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?

  • 1
    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
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 4:32

6 Answers 6


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.


"Unauthorized" sounds like forbidden, but Leviticus does not say what not to offer, just what to offer.

But it does. When God says to do something in a specific way, He thereby prohibits doing it in any other way. The offering of incense was to be done in a very specific way.

We follow the same principle at a restaurant; after you have placed your order, the restaurant staff cannot substitute different menu items in place of what you ordered, or simply put extra items on your plate, and then claim that what they have done is the service you requested.

One cannot worship God just any old way. A deliberate or negligent departure from His instructions in worship utterly destroys the worship, so much so that it is no longer worship to God in any way.

This goes to the core of God's nature. In addition to all of the "omnis" that are attributed to Him, there is also His sovereignty. He has the right to be obeyed in every detail, no matter how irksome or displeasing this might be. To say otherwise—by speaking or acting as if we may dispense with obeying a commandment—is as much a denial of His divinity as it would be to state that He does not exist at all.

  • (+1) Hi EvilSnack, welcome to BHSE! Please take the Site Tour when you get a chance, so you can get best familiar with the scope of this SE and how it may differ from others you're familiar with. I like the flow of your response here and think it could be expanded into a really good Answer, with particular opportunity for clearer engagement with the source text, as well as supporting your claims above with quotations and references as appropriate. Have a great day.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 8:54

In Exodus 30, the formula for the incense is given. This is accompanied by the injunction that Nadab and Abihu disobeyed:

Never use this formula to make incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must regard it as sacred. (Exodus 30:37)

By trying to carry out the process by themselves, without a command from the Lord, they broke this rule.

(Why does this rule exist in the first place? My study Bible suggests that it's for the same reason that many of the rules from this period exist: to maintain a distinction between the sacred and the everyday, between God's sphere and the human sphere, God's will and human will. Many an injunction is paired with the statement "I the Lord am holy" or "Lest you profane the Lord's name". In other words, don't mix up who the holiness comes from. God initiates the use of sacred things, not us.)


“Now, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”

I suppose the questions that arise are, what is meant by “strange fire?” and, What exactly was the sin of Nadab and Abihu?

“Strange” describes anything that is not holy. It is anything that God has not authorized, anything God has not commanded. This is not the only place we find this term used. In Exodus 30:9, God told Moses concerning the altar of incense in the holy place, “You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar…” nor was there to be any sacrifices consumed on the altar of incense.

On the Day of Atonement in chapter 16, Aaron was commanded in verse 12 to “take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense and bring it inside the veil.”

During the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16 where almost 15,000 people died by plague, Moses commanded Aaron to

“Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them…”

Whenever incense was offered to the Lord, the only fire they were commanded to use was that from the altar of burnt offering. Nadab and Abihu were killed because they had not taken fire from the divinely appointed place – the altar of burnt offerings. Verse one says, they offered fire which the Lord “had not commanded them.” This defines what is meant by “strange.” The Lord did not have to say, “Don’t get fire from the dinner fire or from the camp fire or from any other source.” He simply commanded that the fire be taken from the altar of burnt offering. This necessarily excluded all other sources.

The moral of the story here is that one cannot offer to the Lord just anything that comes to one’s mind and call it worship. Worship was instituted, defined, and regulated by the Lord. Parameters for what is acceptable are determined by God and not man. The Lord apparently takes this matter very seriously and he will not accept as worship that which he has not authorized, no matter how strongly we may feel about that. How many times in Leviticus do we find God warning Moses, Aaron, and the people to follow his instructions explicitly “Lest you die.” The death of Nadab and Abihu demonstrates the soberness of the Lord’s warnings. The Lord says in verse 3,

“By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored!’”


Leviticus 8:36 sets the precedent for the grievance of Nadab and Abihu in chapter ten. In fact, everything about the Tabernacle, its ritual function, and it's priestly service are hinged upon the way it had been built; specifically "according to the pattern" God had given Moses. Between Exodus and Leviticus, there is a strong emphasis on the crucial important of following through with God's commandments exactly the way they had been given. The "jot and tittle" was fully expected to be followed through with. Thus, by the time you reach the activity of Aaron's sons one has followed an extensive process of "doing all" that the Lord had commanded.

Of course, many presume that Nadab and Abihu offered incense with coals that were not from the altar, or perhaps they offered the burning incense at the wrong time, or that they were intoxicated with wine, approaching the task with nonchalance. However, based up 10:3, they simply failed to sanctify the Lord when they drew near to Him.

Leviticus 10:3 (KJV) Then Moses said unto Aaron, 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. And Aaron held his peace.

There is another moment in Israel's history where these words are specifically used, though physical death was not the result.

Numbers 20:12 (KJV) And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.

Moses' actions with the rock resulted in his restriction to enter the Promised Land because he did not "sanctify" the Lord in the eyes of the people. Based upon this, the actions of Nadab and Abihu are rather tragic since they served as the "first" individuals to deviate (whether in character, sobriety, or in ritual) from the pattern of God's Tabernacle service. In truth, God was left with little option since any leniency could run the risk of setting the precedent for future actions by others. The severity of God's judgment served, not only to punish Aaron's sons, but to engrave in the minds of the priesthood and the people that the "act of drawing near" to God's presence demanded the utmost and the highest of the individuals engaging in the process.


Nadab [Nā'dăb]—was a name meaning, "of one’s free will" or "liberal."

He was the elder son of Aaron, destroyed by fire for offering strange fire upon the altar (Exod 6:23; 24:1, 9). If we would worship and serve God acceptably, it must be in the way of His appointing.

Abihu [Ăbī'hū]— was a name meaning, "he is my father." He was the second son of Aaron, who was destroyed with his brother Nadab for offering strange, or unauthorized fire upon the altar (Exod 6:23; 24:1, 9; 28:1; Lev 10:1-2). --Lockyer's All the Men of the Bible (Herbert Lockyer).

It is of the utmost importance to remember all people deserve condemnation and death. A sin against an eternal God is an eternal offense. Scripture tells us all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and the wages of our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Every day we live, every breath we take is the result of God’s mercy and grace. (Source: "Why Did God Kill Aaron's Sons Nadab and Abihu?" by Stephen Baker)

That is, Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Nadab and Abihu did not repent. It is too late for them. They had their reward. But it is not too late for you. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV). That's what Jesus said. This is the only way to enter heaven. Repentance is not just a change of mind or remorse; it entails a turning from sin to God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9).

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