Passover is approaching, and once again we will recite The Hallel. Of the psalms that make up The Hallel, I’ve really come to enjoy Psalm 114. The parting of the Red Sea, the encounter with God at Mt. Sinai, and the crossing of the Jordan are described pictorially, and almost humorously; “the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” And near the end it reads, “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” The Creator is to be reverenced.
This week’s parasha is Shemini, meaning “the eighth” and spans Leviticus chapters 9-11. Aaron and his sons spent seven days and nights at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting, and this, the eighth day, was the time for their smicha (ordination). The number eight symbolizes new beginnings. Through the Mishkan, God was going to draw near to Israel in a new way. As Moses declared, “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?”
There were very specific animals and procedures for these God-ordained sacrifices. The priests had to make atonement for themselves first before daring to offer sacrifices for the people. The animals had to be flawless, and God’s instructions followed very carefully. Why? Verse 6 gives us the answer: that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.
When Moses and Aaron emerged from the Tent of Meeting, Aaron blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. Fire came forth from God and consumed the burnt offering and all the fat portions on the altar, and the people fell to their faces to worship. Can you imagine what a scene that must have been?
Yet it pales by comparison to the future gathering portrayed in Revelation chapter seven, when a multitude beyond number, from every nation, tribe, people and language, are gathered before the Lord and the Lamb, clothed in white, holding palm branches in their hands, and praising the Living God. As if what Yeshua already did for us wasn’t enough – Dayenu – we will experience the very presence of God when we are gathered in the coming Kingdom.
But drawing near to infinite holiness isn’t anything to be taken lightly. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu would find this out the hard way. Chapter ten describes how these two men walked into the Sanctuary and decided to “wing it”. They each took their censer, lit a fire under it and offered what the Scriptures call aish zarah – “strange fire” before Adonai. It was some kind of unauthorized ritual. In response, God sent forth fire of His own and destroyed them on the spot.
The term zarah refers to something foreign, illegitimate or unauthorized. Perhaps they lit their own fire rather than taking fire from the God-approved altar; or perhaps they offered incense at a time or in a manner not approved by God; or maybe added something foreign to the incense. In any case, this was an egregious offense, and the consequences were deadly. Moses told Aaron, “It is what Adonai spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy…’”
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 there was no burial or memorial service! Instead their bodies were merely removed a great distance from 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. Some take that to mean that Nadav and Avihu had been drunk when they offered that “strange fire”. We must never blur the distinction between the holy and the profane, between the clean and the unclean; and intoxication can cause lapses in judgment. Furthermore, those who are in spiritual leadership will be judged even more strictly (cf. James 3:1).
The writer of The Letter to the Messianic Jews (Hebrews) wrote, Therefore He (Yeshua) is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him… Thank God for that truth! But we must be warned; the Bible contains numerous examples of the peril of self-willed religion. And, sadly, in these Last Days it seems that many even in Messiah’s Holy Community no longer understand the importance of holiness.
Achan learned this lesson the hard way when he disregarded God’s instructions and took forbidden treasures at the conquest of Jericho. Uzzah learned it the hard way when he disregarded God’s instructions for the transporting of the Ark of the Covenant. And Ananias and Sapphira learned it the hard way when they tried to pull a fast one over on the apostles.
You know, the author of Hebrews also wrote, Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is consuming fire!
When the Master of the Universe gives instructions, you do well to follow them. In our love for and walk with Adonai, The Eternal God, may we never sacrifice our reverence and obedience on the altar of ‘feel-good’ religion.