Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” Aaron remained silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
Just prior to this text, the high priesthood of Israel is initiated. In Leviticus 8, the whole assembly of Israel gathers for the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Moses places the special vestments on Aaron (tunic, sash, robe, ephod, breastpiece, turban); Moses washes what should be washed with water (8:6) and anoints what should be anointed with oil (8:10-12); Moses sacrifices the proper animals and at the end of this worship instructs them: “Do not leave the entrance of the tent of meeting for seven days, until the days of your ordination are completed” (8:33).
In Leviticus 9, their ministry begins, with Aaron–now purified through Moses’ sacrifices–offering sacrifices “for yourself and for the people” (9:7). This with the promise: “Today the Lord will appear to you” (9:4). At the end of this first set of regular sacrifices, intended to continue uninterrupted for hundreds of years, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (9:23-24).
This is a high point in Israel’s history: the high priesthood, meant to mediate between the Lord and Israel, offering sacrifices for their restoration, has been ordained. The people see the glory of the Lord and are in awe. It parallels the first setting of the tabernacle, which, when it is completed, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). Everything is fulfilled according to the law code just handed down through Moses to Israel. But in Nadab and Abihu’s rash actions, the peace of Israel’s worship is broken; worse, Aaron’s two sons themselves are killed by fire.
The father’s response is telling: “Aaron remained silent” (10:3). This is reminiscent of the friends of Job: “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13). Words, in Scripture, appear utterly incapable of patching over the wound of suffering. In fact, in Job, a lengthy record of dialogues, it is not ultimately any words that resolve his suffering, but God’s appearing: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (42:5).
The Word himself, who is the fullness of life and the end of suffering, offers no answers for the suffering of the world, but simply enters into battle for the defense of his suffering ones: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18); “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1); and in John’s apocalyptic vision: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!… She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her… In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s people, of all who have been slaughtered on the earth” (Revelation 18:2,8,24).