These are the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. But Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD when they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of Aaron their father. (Numbers 3:1-4 ESV)
As part of the census or numbering of Israel, Moses recounts the lineage of Aaron and the Levites. Aaron and his sons were chosen to be Yahweh’s high priests, the ones who supervised the sacrifices with the help of the Levites, and the ones who brought the blood on the day of atonement into the holy of holies to sprinkle it on the ark of the covenant for Israel’s forgiveness.
But two of Aaron’s sons tried to take this privilege to themselves, most likely in a bid to establish their superiority to their brothers. Here is the account in Leviticus:
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 ESV)
When the tabernacle was established, Yahweh lit the fire for the sacrifice and this fire was kept going even in all of Israel’s travels through the wilderness. The strange or unauthorized fire of Nadab and Abihu was fire they kindled themselves. Though Aaron undoubtedly was heartbroken over their rebellion and death, he recognized the justice of God’s punishment. No one, not even a son of Aaron, can disobey God’s directives on worship and go unpunished.
If we think we can come to God, like Nadab and Abihu did, with purposes that do not agree with God’s purposes, and expect to have God’s favor, we are sadly mistaken. As He said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified.” To treat Him as if He is supposed to cater to our desires in disregard for His glorious character and kingdom determination is as foolish as bringing unauthorized fire before Him expecting Him to respond favorably. Soli Dei Gloria! Only for the glory of God!