Nadab & Abihu – Strange Fire


For the summer here at WPA we’ve been doing a series called, “The Bible’s Biggest Losers”. We’ve been highlighting different people or groups of people in the Bible who we might consider losers because of the bad choices they made and/or actions they took. Really, it’s been a revealing series because, I don’t know about you, but there are many times through this series where I’ve identified with one of these choices or actions and realized that I’ve been acting or choosing as a loser would. The good news, is that God doesn’t want to leave us in our loser choices or actions and directs us to wisdom and right choices if we’ll willingly listen. So for me, this series has been valuable. I don’t want to be a loser. I don’t think any of you do either. If you’ve missed any of the messages in this series you can catch up by tuning in on our website at

Today we’re actually going to look at two people, a pair of brothers in fact. Their names are Nadab and Abihu and when I first came across their names they sounded a little bit like the kind of names that Disney writers would come up for characters in one of their movies. These two guys have much to teach us about what can happen if you don’t take God seriously!

We first come across Nadab and Abihu in Exodus 6:23;

Exodus 6:23 (NIV)
23 Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.

There we learn that Nadab and Abihu are sons of Aaron, the brother of Moses and they have two brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar. Nadab’s name means “noble”. Abihu’s name means “my father he is”. Nadab and Abihu were born into slavery. The first mention of them is located smack dab in the middle of story of Moses coming before Pharaoh of Egypt to communicate God’s command to let his people go. We can assume then that Nadab and Abihu were very much experienced with the slight(!) discomfort of slavery!

We also learn from Numbers 3:2 that Nadab is the firstborn and Abihu the second born – aside from that we don’t know anything about how old they are or their differences in age. However, due to the fact that every time they are mentioned in the Bible they are mentioned together we can assume that they probably were fairly close in age.

The Bible doesn’t say very much about these two men but what it does say proves to be very interesting. For instance, the next mention of Nadab and Abihu is found in Exodus 24.

Exodus 24:1 (NIV)
1 Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance,

The Israelites are camped at Mount Sinai and God tells Moses to come up to Him on the mountain. Notice here, that Nadab and Abihu are included on the list of people privileged to attend Moses. We also find that everyone coming up to the mountain is given explicit instructions to worship from a distance except Moses. He alone is to draw near to the Lord.

But listen to this, a little bit later in verses 9-11 you’ll find that they set out to do as the Lord told Moses…

Exodus 24:9-11 (NIV)
9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.

Did you hear that correctly? They saw God and lived to tell of it. Nadab and Abihu were among the privileged few to actually see God! Surely this is an honor that was imprinted in Nadab and Abihu’s mind, something they wouldn’t easily forget.

A short time later Moses records in Exodus 28:1-5 God’s plan to institute His priesthood through Aaron and his Sons.

Exodus 28:1-5 (NIV)

1 “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. 2 Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor. 3 Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. 4 These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests. 5 Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.

So Nadab and Abihu have a quite a history of not only seeing and witnessing the miracles of God from the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the providence of God while journeying in the desert. They not only witnessed the tremendous power and majesty of God on Mount Sinai when God gave the ten commandments to the Israelites. But, Nadab and Abihu also had the tremendous honor of actually seeing God Himself! Then we read that they are blessed with being God’s chosen priests. Surely Nadab and Abihu appear to have a very privileged and special life. Especially with being able to know and be in God’s presence.

However this isn’t all that the Bible tells us about Nadab and Abihu. For in Leviticus 10:1-11 their lives take an unfortunate turn…

Leviticus 10:1-11 (NIV)

1 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.

Leviticus 10:1 (KJV)1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.2 So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'” Aaron remained silent. 4 Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” 5 So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered. 6 Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the LORD will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the house of Israel, may mourn for those the LORD has destroyed by fire. 7 Do not leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said. 8 Then the LORD said to Aaron, 9 “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. 10 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses.”

This is one of the instances in the Bible where people faced physical death due to their rebellion against God.

There is also Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who in the wilderness rose up against the authority of Moses and Aaron. Their rebellion flew in the face of God’s provision and lordship so God opened up the earth and swallowed Korah and his followers (Numbers 16,17).

In the New Testament, there was Annias and Saphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit and faced sudden death as a result. (Acts 5:1-10).

It is a serious matter to tamper in a wrong way with the holy things of a Holy God. When God lays out orders for something to be done in a certain way, that is exactly the way IT SHOULD BE DONE.

In this passage of scripture we find one of the most tragic scenes of the Bible. Here we have two brothers who have experienced God in such a privileged way and are truly blessed to have seen His majesty and His glory. And yet here we learn that their reckless and careless attitude about spiritual things provoked their death at the hands of God. They made the terrible mistake of thinking that if they wanted to offer the fire of their own making, it would be alright, and that God would do nothing about it! HOW DREADFULLY WRONG THEY WERE!

Fire through the Bible

a. Associated with the divine presence.

Moses first encountered God in the midst of a “burning bush”, the Israelites were guided through the desert by a pillar of fire by night, God revealed himself to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai in a display of fire.

When Solomon’s temple was dedicated in 2 Chronicles 7:1, there was fire that fell out of heaven

2 Chronicles 7:1 (NIV)

1 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.

And finally, when the disciples were meeting in prayer and waiting as Jesus commanded them to when departing into heaven the Holy Spirit came on them appearing as fire.

Acts 2:2-4 (NIV)

2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

b. Associated with divine wrath.

If you recall from when I spoke on the man, Lot, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by fire (Genesis 19) and according to 2 Peter 3:12, fire will dissolve the world when the elements shall melt with fervent heat.

2 Peter 3:12 (NIV)

12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.

Some of the events that are yet to occur, that are described in the Book of Revelation will involve fire.

And in this particular story notice what happened to Nadab and Abihu –

Leviticus 10:2 (NIV)

2 So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

“Strange Fire” is something we see even today.

I think there is a definite contrast here between the “strange fire” that Nadab and Abihu brought into the Lord’s presence and the consuming fire that executed God’s holy judgement on the pair. What they brought before the Lord was “unauthorized” fire, something that wasn’t in keeping with the instructions of God for proper priestly service.

There are all types of “strange things” in the church today. There are strange doctrines, strange practices, and strange thinking.

The NIV translates the word “strange” in Leviticus 10:1 as “unauthorized”. In other words, the fire that Nadab and Abihu brought before the Lord did not have his stamp of approval upon. Well, there are a lot of doctrines, thinking, and practices in the church today that God would never put His Divine approval upon!

What makes strange fire so dangerous is that left unchecked it can lead to something far different then what God wants and knows is best for us. It can even lead to getting a different picture of what God is really all about.

At the heart of Nadab and Abihu’s disastrous mistake was this “strange fire” they brought before the Lord. But this fire was merely the product of some very wrong actions that Nadab and Abihu demonstrated in coming before the presence of God.

wrong timing

It does not appear that Nadab and Abihu had any orders to burn incense at all at this time. It is true that their consecration was completed the day before, and it was part of their work, as priests, to serve at the altar of incense; but thought it appears that while this would be their duty at this particular time it actually was Aaron who is supposed to perform the service in inaugurating the new tabernacle. Aaron slew the sacrifices (ch. 9:8,15,18), and his sons were only to attend him (v. 8,12,18); therefore only Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle, v. 23. But Nadab and Abihu were so proud of the honor they were newly advanced to, and so ambitious of doing the highest and most honourable part, that though the service of this day was extraordinary, and done by particular direction from Moses, yet without receiving orders, or so much as asking leave from him, they took their censers, and they entered into the door of which they thought they had attended long enough, and would burn incense. At this particular moment, it was something that they were not supposed to do.

You see, Nadab and Abihu were so excited and proud about the honour they had that they wanted to rush something that God did not want rushed.

Friend’s, God’s timing is always perfect. Sometimes we want to help God along a little bit and try to speed things up but in doing so we are affronting the holiness and majesty of God. In doing so we’re bringing strange fire before the Lord.

wrong authority

As I mentioned briefly already, they did not consult with their leader Moses or their father the high priest. Moses had received a word from God, but this clearly did not matter to the young men. They were ready to act on their own and did not follow the leadership that God gave them.

This happens so often in churches today. If a person wants to do anything that affects the church in any way, then leadership should be consulted. Those in authority should be consulted. That is God’s way of doing things from the earliest times.

Some of you may be thinking – yeah that’s fine, but what if I know God has spoken to me about something and the leadership just doesn’t agree with me. My answer to you is this – if God spoke to you and wants to use you for a particular task then HE will bring it about – even if the leadership is not responsive – eventually God will put someone in authority who will listen to His voice and recognize what He is speaking into your life! But don’t try to RUSH God and don’t go ahead on your own authority!!! Is this scriptural? Sure it is…

Look what David did! David was anointed as the next King of Israel while the current king, Saul, was still in power. And there was no doubt that David’s anointing was from God! After all, it was the prophet Samuel who did the anointing. Yet if you read the story in 1 Samuel you find that Saul didn’t recognize David’s kingship. In fact, Saul set out to kill David. David was forced to flee for his life and he became a man in exile – on the run. There were a few men that joined David on the run and they became fugitives, hiding and running from Saul and those who would kill them if they were found.

Let’s pick up the story in 1 Samuel 24,

After returning with his men from battling with the Philistines one day Saul heard that David’s location had been found. He was hiding in a place called the desert of Engedi. It’s not your typical desert with blowing sand dunes. Rather, it’s a stretch of land adjacent to the coast of the Dead Sea, where the valley is lush and green, while the mountains are rocky and treacherous.

Without wasting any time, Saul gathers up his men, and announces that they are moving out to get David. Saul was focused in finding and killing David. After a long forced march, “He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself” (v3) Translation, Saul had to go to the potty.

Saul got off of his mule and scanned the terrain for a place to have some royal privacy. Picking a random cave from the many caves in the area, he walked over with a couple of his bodyguards positioned them at the entrance , and stepped inside to do his business. But of all the places to stop, and of all the caves to choose, Saul “coincidentally” picked the very cave where David and his men were hiding….{continue telling the story, emphasizing what David’s men must have been telling him – i.e. “this is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as it seems good to you” (v.4NKJV)…David ended up just cutting a piece off of Saul’s robe). When Saul had left the cave with his guards…

1 Samuel 24:8-13 (NIV)

8 Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. 9 He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’? 10 This day you have seen with your own eyes how the LORD delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ 11 See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. 12 May the LORD judge between you and me. And may the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. 13 As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.

David recognized the authority in Saul’s leadership – as faulty as it was. Instead of rushing things along David was waiting for God’s timing and obeying His authority.

wrong motive

Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'” Aaron remained silent.

Leviticus 10:3 (NIV)

Nadab and Abihu were not seeking to glorify God alone. In Leviticus 10:3 God spoke to Aaron about being glorified. The two young men did not have the glory of God in mind at all. We offer strange fire when our motive in what we do fails in desire to give God glory.

1 Corinthians 10:31 (NIV)

31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

We do not fully know the hearts of Nadab and Abihu, but it appears their hearts were full of sinful pride. They wanted to look important in the eyes of Israel and seemingly did not have in mind at all, the glory of the Lord. They wanted to promote themselves and look important. That seems to be what motivated them in the tragic thing they did.


Folks what are the lessons we can learn from Nadab and Abihu?

1. The holiness of God is not to be trifled with!!

The question that nagged at the back of my mind through all my study of Nadab and Abihu and this terrible incident in their lives was, “Why did God have to kill them?” I mean, surely God could have used a little bit less of a deadly approach in discipline? And the only answer I have been able to reconcile with is the nature of Nadab and Abihu’s behavior. Remember that they had seen God and they knew what it was like to be in God’s presence. Remember also that they were not oblivious to the power and majesty and glory of God. They knew all this and yet they acted presumptuously despite that knowledge. In this moment, believe they took God for granted and ignored his holiness. Notice that the first words spoken to their father after their death as God spoke through Moses,

Leviticus 10:3 (NIV)

3 Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'”

Among those who approach me I will show myself holy. Our God is a Holy God and this cannot be forgotten. God set up certain regulations and laws and procedures regarding the tabernacle and the priesthood for the protection of those in his presence. For He is a holy God and sin is consumed in his midst!

In the church today there are many people who are seeking the presence of God – pressing into his glory. And that is good. But do you know what would happen if on any given Sunday God were to honor our pursuit and show up in all his glory? If there is anybody here with an unrepentant heart and who does not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour I believe that they would die!! Friend’s God’s holiness is not to be trifled with! Yes He is loving, yes He is full of grace and mercy, but He is also HOLY, JUST, and RIGHTEOUS – and holy won’t mix with unholy… never forget that.

2. Strange Fire dishonors God.

Also found in Lev. 10:3 is God’s words, “in the sight of all the people I will be honored.” Another reason for God’s swift justice was the dishonor Nadab and Abihu were bringing to God by their “strange fire”. What they were doing flew in the face of everything God had painstakingly spoken through Moses and demonstrated their disregard for God’s word.

3. Strange Fire is destroyed by Holy Fire

Notice that the words used to describe the fire that consumed Nadab and Abihu are the same words used to describe the fire that consumed the sacrifice made earlier.

Leviticus 9:24 (NIV)

24 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.

Leviticus 10:2 (NIV)

2 So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

I don’t think this is coincidence. For you see in the first instance the sacrifice was consumed by the Lord indicating God’s acceptance of the offering as a substitution for the sins of Israel. This fire which consumed the Nadab and Abihu came the same way with that which had consumed the sacrifice and showed what justice would have done to all the guilty people if infinite mercy had not found and accepted a ransom; and, if that fire struck such an awe upon the people, then so much more would this. This then would make sense out of why Aaron and Eleazar and Ithamar were instructed by God through Moses not to mourn or show any grief for their loss. You see, they as priests were to understand their loved ones death as an atonement for sin.

Leviticus 10:6 (NIV)

6 Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the LORD will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the house of Israel, may mourn for those the LORD has destroyed by fire.

The point I want to make here however is that the Holy Fire of God will destroy or consume any strange fire that is brought into his presence.

When we insist on our timing with the things of God rather than his timing, when we resist His authority and the authority He has placed on those over us, when we act out of the wrong motives in our hearts then anything we bring to God is “strange fire”. What does this mean?

  • Salvation without the cross of Christ is strange fire.
  • Attendance without worship is strange fire
  • Service without the Spirit is strange fire
  • Testimony without personal experience is strange fire
  • Teaching without study is strange fire
  • Prayer without practice is strange fire
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4 Responses to Nadab & Abihu – Strange Fire

  1. Pingback: “Strange Fire” « Unfolding Neurons

  2. Jae says:

    Interesting sermon. I also wondered if it was symbolic too of later when other false religions try to act in authority of God but are “consumed” either that they no longer exist, or were literally destroyed, etc. Thanks for the food for thought!

  3. Thank you, I appreciated this teaching. I think it will help me to carefully consider the motives of my heart before undertaking anything, am I doing this for God’s glory? I wonder if Satans fall began with strange fire? by that I mean ungodly pride, and self glory. I think each of us has to learn this for ourselves, I have certainly been prone to this ugly sin.

  4. Don Pitman says:

    Good article and I would like to add an important point. WHY did the brothers exercise such poor judgement as to cost them their lives?? I think the answer lies in V. # 9 when God declared that from now on, no Priest can offer a sacrifice in the temple if he has been drinking. I think they were both DRUNK and their inhibitions were lowered. I don’t think they would have died if they had been in their RIGHT MINDS! Alcohol is a doorway for Satan to enter our lives and in this case he destroyed those who succumbed to the enticement. Don’t be a “sipping Saint”. It dishonors GOD and may get YOU in a lot of trouble up to and including death.

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