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The Sin of Nadab and Abihu: Drinking on the Job, Leviticus 10:1-11 by Terry Harman

Updated: Dec 5, 2023


In my work with addicts over the last forty years, I have learned one thing. People act out impulsively. Our current culture contributed to the rewiring of our brains. We crave the next quick dopamine rush that will fire up the pleasure center of our brains. We have become increasingly impatient. “We want what we want, and we want it now.” Our pleasure center begs for an instant rush of feel-good neurotransmitters.

In our search for pleasure, meaning, and purpose, we take shortcuts, the path of least resistance. Reading a book has become boring. The special effects of the movie provide a jolt of fascination. "Likes" on Facebook are too slow. Now our brains have adapted to twenty-second quick fixes from Tik Tok, the sixty-second entertainment of Instagram and YouTube shorts. Hurry up. Download the dopamine quickly as I swipe up left and right!

Unfortunately, "P.I.G." or the pursuit of immediate gratification, grew during our lockdowns with Covid 19. We turned to the quick fixes and temporary highs of our electronic devices as a means of coping. Some churches and synagogues have not come back from the restrictions of Covid. Live, in-house, worship participation has given way to live-to-stream, Facebook Live, and online sermon galleries. Devices have upgraded over time. Yet acting without thinking and making impulsive decisions are not new.

Temporary highs and pursuing immediate gratification are alive and well. The methods of instant gratification have changed over the centuries. Yearning for feeling good has been part of human nature since biblical days. In the Book of Leviticus, we learn the tragic story of the impulsive decision of two brothers, Nadab and Abihu, the older sons of Aaron, the first high priest and brother of Moses.

Fire from Heaven

On the eighth day, the culmination of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) dedication filled the air with anticipation and excitement. God's desire to dwell among the Israelites had materialized in this sacred Tabernacle, built with heartfelt contributions. Aaron, the chosen high priest, flawlessly performed the offerings as directed by the Lord. With arms raised, he blessed the people, and at that moment, YHVH manifested himself as a tangible presence. Holy fire fell from heaven. The pattern was right, and the fire fell. The offerings were engulfed, and the Lord started the continual fire on the altar of burnt sacrifices. This manifestation of YHVH evoked a joyous cry of relief, and the people instinctively prostrated themselves in awe.

And there came forth fire from before HaShem, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:24 JPS 1917)

“Fire from Heaven” Photo by Terry Harman, © 2009

Amidst the grand rituals, a jolting disruption invaded the tranquility. Nadav and Abihu, Aaron's sons, offered an unauthorized "strange fire" before the altar of incense - foreign and unfamiliar. In an instant, the same miraculous fire that had previously consumed their father's offerings turned against them, engulfing their souls. The congregation of onlookers stood in stunned silence, witnessing the tragic fate of the two young and newly ordained priests. The elation faded, replaced by sorrow and disbelief. The profound mysteries of divine judgment and the boundaries of human action in the presence of the Lord loomed heavy in the air.

The eighth day, intended as a culmination of divine dwelling and priestly service, now bore the complexities of immense joy and profound sorrow. The delicate balance between reverence and humility when approaching the divine became evident. The story of Nadav and Abihu serves as a permanent cautionary reminder of the sacred responsibility entrusted to those seeking to draw nigh unto the Lord, especially our spiritual leaders.

The Sin of Nadab and Abihu?

The exact nature of their offense is not explicitly described in the biblical text, leaving room for interpretation. Several theories describe the nature of their sin.

1) Nadab and Abihu on their initiative took their censer (Leviticus 10:1) and without

authorization assumed responsibilities before their time.

2) Using coals of fire from a common place like a cooking fire, not the Altar of burnt Sacrifice as


3) Drawing too near to the Holy of Holies without authorization.

4) Burning an offering of incense at an inappropriate hour.

5) A possible “plain sense of the word” opinion on the primary reason for the deaths of Nadab and Abihu - searching for a quick fix while intoxicated with wine.

6) The experience in Exodus 24:1-11 may have given Nadab and Abihu the impression that they were

privileged and the rules did not apply to them. Add alcohol to that assumption of privilege and P.I.G.

Exodus 24:1-9 JPS 1917

1 And unto Moses He said: ‘Come up unto the LORD, thou, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship ye afar off; 2 and Moses alone shall come near unto the LORD; but they shall not come near; neither shall the people go up with him.’

9 Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. 11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand, and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.

After all, only Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders were allowed to ascend the mountain of the Lord. Aaron's other two sons were not invited. Verse nine in English states they "saw the God of Israel." Since no man can "see" God and live the Hebrew is better translated as "perceived" the God of Israel. They had an encounter or spiritual experience.

The idea of perception is reinforced in verse eleven "and they beheld God." This was a small group of people in comparison to the census of the nation. Only a few select individuals were allowed to approach the mountain. And then their approach was limited in how far one could climb. It is possible having had a vision or experience of the presence of God caused the brothers to feel too comfortable or familiar with the Almighty? Did they assume they "knew God" and therefore, "God knows us from the mountain experience and will excuse us regardless of whether we bend the rules during the inauguration of the Tabernacle."

Leviticus 10:1 JPS 1917

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.”


The word translated as “Lord” in verse two is “The Tetragrammaton.” The Tetragrammaton also known as God's four-letter name is formed by the Hebrew letters 'yud,' 'hey,' 'vav,' and 'hey,' which are represented in English as YHVH. It is important to note that according to Jewish tradition, speaking aloud this sacred name of the Lord is prohibited, so the original pronunciation of the word remains unclear. Instead, when one is reading from the Hebrew scroll in the synagogue and YHVH is encountered different substitutes like "Adonai" (meaning "My Lord") and "Hashem" (meaning "The Name") are used depending on the situation.

"The Holy Place" Photo by Terry Harman © 2007

The offense took place at the golden altar of incense. The altar was designated as the place for morning and evening prayers (Exodus 30:7-8). The altar of incense was placed before the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies and the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30:6). The priests were warned not to offer just anything at the golden altar. especially anything "strange" or "foreign." The Bible does not give us a timeline of when the brothers entered the holy place to offer their "strange fire." It is possible during the height of the inauguration Nadab and Abihu slipped away from their father and two younger brothers to be the first ones to stand before the holy of holies and offer incense.

"Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt offering, nor meal offering; and ye shall pour no drink-offering thereon." Exodus 30:9 JPS 1917

“Strange Fire” Photo by Terry Harman, © 2009

Leviticus 10:2-3 JPS 1917

2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

The Rabbis attempted to answer the question about the nature of the fire that “came out from before the Lord and devoured them,” and the nature of their death “before the Lord (Leviticus 10:2). The Jewish sages taught that, “Two threads of fire came out of the Holy of Holies and split into four, and two entered the nostrils of this one, and the two other entered the nostrils of that one, and the threads of fire burned them.” The sages go on to teach that the bodies Nadab and Abihu and their clothing were not consumed, and their death was “similar to a natural death, in which the body remains intact.” (1)

The Two Priests Are Destroyed, James Tissot, c. 1896-1902.

Leviticus 10:4-5 JPS 1917

This concept of the bodies and tunics not being consumed by fire is reinforced. “4 And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’ 5 So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said.”

“. . . with their tunics”

This is a reference to the priestly tunics of Nadab and Abihu. Aaron’s cousins Mishael and Elzaphan were Levites and did not wear the tunics of the kohanim (priests). The garments of the brothers were not consumed by the fire, only their souls and internal organs. “Two thread-like [sparks] of fire entered their nostrils [thereby destroying their souls along with all their internal organs but leaving their external body structures intact.” (2)

The Dead Bodies Carried Away, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Leviticus 10:6-7 JPS 1917

6 And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons: ‘Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither tend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled. 7 And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest ye die; for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.’ And they did according to the word of Moses.

Soon after the death of Aaron’s eldest sons Nadab and Abihu, Moses speaks to Aaron and his two younger sons. He commands the three not to leave the Tabernacle's confines to mourn their relatives' death. Instead, Moses insists that the mourning was the responsibility of the “whole house of Israel bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.”

The Pursuit of Immediate Gratification: Drinking on the Job

Sometimes the plain sense of the word gives us a straightforward answer to our questions. In the case of the sin of Nadab and Abihu, it was their pursuit of immediate gratification fueled by their intoxication with wine that led to impaired judgment and resulted in both brothers performing a ritual for their pleasure which they had not been authorized to do; using coals of fire from a commonplace; drawing too near to the Holy of Holies without authorization; and burning an offering of incense at an inappropriate hour. Because their judgment was impaired with intoxication, a specific warning was issued to all priests not to perform sacred duties at the Tabernacle while intoxicated on wine. Why? To maintain the sanctity of the service of the Lord by distinguishing the holy from the common.

Leviticus 10:8-11 JPS 1917

8 And the LORD spoke unto Aaron, saying: 9 ‘Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. 10 And that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; 11 and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.’

Relevancy with a Purpose

Is it safe to assume that it is uncommon for our spiritual leaders to "drink on the job?" Laypersons and clergy alike must be careful in our enthusiasm to be relevant, that we guard against offering “strange fire” before the Lord. Methods have changed with screens, projectors, video walls, electronics, and the available media tools, but the message must remain the same. Choirs, praise teams, media, sound technicians, and those who deliver the sermon deserve our appreciation. Worship involves participation. It is not a spectator sport.

I favor the tasteful use of multimedia over the services of my youth. Yet I have one concern. We have placed undue expectations and pressure upon the worship leaders, musicians, and praise teams to keep up with the latest technology. A spirit of excellence is appropriate in everything we do for the Lord. We must discern the subtle difference between a stage performance before the congregation and a spirit of excellence before the divine. Even those not musically inclined can sense the "spirit of praise" versus a performance. When someone misses a cue, the screen doesn't descend as expected, or the singer's voice breaks, are we critical? Interestingly when children stand before the congregation and make a mistake, what do we do? Do we become critical? No! We clap. Tears well up in our eyes because we see the sincerity of their hearts as they sing before the Lord. Hearts are touched with authenticity!

My friends who serve in large media teams; share one thing with me. Too often, they must focus on the service's mechanics, media, and timing to the point they do not benefit from the worship and teaching. They see the service, but they do not hear the service! If you think their work is easy, observe them for one service from start to finish. We must find a way to serve these valuable servants as they serve us. What would some congregations do if the internet, projectors, or sound system went silent just before the service begins?

Gimmick or Teaching Tool

These principles apply to my YouTube videos, graphics, and prop-making efforts. Viewers of my videos have commented on the "high production value." I appreciate the comments and critiques. I do. My prayer is the "value" of the production lies in people being spiritually fed and inspired to read the Bible rather than a "quick fix" or momentarily "spiritual buzz" manufactured by the lighting and camera angles.

When I read the Bible in preparation for an illustrated teaching, I must be aware that we live in a “sight and sound generation.” However, at the same time, my videos and props have to be more than a “gimmick” or a special effect! The desire is for the congregation not “to see the message but hear the message.” “Will this teaching tool help me to communicate a biblical concept to my audience?” “Will this picture or video footage accurately represent the details given within the biblical portion being taught?” If the answer is no, I chuck the project and look for another way to communicate the principle. Temporary spiritual highs manufactured by high production value will not change lives.


The pursuit of immediate gratification has become our watchword and song. Unfortunately, our craving for instant gratification, temporary highs, and quick fixes has migrated into our houses of worship. The praise of the Almighty One can be sidelined by performance, competition, and how many people attended the service that day. The spiritual disciplines of study, prayer, and being a servant; should not give way to the quick fix of an entertainment-only style of worship and messages geared toward a theme of, “What’s in it for me?”

In discussing this blog with a Christian friend, he offered this New Testament verse for my consideration. Discern if “itching ears” indicates a growing appetite for worship experiences driven by our desires, felt needs, and wants. Are we pursuing a holy God in a sacred place? Intentions and motives are aspects of our worship and servanthood.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 KJV

The heart discerns the difference between performance and praise. Quick fixes and temporary highs become strange fire and soon fade away. Praise pierces the darkness of our soul and illuminates our purpose with clarity amid chaos. Performance feels good; for the moment and leaves us without the spiritual armor we may need in the days ahead. Strange fires leave us spiritually unchanged and unchallenged.


(1) Sefaria. Retrieved May 20, 2023,

(2) Retrieved June 1, 2022). Chapter 10 - Shemot - Exodus - Torah.

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27 mag 2023
Valutazione 5 stelle su 5.

Very True Dr Terry. Thank you for the meat and substance. This was edifying and inspiring.

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26 mag 2023
Valutazione 5 stelle su 5.

A subject that has weighed heavily on my heart. In this walk I have traveled through many different venues searching for sound understanding of Scripture. Place after place a particular theme seemed to play out. Three songs and a sermon.

Week after week, three songs and a sermon. One sensation after another, always trying to outdo the teaching series of last year.

Some places had lights and smoke machines others had large screens and fantastic displays.

Thirty minutes of working up the crowd with passionate music and then asking the people for their money.

Then online the drama of who are you subscribed to and what new understanding are they providing with everyday new video. While bickering and division happens…

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Dr. Terry Harman
Dr. Terry Harman
26 mag 2023
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Thank you for your heartfelt comment.

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