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Leviticus 10 tells about the death of Aaron's sons:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized[a] fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. (ESV)

a. Or strange

What exactly did they do? Other people made offerings that were not specifically commanded, like Noah after the flood, Jacob after the ladder vision, David while moving the ark, to name just some. They were not commanded but the Lord accepted them. So it does not seem to just mean "not commanded".

"Unauthorized" sounds like forbidden, but Leviticus does not say what not to offer, just what to offer. Also it says fire not animals.

The footnote says "strange". What makes fire strange?

What did they actually do?

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This is a good question; the fire itself wasn't 'strange' but the act of offering it without a command from God was 'strange'. – Tau Jun 20 '14 at 4:32
up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is a seemingly unusual action by the Lord, in that Nadab and Abihu had offered incense before the Lord, without provocation from the Lord. It's important to understand that a priest acts for God on behalf of the people. Mal. 2:7,

"For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts".

Therefore, it's important that all what a priest does in his official duties is in response to the Lord, and they are to 'sanctify' themselves(act in a manner reflecting the fear of God and the responsibility that their duties require) before the Lord. Ex. 19:22,

And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them.

It seems from the passage that they were 'trying out' their priestly duties, without any assignment of them from the Lord, and they were also wearing their priestly attire (vs 5) when they were carried out. But there was another reason that the Lord "broke out' on them, and admonished Aaron in vs. 3,

Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent.

Rashi's commentary states,

And fire went forth: Rabbi Eliezer says: Aaron’s sons died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of Moses, their teacher. Rabbi Ishmael says: [They died because] they had entered the sanctuary after having drunk wine. The proof is that after their death, [Scripture] admonished the survivors that they may not enter the sanctuary after having drunk wine. This is analogous to a king who had a faithful attendant. [When he found him standing at tavern entrances, he severed his head in silence and appointed another attendant in his place. We would not know why he put the first to death, but for his enjoining the second thus, “You must not enter the doorway of taverns,” from which we know that for such a reason he had put the first one to death. Thus [it is said], “And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” But we would not know why they [Nadab and Abihu] died, but for His commanding Aaron, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication.” We know from this that they died precisely on account of the wine. For this reason Scripture showed love to Aaron by directing the divine utterance to him alone, thus, “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication,”] as recounted in Vayikra Rabbah (12:1).

The Lord tells Aaron in vs. 9,

Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your generations.

The implication, from Rashi's comments, is that 2 sons have already died because they drank wine and became intoxicated, and didn't sanctify the Lord in the performance of their duties, when the oil of consecration was upon them, and they were dressed in the garments of their priestly office.

The Lord is to be sanctified, especially amongst the priesthood. To act presumptuously or carelessly is to provoke the Lord to "break out against you" as in Num. 18:1

And the Lord said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary: and thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood.

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