As defined, a cautionary tale is a story told in folklore, to warn its hearer of a danger. These stories are often told by parents or caring adults to younger children to teach them valuable lessons on what to do and what not to do in certain situations. One trademark part of these tales is the over-exaggerated details and consequences that are made up to stress the impact of the lesson being taught. From the danger of swallowing watermelon seeds to the consequences of talking to strangers in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, undoubtedly, we have all heard these tales throughout our upbringing. When we look at God’s Word, however, we find a different style of cautionary tales. These stories, even though often grand in scope and narrative, shake off the property of exaggerated details and made-up aspects, but rather are rooted in absolute truth and historical accuracy. Yet still, it seems that our loving Father, in His ultimate Wisdom, saw fit to add certain accounts of failure and tragedy to teach valuable lessons and warn future generations.
One such biblical cautionary tale can be found in Leviticus 10:1-3, “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 fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 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.’” To fully understand the weight of what transpires here, one must look to chapter 9 and its events for the full context. In chapter 9 we see the stage being set for God to not only show His holiness to the people, but also for the people to become used to the tabernacle style of worship. The tabernacle was consecrated, the priests are ordained, and all of the proper offerings and sacrifices were made (9:22). The tabernacle was consecrated, the priests are ordained, and all of the proper offerings and sacrifices were made (9:22). Finally, the Lord showed his holy presence to the people by appearing as fire. This holy fire then consumed all of the sacrifices (9:23-24). The people were in awe as the very presence and holiness of God was on display. All of the people shouted for joy and fell facedown before the spectacle.
All of the people, that is, except for the priests Nadab and Abihu. For some reason, these two sons of Aaron decided to take some of the attention away from the holiness of God. They took the censers used by priests and they made their own fire (a fire not authorized by God) and held it before the presence of the Lord. They were priests and they knew better. Yet they blatantly tried to steal the show and bring attention to themselves. The show could not be stolen. The show belonged to God alone. His holiness was on display in fire and the two men and the unauthorized fire in their censors were consumed just as the other sacrifices had been.
So, what can we take away from this cautionary tale? In this text, our Heavenly Father can teach us many valuable lessons. First, we can see that God holds all accountable for their actions. Just because Nadab and Abihu were sons of Aaron and had been consecrated as priests, didn’t excuse their egregious decision. Secondly, we see the authority God wields in regulating His desires for the way His creation worships Him. Why would man think he has a say in dictating how worship should go when it is not about him? Another observation from this text and on the same topic is that silence does not equal permission. Just because God may not have said this way of presenting fire was wrong, He certainly never said it was right.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Nadab and Abihu though, is found in their motive for presenting the fire in the first place. They wanted to make worship to God about them. We would be wise to heed the lesson in this cautionary tale of what happens when the focus of worship is misaligned. Worship simply isn’t about us. When we complain about the length, song choice, or sermon topic we too are making worship about us and not honoring God in a moment that should be all about Him. How can you observe the lessons from this true cautionary tale in your life today?