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Vayikra/Leviticus 8:5 And Moshe said to the assembly, "This is the thing that the L-rd has commanded to do."
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This is the start of the narrative block - spanning chapters eight, nine and ten - that begins with the ordination of Aharon and his four sons as consecrated priests before G-d and ends with the death of the two eldest sons for bringing "strange fire that He had not commanded" (Vayikra 10:1). What happened to bring such a dramatic and unexpected end to a day of pageant and celebration that had started so well? John Hartley offers our first clue as we explore how to answer that question.
Moshe's affirmation above - "This is the thing that the L-rd has commanded to do" - appears no less than twelve times in these three chapters. You can find it at 8:5, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 34, 36; 9:6, 7, 10; 10:15. Hartley stresses that "obedience to Yahweh's instructions is essential for the ordination rite to be effective."1 Certainly the repeated refrain that Moshe utters - "Everything done today, the L-RD has commanded to be done" (8:34, NJPS), "This is what the L-RD has commanded that you do" (9:6, NJPS) - and the narrator echoes, "as the L-RD had commanded Moshe" (8:9,13,17, etc., NJPS), should cause us to sit up and take notice. This is a very heavy concentration of divine instruction and ascription.
Why does the text have such a rich interleaving of assertion that this process is being carried out atHaShem's explicit command? Rashi paraphrases Moshe's words to give us one possible reason. Concerned that some of the Israelites would think that this was just Moshe favouring his brother or inflating Aharon's status, he puts this extended explanation in Moshe's mouth before the ceremony begins: "The things that you will see that I perform before you, the Holy One, Blessed is He, commanded me to do. Do not say that I am acting for my honour and for the honour of my brother." Rashi has Moshe disclaiming any personal or fraternal gain or benefit from the inauguration by consistently and regularly proclaiming HaShem as the instigator and prime mover in the whole affair.
At the high point of the ceremony, after Aharon had taken over from Moshe as the principal actor and offered both a sin-offering and a burnt offering for the people, followed by a meal offering and finally the sacrifice of peace offerings, Aharon "lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them" (9:22, NJPS) He and Moshe enter the Tent of Meeting and when they re-emerge, they bless the people again and "the Presence of the L-rd appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the L-RD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces" (vv. 23-24, NJPS). It is at this moment that things go wrong.
Swept along by enthusiasm, perhaps, or over-keen to have their share of the action and be seen officiating alongside their father, Nadab and Abihu step into the limelight. "Each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before HaShem strange fire, which He had not commanded them" (10:1). But that last phrase is the key: HaShem had not commanded their offering of incense - not then, not in that way, not there, not at all! In a startling moment that shocked everyone, "fire came forth from the L-RD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the L-RD" (v. 2, NJPS). Moshe turns and says to Aharon, "This is what HaShem meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people" (v. 3, NJPS). The narrator reports that Aharon is silent. What could he say? He has just seen his two eldest sons killed by the very same fire that only moments before had approved his induction as Cohen HaGadol and turned his joy to ashes. Aharon had acted in HaShem's name and at His command and received His sign of approval; Nadab and Abihu - however well meant - had given the impression of acting in HaShem's name, but without authority or orders, and it cost them their lives. HaShem made it clear that those who acted in His name had better have His authority and instructions to do so. Or else!
In the book of Samuel, the text introduces us to a shepherd boy, the youngest son of a sheep farmer from Bethlehem, who has spent his formative years defending his father's sheep from the various depredations of wolves, lions and bears, not to mention the odd human malefactor. King Saul has summoned his armies to face the Philistines, but a stalemate has been reached when a Philistine giant named Goliath comes out to taunt the Israelite armies each day, daring one of them to face him in single combat to decide the battle. David, the shepherd boy, is visiting his brothers who are serving in the army, bringing them food supplies from home. He hears the taunts of Goliath and is outraged, asking, "Who is that uncircumcised Philistine that he dares defy the ranks of the living G-d?" (1 Samuel 17:26, NJPS). His zeal for G-d's name and reputation get him chosen to go out and fight the giant. Goliath, seeing this 'boy' coming out towards him, armed with nothing more that a sling and a few stones, taunts and threatens him, but David responds, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of the L-RD of Hosts, the G-d of the ranks of Israel, whom you have defied" (v. 45, NJPS). David is standing in HaShem's name and fells the giant with one stone, thus demonstrating that the battle belongs to HaShem alone (v. 47).
1 Kings chapter eighteen contains the story of the encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al - four hundred and fifty of them! - on Mt. Carmel to settle the question of whether HaShem or Ba'al should be followed: "How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the L-RD is G-d, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!" (1 Kings 18:21, NJPS). However, the story starts at the beginning of the chapter, when the word of HaShem came to Elijah, "Go, appear before Ahab; then I will send rain upon the earth" (v. 1, NJPS). Nothing more is said by HaShem for the whole of this chapter and the start of the next until He speaks to Elijah in the cave on Mt. Horeb over forty days travel away. Once gathered on Mt. Carmel, Elijah sets up the contest in terms that everyone would understand: a burnt offering. The playing field is level - the priests of Ba'al get to go first, to choose their own bull and to do whatever they want to elicit the response of their god. Elijah makes fun of them, to be sure, but doesn't interfere at all. Then, finally, Elijah acts. First of all, he tells the people to come close; they need to see what is going on and that he isn't cheating in any way. Then the text tells us that "Then Elijah took twelve stones ... and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the L-RD" (vv. 31-32, NJPS). Elijah is acting in the name of HaShem!
After setting everything up and having water poured over it, we read the next key: "When it was time to present the meal offering, the prophet Elijah came forward" (v. 36a, NJPS). This is three o'clock in the afternoon, Jerusalem time; Elijah is synchronised with the worship cycle at the Temple - this is the 'right' time. He then cries out, "O L-RD, G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are G-d in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your bidding" (v. 36b, NJPS). Do you notice the last phrase? Elijah has done everything at G-d's instruction. We know the end of the story: G-d's fire falls signalling His endorsement of Elijah's words and authority and the prophets of Ba'al are all slaughtered as the false prophets they have been shown to be. Elijah has been vindicated and proven correct acting and speaking in HaShem's name.
Yeshua had gone up to Jerusalem - as the Torah requires, "Three times a year all your men are to appear in the presence of ADONAI your G-d in the place which He will choose - at the festival of matzah at the festival of Shavu'ot and at the festival of Sukkot" (D'varim 16:16, CJB) - for the festival of Sukkot. About halfway through the week of the feat, He went into the Temple and started teaching the people, but the authorities were amazed at the things He said: "How has this man become learned, having never been educated?" (John 7:15, NASB). We need to pay attention to Yeshua's reply. First, He tells them, "My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me" (v. 16, NASB); My learning, as you put it,2 is not Mine at all, it comes from the Father who sent Me to speak for Him and in His name. Then He says, "If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of G-d, or whether I speak from Myself" (v. 17, NASB). The proof of the pudding, Yeshua says, is in the eating. You won't know unless you are prepared to listen and put it into practice. Lastly, just like Moshe, David and Elijah, Yeshua points out that "He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him" (v. 18, NASB) - all of them point to G-d and give Him the glory. Whilst the Jewish leadership were neither impressed or pleased, Yeshua was not struck down for speaking presumptuously (see D'varim 18:20), because He really was speaking in G-d's name and at His command: "For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak" (John 12:49, NASB).
So the question for us today has to be, dare we say, "This is what the L-rd has commanded"? Do we have conviction that we are following divine orders? When we lead, preach, teach, or do ritual - nominally at least in the L-rd's name - can we say, "This is what the L-rd has commanded" and if not, should we be doing it or worse still, claiming to do it in His name? If we claim to follow Yeshua, do we only do and say what we see and hear Him saying? How often, instead, do we respond to people out of fear - saying what we think they want to hear - or out of tradition or dogma: this is what we do. Perhaps the time has come to review "what we do" in the light of Scripture and to make sure that we are doing only what has been commanded, lest we find ourselves before the Master hearing Him say, "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:22-23, ESV). That is not a good place to be!
1. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 111.
2. - We should remember, at this point, that in Hebrew the verb "to learn" and "to teach" are simply different voices of the same verb: .
Further Study: Psalm 6:4-10; Matthew 7:24-27; James 1:22-25
Application: How careful are you to only do or say what you see the Father doing or saying? How faithful are we in our ministry to accurately reflect the L-rd and not embroider or change His words or intent to follow human tradition? Perhaps we need to strip away the centuries-long layers of our accretion and get back to the words of Torah, the prophets and Yeshua. Ask Yeshua about it today!
Comment - 12:16 24Mar21 Lucienne Edwards: This week's drash portion highlights the importance of taking our relationship with Yeshua seriously, engaging with Him in real terms, rather than just "doing our own thing" as Aaron's sons did. The grace of G-d that we are now living in is truly astonishing. How grateful I am for it. I feel that these passages highlight how important our respect for Him and our attitude towards Him, including our obedience, is crucial to our ability to walk with Him in agreement. A very sobering piece.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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