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This week, the portion is Shemini (Leviticus 9-11), meaning “eighth.” One thing in particular was on my heart to write about, and that’s Aaron’s response to the death of his sons, Nadab and Abihu.

More than any other figure in the Mosaic religious system, the High Priest foreshadowed the Messiah, and these parallels can be seen in several crucial ways, one of which was already highlighted in last week’s post (the fact the High Priest’s life was equivalent to that of the entire nation). There’s more in Leviticus 21:10-15:

He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother; nor shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife. Nor shall he profane his posterity among his people, for I the Lord sanctify him.

While it was a great glory and honour for Aaron and his descendants to become High Priests, the privilege came with some strict demands that were meant to safeguard their ritual purity, and to demonstrate the weight and significance of the position they occupied. This was why Aaron was consecrated with the anointing oil of God – to officially and irrevocably set him apart for the purposes of offering gifts and sacrifices to God; to make atonement for the people; to distinguish between the holy and unholy, the unclean and clean; and to teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord had spoken through Moses. 

Thus the High Priest was to be wholly dedicated to God and Temple service. He was not to participate in the common rites of mourning (baring his head, rending his garments or leaving the sanctuary to follow a funeral procession); he couldn’t ritually defile himself even for his nearest and dearest; and he had to marry a virgin.

These traits echo the person of Yeshua, of whom Hebrews 7:26 says, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens.” This set-apart state was apparent even during His life, when He said in response to His family wanting to speak with Him during ministry, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50). Even though He’d very much been a part of His family and community in Nazareth for the first 30 years or so of His life, once He began to preach and function as the Messiah of Israel, His personal connections no longer held or defined Him.

Thus when Nadab and Abihu were consumed by the fire of God, Aaron was told:

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

The Tabernacle had just been dedicated, and the priesthood inaugurated. God had given explicit instructions as to how the incense was to be offered, and when. So in burning some when they had not been told to, Nadab and Abihu were profaning the Tabernacle service. At such a momentous and holy occasion, when the glory and fire of God had just appeared to signal divine acceptance of Israel’s sacrifices and all the work that had been done to erect the Tabernacle and set everything in place in exact accordance with God’s wishes, they were showing an inordinate amount of levity and presumption. … It basically amounted to contempt.

This is why God said, “By those who come near Me, I must be regarded as holy” – at a time when everything was being done for the sake of facilitating God’s awesome condescension to dwell among His people, the proceedings were supposed to be marked by the sanctity of absolute obedience. There was no room for deviation or self-directed spontaneity; Nadab and Abihu’s actions were unsanctioned, and therefore unacceptable. This was no different to when Uzzah touched the Ark of the Covenant to steady it when it was being transported, and was struck dead (2 Samuel 6:1-11); or when Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because he disobeyed God’s instructions to bring water out of the rock (Numbers 20:1-13); or when Saul was rejected from being king because he spared the best of Agag’s sheep and oxen, under the pretense of wanting to sacrifice to God (1 Samuel 15).

In all these cases, it was a matter of human individuals contravening a clear and direct order from God. This is why they were charged with failing to hallow Him, and punished accordingly. When He gives an explicit command, especially in front of other witnesses, one cannot simply defy it. It is a public affront, a bad example to His people, and a matter that requires judgement. This is why He said, “Before all the people, I must be glorified” – Aaron understood this, so he held his peace. Nothing was to be more important than completing the Tabernacle services at that point in time; to protest would’ve been to condemn God’s prerogative to judge and His right to be magnified in the eyes of the people, and to mourn would’ve been to place his personal affection for his sons above his consecrated duty as High Priest.

For those of us who aren’t accustomed to this level of severity from God, this is a difficult thing to accept; but as Jesus said, to whom much is given, much is required. In the world, it’s typical for people who’re powerful/popular to enjoy greater leeway in terms of what’s considered acceptable behaviour; but in the kingdom of God, the opposite is true – God demands more of His leaders and righteous ones; He holds them to a higher standard; and He deals with their sins more severely. This is why Nadab and Abihu suffered such a serious fate, and why their father and brothers were not allowed to bewail them.

In an age where society is becoming increasingly permissive and irreverent, it’s all too easy for Christians to lose sight of this truth, I think – too easy for us to lose sight of how much respect and authority God really ought to command before us; too easy to forget what a weighty matter His consecration and anointing actually are. … It’s become easy for us to lose sight of what it means to be truly set apart, and to forget that, ultimately, God is a consuming fire. But as the Lord said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37-38).

One sees an echo of this difficult demand in the life of Ezekiel as well, when God said to him:

“Son of man, behold, I take away from you the desire of your eyes with one stroke; yet you shall neither mourn nor weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh in silence, make no mourning for the dead; bind your turban on your head, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your lips, and do not eat man’s bread of sorrow.”

So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died; and the next morning I did as I was commanded. (Ezekiel 24:16-18)

When we belong to God, He has (or should have) first claim on our priorities and affections. All that we have is actually His to do with as He wishes, even though He doesn’t make such drastic demands on many of us for most of the time. But the bottomline is, dedication is a challenging thing, requiring holy separation not just outwardly, but inwardly. … As Aaron was, so were the prophets; and as Yeshua did, so must we. This creates a tremendous amount of tension for any normal person, yet it’s a necessary part of a believer’s growth and perspective, because to live in a world that is at enmity with God is to be fundamentally called to face and make this choice – even (or especially) when it comes to our own flesh and blood.

For those who’re interested, I’ve written about this before from the standpoint of my own journey (see Filial piety and Confessions of a lone convert); but suffice it to say that just as the High Priest was supposed to marry only a virgin, Yeshua is preparing for Himself a perfect bride, “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). And this holy separation that was exemplified by Aaron, among many others in the Bible, is part of what defines that singleness of dedication and spotless condition. As John wrote,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world … is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Sometimes, a love of the world doesn’t involve something that’s obviously wrong or sinful. Sometimes it can be an attachment that, under any other circumstance, might be considered natural and lawful. But held up in comparison to loyalty to God, sometimes, losing one’s love of the world can entail having to give up one’s nearest and dearest. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. … But we have this comfort that even as we cannot, by necessity, mourn those things that may detract from our service to, and sanctification of, His name – one day, He will wipe away every tear, “and everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).

… Which is not to say that we do it for the reward. Quite often, for those of us who genuinely care about the people in our lives, it seems that no amount of blessing or good things will make up for their loss. It feels like heaven simply won’t be complete if the people we love aren’t there. … But if there’s one thing we can learn from Aaron’s tragedy with his sons, it’s that even when we’re weeping inwardly, God must still be glorified: whatever happens and however great the personal losses and misfortunes we endure along the way, He must still be hallowed in the mouths and actions of His people – because that’s what He deserves.

… Next week, we look at the purity laws.