The newly formed nation of Israel has exited Egypt in epic fashion thanks to their God, YHWH. God leads them down to the the same mountain on which he first appeared to Moses - Mount Sinai. The tribes of Israel are encamped around the base of the mountain while God gives the constitution, the bill of rights, and the basic laws of the land to Moses and Aaron. God goes into incredible detail of how the Tabernacle was to be built, where to place the furniture inside the Tabernacle, how the priests are supposed to dress, how the animals are to be killed and sacrificed.
Finally in chapter 10 of Leviticus there is a shift from Law to Narrative. Everything is ready to go. The Tabernacle has been set up, the furniture arranged, the priests purified - Lights, Camera, Action!
Well, first things first - Lights. Nadab and Abihu, the eldest sons of Aaron, kick things off by lighting the altar of incense. And that's when things go downhill quickly. It's the first official act of the priesthood in the Tabernacle and - boom! - they are struck dead. It's disastrous. Tragic. Shock. Dismay. Mouths hanging open. Eyes wide and unblinking.
Did that really just happen?
God fills them in on a little key piece of advice: "Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored."
Turns out that Nadab and Abihu had grabbed the wrong incense or lit the fire incorrectly or...something. It simply says that the offered "strange fire" that wasn't "authorized" by God.
...And that's why we can't have instruments in worship today.
I can't tell you the number of times I've heard this story given in order to defend the use of a cappella style singing in worship. Instruments aren't "authorized" just like the fire/incense these guys burned was not "authorized." If God had wanted instruments, he would have "authorized" them.
I think we may have missed the point.
We may not be given the specifics of what they did or why it upset God so much, but it had more to do with their attitude and their regard for that which is holy than it did their own personal preferences. It's not like they thought to themselves - You know, I think this incense smells WAY better. Let's just use this. No one uses that old one anymore.
No. The thing I never noticed about this story before was what God commanded immediately afterward:
"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."
They made a choice beforehand to get drunk before performing their priestly duties. They didn't take their responsibilities seriously enough. They were not of sober mind and body when they approached a holy God. It's as if God is thinking - I can't believe I have to make this a command. It should go without saying. Don't drink on the job!
We understand this. We don't want police officers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers, teachers, doctors, electricians, etc., drinking while on the clock. Why? Because we can't be trusted when we're drinking.
The point is not that drinking is a sin. The point is holiness, reverence, and taking our responsibilities before God seriously. God made this command for his priests so that they wouldn't lose their senses. He wanted them to be able to perform their tasks to the best of their ability. And his didn't want them to become discredited among the people.
Who's going to listen to a drunkard about the things of God?
Who's going to listen to the class clown about religion?
Who's going to be won over by a bunch of people who don't take their faith seriously in the first place?
So when we investigate this crime scene, we find that it was the blood-alcohol level that got these two into trouble long before they offered that "strange fire." It was their own indifference and indiscretion that got them killed.