Leviticus 10 tells of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, for offering strange fire before the Lord. Following that chapter there are chapters delineating clean and unclean animals, laws mandating a period of separation for a woman after giving birth, laws concerning leprosy, and laws about personal uncleanness. Then chapter 16 describes what is to happen on the Day of Atonement, now commonly called Yom Kippur.
Chapter 16 begins with an unusual statement. “And the LORD spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the LORD, and died.” While it does speak to the ultimate in purification, it does not refer back to the previous five chapters. Instead it goes back to the historical event. Not everything in the Bible is necessarily in chronological (or even logical) order. When the scripture makes a statement like this, however, there must be a correspondence between the two narratives. The chapter listing all the holy days, including the Day of Atonement, does not come until later (chapter 23 by our division). The chapters concerning the details of how every other offering is to be made are earlier. So what does the Day of Atonement have to do with the deaths of Nadab and Abihu?
It actually harks back to what God said after His fire destroyed Aaron’s sons. “This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” (Lev 10:3) A little later He added, “And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.”
Nadab and Abihu (we always seem to lump them together as one) offered alien fire to the Lord. We are not given specifics of what constituted this alien fire. Had God told them to take the fire from one source, one “eternal flame”? Had they used the wrong incense? We don’t know. What is apparent is that their actions went against what would sanctify God in them; they did not put a difference between the holy and profane.
God is holy. Several times in the succeeding chapters God tells Israel to be holy, for He is holy. There is nothing that man can do to sanctify God. But that is not what He said through Moses. He said “I will be sanctified in them.” There is something of God in each of us; after all, He breathed into us the breath of life. We can either sanctify that part of us, or we can profane it. We can be clean or unclean.
This, perhaps, is the reason that God chose this occasion to spell out the exact steps of the Day of Atonement: the sin offerings, the casting of lots to determine the scapegoat, the ceremonial washings. The two sons of Aaron served as an example of the unclean, so God took the opportunity to show how Israel could be made clean.
Therefore shall ye keep my commandments, and do them: I am the LORD. Neither shall ye profane my holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the LORD which hallow you. (Lev 22:31-32)
What constitutes sanctifying God within us? Keeping and doing what God says. For the Jewish people that involved the details of the Day of Atonement, as well as the details of what God had told Nadab and Abihu, and the rest of the Law of Moses. For gentile Christians it is primarily summed up in one command. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (Jn 13:34)
Yom Kippur begins at sunset, October 8 in 2019.