The Biblical Story Of Why God Killed Moses' Two Nephews, But Not Their Brothers

On the Christian website Stand to Reason, author Tim Barnett tackles a rather thorny matter that may be evident to individuals who are familiar with both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Put simply, as Barnett notes, the God of the Hebrew Bible is depicted as wrathful, vengeful, and impossibly punctilious about rules; the God of the New Testament, by contrast, is presented as loving, graceful and forgiving. "The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians," notes believer-turned-agnostic Charles Templeton, as quoted by Barnett.

Barnett concludes that the Gods of both narratives are the same God, who embodies both versions of himself as presented in the texts. "Both of these truths [that God is both vengeful and loving] must be held together if we are to communicate a consistent picture of what God is like," he writes.

One narrative of a vengeful God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible occurs in Leviticus 10, when it looks as if God kills two of Aaron's sons (Moses' nephews) over a seemingly-minor breach of the rules, and then lets Aaron's two other sons live, seemingly over a technicality. However, theologians say that there's more to it than that.

The Narrative Of Leviticus 10

The story of Nadab and Abihu, who meet their deaths in Leviticus 10, actually begins a couple of chapters earlier, back in Leviticus 8. As Bible Study Tools explains, they were selected to serve as priests and, when it was their turn to worship they ... well, what they did is unclear. In the King James version, the narrative (Leviticus 10:1) says they "offered a strange fire." Another English-language translation, the Contemporary English Version, says they put the fire in a pan when they weren't supposed to, adding a footnote that the original Hebrew meaning is "difficult" and could have multiple meanings. Bible Study Tools writer Stephen Baker notes that, however Nadab and Abihu presented the fire, it wasn't in the way that they were supposed to, and they paid for it with their lives, immediately being consumed by fire from the sky.

Moses and Aaron were grief-stricken, but regardless continued with their priestly duties. Aaron's other sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, enter the narrative a few sentences later. They, too, goofed up: They were to take home some sacrificial meat and eat it with their families, but instead, they allowed it to be burned up completely, as Graced Follower describes it. Unlike their brothers, however, they lived to tell about the experience.

So Why The Difference?

So within the expanse of a few sentences on the page, and likely a matter of hours as the events were purported to have happened, two of Aaron's sons were immediately killed for failing to follow the rules, while two others were given a pass. So what accounts for the difference?

Graced Follower presents the difference as one being a matter of the men's hearts. Specifically, the writer notes that Nadab and Abihu deliberately "were in rebellion against the clear instruction of the Lord," rather than simply dotting all of the i's and crossing all of the t's. Writing in Chabad, Levi Avtzon adds some more context, noting Biblical scholarship that has suggested that the two men may have been drunk, or disrespectful, or otherwise in some state that compromised their ability to serve.

As for Eleazer and Ithamar, though they were supposed to have eaten the sacrificial meat, they were grieving for their brother and seemingly, in their grief, failed to check all the right boxes, and God gave them a pass. "Very different positions of the heart," notes Graced Follower.