The first seven chapters of Leviticus regulate the offerings to be given to God. Now that these instructions have been given, it is time for Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his four sons, to be anointed as the first Israelite priests under the new Mosaic covenant.
Since there are no priests yet, Moses acts in the role of high priest to anoint Aaron and his sons, according to the commands of God. In verses 1-3, God gives Moses instructions to begin the anointing ceremony. The following people and items are needed: 1) Aaron and his four sons, 2) the garments that were made for them as specified by God in the book of Exodus, 3) anointing oil, 4) a bull for a sin offering, 5) two rams and bread without yeast for additional offerings, and 6) the elders representing all of the tribes and clans of Israel. Everyone was to gather in the tabernacle courtyard to witness what was about to happen.
In verse 5, Moses says, “This is what the Lord has commanded to be done.” The entire process of ordination was detailed in Exodus 29, and Leviticus 8 and 9 confirm that Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel, did exactly as God had earlier commanded. Verses 6-29 recount the first day of the ordination of the first High Priest (Aaron) and his sons.
Gordon J. Wenham, in The Book of Leviticus (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), explains the significance of the role of high priest and his garments. “The nation of Israel as a whole was called to be a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6), and the church is also (1 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:6). Israel could see in the glorious figure of the high priest the personal embodiment of all that the nation ought to be both individually and corporately.”
As we pick up at verse 30, we see Moses completing the first day’s ceremonies. Moses takes anointing oil and blood from the altar (placed there during the sacrifices of the bull and rams) and sprinkles Aaron and his sons with them. This completed the first day of the ordination (which would last 7 days).
For the next 6 days, Aaron and his sons would have to offer sacrifices for themselves every day. Moses commands them not to leave the tabernacle courtyard for the remainder of the 7-day period, lest they become unclean.
Moses explains to Aaron and his sons, in verse 34, that the ordination rituals just completed were to make atonement for their sins. After all, the primary duty of the High Priest was to atone for the sins of Israel so that Israel could remain in relationship with God. But the High Priest cannot make atonement for the people before he atones for his own sins. That was the purpose of the day’s sacrifices. Again, we see in verse 36 that they “did everything the Lord commanded through Moses.”
Wenham brings out a central theme of chapter 8, the pervasiveness of sin. He writes,
In this section one doctrine emerges very clearly: the universality and pervasiveness of sin. The men chosen to minister to God in the tabernacle pollute the tabernacle and therefore purification offerings have to be offered. Their clothes and bodies are stained with sin and they must be smeared with blood to purify them. These sacrifices are not offered just once; they have to be repeated, because sin is deep-rooted in human nature and often recurs. There is no once-for-all cleansing known to the OT. It is the incorrigibility of the human heart that these ordination ceremonies bring into focus.
In chapter 9, we have moved ahead to the 8th day of the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Now that they have atoned for their sins, it is time for them to atone for the sins of all of Israel. In verses 1-5, Moses explains all of the offerings that must be made for the people. The purpose for the sacrifices is stated in verse 6: “This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Once the sins of Aaron and sons were atoned for, and then the sins of the rest of Israel were atoned for, God would appear and confirm his presence and covenant with Israel.
In verse 22 of chapter 9, Aaron completes the sacrifices for the people of Israel. With the process completed Moses and Aaron go into the tabernacle. When they come back out, God’s glory appears in the form of fire on the brazen altar that instantly consumes all of the remaining offering. The elders of Israel react as any of us would when confronted with the God of the universe. They fell flat on their faces and shouted for joy!
Why was the whole process of sacrifices and ordination necessary for God’s presence to be made known? Wenham comments:
Aaron’s gorgeous garments, the multiplicity of animal sacrifices, were not ends in themselves but only means to the end, namely, the proper worship of God. These elaborate vestments and sacrifices helped simple human minds appreciate the majestic holiness of God. But all the ritual in the OT would have been pointless if God had not deigned to reveal himself to the people. The clothing and the sacrifices merely helped to put the worshippers in a state of mind that was prepared for God’s coming, and removed the obstacles of human sin that prevented fellowship, but they did not necessarily ensure God’s presence.
Throughout all of chapters 8 and 9, we are reminded that every command of God was followed with exactitude. In the first three verses of chapter 10, however, we see what happens when the newly anointed priests disobey God’s commands.
Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer incense to God, but they do it in a way that is unauthorized, that is contrary to God’s commands. The text is not clear as to their exact violation. Some scholars have speculated that they performed a Canaanite or Egyptian ritual. Regardless, it seems they knew what they were doing and they paid for their disobedience with their lives.
Fire consumed both of them, fire from God. Moses, in verse 3, explains to Aaron that the priests must honor God because he is holy, with the implication being that Nadab and Abihu did not honor God. Rather than dispute what Moses said, Aaron remained silent.
What are we to make of the death of Aaron’s sons? It seems that the closer a man is to God (Levite priest being very close indeed) the stricter is the standard by which he will be judged. The New Testament reiterates this teaching. Consider Luke 12:48: “Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” Peter said in 1 Pet 4:17, “Judgment begins with the household of God.” James said in James 3:1, “We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” Christians in visible leadership are held to a higher standard.