot penetrate.
19.And Aaron said unto Moses, Behold, this day Aaron replies that it arose from pious fear that they had not feasted before God, because they would in a manner have defiled the sanctuary by their tears and melancholy, as if he had said, Part indeed of the sin-offering was reserved for our food, but we could not properly partake of it except in cheerfulness and with thanksgiving. The grief arising from his sudden bereavement did not allow of this; but it was not a just defense; for he ought rather to have striven against the feelings of the flesh, so that his domestic calamity should not withhold him from the service of God. But, inasmuch as in his perplexity his fear was deserving of pity, Moses forgives him; and it is said that he was appeased, because he finds less of evil than he supposed.