The voice on the other end of the telephone line quivered and broke with anxiety. “I became a Christian a few months ago, and I’ve been reading my Bible from the beginning,” the man began, “but I’ve been doing something, and I don’t think God will forgive me.”
Here it comes, I thought. Some ongoing affair? Drug abuse? Stealing from work? But nothing could have prepared me for what he was about to say: “I tithe at church every Sunday, but the money I give is wicked. You see, I’m a dog breeder.”
I dug deeper and discovered that the man had come to Deuteronomy 23:18 in his King James Bible, which says, “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God.” There it was, right on the page next to prostitution—the price of a dog should not be brought into the house of God. And as the man on the telephone line realized to his dread, every dollar he had came from the sale of dogs.
Rest assured, God doesn’t hold some obscure, ancient grudge against dog breeders or their livelihoods. While the King James Version offered a great literal translation of the Hebrew text in Deuteronomy, what did not translate was the figure of speech included in that verse. “Dog” was a common way of referring to male cult prostitutes in the ancient Near East. God was telling the children of Israel not to engage in idolatry or prostitution and that any money received for such acts was an abomination to Him.
After I explained the passage to the man on the phone, assured him of the Father’s love, and prayed with him, I realized that while his particular crisis of faith was unique, the fear of sinning against God without realizing it was all too common. Another passage from the Old Testament came immediately to mind:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them (Lev. 10:1-2 NASB).
Two priests—sons of Aaron the high priest, no less—offered a seemingly innocent sacrifice before the Lord and were burned up instantly as a result. And the only explanation the text offers is that it was “strange fire.”
This story of Nadab and Abihu appears to be a cautionary tale to those of us who are afraid we’ll accidentally offend God. After all, death by fireball for Aaron’s sons seems like an overreaction on God’s part. But He is good and perfectly just all the time, so there must be more to this passage than what we see on the surface.
If we take a step back into the larger context of the passage, we see that Aaron has just offered a sacrifice for the sins of the priests and all Israel (Lev. 9:8-24); and God had accepted the offering: “Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering” (9:24). So when Nadab and Abihu offer their sacrifice before Him, it’s after their sins have already been covered; it’s after the life of a substitute (in this case, an animal) have been taken in their place.
But let’s take yet another step back—right out of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews tells us that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4) but that the sacrifices were commanded to remind the people of their need for redemption—a neon sign pointing forward to Christ (10:3, 11-14). For this reason, the sacrifices described in Leviticus and elsewhere were serious business.
Nadab and Abihu were not merely offering up a gift to God; they were attempting to add to the sacrifice made for their sins. That’s why it is described as “strange” or “unauthorized fire,” as many modern translations put it. They are the poster-children for everyone who has ever tried to offer up something other than, or in addition to, Christ in an effort to please the Father. Jesus “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” (10:12). The only thing we can offer God is our need for a Savior.
In the story of Nadab and Abihu, we see a graphic, gruesome picture of our true state apart from Christ. If we attempted to come before God and present our own meager, polluted offerings to Him, we could not stand. He is altogether holy, and we are altogether broken and stained with sin, apart from Christ. We come clean only when we are washed in the blood shed by Jesus at Calvary. But once we have been washed, we have nothing to fear. Every sin, every mistake, and every offense has been dealt with on the cross.
by John Greco