Remember that we read the instructions for the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests in Exodus 29; now they are fulfilled. Notice that Moses prepares them by washing them, dressing them and anointing Aaron (along with the tabernacle), all in obedience to what Yahweh commanded (Exodus 29:4-9; Leviticus 8:5-13).
The first day, the sacrifices begin with a bull for the sin offering (Leviticus 8:14-17). This is the first sacrifice in the history of the tabernacle! Their consecration continues with the ram of burnt offering (Leviticus 8:18-21), followed by the ram of ordination. With this last one, Aaron and his sons are consecrated with blood in a manner similar to the bronze altar, and Moses offers the animal similar to a peace offering (but eaten only by the priests-to-be, with the anointing oil and blood sprinkled over them; Leviticus 8:22-32).
In agreement with what Yahweh commanded in Exodus 29, the new priests would not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting for seven days. Every one of those seven days they will offer a bull for a sin offering to sanctify them and the altar (Exodus 29:35-37).
The eighth day is a great event with all Israel present. Moses gives the instructions for the sacrifices, but Aaron serves as priest for the first time: “Draw near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and for the people, and bring the offering of the people and make atonement for them, as the LORD has commanded” (Leviticus 9:7).
Aaron obeys everything in order: he offers a sin offering for himself (Leviticus 9:8-11), then a burnt offering for himself (Leviticus 9:12-14); then a sin offering for the people (Leviticus 9:15) and a burnt offering for the people (Leviticus 9:16). He presents the grain offering for the people, and fulfills the morning burnt offering (Leviticus 9:17). And to finish, he presents the ox and ram as peace offerings for the people (Leviticus 9:18-21). He has completed all the facets of atonement, sanctification, surrender, thanksgiving, consecration and celebration, and: “Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offerings and the peace offerings” (Leviticus 9:22).
And Yahweh gave His approval: “The glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces (Leviticus 9:23-24). Glory be to God!
Let’s pause for a moment to notice the significance of this event. In Exodus 40, Yahweh’s Presence fills the temple after its construction. Now Aaron and his sons are consecrated as priests, and Yahweh gives His approval by appearing and consuming the sacrifices that had been placed. They now are consecrated to guarantee a living and continuous relationship between Yahweh and His people. They are acceptable mediators between The Holy One and His people who need forgiveness of their sins and contamination. They are approved guides to direct the community in holiness, thanksgiving and proper celebration before Yahweh. Without the priests, the tabernacle is a holy, beautiful place where the Presence of Yahweh dwells; now with the priests, the whole nation can enter a living, holy and continuous relationship with Him.
All of that makes the deaths of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 more shocking. In the very day of their consecration, the fire of Yahweh’s judgment burns forth to consume them for their disobedience. Aaron and his remaining sons cannot approach them nor touch their bodies nor weep for them: as consecrated men, their mediation for the people of Israel must outweigh even their most profound feelings and family obligations.
In the conversation between Aaron and Moses at the end of Leviticus 10, we see the impact of the contamination of sin. According to Moses, Aaron’s remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, should have eaten a part of the goat of the sin offering for the people (Leviticus 10:16). He has a right to insist on this rule (Leviticus 6:25-26; notice that the sentence: “Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary” in Leviticus 10:18 does not imply non-compliance on the part of Eleazar and Ithamar, as if they should have taken the blood there but didn’t; it says there is no ritual obstacle to their eating part of the sacrifice, in accordance with Leviticus 6:30). His anger is in agreement with the letter of the law in Leviticus 6:25-30.
But Aaron insists that they should not eat it. Today many understand Eleazar and Ithamar’s silence and Aaron’s declaration, “Such things as these have happened to me” (Leviticus 10:19) as an opening for a psychological interpretation of the verse: Aaron and his sons don’t eat because they’re sad. But I believe that some of Jacob Milgrom’s observations in his commentary Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (2004, Augsburg Fortress) are much more perceptive. The sin offering and burnt offering were accepted by Yahweh, but the deaths of Nadab and Abihu occurred afterwards, and their sin contaminated the tabernacle. How could they eat the sin offering when the tabernacle remained impure because of this recent sin? How could Yahweh be pleased by Aaron’s eating a sacrifice that sanctifies the bronze altar when the altar of incense, the holier object, remains impure? Now they must perform a more effective sacrifice… and that is precisely what Yahweh will command them to do in Leviticus 16 (Milgrom, Leviticus, 100). Moses is satisfied with his response (Leviticus 10:20).
How glorious and dangerous it is to approach Yahweh’s holiness! The New Testament warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:1-2). Just like Aaron’s fear of Yahweh at the end of Leviticus 10, may His holiness be our primary concern in every facet of our ministries, and may we do nothing outside of the blood of our Substitute that covers us.