I’m not sure I know the answer to God’s treatment of Nadab and Abihu. And with me, there’s some real duplicity here. Though I’m not fond of the particular situation recorded in Leviticus, if Nadab and Abihu had been a couple of notorious child molesters, I’d be singing a different tune. I know far too many women who were abused sexually by male relatives. If God wanted to step in and fry a couple of those perverts as an example, I would probably say, “amen, glory hallelujah, praise the Lord!” But Nadab and Abihu were, uhm,…religious.
Moses’ explanation is clear enough in the text. He spoke to Aaron, who was his own brother and Nadab’s and Abihu’s father. This is what the Lord spoke: “Among the ones close to me I will show myself holy, and in the presence of all the people I will be honored.” So Aaron kept silent.
There are prosecutors who speak out for the victims of child abuse, juries that will convict the abusers, and judges who will sentence them. But who speaks on behalf of the holiness of God, who convicts and sentences those who defame Him? Rationally I concede that God must defend his own holiness. But this rationality is as cold and calculating as an adding machine. Emotionally I am still troubled. I can’t just pass this off as an inexplicable act of Yahweh in the Old Testament. The Jews asked Jesus, Who do you claim to be? Jesus answered finally, I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!
We may quibble and philosophize today about Jesus’ meaning. The Jews who heard him understood him perfectly well. He spoke the unspeakable name of God and claimed to be the very one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and on the mountain at Sinai, the one who inscribed the tables of the law with his own finger and struck down Nadab and Abihu with fire. And I know they understood this because, Then they picked up stones to throw at him…
In Leviticus there is a story about the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man who misused the Name [i.e., of God] and cursed. A mortal man, the son of a carpenter as the Jews of Jesus’ day thought, certainly misused the Name if he claimed to be the I Am who spoke to Moses before Abraham was born. The Lord told Moses, Bring the one who cursed outside the camp, and all who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the whole congregation is to stone him to death. The Lord continued to generalize this commandment, If any man curses his God he will bear responsibility for his sin, and one who misuses the name of the Lord must surely be put to death. The whole congregation must surely stone him, whether he is a foreigner or a native citizen; when he misuses the Name he must be put to death.
Believers witness the irony here: Jesus faced an angry crowd about to stone him in accordance with his own word. These Jews were under Roman dominion. They didn’t have the political freedom to practice their own religion this way. They would surely be charged with crimes if they succeeded in their mission. But it is not too hard for me to imagine what drove them to put themselves in jeopardy: They believed they were speaking and acting on behalf of the holiness of God and the honor due his name, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area.
I didn’t rush out to see THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST when it came out. Those are hard enough chapters to read. And if Mel Gibson is known for anything, he is surely known for graphic, gut-wrenching violence. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Mel Gibson’s movies. I just wasn’t eager to endure that much pain. Finally, I saw the film on DVD. Yes, it was painful, but I fortified myself (maybe anesthetized myself some) by considering as I watched whether I thought the film was anti-Semitic.
Now how can a story where all the major characters are Jews be anti-Semitic? As I watched and as I thought about it after, it came to me: How the story-teller treats Caiaphas tells the tale. Caiaphas in the film was portrayed as a crafty politician. I imagine that Caiaphas was a crafty politician; he must have been to have hamstrung a man like Pilate the way he did. But he was also high priest. Institutionally, he held the moral high ground. The odds, so to speak, were in his favor. Yes, he was under the same Roman dominion as the Jews who would have stoned Jesus. Yes, he had to use some guile to get a Roman—who had little respect, probably even contempt, for Jewish beliefs—to fulfill his purpose, but ultimately his purpose was to defend his people and the holiness and honor of God.
You see—and this is where the movie might have done a better job—Caiaphas was doing what Jesus had taught Moses was right, unless of course Caiaphas was completely wrong about who Jesus is; unless, that is, Jesus actually is the I Am who spoke to Moses before Abraham was born. Confusing, isn’t it? But believers recognize this incident as the prime example of mistaken identity and wrongful prosecution, an error of judicial judgment. Such errors have been made in every legal system conceived by man. It’s not an error unique to Jews in general or Caiaphas in particular. We fear it so, that many wish to take capital punishment out of judges’ hands.
So Caiaphas’ judicial error and his political skill at persuading Pilate to carry out a sentence the high priest no longer had the authority to mete out, condemned Jesus to death. His death is the foundation of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NET):
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also.
This might seem like a strange journey, from God’s judgment against Nadab and Abihu to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But these events, joined as they are, were like inverted bookends to my flirtation with atheism. The beginning of my unbelief was not the harshness of God’s judgments, but his leniency with me when I started having sex with my high school girlfriend. It took me completely by surprise when He didn’t punish me for sin.