Parsha: Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47)

The Peril of Self-Willed Religion
Shemini – Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

The parasha this Shabbat is entitled Shemini, meaning “the eighth” and spans Leviticus chapters 9-11. Aaron and his sons have spent seven days and nights at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting. The time of their smicha (ordination) was at hand. It was now the eighth day. Since the number seven represents completion, the number eight can be seen as symbolizing a new beginning. God was instituting something new here. Through the mediation of the priesthood, God would manifest His nearness to Israel. It calls to mind Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 4:7 “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near to us whenever we pray to Him?”

Chapter 9 outlines the very specific animals and procedures for the prescribed sacrifices. A very important principle is that the priests had to first have atonement for themselves before they dared offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. The animals had to be flawless and the instructions God gave for the process were to be followed carefully. And why all these sacrifices and the many details? Verse 6 gives the answer: that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.

That’s precisely what happened. Verse 23 reads, When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Then fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.

Drawing near to infinite holiness is nothing to be taken lightly, as two of Aaron’s sons would learn the hard way. Chapter ten tells of Nadav and Avihu deciding to “wing it” in the sanctuary. They each took their censer, lit a fire under it and offered what the Scriptures call “strange fire” before Adonai – they performed some kind of unauthorized ritual. In response, God sent forth fire of His own and slew them.

What are we to make of the term “strange fire” (aish zarah)? Zarah could mean something foreign, illegitimate or unauthorized. Whether they lit their own fire rather than taking fire from the God-approved altar, or whether they offered incense at whim, at a time or in a manner not approved by God, or perhaps added something foreign to the incense – the offense was equally serious, and the consequences equally deadly.

Moses says to Aaron, “It is what Adonai spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’” This disregard for the holiness of God was so serious that Aaron and his two surviving sons, El’azar and Itamar were warned not even to grieve for Nadav and Avihu; so serious that they were not given a burial or memorial service, but their bodies simply removed to a great distance outside the camp. Then the Lord warned Aaron that no priest was ever to enter the Tent of Meeting after having drunk wine or strong drink; leading some to suggest that Nadav and Avihu may have been drunk when they offered that “strange fire”. We are never to blur the distinction between the holy and the profane, between the clean and the unclean, and intoxication can cause lapses in judgment.

Reading this passage recently, I began to wonder whether Aaron, on account of his part in the golden calf incident, was to some extent responsible for the death of his two sons. Is it possible that Aaron’s complicity caused him to forfeit his moral authority in their eyes? Three thousand Israelis had been put to death for that treacherous act! Yet Aaron was not one of them. I wonder if it led Nadav and Avihu to think that as the kohanim (priests) they were elite and exempt from judgment. The reverse is actually true. Those who are in positions of spiritual leadership are judged even more strictly (cf. James 3:1).

There is, however, a lesson in the death of Nadav and Avihu for all of us. When we were set free in Messiah Yeshua, we were not suddenly given license to be cavalier in our approach God. I am concerned about some of what passes for “worship” these days. When confronted with the words, “The Scripture says…” I hear too many people saying, “But I feel…”. Too many people who identify as believers in Yeshua are making up their own rules on the fly – to suit their present circumstances. When the revealed will of God takes second place to our personal views, then we are in trouble. Are we free? Yes! But as Peter wrote, “…live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16).

Did you know that one of the most outstanding evangelical theologians of this generation, Dr. J. I. Packer, was being threatened with having his ministerial credentials revoked? You see, about seven years ago (Feb. 2008) he and his congregation voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada. They left because the diocese to which his church belonged had voted in 2002 to bless same-sex unions. No one can fault Dr. Packer for impatience; he and others labored for over five years to bring the diocese into conformity with the Word of God. But the Anglican Confession of Canada would not hear of it. They imposed their will on the Word of God, and chose to ignore or otherwise reinterpret Scripture which condemns homosexual practices. Is anyone surprised that such things happen when man imposes his will over the Word of God?

We need to be warned; the Bible contains numerous examples of the peril of self-willed religion. Achan learned the hard way when he disregarded God’s instructions and took forbidden treasures at the conquest of Jericho. Uzzah learned the hard way when he disregarded God’s instructions for the transporting of the Ark of the Covenant. Ananias and Sapphira learned the hard way when they tried to pull a fast one over on the apostles. When the Master of the Universe gives you instructions, you do well to follow them.