Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Nadab and Abihu took their censers (machtah, Exo 25:38), and having put fire in them, placed incense thereon, and brought strange fire before Jehovah, which He had not commanded them. It is not very clear what the offence of which they were guilty actually was. The majority of expositors suppose the sin to have consisted in the fact, that they did not take the fire for the incense from the altar-fire. But this had not yet been commanded by God; and in fact it is never commanded at all, except with regard to the incense-offering, with which the high priest entered the most holy place on the day of atonement (Lev 16:12), though we may certainly infer from this, that it was also the rule for the daily incense-offering. By the fire which they offered before Jehovah, we are no doubt to understand the firing of the incense-offering. This might be called "strange fire" if it was not offered in the manner prescribed in the law, just as in Exo 30:9 incense not prepared according to the direction of God is called "strange incense." The supposition that they presented an incense-offering that was not commanded in the law, and apart from the time of the morning and evening sacrifice, and that this constituted their sin, is supported by the time at which their illegal act took place. It is perfectly obvious from Lev 10:12. and 16ff. that it occurred in the interval between the sacrificial transaction in ch. 9 and the sacrificial meal which followed it, and therefore upon the day of their inauguration. For in Lev 10:12 Moses commands Aaron and his remaining sons Eleazar and Ithamar to eat the meat-offering that was left from the firings of Jehovah, and inquires in Lev 10:16 for the goat of the sin-offering, which the priests were to have eaten in a holy place. Knobel's opinion is not an improbable one, therefore, that Nadab and Abihu intended to accompany the shouts of the people with an incense-offering to the praise and glory of God, and presented an incense-offering not only at an improper time, but not prepared from the altar-fire, and committed such a sin by this will-worship, that they were smitten by the fire which came forth from Jehovah, even before their entrance into the holy place, and so died "before Jehovah." The expression "before Jehovah" is applied to the presence of God, both in the dwelling (viz., the holy place and the holy of holies, e.g., Lev 4:6-7; Lev 16:13) and also in the court (e.g., Lev 1:5, etc.). It is in the latter sense that it is to be taken here, as is evident from Lev 10:4, where the persons slain are said to have lain "before the sanctuary of the dwelling," i.e., in the court of the tabernacle. The fire of the holy God (Exo 19:18), which had just sanctified the service of Aaron as well-pleasing to God, brought destruction upon his two eldest sons, because they had not sanctified Jehovah in their hearts, but had taken upon themselves a self-willed service; just as the same gospel is to one a savour of life unto life, and to another a savour of death unto death (Co2 2:16). - In Lev 10:3 Moses explains this judgment to Aaron: "This is it that Jehovah spake, saying, I will sanctify Myself in him that is nigh to Me, and will glorify Myself in the face of all the people." אכּבד is unquestionably to be taken in the same sense as in Exo 14:4, Exo 14:17; consequently אקּדשׁ is to be taken in a reflective and not in a passive sense, in the Eze 38:16. The imperfects are used as aorists, in the sense of what God does at all times. But these words of Moses are no "reproof to Aaron, who had not restrained the untimely zeal of his sons" (Knobel), nor a reproach which made Aaron responsible for the conduct of his sons, but a simple explanation of the judgment of God, which should be taken to heart by every one, and involved an admonition to all who heard it, not to Aaron only but to the whole nation, to sanctify God continually in the proper way. Moreover Jehovah had not communicated to Moses by revelation the words which he spoke here, but had made the fact known by the position assigned to Aaron and his sons through their election to the priesthood. By this act Jehovah had brought them near to Himself (Num 16:5), made them קרבי = ליהוה קרבים "persons standing near to Jehovah" (Eze 42:13; Eze 43:19), and sanctified them to Himself by anointing (Lev 8:10, Lev 8:12; Exo 29:1, Exo 29:44; Exo 40:13, Exo 40:15), that they might sanctify Him in their office and life. If they neglected this sanctification, He sanctified Himself in them by a penal judgment (Eze 38:16), and thereby glorified Himself as the Holy One, who is not to be mocked. "And Aaron held his peace." He was obliged to acknowledge the righteousness of the holy God.
Moses then commanded Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel Aaron's paternal uncle, Aaron's cousins therefore, to carry their brethren (relations) who had been slain from before the sanctuary out of the camp, and, as must naturally be supplied, to bury them there. The expression, "before the sanctuary" (equivalent to "before the tabernacle of the congregation" in Lev 9:5), shows that they had been slain in front of the entrance to the holy place. They were carried out in their priests' body-coats, since they had also been defiled by the judgment. It follows from this, too, that the fire of Jehovah had not burned them up, but had simply killed them as with a flash of lightning.
Moses prohibited Aaron and his remaining sons from showing any sign of mourning on account of this fatal calamity. "Uncover not your heads," i.e., do not go about with your hair dishevelled, or flowing free and in disorder (Lev 13:45). ראשׁ פּרע does not signify merely uncovering the head by taking off the head-band (lxx, Vulg., Kimchi, etc.), or by shaving off the hair (Ges. and others; see on the other hand Knobel on Lev 21:10), but is to be taken in a similar sense ראשׁו שׂער פּרע, the free growth of the hair, not cut short with scissors (Num 6:5; Eze 44:20). It is derived from פּרע, to let loose from anything (Pro 1:25; Pro 4:5, etc.), to let a people loose, equivalent to giving them the reins (Exo 32:25), and signifies solvere crines, capellos, to leave the hair in disorder, which certainly implies the laying aside of the head-dress in the case of the priest, though without consisting in this alone. On this sign of mourning among the Roman and other nations, see M. Geier de Ebraeorum luctu viii. 2. The Jews observe the same custom still, and in times of deep mourning neither wash themselves, nor cut their hair, nor pare their nails (see Buxtorf, Synog. jud. p. 706). They were also not to rend their clothes, i.e., not to make a rent in the clothes in front of the breast-a very natural expression of grief, by which the sorrow of the heart was to be laid bare, and one which was not only common among the Israelites (Gen 37:29; Gen 44:13; Sa2 1:11; Sa2 3:31; Sa2 13:31), but was very widely spread among the other nations of antiquity (cf. Geier l.c. xxii. 9). פּרם, to rend, occurs, in addition to this passage, in Lev 13:45; Lev 21:10; in other places פרע, to tear in pieces, is used. Aaron and his sons were to abstain from these expressions of sorrow, "lest they should die and wrath come upon all the people." Accordingly, we are not to seek the reason for this prohibition merely in the fact, that they would defile themselves by contact with the corpses, a reason which afterwards led to this prohibition being raised into a general law for the high priest (Lev 21:10-11). The reason was simply this, that any manifestation of grief on account of the death that had occurred, would have indicated dissatisfaction with the judgment of God; and Aaron and his sons would thereby not only have fallen into mortal sin themselves, but have brought down upon the congregation the wrath of God, which fell upon it through every act of sin committed by the high priest in his official position (Lev 4:3). "Your brethren, (namely) the whole house of Israel, may bewail this burning" (the burning of the wrath of Jehovah). Mourning was permitted to the nation, as an expression of sorrow on account of the calamity which had befallen the whole nation in the consecrated priests. For the nation generally did not stand in such close fellowship with Jehovah as the priests, who had been consecrated by anointing.
The latter were not to go away from the door (the entrance or court of the tabernacle), sc., to take part in the burial of the dead, lest they should die, for the anointing oil of Jehovah was upon them. The anointing oil was the symbol of the Spirit of God, which is a Spirit of life, and therefore has nothing in common with death, but rather conquers death, and sin, which is the source of death (cf. Lev 21:12).
And the Lord spake unto Aaron, saying, Jehovah still further commanded Aaron and his sons not to drink wine and strong drink when they entered the tabernacle to perform service there, on pain of death, as a perpetual statute for their generations (Exo 12:17), that they might be able to distinguish between the holy and common, the clean and unclean, and also to instruct the children of Israel in all the laws which God had spoken to them through Moses (ו...ו, Lev 10:10 and Lev 10:11, et...et, both...and also). Shecar was an intoxicating drink made of barley and dates or honey. הל, profanus, common, is a wider or more comprehensive notion than טמא, unclean. Everything was common (profane) which was not fitted for the sanctuary, even what was allowable for daily use and enjoyment, and therefore was to be regarded as clean. The motive for laying down on this particular occasion a prohibition which was to hold good for all time, seems to lie in the event recorded in Lev 10:1, although we can hardly infer from this, as some commentators have done, that Nadab and Abihu offered the unlawful incense-offering in a state of intoxication. The connection between their act and this prohibition consisted simply in the rashness, which had lost the clear and calm reflection that is indispensable to right action.
After the directions occasioned by this judgment of God, Moses reminded Aaron and his sons of the general laws concerning the consumption of the priests' portions of the sacrifices, and their relation to the existing circumstances: first of all (Lev 10:12, Lev 10:13), of the law relating to the eating of the meat-offering, which belonged to the priests after the azcarah had been lifted off (Lev 2:3; Lev 6:9-11), and then (Lev 10:14, Lev 10:15) of that relating to the wave-breast and heave-leg (Lev 7:32-34). By the minchah in Lev 10:12 we are to understand the meal and oil, which were offered with the burnt-offering of the nation (Lev 9:4 and Lev 9:7); and by the אשּׁים in Lev 10:12 and Lev 10:15, those portions of the burnt-offering, meat-offering, and peace-offering of the nation which were burned upon the altar (Lev 9:13, Lev 9:17, and Lev 9:20). He then looked for "the he-goat of the sin-offering," - i.e., the flesh of the goat which had been brought for a sin-offering (Lev 9:15), and which was to have been eaten by the priests in the holy place along with the sin-offerings, whose blood was not taken into the sanctuary (Lev 6:19, Lev 6:22); - "and, behold, it was burned" (שׂרף, 3 perf. Pual). Moses was angry at this, and reproved Eleazar and Ithamar, who had attended to the burning: "Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in a holy place?" he said; "for it is most holy, and He (Jehovah) hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for it before Jehovah," as its blood had not been brought into the holy place (הוּבא construed as a passive with an accusative, as in Gen 4:18, etc.). "To bear the iniquity" does not signify here, as in Lev 5:1, to bear and atone for the sin in its consequences, but, as in Exo 28:38, to take the sin of another upon one's self, for the purpose of cancelling it, to make expiation for it. As, according to Exo 28:38, the high priest was to appear before the Lord with the diadem upon his forehead, as the symbol of the holiness of his office, to cancel, as the mediator of the nation and by virtue of his official holiness, the sin which adhered to the holy gifts of the nation (see the note on this passage), so here it is stated with regard to the official eating of the most holy flesh of the sin-offering, which had been enjoined upon the priests, that they were thereby to bear the sin of the congregation, to make atonement for it. This effect or signification could only be ascribed to the eating, by its being regarded as an incorporation of the victim laden with sin, whereby the priests actually took away the sin by virtue of the holiness and sanctifying power belonging to their office, and not merely declared it removed, as Oehler explains the words (Herzog's Cycl. x. p. 649). Exo 28:38 is decisive in opposition to the declaratory view, which does not embrace the meaning of the words, and is not applicable to the passage at all. "Incorporabant quasi peccatum populique reatum in se recipiebant" (Deyling observv. ss. i. 45, 2).
(Note: C. a Lapide has given this correct interpretation of the passage: "ut scilicet cum hostiis populi pro peccato simul etiam populi peccata in vos quasi recipiatis, ut illa expietis." There is no foundation for the objection offered by Oehler, that the actual removal of guilt and the atonement itself were effected by the offering of the blood. For it by no means follows from Lev 17:11, that the blood, as the soul of the sacrificial animal, covered or expiated the soul of the sinner, and that the removal and extinction of the sin had already taken place with the covering of the soul before the holy God, which involved the forgiveness of the sin and the reception of the sinner to mercy.)
Aaron excused his sons, however, by saying, "Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering, and this has happened to me," i.e., the calamity recorded in Lev 10:1. has befallen me (קרא = קרה, as in Gen 42:4); "and if I had eaten the sin-offering to-day, would it have been well-pleasing to Jehovah?" וגו ואכלתּי is a conditional clause, as in Gen 33:13, cf. Ewald, 357. Moses rested satisfied with this answer. Aaron acknowledged that the flesh of the sin-offering ought to have been eaten by the priest in this instance (according to Lev 6:19), and simply adduced, as the reason why this had not been done, the calamity which had befallen his two eldest sons. And this might really be a sufficient reason, as regarded both himself and his remaining sons, why the eating of the sin-offering should be omitted. For the judgment in question was so solemn a warning, as to the sin which still adhered to them even after the presentation of their sin-offering, that they might properly feel "that they had not so strong and overpowering a holiness as was required for eating the general sin-offering" (M. Baumgarten). This is the correct view, though others find the reason in their grief at the death of their sons or brethren, which rendered it impossible to observe a joyous sacrificial meal. But this is not for a moment to be thought of, simply because the eating of the flesh of the sin-offering was not a joyous meal at all (see at Lev 6:19).
(Note: Upon this mistaken view of the excuse furnished by Aaron, Knobel has founded his assertion, that "this section did not emanate from the Elohist, because he could not have written in this way," an assertion which falls to the ground when the words are correctly explained.)