Strange Mercy: God’s Grace in our Weakness
Yesterday we looked at a chapter that is renowned for displaying God’s attributes of holiness and wrath. Leviticus 10 is the sobering story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu who “offered strange fire before the Lord” and got fired as priests…literally. God incinerated them on the spot for their sin. Their rebellion was shown in the way they did the sacrifice at the wrong time, in the wrong authority, with the wrong motives.
Naturally, that chapter is a showcase for God’s holiness and wrath. But, there is also a very powerful message of God’s grace and mercy, of His empathy and compassion in our weakness, which is often overlooked. It is found in the last part of the chapter, and may seem almost out-of-place in the same room as the previous account. But God’s mercy is never more striking than when it is laid on the backdrop His holiness.
After the two men were consumed by the fire of God’s wrath, Moses instructs Aaron and his surviving two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, that they need to perform a sin offering for unintentional sins. Part of this sacrifice was that the priests were to eat a portion of the meat offered.
Moses is understandably jumpy about the meticulous precision of this sacrifice–the first one since the lethal rejection they all just witnessed. In his fastidious audit, Moses discovers that one element of the offering has been neglected by Aaron’s (last) two sons! Naturally, Moses freaks out. He is concerned for the safety of his nephews.
Lev 10:16-18 Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron, saying, “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.”
We are all on Moses’ side here. This is unacceptable dereliction of duty in the shadow of what just happened. But what is fascinating is that God doesn’t punish them. In fact, when Aaron shares his heart and offers an explanation (excuse) for their behavior, Moses approves.
So Aaron’s first two sons offer a sacrifice wrongly, and they killed by God. Aaron’s other two sons also did a sacrifice wrongly, but they get off scot free. Why?
Because their mistake was not done out of rebellion, but out of weakness.
Lev 10:19-20 And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?” And when Moses heard that, he approved.
They simply couldn’t eat.
They didn’t want to be hypocrites and eat a feast, when they had no appetite.
This was still wrong.
God has every right to strike them down. But He doesn’t. He shows mercy. He shows grace. He shows patience. Why? Because they confess their weakness. They are broken, distressed people. And God loves them.
Since this falling short of duty was confessed as a weakness, as opposed to the high-handed sneakiness of the previous fiasco, God relents his wrath, and overlooks their error.
Remember the tax collector of Luke 18:13 who cried out ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He went home justified.
Just a footnote here: Remember that Nadab and Abihu weren’t young bucks. Moses and Aaron were over 100 years old at this point. These “boys” were likely between 80 and 100 themselves. In Exodus 24 they are numbered with the elders of Israel. And also bear in mind that they weren’t sent to hell for their shortcoming. They were stripped of their office, their privilege, and yes, their lives, but they went straight into the presence of their forgiving God.
Their consequence was like a dishonorable discharge. In the military when a soldier is court marshaled for conduct unbecoming an officer, they can face a conviction of dishonorable discharge. It’s an embarrassment, it’s a punishment. But it doesn’t lead to jail. It leads to them going home and getting on with their lives, just not in military service.
Nadab and Abihu are monuments to self-style worship. It’s a shame. But they were simply called home.
Eleazar and Ithamar are trophies of God’s mercy and grace, His compassion and patience. And all in the same chapter.
What a poignant example of God’s compassion. It reminds me of the passage in the New Testament that extols this very characteristic of our Savior…
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.