A tough concept for modern Christians to get their minds around is God’s sacrificial system in the Old Testament. Wading through long chapters of boring, persnickety instructions about what to sacrifice for what and how and when makes us feel fidgety and bored. Why on earth did God order up sacrifices in the first place? The old “it was a metaphor for Jesus” argument really doesn’t work. You don’t have to get this grand just to make the point that people had to die for their sins. The system of sacrifices that God set up was elaborate, time consuming, and tedious. It was hard, hot, messy work. It was a continuous rotation between barbecuing meat and dissecting animals. It was before the days of rubber gloves and plastic aprons. The priest wore tunics, which were basically dresses. Ever try to dissect a bull in a dress with your bare hands? How about draining all its blood and then flinging it onto the sides of an altar? That had to smell nice. Yuck. Why was God being so gross?
In order to put things in perspective we need to leave our world of modern conveniences and step back in time to the world the ancient Israelites lived in. In America today, no one would consider bowing down to an idol in public, let alone performing some kind of ritual sacrifice to it. But back in Old Testament times, this was commonplace. Everyone sacrificed to their gods, everyone made gross sacrifices, everyone had priests and fancy rituals. While God’s Laws sound alien and strange to us today, they would have sounded like nothing new to the ancient Israelites. All the idols they’d come across so far demanded strange rituals. There was nothing new about Yahweh—He was just one more in a long line of deities they had known and worshiped. This presented God with a bit of a challenge. How could He make Himself stand out as different in the eyes of His people?
We can tell how common sacrificial rituals were by reading through God’s Laws and noticing all the things He tells the people not to do. “When building an altar to Me, don’t use any tools.” Why not? Because when the Israelites built altars to other gods, they were used to using tools in order to do a nice job. To stand out as different in their minds, Yahweh made up a bunch of strange rules that would force them to break from common idolatrous practices. Yahweh was not like the other gods they had known (and were still worshiping in their tents). He was different.
Animal sacrifices were nothing new. The Israelites were used to sacrificing to other gods, but since everything about those other gods was made up, they were probably used to being much more slack about how and what they sacrificed. By presenting Himself as ultra-particular, Yahweh was once again distinguishing Himself as different in their minds. This God wouldn’t accept just any kind of sacrifice, nor would He take quick and easy. Animals and crops were the common sources of offerings to other gods and Yahweh accepted them as well, but His had to be of higher quality. No defective animals—everything sacrificed to Yahweh had to be perfect and costly to the owner. No piles of unprocessed wheat kernels—grain offerings to Yahweh had to be of fine flour that would have taken a lot of time and work to make. The Israelites were probably used to going cheap with pagan gods—offering animals that weren’t of much use anyway rather than lose one that had good bloodlines but Yahweh made it clear He would never accept their garbage.
Priests were also commonplace. The Israelites were used to having priests mediate between them and their foreign gods, so when Yahweh announced that Aaron and his sons were to act as priests, there was nothing new happening. All throughout the Old Testament, we hear references to idol priests. Elijah slaughtered a bunch of Baal priests after his contest on Mt. Carmel. At the end of Judges, a man asks a Levite to act as priest to both Yahweh and a houseful of idol gods. While it sounds strange to us the way God would only allow certain consecrated priests to come near to His altar and perform special rituals, this would have seemed very typical to the ancient Jews. In order to impress them, God would have to do a lot more than come up with picky rules, set up a holy tent and appoint priests.
How could God prove to the Israelites that He was the real deal and not at all like the other gods they were so familiar with? By now God had already sobered them up with a show of fire and thunder on a rumbling Mt. Sinai. That had impressed and frightened them, but not enough because a month later they were worshiping a golden calf. Clearly more reverence was needed. The people needed to understand that God was holy and independent from them; He was not just another figment of their imagination that they could revise and alter whenever it suited them.
Leviticus 9 opens with the first official day of Aaron and his sons performing their priestly duties. After seven days of consecration rituals, they are dressed in the special frocks that the whole community pitched in to make and they’re ready to go. All of Israel is watching this first round of sacred ceremonies. It is very important to God that the priests model perfect obedience and great reverence for Him in the eyes of the people. This is a critical point in Israel’s relationship with Him. Once again, Yahweh is looking for ways He can set Himself apart from all the other gods the people have known.
Aaron is the head priest and he has four sons to assist him in his holy work: Abihu, Nadab, Eleazar and Ithamar. God has prepared a very busy day for them. Many sacrifices must be made—first to atone for the sins of the priests, and then to atone for the sins of the people. Step one is to collect the animals together. Moses is playing the part of director, passing on God’s instructions to the priests and guiding them through each phase of the ceremony. Here are all the animals that will be sacrificed:
- A bull calf – as a sin offering for the priests.
- A ram – as a burnt offering for the priests.
- A male goat – as a sin offering for Israel.
- A one year old calf & lamb – as a burnt offering for Israel.
- An ox and a ram – as a fellowship offering for Israel.
- A grain offering will be added to these as well.
The animals, the priests and Moses troop on over to the Tent of Meeting. Yahweh has said that if they follow His instructions, His glory will appear to them. Now everyone is eagerly waiting for that grand moment to happen and all the pressure is on the priests. Let’s look at a step-by-step summary of all the work Aaron and his sons went through on that critical first day in order to earn God’s favor in the form of a visible show:
1. Aaron killed the bull calf as a sin offering for himself.
2. His sons dissected the animal: they drained all of its blood into a dish, cut out all of its fat, cut out its kidneys and the covering of its liver. They then brought Aaron the blood.
3. Using his finger, Aaron put some blood on the horns of the altar then poured the rest on the base of the altar.
4. Aaron then burned the calf’s fat, kidneys & the covering of its liver on the altar.
5. The rest of the animal—its flesh and hide—were then taken outside of the camp (quite a long walk) and burned.
6. Next, Aaron slaughtered the ram as a burnt offering. (A ram weighs around 200 lbs.)
7. His sons processed the animal and brought Aaron its blood.
8. Aaron sprinkled blood against all sides of the altar.
9. His sons brought him the entire ram in pieces, including head, and Aaron burned them all on altar.
10. Aaron washed the ram’s inner organs & legs, then burned them as well.
11. Next, Aaron brought in the goat offering from the people.
12. Repeat steps 2-4.
13. Next, Aaron brought in the calf & lamb from the people.
14. He repeated steps 7-10 for each.
15. Next, Aaron brought in the grain offering from people.
16. He burned a handful of grain on the altar.
17. Lastly, Aaron killed the ox & the ram from the people. (An ox weighs about 1,700 lbs.)
14. His sons dissected the animals & brought Aaron the blood.
15. Aaron sprinkled blood on all sides of the altar.
16. Aaron took all the fat portions (fat tail, layer of fat, kidneys & covering of liver), and laid them on the breast meat from both animals.
17. Aaron then burned the fat portions on the altar.
18. Aaron waved the breasts and right thigh pieces of each animal before Yahweh as a wave offering.
19. Aaron then lifted his hands and blessed the people.
20. Aaron stepped down from altar.
WOW. What a ton of work. By now many hours have passed and the dissecting area is a bloody mess. Aaron’s sons have got to be feeling pretty dirty, but all the hard work pays off when God suddenly appears.
Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of Yahweh appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the Presence of Yahweh 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. (Lev. 9:23-24)
God is pleased—well, sort of. The priests have done a good job and honored Him in the sight of the people, but God doesn’t just want to come across like some puppet God who they can bribe into putting on a dramatic show. That is the way they’re used to approaching their idol deities and God wants them to view Him differently. But how can He make Himself stand out as different? He sees into the hearts of the people that are bowing down in awe and He knows they’re still not convinced that He is so different. Maybe He’s got some different rules and He’s a little more particular, but that’s not saying much. God still needs a way to show these people that He is not some product of human imagination that can be altered at will.
Now what is this? Nadab and Abihu are trying to bring God an incense offering that He did not authorize. Now that the big show is over, maybe the priests think they can start to ad lib. Maybe they think they don’t have to take God so seriously after all—especially when they’re feeling tired and yuck after hours of butchering animals. This is a perfect chance for God to set Himself apart. The stupid idols the people are used to worshiping don’t complain when their priests get sloppy. God will teach these priests and all of Israel that Yahweh’s instructions are not to be taken lightly.
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before Yahweh, contrary to His command. So fire came out from the Presence of Yahweh and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh. (Lev. 10:1-2)
The joyful mood of the camp is instantly shattered as everyone stares in horror at the two charred and smoking corpses lying on the ground. What happened? What went wrong?
Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what Yahweh spoke of when He said: “‘I will be treated as holy by those who come near Me; and in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” (Lev. 10:3)
No priest is going to get away with insulting Yahweh in public. God gave specific, detailed commands about exactly how the priests were to approach Him and those commands were ignored. No doubt the people were shocked by this extreme reaction. They weren’t used to seeing their other gods fly off the handle like this over one misstep. But this is exactly Yahweh’s point: He isn’t just another god.
Aaron is speechless. Everything was going so well and now two of his sons have been torched. These are the same two sons who went up sacred Mt. Sinai with Aaron and Moses and the seventy elders of Israel to see God back in Exodus 24:9. Abihu and Nadab had been invited to be part of a special in crowd of men who had actually laid their eyes on God and even had a picnic in His Presence without being killed. Eleazar and Ithamar had been excluded from that special opportunity, no doubt making their two brothers feel rather superior. All the more reason Abihu and Nadab had no excuse for treating God like He was just another pagan deity whose commands could be taken lightly.
Well, someone has to do something with the bodies and Moses immediately takes charge. Aaron has an uncle named Uzziel who has two sons Mishael and Elzaphan. These would be the older cousins of Aaron’s dead sons. They are the ones Moses orders to carry away the charred corpses.
“Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” (Lev. 10:14)
This a very tense moment. Everyone is in shock. Moses is angry. He turns to Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar and says that if they show any sign of mourning, Yahweh will strike them dead and be angry with the whole community. It’s alright if the rest of the people mourn, but not Aaron and his two sons. Also, since they are still wearing Yahweh’s anointing oil, they aren’t allowed to leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting for now. So then, if they mourn or if they leave the tent, God will strike them dead. So much for feeling like successes at their jobs.
God’s not done handing out death threats. He now gives Aaron a new command: no drinking wine in the Tent of Meeting. This seems like an odd time to bring this up—perhaps Abihu and Nadab were a little drunk on the job and God was now tightening His rules in order to keep His remaining priests sober and focused. He finishes by saying:
“This Law will continue from now on. You must keep what is holy separate from what is not holy; you must keep what is clean separate from what is unclean. You must teach the people all the laws that Yahweh gave to them through Moses.” (Lev. 10:9-11)
God is reminding His priests of what their duties are and underscoring the importance of doing them right. They are the ones who are teaching God’s instructions to the people. They are the ones He has appointed to handle holy things. This is a very high honor and they mustn’t get sloppy in their work. Abihu and Nadab mixed unholy with holy when they tried to bring God an unauthorized sacrifice. God has made it graphically clear that He will not put up with such carelessness.
Imagine seeing two of your immediate family members killed in front of you and being commanded not to show any grief. You’re sitting at the entrance of God’s holy tent with rocks in your stomach, afraid to move an inch in the wrong direction and trying not to be moved to tears by the sounds of mourning and wailing all around you. Remember that the Jewish people were highly emotive. Both men and women were encouraged to publicly display their moods—it was not insulting to their manhood to cry and wail and tear their clothes in grief. In fact, to remain stone-faced in a time of public mourning was considered very rude and uncaring. It would have been very difficult and uncomfortable for Aaron and his sons to swallow down their emotions at this time—much harder than it would be for modern Americans who pride themselves on looking unaffected. But as His priests, God demanded that these men reflect His priorities. The almighty God has been disrespected and His enemies got what they deserved, so what is there to cry about? Mourning God’s justice was an unacceptable way for consecrated priests to behave.
So…who wants to eat? In the middle of all this awkwardness, Moses says it’s time to continue with the day’s rituals. Part of the way priests were provided for was that they got to eat certain portions of certain offerings. Moses tells the three upset priests to take what’s left of the fine flour grain offering and make some unleavened bread out of it. It’s considered extra holy since part of it was offered to the Lord, therefore it must be eaten in an extra holy place, such as right beside the altar. Then Aaron and his sons and daughters are to cook and eat the breast and thigh pieces that were waved at Yahweh in a ceremonially clean place—not right beside the altar because the daughters couldn’t come that close, but somewhere else that was properly prepared. Then there’s the goat that was the sin offering—back in Leviticus 6 God commanded that the priest who offers the goat must then eat his portion of it in a holy place. The sin offering leftovers are considered so holy that the clay pot they’re cooked in has to be broken afterwards and whoever touches the meat will be considered holy. But there are different types of sin offerings—sometimes the blood of the animal is taken into the Holy Place, other times it is not. If blood is taken into the Holy Place, then no eating is allowed—instead all the leftovers must be burned. Rules, rules, rules. God is extremely particular about His sacrifices and now Moses is very much on edge and hovering over Aaron and his sons to make sure they’re doing everything right. A little while later, he checks up on them and discovers that they haven’t eaten the remains of the goat sin offering even though none of its blood was taken into the Holy Place. Instead, Aaron and his sons burned up all the leftovers. Moses is very angry. Haven’t they already gotten into enough trouble for revising God’s instructions?
Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before Yahweh, but such things as this have happened to me. Would Yahweh have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” (Lev. 10:19)
Aaron is more than a little depressed. He’s the one who offered the goat to Yahweh, therefore he’s the one who was supposed to eat it. But after seeing God lash out in anger at his two sons, Aaron isn’t feeling morally comfortable with munching on goat meat like everything’s going great between him and God. As the head priest, he feels responsible for the mess that’s happened and so it seems safer and more reverent to just burn the rest of the goat meat.
When Moses heard this, he was satisfied. (Lev. 10:20)
It’s been quite a memorable first day for the priests and for Israel. God has demonstrated both the rewards of obeying Him as well as the consequences of disobeying Him. He has set His rituals apart as more than just a bunch of superstitious fiction. The Israelites were used to deciding how they wanted to worship other gods and trying to coax those gods into doing what they wanted. But Yahweh was different—He always gave the orders, He didn’t take them. His people would have to learn to follow Him if they wanted the benefits of His Presence because He was never going to follow them or adjust to their schedules or cater to their wishes. In a world that was filled with rituals, sacrifices, priests and sacred objects, God went to great lengths to make Himself stand out as different from every other deity His people had encountered, and He gave them many commands to deter them from chasing after new gods that He knew they would be introduced to in the future. Those long lists of commands sound tedious to us today, but they were a critical part of God’s plan to lead His people into a new way of thinking and living. Just as Christians are called to act differently than the rest of the world, so Yahweh wanted Israel to stand out as unique among all the other cultures around her. It was a good plan—it didn’t work, but of course God knew it wouldn’t from the beginning because Israel’s heart was never fully committed to Him. Like many Christians today, she grew to think of God only as an over-demanding, impossible to please stickler who wouldn’t let her have any fun. So she ran off to other gods who invited her to have sacred sex in their temples and wanted her to get drunk and act like a carnal animal. Of course all those other gods were invented by Satan and he was the one she was really worshiping in her rebellion, just as he is the one getting glory today when Christians scoff at the Holy Spirit’s convictions and engage in activities that God has said He hates. Every day it is up to us to decide if we will join them or if we will be like David, Moses, Job and Abraham—staying loyal and fully devoted to our three glorious Creators.