God Is a Consuming Fire
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. 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 (Vayikra / Leviticus 9:24 – 10:2).
The meaning of these verses is best understood when we read them as they were originally written. The chapter and verse divisions were added very much later. Starting a new chapter in the middle of these two incidents creates an unintended break.
This all happened after the mishkan (English: tabernacle) was completed and the cohenim (English: priests) began their service. Following the inaugural offerings, God's glory appeared to the people. We are then told that fire came out from God's presence and consumed the offerings. Then in what appears to be immediately following, two of Aaron's sons, offered something that was unauthorized by God. Fire again came out from God's presence, but this time instead of consuming the offering, God's fire consumed them.
It is possible that the second incident occurred around the same time as the first. Aaron's sons may have been all excited about the start of their priestly service and got a little carried away. This may be what is referred to by Moses soon after:
Whatever it was that led to this, they were not careful to approach God in the way he prescribed, and they died as a result.
What is most noteworthy is that the language used (both in Hebrew and in English) to describe what happened in both incidents is identical: Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed…In one case it was the offerings, in the other the people.
God is consuming in nature. Later in the Torah, he is described in these very terms:
After Nadab and Abihu died, Moses gave this explanation to their father, Aaron:
Because God is holy, we must never treat him in a common fashion. Holiness is the opposite of common. Because he is holy, he is to be honored. He is not like us. We must never relate to him on our own terms. If we do, then like Aaron's sons, we will be consumed.
If we relate to God in the way he prescribes, he will accept what we do with our lives. If we insist on doing things our own way, we will be destroyed.
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