"Judgments of a Loving God" - Chapter 16





Chapter 16: The Judgments of Leviticus

Casual Priests / Casual Blasphemy  



Chapter 16 Contents 

16.1 Introduction

16.2 Casual Priests

16.3 Casual Blasphemy

16.4 And So?


16.1 Introduction


Understanding the general purpose of the Law of Moses

When we come to Leviticus and we find a book full of ceremonial law, we might be surprised to find two judgments in the midst of the Law. It is important to understand the significance of the Law, not only to understand its purpose but also to see the background to the two judgments we will consider in this chapter.

We should also remind ourselves that undergirding everything else was God's desire to make Himself known to the rest of the world through Israel. The Law was an instrument not only to order Israel's individual and community lives, but also to reveal God's design for living to the rest of the world.


The Law was God's design blueprint for Israel, how He wanted them to live in peace and harmony. Part of the Law was to do with setting up and maintaining the priesthood and this accompanied the ceremonial law of sacrifice.


The Law of the Priesthood

The importance of their activity was that the priests were to act as God's intermediaries and in the way they did it, remind Israel of God's holiness, His uniqueness. Much of the Law in respect of the priest, how they should dress and how they should act, pointed to their relationship with God and His holiness. Now, hopefully you will remember that in an earlier chapter we considered the subject of God's holiness which essentially was about how He was unique, perfect in every way, including morally. ‘Wrong' was anything that went contrary to God's own character and against how God had designed us to work best. For these reasons the priests had to show themselves different as God was different. That is crucial to understand when we look at the first of the two judgments covered in this chapter.


The Sacrificial Law

Part of the ceremonial law administered by the priests was to act as a reminder to Israel that they were different as a people in relationship with this holy God. Part of it also provided for them when they got it wrong and sinned. The objective of these elements of the Law were always to draw the people back into a right relationship with the Lord. In other words it was God's way of protecting or saving Israel from judgment when they sinned. When they became aware that they had sinned, IF they repented, there was a procedure of offering a sacrifice that was to put them right again with God.


Many people can see little point in the sacrificial law but it provided a way for the conscience of the sinner to be put at rest. If they realised they had sinned and wanted to come back to God, the way was quite simple: they had to offer a sacrifice. Once they had done that they were forgiven and could continue as a member of this race without fear of judgment on their sin.


The ceremonial law of sacrifice shows us a God, therefore, who understands the frailty of mankind and provides a practical way for them to return to Him after they have sinned, for their conscience to be put at rest and their relationship with Him restored. That was what this part of the law was all about.


The law of the priesthood emphasised God's uniqueness, His holiness and perfection and the law of sacrifices helped the Israelite when they failed to live up to that holiness. The objective therefore of these aspects of the Law were to reveal God's holiness (uniqueness) and His grace.



16.2 Casual Priests


The Sin and the Judgment

There are two sins in Leviticus which brought judgment and they were both in respect of behaviour that was casual and disregarded the two facets of the Law that we considered above. The first was by two of Aaron's sons who were priests but who treated the law of the priesthood casually.


Lev 10 1,2   Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.


And so we have, very simply and directly in the record, the death of two of Aaron's sons. Fire comes from heaven and kills them both. It is that simple. To understand it, we need to pick up and reflect on the things we mentioned above and how they impact on the glory of the Lord which we have considered before.



Let's examine the facts of their backgrounds first.

  •   First of all, note the sons of Aaron: “Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” (Ex 6:23).
  •   They all became priests with Aaron: “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests.” (Ex 28:1)
  •   After this terrible event the record stood: “The names of the sons of Aaron were Nadab the firstborn and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Those were the names of Aaron's sons, the anointed priests, who were ordained to serve as priests. Nadab and Abihu , however, fell dead before the LORD when they made an offering with unauthorized fire before him in the Desert of Sinai. They had no sons; so only Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests during the lifetime of their father Aaron.” (Num 3:2-4)
  •   Eleazar went on to become a leader: “The chief leader of the Levites was Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest. He was appointed over those who were responsible for the care of the sanctuary,” (Num 3:32) and after Aaron's death he took over as chief priest (Num 20:28, Deut 10:6) referred to simply as ‘the priest'.
  •   Ithamar's role appears to have been to oversee the manufacture of the Tabernacle (Ex 38:21) and manage those who moved the Tabernacle (Num 4:28,33, 7:8)
  •   The record of the death of Nadab and Abihu carried on in Scripture – Num 26:61, 1 Chron 24:1,2.


The Role of the Priests

Next look at this particular role of the priests:

  •   Aaron's role was “to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die.” (Lev 16:11-13)
  •   The use of the censer was thus a particularly holy thing, going into the Holy of Holies, and the was no mention of anyone other than Aaron dong it.
  •   It appears that these two did this with no reference to either Moses or Aaron and so from the outset this was an independent act of these two young men that flouted or disregarded authority and specifically disregarded the sense of the holy in everything to do with the role of the priesthood.


Now see why they should have known better:

  •   Previously we saw that Moses was called to take up the mountain with him (Ex 24:1) seventy elders, Aaron AND Nadab and Abihu, so they had been privy to the amazing revelation of the Lord (Ex 24:10). They should have had an amazing sense of the holiness of God.
  •   It is possible that they did not use the prescribed incense (Ex 30:34-38) and it is certainly sure that they were not doing it as part of the authorized worship of the people. Thus the condemnation is that “they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.” i.e. they were doing their own thing and utterly disregarding the Lord. i.e. one might almost suggest they were ‘playing around' with the censers, pretending to be their father, or even seeing what it was like to do this.
  •   In the New Testament, people were dying because, at the Lord's Supper, they appeared to be doing exactly these two things (1 Cor 11:29,30).  In the light of the instructions that were given shortly afterwards,(Lev 10:6-10) one wonders if they did this without wearing the proper ceremonial robes and maybe were even intoxicated. One way or another, they were right out of line!
  •   What is incredible is that in the verses immediately preceding these of their sin and destruction, is a record of how fire came from the Lord to burn up the burnt offering that was being made as part of the procedure for ordaining the priesthood. This was holy fire which is fire from God and it should have created in them an even greater sense of awe. Instead it simply makes their activities even more clearly acts of self-centred folly and of utter disregard of God.
  •   Everything in the preceding two chapters spoke of how the priests could only operate in God's presence in God's way and recognising the power of the cleansing by blood as part of the ceremonies. These two men were completely insensitive to all this.

The point of the judgment

Now bear in mind all we have said previously about Israel – and its leaders – representing God to the whole world and revealing Him to them, and again we come to a corrective judgment that not only punishes the godless sinner but sends a clear message to the rest of Israel and, indeed, the rest of the world who might hear about it: you are dealing with The One and Only God who is holy, utterly different from any man-made ideas about deities. He has established the world and knows how He has designed it to work best, and all of His laws given through Moses reflect that and show them a better way to live than that which they see in their neighbours. When it comes to the priesthood and the ceremonial laws, they are all designed to reveal this ‘otherness', His holiness.


Failure to deal with this casual, self-centred and godless behaviour would open the way for a casual, half-hearted approach to God and the start of a downward spiral in their relationship with the Lord. As it was, history shows that Israel had a terrible record in respect of their obedience / disobedience in respect of the Lord but they could never say that the Lord did not warn them and do everything possible to clarify their role as conveyor of the news about the One Creator God who is Lord of all.



16.3 Casual Blasphemy


The next judgment

Lev 24:13,14 Then the LORD said to Moses: "Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.


From our ‘superior' position in the twenty-first century (as we so often see it) the laws of Moses requiring the death penalty seem particularly harsh, especially as we have done away with the death penalty, but here we have this instance in Leviticus where specific lawbreaking resulted in death by stoning. Let's look at the details.


The Name of the Lord

In the Ten Commandments we find, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Ex 20:7) As we read through the Pentateuch one thing you notice is that there is a focus on God's name, e.g. “Sacrifice as the Passover to the LORD your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name ….. You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name.” (Deut 16:2,5,5)


THE name of course, which is what the capital letters spelling LORD in your Old Testament refer to, comes from Exodus 3:14 “God said to Moses I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” but then carries on “This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.' " and you will find a note saying, “The Hebrew for LORD sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for I AM in verse 14.”


This name of God who has simply described Himself as, "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." (Ex 3:6) is “the I AM”. Wherever He appears in time-space history He is “I AM” or, to put it another way, ‘the Eternal One'. He is always ‘I AM' and in that He is unique, there is no other like Him. Now remember what we have said a number of times about Israel 's role in revealing the Lord, especially in that study on The Glory of God, and therefore any descriptions of God and, even more, any names given to Him, are vitally important.


Again and again in the laws, the big issue is the name of the Lord, a name which must be represented accurately, a name that must not be associated in any way with the gods or idols of the world, hence, “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21).


Indeed His name is the vital link to all the laws of Moses; they mean nothing without being linked to who He is. For instance the Ten Commandments start with, “I am the LORD (the I AM) your God, who brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)

They have encountered Him in this most incredible of experiences and all His instructions to them (the laws) are to be seen in that context. He, the lawgiver, is the one who has delivered them from slavery and shown Himself to be the all-powerful Lord. Likewise later on we find this same thing reiterated: “Keep my commands and follow them. I am the LORD. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD." (Lev 22:31-33)


Thus when the priesthood ministers they are to be representatives of this holy One who is unique: “Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies. They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God. Because they present the offerings made to the LORD by fire, the food of their God, they are to be holy.” (Lev 21:5,6)

No wonder, as we saw in the previous study that Aaron's two sons ended up dying. Thus likewise we find, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev 19:12)


The Failure

Which finally brings us to this historical incident where, in the heat of a fight and argument, one of the combatants we might say, ‘looses his cool' or ‘blows his top' and in so doing abuses the name of God. Now in the twenty-first century we have so much blasphemy or negative use of God's name on films and on TV that, sadly, we have almost grown accustomed to it, but that merely says something about how low we have fallen.


The period of time we are considering is Israel in embryonic stage and therefore it is vital that they do not cross any wrong boundaries and therefore must portray God exactly as He is, the unique One, the holy One, the One who is like no other and against whom no other can be compared, the Creator of all things who is perfect. In conveying this, ‘the Name' was all important.


The Nature of the Judgment

Now this was not a judgment of God sovereignly (i.e. by God's hand) but was an execution to be carried out by the people in the most gruesome of manners. Each person was to take a pile of stones and throw them at the man who will appear first bloody, then tottering, then falling but still moving until those closest aim for his head and there is no doubt left, he is dead.


The one thing I know about that is that many of you are going to have bad dreams for a long time. There will be an awful sense of quietness around the community: “We have decimated this man's body; we have taken his life.” But there's also something else I know about it, and that is that every one involved in it will go away saying to themselves, “I will never do that again, we must never let that happen again, we must ensure these laws are never again broken,” and they will become the most law-abiding people on earth, holding firmly to these rules that we have described as God's laws to comply with how He has designed us to work best.


Modern Failure of Understanding

We have so blurred the boundaries today between what is right and what is wrong that these things no doubt shock us, but they were so effective that it was only the passing of time blurring memories or another generation coming along for whom it was no longer vivid, who no longer had the shocking memories, that permitted any further breakdown of the law. (We might further suggest that if Israel were time transported into our modern age they would be horrified by the number of violent crimes and murders that are found, especially in our cities).


This was a community that had entered into a covenant with God – obedience will bring blessing, disobedience will bring curse – and who thus should have been portraying the wonderful possibilities of a glorious relationship with Him to the world.


Failure to uphold these things at this stage would have undermined the whole basis of the Law of Moses and Israel would have slipped (even faster) into becoming the same as pagan nations with their terrible practices. Each of these incidents acts as a brake on that happening and allows more time for Israel to reveal the glory of the Lord to the world. Terrible certainly, but tragically necessary.



16.4 And So?


What we have seen in this chapter:


1. The Primary Objective behind the nation of Israel

  • For Israel to reveal the Lord to the rest of the world.
  • To reveal His character
  • To reveal His ways

2. That Outworking in the Law

  • The priesthood was to represent God as holy
  • The sacrifices provided a way for repentant people to return to God

3. The Two Sins provoking judgment

  • Disregard for the Law and the priesthood and God's name
  • Disregard for God's name

4. Consequences of no action being taken

  • God would be seen as casual, indifferent and not holy
  • The priesthood would fall into disrepute
  • God's name would be derided and any view of Him reduced

5. The Different Judgments imposed

  • Fire destroyed the priests
    • Only God could touch the priests
  • Execution by stoning
    • The people had to take responsibility for the community

6. Poor Twentieth Century Attitudes & Consequences

  • God is derided as the church's voice is weak
    • As a result laws are made contrary to God's design
  • The death sentence is considered too harsh and the value of life thus demeaned
    • Lawlessness prevails with large numbers of murders & acts of violence resulting
  • Blasphemy is seen as mere words of little consequence
    • God's name and authority is thus demeaned & diminished even more
  • Without realising it modern Western nations are under God's judgment
    • Seen in an increasing breakdown in society and standards.



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