In Leviticus chapter 10, the dedication of the Tabernacle (the first Temple to the Lord) is taking place, and Aaron and his sons are being ordained to serve as priests before the Lord in the holy sanctuary. In the preceding chapters, God had set out detailed instructions for how to do this and how everything should go down. As they're offering the sacrifices, spattering blood on various objects to purify them, etc., two of Aaron's sons disobey God's instructions on a small and easy matter, burning the incense the wrong way. The way to do it was easy enough--burn it on the incense altar--but instead they decide for whatever reason to light a burning coal and pour the incense over it.
It's a small matter, and so we might wonder why God gets so upset; but I think perhaps that's why it's upsetting. Of all the things they have to do, this is one that's hard to mess up. They're obviously doing this on purpose--being lazy, trying to do things better their own way, or simply not caring about God's instructions and trying to get the thing over as fast as possible. It's a small act; but that's all it takes to betray their lack of concern about God, his way of doing things, and his holiness. They didn't believe in God, not as he truly was: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-deserving.
And God, who's been there during their whole lives trying to make them see the bigger picture, to get with the program and understand how big and momentous this is, to know him...they've finally shown their disrespect publicly, a declaration against God. They're being ordained as priests right now! Their choice, which maybe they'd been dithering over, or maybe God had just been patient with them up til now, is finally made. Even worse is that as God's ordaining them to lead his people, they're leading the people astray.
So God strikes them down, and they both die. Meanwhile, Aaron and his two other sons can't grieve yet, not officially, because this ceremony takes a week, and there's a lot they have to do. In ancient Jewish culture, grieving was a big official process, including wearing sackcloth and not washing. Aaron and his sons are obviously upset, even if they understand and trust God's rightness and justice. God says that the Israelites can grieve; Aaron and his sons will have to wait until the ceremony is over, and then they can grieve.
The sacrifices are still being offered as prescribed. Aaron and the two other sons know this God is big, and powerful, and amazing. They love him: this is their God, who brought them out of Egypt and freed them from slavery, doing stuff that no other god around could do. Aaron may have been a pushover sometimes, but he still loved and honored the Lord. Unlike his sons, he realizes what a serious occasion this is, and he's doing things God's way, because God's way is best. Only God is holy. He's doing things by the book.
Moses, Aaron's brother who we all know and love, is officiating. He's the one whom God is speaking through to direct them in what they do. And then, Moses finds out that the goat that had been offered to cleanse the Israelites from their sins, which is one of the sacrifices that God grants for the priests to eat (only the fat, kidneys, and liver were burned on the altar as a sacrifice), was actually burned up completely on the altar. Aaron didn't eat it, even though God gave it to him to eat.
Moses gets pissed. It's more disobedience to God, more disrespect and acting like God doesn't matter; maybe more people are going to die, this time it was the High Priest... He's so mad that his response to Aaron doesn't really make sense: "God gave you this to eat to cleanse the people!!" As if it were Aaron's eating it that is the important part that cleanses them, not the offering it to God. Moses is scared; he understands, unlike his two dead nephews, that God is holy and this ceremony is serious and special. God gives mercy, but he also wants people to take their relationship with him seriously. To know God is in any person's best interests, and God loves us: God really, really wants us to know him.
Aaron's has an interesting response to Moses. If you read between the lines, he basically says in verse 19, "You know, my sons are dead. The sons whom I raised all their lives. I loved them. I know why they're dead. I know they weren't on a good path with their lives. I can't say they don't deserve it, but I'm still upset. As a parent, I still love my kids when they're doing the wrong thing. I always hoped they'd get better, take the Creator of the Universe seriously, and really make their relationship with him a priority. So I'm grieving now, both because that never happened and because they're gone and I miss them.
"And so I'm sad. I know I can't officially grieve yet, but my heart is grieving. I still love God--God is all-powerful, all-worthy, all-righteous. I know this isn't just a ceremony, but a relationship with a personal God who chooses to be a character in his own narrative and be the lover of this little, unknown people. I know this is important, and so I get it. I can respect that, and hold off on the mourning clothes. But I can't stop my human heart from bleeding.
"I love God, but I'm upset with him. I didn't feel worthy of being God's partner today and eating the sin offering. I would feel like a hypocrite. I'm supposed to be cleansing the people and leading them in how to be holy and how to know God, but my own relationship with God is messed up and imperfect. It needs a lot of work. God is bigger, holier, and more just than I am, and I don't understand him all the time. I know I'm not enough, especially not today.
"But I know that God understands that. I know he forgives me for being imperfect. I was just so overcome with feeling unworthy before this big, holy God that I offered my portion back to him. I know he gave it to me to eat as a gift, but I think today my heart needed to give what was mine up to him. It was humbling for me, but it helped me get the right perspective. He is righteous; he does deserve it all. He is my provider, and I need him."
And that's it. Moses is satisfied. God doesn't kill him. End of chapter.
We could look at this and say that God's being hypocritical: two people disobey and get instantly taken out, while another person disobeys (even worse, we could argue) and his left alone. But to do so would just be to fulfill God's own words that "mankind looks at the outside;" we have to remember that "God looks at the heart." I think God looked at Aaron's sons and said, "Really? Here? Now? I've given you every chance, every opportunity, every sign you could ask for. You kept ignoring me. And now you're going to take it a step further and lead my people to sin. I just can't let you do that."
Then here comes Aaron and, sure, he's not doing it the prescribed way. (Of course, you could argue that he wasn't exactly disobeying: the sacrifice was given to him to eat, not forced upon him. Not that there was anything else they could do with it or anyone else who could eat it: it was a holy offering.) But he's not disobeying here to spite the Lord, like his sons were. Rather, he looks at what God's given him and says, "I'm not worthy." He sees his heart isn't right, and in an act of humble petition, he offers his portion back to God as if to say, "I need you to forgive me and take care of me, because I can't." And God responds with grace.*
This passage shouldn't be used as an excuse. Too many of us wield the "I'm not right with God" excuse like Moses did, trying to get out of a job, a big adventure on the front lines. (And isn't it funny that we always say we want to fight the big fight and make a difference...until we're drafted?) Or we use the "giving it to God" excuse: we're "giving to God" the very thing he's asking us to accept. That's not a sacrifice of humility, but of insecurity: a result of being afraid and unsure, not trusting God, and not wanting the gift he's giving. God says he wants you to sell your home and move to a nearby destitute population and love them--which sounds very grand and inspiring when other people do it. "No, God; I'm going to give up this big dream you're giving me as a sacrifice to you; because of my big sacrifice, I'll just have to keep serving you in comfy, middle-class America--sigh."
"Sacrifice" means it hurts somewhere. Your checkbook, your muscles, your free time. It means giving God something we wanted for ourselves. There are a thousand things to do each day, and we have to pick a handful of them based on what we love and prioritize. We tend to choose our work and our important relationships, and we sacrifice the other things for that. Don't try to get out the responsibility to be in relationship with the One you follow.
But that's not what Aaron's doing. That goat looked pretty juicy; it had to be a strong goat without defects. Wow. How often did he get a meal like that, the guy who used to be a small farmer and a slave? Besides that--what man doesn't want barbecue? This was a sacrifice alright, and one that went against the conventions, too, one he's going to get crap for from Moses and the other elders.
But he doesn't care. This is between him and God. It's time to give it up.
Aaron is being a bare-bones broken human being before God. Like the later prophet Habakkuk, whose book in the Bible is all one conversation where he's complaining and arguing against God, and God answers him until he gets it. Aaron is fessing up that he's frustrated, he doesn't fully understand what God just did, and he doesn't really want to get it right now. But he's also confessing that on top of this, he wants to know God, even if his heart is in rebellion. "God, can you help me out?"
And God does.
* There's a reason this blog is called The Reign of Grace. Israel's coming King is reigning now, his dimension breaking in on our dimension. This reign is all about grace. And anyone who says or acts otherwise just hasn't experienced it yet.