If I had to predict what stuck out to you while reading Numbers 15, I am sure the capital punishment for sabbath-breaking provoked reflection on the importance of the fourth commandment. Also, you might be having difficulty imagining how Israel remembered all the sacrifices they were to offer. Though we could spend more time on those particulars, I want to highlight a recurring theme in Numbers. Three times in today’s chapter, God reiterates that both Israel and foreigners (non-Israelites) are to make the same offerings and in the same way (Numbers 15:13-14, 15:16, 15:29). Many of us are accustomed to thinking of “God’s chosen people” simply as those who are born in the line of Israel. We don’t imagine Israel primarily as those chosen by God and intended to bring the nations into the worship practices of the true God, YHWH. Even in Moses’ day, the circle of God’s “chosen people” wasn’t to be exclusive to Israelites. God commands non-Jewish inclusion to the family of God long before the days when apostle Paul would make this a major theme of his teaching. In Mosaic law, like New Testament theology, being chosen never means that our election is intended to terminate with us or with our kind; rather, we are chosen that we might welcome others into the family of God’s chosen people.
Déja vu happens in the Bible, too. Many of the details of this story should remind you of the end of Exodus. God is preparing Israel for a new gift—this time a promised land—but the people of Israel doubt His power to deliver it, believing the messengers’ report that the peoples of the land of Canaan are too great. Instead of building a golden calf before receiving the law, the people rebel against God and His prophet Moses, rejecting the advice of Caleb and Joshua. Then Moses does the same thing away from Sinai that he did in Exodus 32 and 33. God tells Moses He can make a new nation out of Moses and destroy Israel. Moses again appeals to God not to do so, lest the Egyptians disbelieve in God’s power (Numbers 14:13-16). Moses beautifully calls to attention again what God proclaimed about Himself before (Exodus 34:6-7): God is “The Lord, is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.” God again responds favorably to Moses’ request, but this time promises that those who feared God’s provision would die in the wilderness while their children would see the land of promise. There is a flip side to God’s revelation of His lovingkindness; God “does not leave the guilty unpunished.” These two truths about God—His forgiving love and His justice—would continue to form Israel’s understanding of God (Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Nahum 1:3).
In Numbers 11, Israel grumbles against God for not providing them meat. Their desire for it becomes strong enough that they even wish for the days of Egypt, essentially crying out to return to slavery. Due to their complaining, Moses makes a complaint to God for having him lead Israel all by himself; we may infer that Moses fears they will try to take his life (Numbers 11:15). God decides to empower other leaders through his own Spirit to share in directing Israel.
After God provides meat for the complaining Israelites and judges them with a plague, we witness Miriam, Moses’ sister, become afflicted with leprosy. Many people miss important details in chapter 12 that make sense of God’s judgement against Miriam. First, note the double emphasis that Miriam and Aaron complain against Moses’ new wife because she is a “Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). This means she was African—she had black skin. In an ironic twist, Miriam’s leprosy caused her skin to turn “white as snow”. God punishes Miriam for complaining against Moses’ black-skinned wife by turning Miriam’s skin stark white with leprosy. God is the God of all peoples, and He will not suffer anyone looking down upon others because of their skin color or country of origin. May Miriam be a warning to us all of how God feels towards racism and xenophobia.
Many of us wish God would lead us like God leads Israel out of Sinai. We would all like a cloud to guide our next steps, especially one that becomes fire at night. It seems these circumstances we motivate us to obey all that God says and provide great clarity in life. However, as we will see, Israel often broke fellowship with God and became disappointed while this cloud directed them. Hundreds of years in the future, in today’s Psalm, an “unknown voice” (presumably God) tells us why Israel consistently loses their way, even while being led by fire. God bluntly states twice that Israel can never maintain their blessings by charging, “If you would only listen to me, Israel”. We have the same problem as Israel. We don’t need a cloud to direct us; we need to listen to God.
Now, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the word for hear (Hebrew: shema; Greek; hupakouo) can also be translated “obey”. When God calls us to hear Him, certainly the necessary action to hearing God is obedience. Many of us are searching for clouds in the sky or clear direction from God. Today I want to ask a simple question: “Have you heard (obeyed) what God has clearly commanded?” I find when people can honestly say, “By the grace of God I seek to follow Him,” they become less fretful over “finding God’s will for their life”, for in obeying God’s voice, God’s will becomes more apparent.
The annual Passover celebration date given in Numbers is based on a calendar determined by the waxing and waning of the moon, as opposed to our calendar, which is founded upon earth’s revolution around the sun. That is why Passover and therefore Easter fall on different dates in our calendar every year. We celebrate Easter in proximity to Passover because Jesus took a Passover meal on the night He was betrayed by Judas. Passover’s importance to Jewish history and Christian history is impossible to summarize here. I will note that in Numbers 9:14 foreigners are commanded to take the Passover in the same way as Israelites. This is noteworthy because it clearly indicates that God intends for the nations to join Israel’s descendants in the worship of Yahweh (YHWH moving forward). We as readers need to understand early in our Bible reading journey that God’s intention to bring the nations to knowledge of YHWH doesn’t begin with Jesus’ kingdom proclamation. God’s expects Israel to be the means to bring the good news of God’s salvation, represented well by the Passover meal, and provide hope for all who wish to worship the true God. In fact, if you are ever invited to a Jewish Passover Seder, I recommend taking that opportunity, for it is expected in the Jewish Bible that foreigners would be welcome in this practice. God has always desired to bring the nations under His wing, even while bringing His goodness to the world through a chosen people. May our celebration of our Passover (Lord’s Supper) also extend to the nations like God intends!
When life is going poorly, it is natural to long for better days in the past. Psalm 79, however, isn’t nostalgic as it addresses the pain of Israel’s loss of their great temple, likely at the hands of Babylon. Instead of looking with fondness backwards, Psalm 79 recognizes Israel’s past sins with regret (Psalm 79:8-10). Very easily the Psalm could have focused on Israel’s better days, like those we read about in Numbers 7. In that chapter, Israel is unified in their worship of God, and their wealth is apparent as they bring their gifts to celebrate the consecration of the tabernacle. Psalm 79 does not harp on the glory days, but hopes for future glories. Psalm 79 cries out to God to protect Israel and bring swift justice to Israel’s enemies for disdaining God’s people and His temple. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the hope is that other nations might realize God’s power and love for Israel (Psalm 79:10). Secondly, Israel’s desire to praise God forever spurs them to ask God to protect and vindicate them (Psalm 79:13). Today, we do well to take a similar approach in our frustrations about the state of our nation, culture, and church. Our hope is not found on returning to some golden age in the past, but on faithful living with the God of all justice so that neighbors might know us as God’s people and that God’s people might ever praise God.
For today’s reading, I know the section concerning the test for the unfaithful wife (Numbers 5:11-31) stands out for many of us and begs explanation. This might seem an unfair embarrassment for wives and proof that sexism was not only alive and well in Israel, but codified in their laws. Let me do my best in very short space to help explain why that isn’t so.
This “test” ensures a number of things: 1) Jealousy doesn’t destroy unnecessarily. Often enough, jealous or insecure people will harm others through violence or abuse. In a situation where a husband is jealous, ultimately the husband has to rely on God and the justice of Israel instead of his own hands. 2) This action only harms a guilty woman. Irrespective of whether you condone an adulterous woman receiving punishment at all, only women who commit adultery would be harmed by this procedure. Though the water was likely bitter, only God’s miraculous affliction can harm a guilty woman in this scenario. If nothing happens, the woman gets off free--and if you doubt God exists, it means that women never were harmed by this rite. 3) This procedure thus allows for the vindication of a woman accused by a jealous husband.
I could say more to help assuage concerns, but let me end by noting the similarity between this ritual and the way Moses destroyed the golden calf in Exodus 32:20: he ground it into dust and made the people drink it. The test of Numbers 5 symbolizes the similarity between Israel’s idolatry, their spiritual adultery, and physical adultery. Every time a woman would go through such measures, Israel would face a grave reflection of their past. If a woman were innocent, she would be showing herself to reflect Israel at its finest. The purpose of this ritual is justice, but it also allows a woman falsely accused to display, through her faithfulness, God’s favor on the righteous.
Numbers chapters 3 and 4 are simply about numbering the Levites and prescribing their work for moving the tabernacle and executing ritual worship. Note the rationale for setting aside the Levites for preserving tabernacle worship in Numbers 3:11-13:
“The Lord also said to Moses, 12 “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.”
On my first reading, I misunderstood; I thought God was intentionally mistaking their birth order, calling the Levites “the firstborn” to make a point of their new status. Of course, the firstborn of Israel (i.e., Jacob) was Reuben, and Levi was the third-born (Genesis 29:31-35). Upon re-reading, I realized the Levites are now standing “in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman”. This isn’t about the birth order of the sons of Israel, but about the Levites replacing all the firstborn children spared at the Passover when all the Egyptian firstborn were killed. Those spared firstborn sons should have served as God’s dedicated priests, having received the honor of being set aside for such a great task. Yet because the Levites refused to worship the golden calf with the rest of Israel (presumably including many firstborn sons that were spared), the Levites enjoy unique access into the presence of God and service at His tabernacle. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time in scripture that later-born children and those outside a select group are elevated over the firstborn and elite. Through the Levites, God conveys that He does not bestow the best of His blessings through typical means like birth order, but through grace to those who are righteous. Even so, the Levites themselves are not immune to losing their status, as we will see in the days of the Kings. May this humble us to remain faithful to God, for it pleases God to vindicate His faithful.
Since Exodus 19, Israel hasn’t moved from Sinai, but that will change in the book of Numbers. Before God leads Israel away, they need to be prepared to move and know how to move. Numbers 1 tells us Moses and Aaron are commanded to take a census in order to prepare Israel for the protection they will need. When they move as such a large nation, they will be in danger of attack by foreign peoples who feel threatened, just as Egypt felt threatened by Israel’s growing numbers while in slavery. Based on the number of able fighting bodies in Numbers 1, many think Israel had a total population exceeding two million at this time. They would be a large target, and God wants to prepare and equip soldiers for the dangers ahead through this census. At the same time, there is also the matter of moving this tabernacle Israel just built. God makes provisions for this in Numbers 2 by spelling out how Israel is to encamp by surrounding the tabernacle and to move from place to place in a similar formation. Notice that the tribes named after the older brothers stand east of the tabernacle, tasked with leading Israel out as a nation. The tribe of Levi, by contrast, will remain with the tabernacle and immediately surround it; anyone but the Levites will die from touching the tabernacle, so they protect Israel by serving as a buffer amid the tribes tallied in the census. While in one sense the numbered tribes of Israel are to surround and protect the tabernacle, make no mistake—in the truest sense, it is God who shields Israel, the Levites, and the tabernacle as they move towards the land of promise.
There are no devotionals scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Use these days to catch up on our readings in Leviticus and meditate on Psalms 74 and 75.
Many describe the last chapter in Leviticus as an appendix to the book. Though this chapter does not fit naturally into the flow of the story, its purpose in Israel’s worship is clear. People could make donations of sacrifices to Israel’s tabernacle worship and even make vows of lifelong service. However, since people may have wanted to purchase back any donated property (redemption) or even buy themselves out of a vow they had made, Leviticus ends by making allowances for the redemption of certain goods and services. Redemption comes with a cost, usually of twenty percent or one fifth of something’s value in addition to the redemption value. This cost ensured that there were fair ways for people to reacquire property when necessary, but it also guaranteed that the sanctuary service wouldn’t be depleted by the work of managing all these transactions.
Today’s Psalm tells us that God’s sanctuary is the very place where the writer discovered the end of those who live in wickedness (Psalm 73:16). Like the appointed place of worship in Leviticus, God’s sanctuary always is the place Israel learns God’s ways. Though the details of the tabernacle and in later readings about the temple might seem tedious to us, recognize that God is providing physical institutions to teach Israel to ask, “Whom have I in heaven but you?” —leading to the humble recognition, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26) Some of God’s building programs are intricate and detailed, but the fact that someone attended to these details enables worship for many. May you have learned to appreciate and love God more through learning about the details of the tabernacle and priestly service in the book of Leviticus!
Leviticus begins with explanations of the different sacrifices which Israel is to bring to the priests. This constitutes a natural literary transition from the description of the construction of the tabernacle and the making of priestly garments at the end of Exodus. Building from sacrifices to descriptions of priestly function to clean and unclean practices, Leviticus finds its thematic focus in Leviticus 16, describing practices for the day of atonement. After handing down these regulations, God spends the rest of Leviticus further instructing Israel as to how to live as He dwells among them. Today’s chapter 26 reading prepares us for the final message given to Moses’ generation, which is found in the book of Deuteronomy, at the end of the Torah. Israel is given the choice between life and death. Israel must choose between peace and prosperity or war and need, between having too much food or having the ground cursed. This ends the book naturally with a question: will Israel choose to honor the Edenic tabernacle God has placed in their midst, or will they, like Adam and Eve, choose alienation and death? Leviticus ends where Deuteronomy picks up, and we will consistently see that Israel knew the positive and negative stakes of being God’s chosen people. Leviticus as a book conveys above all other messages God’s willingness to dwell amongst a people and give them life. Leviticus’ story is also the story of the Bible. The call presents itself to us today, albeit in a different way, to obey God and find life. God is always willing to give life to those who are willing to obey God. Will you choose life today?
Modern readers experience great dissonance when reading the end of Leviticus 24 along with Leviticus 25. The stoning in chapter 24 proves that God will not tolerate evil near His tabernacling presence, and the jubilee shows that God expects radical generosity and concern for neighbors where He dwells. Your most conservative friend would never imagine making a law to execute those who blaspheme God; your most progressive friend would never come up with such merciful legislation as the jubilee year, during which God expects the return of lands, the release of debts, and freedom for those in servitude. In the jubilee year, God purposes to prevent a disproportionate private accumulation of wealth; in Leviticus 25:23, He explicitly commands that the land is not to be sold in perpetuity. The jubilee proclamation also protects families from suffering utter ruin. So how do we live with the tension found in God’s severe judgement and His lavish mercy so close to each other?
It is enough to say that God hates evil with more passion than we do and loves us with more passion than we have for others. Both truths about God must be held together. Another fact highlights the difference between us and God: as far as we know, Israel never actually kept a jubilee year in the promised land. When Jesus announced at a synagogue the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19), he is announcing the first jubilee year ever. Jesus, God in the flesh, would show the mercy Israel failed to show. This jubilee came because Jesus faced his own execution, yet for our blasphemy. We must always consider this fact as we read about events that are difficult for us to understand.
Israel kept a calendar in the days of Moses to commemorate God’s great works; Passover, Yom Kippur, and the Sabbath persist as a regular part of Jewish life together over 3,000 years later. In Leviticus, God gave Israel these holidays as disciplines that would place their focus on God and His salvation both weekly and yearly. The day of atonement would draw attention to the gravity of sin and God granting access to His presence. Passover would recall God’s deliverance from Egypt. Sabbath is a cry for God’s people to rest while looking forward to ultimate rest. As Christians, we do well to consider how marking certain days and events also focuses our attention on God. We celebrate Easter and Christmas, but these holidays are, even for believers, often marked more by our typical cultural practices (e.g., shopping, Easter egg hunts) than any focus on God’s salvation. Other calendar highlights, too, can uniquely sharpen our attention towards God’s work. For example, we fast during Lent to prepare for good Friday through consideration of the sacrifice Jesus makes to give us life. Easter then takes on new meaning as we feast in celebration of the new life we experience. During Advent, we consider the longing the Jews had for a messiah and thus pause to consider how Christmas tells us we are to await the messiah’s return again. All these yearly rhythms can transform a people to remember God’s salvation and look forward to His deliverance, just like God intended for Israel. Setting days apart for reflection on Jesus’ work doesn’t necessarily make us better Christians, nor are we commanded to keep particular days. However, when we mark certain days in faith and consider God’s works, this certainly can shape us like these holidays shaped the Jewish people over the centuries.
In Leviticus, God gives some laws common in a democratic government, like “Do not steal”. However, the laws foreign to us—for instance, to execute the daughter of a priest if she becomes a prostitute—reflect life under what we would call a “theocracy”, a government under God’s rule. The people believed that God alone could judge right and wrong and that they must obey His commands because they knew His power, rule, and salvation. Hardly anyone today believes we should obey every law in Leviticus, even as the church.
Leviticus legislates concerning the tabernacle, priesthood, and Israel’s call to live as a unique representative of God’s salvation to the nations. We misread the Bible if we don’t grasp this. God gave these gifts so that He might live in fellowship with a particular people. History shows that even after God gives Israel land and the permanent tabernacle of the temple, they could not dependably live as His emissaries to the world. Because Israel never consistently follows the law faithfully, In all of Leviticus God continues to prepare His people for a better tabernacle (John 1:14-18), a better priesthood (cf. the Book of Hebrews), and even a better Israel (cf. the Gospel of Matthew). When Jesus came, he fulfilled in His life all the obligations given to Israel and the priests so that God could write a new law on our hearts (Hebrews). When we understand the place of Leviticus in the history of God’s salvation we appreciate the book’s teachings better. This book showcases God’s ongoing pursuit of people and the nations, the necessity of atonement for sin, and God’s willingness to bring salvation on His terms. We ought to take seriously the laws in Leviticus precisely because they prepare the way for God’s great salvation through Jesus, whose fulfillment of the law provides us fellowship and atonement as well.
Leviticus 19 includes many of what we call the Ten Commandments in its various commands. These commands from Exodus 20 form the foundation of Israel’s legal code. Leviticus 20 reveals the punishments God demands for breaking some of the commands we have already seen. Today, I want to reflect on one law which will aid our understanding of an upcoming book of the Bible (Ruth), as well as God’s unique expectations for Israel. God prohibits anyone from gleaning the edges of their field or trying to pick up as many of the leftovers for themselves as possible (Leviticus 19:9-10), depriving the poor and alien of this food. Furthermore, God reminds Israel of His character with a familiar declaration: “I am the Lord your God”. This always serves to hearken back to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, admonishing them to reject practices that reflect injustice or oppression like those they experienced under Pharaoh. Soon Israel will receive many laws calling them to avoid an inordinate accumulation of possessions, especially at the expense of others. God’s people are to live with constant consideration for the poor. This does not mean they are to favor the poor (Leviticus 19:15), but that they must provide for the poor in their midst if they are to reflect the greatness of the God of the Exodus. God did not deliver Israel to return some of the Hebrews to destitution. Rather, Israel is to be a people who treat all with justice, thus reflecting the justice of God.
Leviticus 16 reminds us of why Nadab and Abihu died. Without seeking God, they determined their own path to God’s presence (Leviticus 16:1). Today we read about the institution of the holiday that is most central to Israel’s calendar year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As opposed to Nadab and Abihu’s approach, this day conveys God alone can grant access to His glorious presence. Leviticus 16 shows God’s particular plan for how the priest, a new kind of Adam, can enter once a year God’s glorious presence. The day of atonement in Leviticus 16 is the center of Leviticus, and Leviticus is the center of the first five books of the Bible. This central chapter conveys that God has made a way for one person to have access to God’s Holy presence like Adam and Eve did in Eden. In doing this, God paints a yearly picture of the hope that one day we all can be with God, like this, again. On Yom Kippur, the various rites Aaron and the subsequent high priests follow conveys a reversal of the expulsion from Eden. During these ritual rites, Aarron would pass through areas protected by golden cherubim, representative of the angelic beings blocking the garden of Eden. This is made possible through cleansing and sacrifice. Over the course of the year, sacrifices for sins were offered, and God forgave his people. On the day of atonement, God uses a scapegoat to show that if Israel lives faithfully within this tabernacle system, God takes away all their sins. Leviticus 16 shows that God intends for His people to dwell in enjoyment of His good gifts. In echoing creation, this day is highlighted as day of Sabbath, of special rest (Leviticus 16:31). Sabbath is a gift of God to us whereby we enter His rest (Hebrews 4:9-11). The day of Atonement reflects that God intends to make His people once again rest in Him. The connection is clear, without God’s atoning work, we have no rest. Through God’s atoning work, we can have true rest. Let us consider this and reflect with gladness on how Jesus’ atoning work provides for us an even better rest.
When I was young, I would ask Bible teachers why God gave the laws found in Leviticus. Many of my teachers were very practical. My teachers told me how animals not properly cooked could cause sickness if eaten. Some informed me that if someone with a skin disease were not quarantined, this would endanger all of Israel. When it came to mold, they told me it was good to address mold like we do today, by trying to get rid of it.
Certainly God is a practical God. But there are deeper reasons for these laws. Ultimately God is making a tabernacle to usher Israel back into a new sort of Eden where God would be present with his people. Death, disease, sickness, and danger do not belong there. We understand this;, but in a world full of sinners, some times expelling danger means expelling people. For example, this leaves the problem of people with leprosy being unclean for ceremonial worship. They are cut off from Israel’s worship and community. This seems very harsh to us. Didn’t Jesus heal lepers? Why would God ostracize them and thus treat them as if they were unwelcome in this new Eden? Remember, just because the person is unclean does not mean that God cannot consider them righteous. The lepers that obeyed God’s laws for the unclean ultimately benefit from the keeping of God’s laws just like the people at the tabernacle. In many ways, the lepers were honoring God as much in their ostracism as those who obeyed God through involvement in the tabernacle. The problem arises when neighbors treat lepers as if the leper’s sin is the reason they have leprosy. God does not treat personal sin as the cause of uncleanness, but rather the unclean as those inflicted by the reality of sin in this world. Even though, ceremonially speaking, this person is unclean and thus cut off from the worship in this new Eden, their faithfulness will be the reason they will have access to the true and better heavenly Eden.
Leviticus 11-12, Psalm 64
L. Michael Morales has helped my understanding of Leviticus 11-12, so many of my thoughts reflect his today. Leviticus helps Israel begin to make two sets of distinctions for their tabernacle worship. The first distinction is between Holy and common, and the second is between clean and unclean. All common objects can be either clean or unclean. The problem with a common, unclean object is not in being necessarily bad, for God creates all things good. Rather common, unclean objects can defile what is clean by contact, and thus what is no longer clean can corrupt even what is holy through association. Holy objects like the priests or the tabernacle were to remain Holy and clean lest God’s presence leave Israel for desecrating God’s Holiness. Hope is found in God’s willingness to make what is common Holy, and what is unclean clean if Israel will follow God’s commands.
With those distinctions in mind, it is important to associate God’s holiness with God being life giver and Life itself. God desires life, holiness, and cleansing for Israel through the tabernacle in order that through Israel cleansing, holiness, and life would come to the entire world. When this is understood, we can better appreciate why eating carnivorous animals would make someone unclean. Eating animals that do not eat cud or touching a dead animal would cause a clean person to be associated with death. Any contact with death makes a clean person unclean. This would necessitate cleansing, and thus reflect the need for death to be washed away before anyone can approach the holy God of life. In a similar way, a woman giving birth to a child would not make her a sinner, though she is unclean.Yet, because she has shed so much blood, life has left her body. Being less full of life, thus, causes her to become ceremonially unclean. The purpose of her time of cleansing is to convey the fragility involved with giving life, and the need for strength or “life” in being able to approach the Holy, life-giving God. Though uncleanness does not equal sinfulness, it does necessitate cleansing for full participation in the tabernacle worship. When you read the remaining chapters about what is clean and unclean, this will help you navigate what is at stake. My hope is future reflections will clarify more about why certain practices or objects are unclean and why God expects particular rituals for cleansing.
Today in Leviticus God’s anger arises. This is, for most of us, a little uncomfortable. Don’t mistake me—I’m not trying to judge God in my discomfort. Rather, I recognize that taking the Bible seriously means that I must have a healthy fear of God. My discomfort stems from realizing how often I break God’s commands, and thus I wonder how I have avoided the same fate as Nadab and Abihu. Reading about their destruction reminds the reader that what we have seen in Leviticus isn’t some contrived initiation rite. The sacrificial system, tabernacle, and priesthood show God’s demand that Israel be Holy like He is Holy; Israel is to obey God in everything. Though I can empathize with Nadab and Abihu as sinners (not to mention Aaron in seeing his loved ones so destroyed), we ought not forget why God does this. God unleashes His wrath precisely because loving what is good in an evil world necessitates such anger. Remember, we all experience death because our first parents treated God’s commands lightly. We all experience pain and hardship because we and our neighbors do the same also. We all know frustration because others are so flippant with their promises.
God treats our evil with much patience and forbearance. On some occasions in scripture God gives offenders what they deserve immediately. It seems this is especially true when God is moving in history to establish new institutions (see 1 Samuel 4:12-22, Acts 5). Also, lest we forget while reading stories like this, God the Son did experience worse wrath than Nadab and Abihu. In taking the wrath of God, Jesus shows that our evil must be punished for us to have peace with the God of perfect justice. Jesus delivers that peace through suffering, bleeding and dying in the flesh.