Parasha Shemini (Eighth)
Leviticus 9:1–11:47; 2 Samuel 6:1–7:17; Hebrews 7:1–19
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
The last two Parshiot, Tsav and Vayikra, explained the type of sacrifice that was pleasing to God in the Temple.
We also learned that a right heart and obedience matters more to God than the sacrifice itself, and that the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise is perhaps the highest form of sacrifice.
“I will praise God’s name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving. This will please the LORD more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hooves.” (Psalm 69:30–31)
The Order of Sacrifice
Today, since the Temple in Jerusalem no longer stands, the animal sacrifices that must be performed in the Temple can no longer be offered to the Lord.
Judaism, therefore, focuses on the importance of the condition of the heart (repentance, charity, and good deeds), instead of the offering of animal sacrifices.
Parasha Shemini, however, provides lessons that are relevant for all time, even today when animal sacrifices cannot be offered.
This week’s Parasha reveals how critical it is to follow God’s instructions regarding how to bring a sacrifice to God.
For example, the way a person was to approach God with a sacrifice wasn’t left up to personal discretion.
God asked for sacrifices to be offered according to the precepts of the law with an inward turning away from sin to righteousness:
- The sin offering represented purification;
- The burnt offering represented total surrender to God;
- The meal offering signified a consecration of our labor to the Lord; and
- The peace offering symbolized our communion with God.
This Parasha opens with Aaron offering the required sacrifices, so that the glory of the Lord could appear to the Israelites (Leviticus 9:6).
After the sacrifices were offered in the prescribed way, the glory of God indeed appeared to the Israelites, and fire from the presence of God consumed the sacrifices.
But then something went terribly wrong.
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, made an unauthorized offering to God, which God had not required nor prescribed, and they died instantly.
“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.” (Leviticus 10:1–2)
This day should have been one of the happiest days in Aaron’s life, as he was to be inaugurated into the office of High Priest.
“On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel.” (Leviticus 9:1)
Aaron and his sons had been preparing for priesthood with seven days of consecration. Then, on the eighth (Shemini) day, they were to enter into their exalted service unto the Lord. What an honor! What a blessing!
And yet, before the day’s end, Aaron’s two eldest sons lay dead at his feet.
We can never be sure what a day will hold, but the one thing we can be sure of is that God has us in the palm of His hands.
“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” (Proverbs 27:1)
Distinguishing Between the Sacred and the Profane
Scripture does not specify the nature of the “strange fire” that Aaron’s sons offered. It does, perhaps, offer us a clue.
After Aaron disposed of the bodies of his sons in the way God specified, the Lord spoke to him, saying:
“You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” (Leviticus 10:9–10)
The rabbis believe, therefore, that the Lord was referring to Nadav and Avihu entering the Sanctuary under the influence of alcohol.
While drinking wine or alcohol in moderation has never been prohibited in Scripture, the priests (Cohanim) were to distinguish between the sacred (kadosh–holy) and the secular (hol–common), the clean (tahor–pure) and the unclean (tameh–defiled).
Wine and strong drink, which is often called “schnapps” among the Jewish community, are not unholy in and of themselves.
They are a part of many Jewish celebrations in the Orthodox Jewish culture and consumed in moderation at Shabbat and Holy Day services in synagogues; however, consumption of alcohol is forbidden for the Cohen (priests) while performing their sacred duties.
From this we can surmise that God holds those called into dedicated service for the Lord to a higher standard (Luke 12:48).
Another theory is that Nadav and Avihu used fire that did not come from the eternal flame burning continually on the altar, which was lit by God Himself.
Some believe they simply performed the offering on their own initiative without God commanding them to do so.
Regardless of the explanation, their offering of “strange fire” was fatal!
We tend to think that these kinds of instant death judgments only happened in the Tanakh (Old Covenant), which many consider to be based on law, and that it couldn’t happen in the New Covenant, which is based on grace.
But God is the same in all the books of the Bible. He is God, and He does not change.
Hypocrisy and Deceit: The Case of Ananais and Sapphira
In the sad case of Ananais and Sapphira, the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) offers another instance of people perishing while giving an offering (Acts 5:1-11).
The early Believers in Jerusalem, who were of one mind and heart, held their possessions loosely.
It was not unusual for members of this tight-knit group to sell their land and give the proceeds of the sale to the apostles for their use in the work of the Lord.
Following the example of others, Ananais and Sapphira sold a piece of property.
Unlike the others, however, they brought only part of the proceeds to the apostles, and tried to make them believe their offering was the entire proceeds.
Like Nadav and Avihu, they offered up a sacrifice. The problem with their offering, however, was that they were giving to the Lord with a deceitful heart.
They may have thought they were only deceiving fellow Believers, but the apostle Peter made it clear to them that they were, in fact, lying to God.
While this couple was under no obligation to sell their property, or to give any money from the proceeds, the moment they declared they were going to give the money, it became God’s property.
“Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.’” (Acts 5:3–4)
Because Ananais and Sapphira were Believers, they had the privilege of being able to draw near to God like the priests, Nadav and Avihu.
With that privilege, however, comes great responsibility, especially since judgment begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
Because of their deceit, the Lord struck them down, and they died at Peter’s feet.
Reconciling Love and Judgment
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
Even a quick reading of what happened to Ananais and Sapphira as well as Nadav and Avihu reveals that God held them to a very high standard.
Some conclude from God’s quick judgment that He is a God of anger and vengeance, striking His children down for the least infraction of His strict rules. This is a gross mischaracterization.
Equally wrong is a one-dimensional portrayal of God as the God of love and mercy, while ignoring His other important characteristics, such as holiness and justice.
The truth is that God is a God of perfect love and perfect justice.
Even if no one else sees what we do in secret, God sees. Like any good Father, God does discipline us when our actions violate His house rules.
Yes, we are called His children and even His friends; yet, we must still retain a sense of reverence for His majesty.
Holy Speed Bumps
“The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:7)
The Haftarah (prophetic) portion of Scripture further illustrates the importance of showing proper reverence for God.
King David wanted to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the capital city of Jerusalem from the town where the Philistine conquerors had taken it.
Amidst all the reverence, joy, and worship during the procession, Uzzah died when he reached out to steady the Holy Ark after the oxen stumbled.
The intention to return the glory and presence of God (as found in the Ark) to its rightful place in Jerusalem was noble, but the way Uzzah handled the glory was rash and disrespectful.
Once again, we might wonder why touching the Ark of the Covenant was such a big deal. Certainly, Uzzah didn’t intend to be disrespectful?
Of course, without Scripture, we really have no idea what holiness looks like. Uzzah made a quick decisions based on what he thought was holy and reverent at the time.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
Furthermore, we cannot know the level of purity inside Uzzah’s heart as he reached out to grab the glory of God.
As Believers, in order to live according to God’s standards of holiness, we must slow down, study the Scripture, and evaluate our ways to see if they are holy only in our own eyes or are also holy in the eyes of God.
History has shown that people, even God’s own chosen people, could not keep God’s standards of holiness. Sin prevents mankind from living in fellowship with God.
God’s holiness and justice is the reason Yeshua (Jesus) suffered for us on the execution stake (cross). God sent His own Son—the Lamb of God—Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah), to purify us from sin and guilt.
“Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand.” (Isaiah 53:10; see also Hebrews 1:3, 10:12)
When we truly understand God’s holiness and the price Yeshua paid to make us holy in God’s eyes, then we can come as priests into God’s presence, understanding His mercy and grace, and stand before Him in appropriate, reverential fear.