KINDNESS AND SEVERITY

 

by Doug Ward



"Note then the kindness and the severity of God," the apostle Paul instructs in Rom 11:22. Outlining God's plan to bring salvation in Christ to the whole world, Paul explains that God temporarily had shown severity to the children of Israel in order to display kindness to other peoples. Those previously excluded from the people of God could now be "grafted in" to the olive tree of Israel. Later, more Israelites would be "provoked to jealousy" and become reattached to the tree themselves.

 

The Scriptures contain numerous examples of the kindness and severity of God. It seems that God, in his wisdom, utilizes a combination of these qualities to accomplish his purposes. If we follow Paul's direction and note them when they occur, we can learn more about both God's character and human nature.

 

As an example, consider Israel's sojourn at the foot of Mt. Sinai following its deliverance from Egypt. God announced to Moses his intention to "dwell among the people of Israel" through the construction of a portable sanctuary (Exod 29:45). But while Moses was on the mountain receiving detailed plans for this sanctuary, the impatient Israelites launched their own construction project, building a golden calf idol (Exod 32).

 

God handled Israel's apostasy with prompt severity--three thousand were killed to bring order to the camp--and then great kindness. When Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites, God chose to forgive the young nation (Exod 34) and proceed with the Sinai covenant and the sanctuary project. Starting over with a clean slate, the Israelites responded enthusiastically. The project was carefully completed, with each detail carried out "as the Lord had commanded Moses" (Exod 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 32, 42).

 

At the start of the second year of the Exodus, Moses' brother Aaron and his sons were ordained for service at the sanctuary in a special eight-day ceremony (Lev 8-9). Again, each detail was executed just as God had specified (Lev 8:9, 13, 17, 21, 29; 9:10).

 

Unauthorized Fire



It seems that everything was proceeding according to plan. We are surprised, then, to read what occurred at the end of the eight days: "Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord " (Lev 10:1-2).

 

There are some hints in these verses about the purpose of the "unauthorized fire" offered by Nadab and Abihu. One is in the phrase "which he had not commanded them." Elsewhere in the Bible the first-person counterpart of this phrase ("which I did not command") occurs in divine warnings against idolatry (Deut 18:20; Jer 7:31; 19:5), suggesting that the "unauthorized fire" may have been connected with a pagan worship practice.

 

A second hint is contained in the reminder in Lev 10:1 that Nadab and Abihu were "the sons of Aaron." Aaron had been responsible for the golden calf (Exod 32:2-5), and Nadab and Abihu may have been following in his footsteps. This idea is reinforced by the name Abihu, which means "he is my father" and again points the reader back to Aaron. In addition, there is an interesting parallel later in Israel's history: King Jeroboam I, who led the northern tribes of Israel into idolatry through the worship of golden calves (I Kings 12:28-32), named his sons Nadab and Abijah (I Kings 14:1, 20). Nadab, who succeeded Jeroboam as king, continued in the disastrous path of his father (I Kings 15:25-31).

 

Extrabiblical evidence that the "unauthorized fire" had a pagan connection can be found in a thirteenth-century B.C. clay tablet from Emar, an ancient Syrian city. This tablet, designated number 369, describes a week-long ordination ritual for a priestess of the storm god Addu. At the end of the week, a procession leads the priestess to her new home in the temple of Addu. Significantly, the procession includes a torchbearer bringing fire to the temple. Perhaps Nadab and Abihu were bringing pagan elements into the Israelite ceremony through their unauthorized fire. Morever, it is interesting that the consumption of beer and wine was a part of the Emar ceremony, which may help explain the prohibition of alcohol for Israelite priests in Lev 10:9.1

 

Severity at the Start



The punishment of Nadab and Abihu communicated a strong message to Israel on the seriousness of living in the presence of the God of the Universe, who was dwelling in their midst (Lev 10:3). God was to be worshiped on his terms with no unauthorized elements allowed, especially pagan ones. That message was reinforced with further severe punishments, including the executions of a defiant blasphemer (Lev 24:10-16) and a Sabbath-breaker (Num 15:32-36).

 

These incidents also can be seen as part of a recurrent pattern in the Bible: In the initial stages of some phase of his plan, God may exercise severity to keep his program on track and guide a community in the right direction. Further instances include the death of Achan, in the early days of the conquest of Canaan, when he took plunder at the Battle of Jericho that had been set apart for destruction (Joshua 7); and the swift punishment that Ananias and Sapphira received for their deception in the early Jerusalem Christian community (Acts 5). These early punishments had a major impact upon the people of God (see Joshua 7:26; Acts 5:11) and surely were deterrents to sin. Later in the histories of these communities, similar crimes typically did not need to be prosecuted as swiftly. A precedent had been set, leading individuals to think twice before emulating Nadab and Abihu or Ananias and Sapphira.

 

When I study the scriptures, I cannot always understand the reasons for God's actions. His ways are truly higher than ours (Isa 55:8-9). Reflecting upon my own experience, I believe that I can recognize the wisdom in God's balance of kindness and severity. As a teacher, when I am clear in communicating my expectations to a class at the beginning of a semester, there are fewer problems later and the students are more likely to succeed in the course. Based on faith and experience, I affirm with Paul, " Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom 11:33)


Footnotes:

1For discussion of Emar 369 and its possible links with Lev 10, see the article "Leviticus 10:1: Strange Fire and an Odd Name" by Richard S. Hess, Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.2 (2002), 187-198.

Issue 31

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