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Making Room For Grief (Ripped) | On Leviticus 10


“Ripped” entries are pages take verbatim (almost) from my spiritual journal. This year I’m working through The One Year Bible Compact Edition NIV


I can’t read the story of Nadab and Abihu without thinking of “strange fire.” This little story tucked away in Leviticus 10, tells the story of the two brothers – sons of Aaron – who screwed up a worship service. God had just spent a lot of energy explaining to Moses exactly how the sacrificial system should work. The explanation is long, boring, and exact.

What do Nadab and Abihu do? Jack it up!

For their lackadaisical and casual approach to worship, God smote them (I really like the word smote). Anyway, growing up in Churches of Christ, this story was used as proof-texted about “Authorized Worship.” In short, we were supposed to use a particular level of exactitude when it comes to worship. Moreover, it meant that our particulars when it came to worship should be upheld and defended.

Ok. Whatever.

I have a theory when it comes to Biblical interpretation: If you, or your denomination, sees something that no one else sees, it’s probably wrong. Either that, or you have some super-special, magical insight that has escaped centuries of faithful, thoughtful, devoted Christian people. That being the case, I’m pretty sure Nadab and Abihu weren’t smote so that God could teach us not to use instruments in worship (which was the argument in my tribe.)

If that were the case, someone needs to explain how Leviticus 10 ends. Why? Because Aaron’s other, newly promoted sons, Eleazer and Ithamar, screw up a worship service themselves. They didn’t eat the offering as Moses instructed.

But they go…unsmoten!!

That’s the real heart of this story. The brothers don’t follow the rules, just like Nadab and Abihu. When they break form, the boys incur Moses’ wrath, “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area?…”

As the boys receive their dressing down, their dad, Aaron steps in to take the blow saying, “See today they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been agreeable to the Lord?”

In other words, “Step off, Moses! I’ve had two sons die today. We don’t feel like eating.”

What does the scripture say happened next? “And when Moses heard that, he agreed.”

No more smiting!

I don’t care to imagine the pain of losing one of my children. Aaron lost two. And I suppose, it is completely in God’s province to wipe out Eleazar and Ithamar. They, like their brothers, failed to correctly perform the sacrifice. But God doesn’t smite them?

Don’t you wonder why?

I have to believe that God – both in God’s sovereignty and grace leaves room for grief.

Have you ever been around someone who is gripped by grief? If you have, you know they say all kinds of things…and so do the people around them. Much of what is said in the grip of grief is theologically unhelpful, stupid, and sometimes, bordering on sacrilegious. “Curse God and die.”

Often, when such words are uttered, the theology police jump in and say, “You can’t say that. You shouldn’t feel that way. Don’t be mad at God.” All the correction is well-meaning, but in choosing to guide raw emotions back to the safety of well-worn orthodoxy, our friends do to us what even God would not.

God just let it go. He allowed it.

God allowed Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithmar to have their grief. Neither God nor Moses tried to fix anything. Neither tried to pacify Aaron with tales of pearly gates and streets of gold. God and Moses allow grief to be grief; to allow pain to be pain and live with the angst it creates.

I think Christians need to do that more. We so terribly dread the idea of raw emotions and honest feeling. I think it’s because many of us care so little for emotion, but that’s our problem.

The Lord is not afraid of our grief. And in the words of Aaron, if we behaved as if our grief wasn’t real, “would that be agreeable to the Lord?”

The answer from Leviticus 10 is no!


  • Yeah, but… these verses are also part of the story: “Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the LORD will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the house of Israel, may mourn for those the LORD has destroyed by fire.” (Leviticus 10:6)

    And God didn’t allow Ezekiel to mourn his wife. God doesn’t always leave room for grief.

    But he does always look on the heart. Nadab and Abihu weren’t careless worshipers. They were in defiant rebellion. They sought to enter the Holy of Holies when they weren’t supposed to. And they paid the price.

    Eleazar and Ithamar were not being rebellious. Because of their grief, they were unable to do what they were supposed to do. God looked at their heart and extended grace to them.

    As Glenn Pemberton once said, “The good news is, God looks at our hearts. The bad news is, God looks at our hearts.”

    • You’re right, Tim. It is a part of a story, as are our lives. And none of us, I think, wish to be judged by one particular moment of it.

      I think the beauty of the story is that God nor Moses changes, but they allow grief to be grief. It is, as you say, a moment in a story, but it is a moment, and it does happen. That can’t be mitigated by the times this kind of allowance isn’t allowed. “Let the dead bury the dead.”

      Therefore, this is a call for discernment and patience with one another, particularly in times of grief. God sees the heart. That’s a capability I don’t have.

      • Guest

        I agree. I just wanted to point out that God doesn’t always make room for grief.

      • I agree. I just wanted to point out that God doesn’t always make room for grief.

        I’ll also tack on that I Googled “Nadab and Abihu” a few years ago, and almost every site that was in the top 20 was a CofC site. That story has definitely been abused and misused.

        I made a determination a few years ago never to talk about Nadab and Abihu without also mentioning Eleazar and Ithamar… especially because the Bible never mentions the first two again without mentioning their brothers as well.

        • Understood. And I’m just moved by the God who understands. So often (particularly when it comes to worship) people get so hard and fast, as you know, but that isn’t always the case, is it?

          It’s such a reminder to me – that God does and does not allow for grief – that God’s movements always have to be discerned. It’s a much better model than locking God into certain behaviors.

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