Taste and See: The Case of Nadab and Abihu

Taste and see that the LORD is good. How happy is the man who takes refuge in Him! Psalm 34:8 HCSB

On January 1 of this year my Bible reading plan began with Genesis 1. The consistent pattern is to read three or four chapters a day and if all goes well and I stick with the schedule, by December 31 I should be reading the words of John the Revelator, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”

On many days, familiar characters in the readings such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph feel like old friends. Although the descriptions of those characters don’t change from year to year, my perceptions of them and their strengths and weaknesses do. As their stories unfold in the pages, it seems as if those characters know my story too. I chuckled out loud as I read the account of Israel’s sons when they left Egypt after Joseph revealed himself. I can see Joseph calling out to them from an Egyptian palace balcony, “...and don’t argue on the way home!” (Gen 45:24). Small phrases like those give us glimpses into the personalities of characters like Joseph and his brothers— glimpses that we can pick up on the next time we encounter them.

This past week a particular phrase in Exodus 24 arrested my attention so completely it seemed as if I was there watching the scene unfold. God said to Moses, “Go up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, and bow in worship at a distance.” What followed was a covenant ceremony, and in Exodus 24:9 Moses recorded these words: “Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, and they saw the God of Israel. Beneath His feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire stone, as clear as the sky itself. God did not harm the Israelite nobles; they saw Him, and they ate and drank.”

Those men saw God. We don’t know what exactly that entailed, but at the very least, they caught a glimpse of Him. The verse also indicates that “they ate and drank.” They sealed the covenant ceremony with a meal to remember the significance of those moments with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then, less than fifty days after seeing God, Aaron gave in to the complaints of the Israelites and made the people an idol in the shape of a cow. Later, Nadab and Abihu became eternal poster boys reminding generations that God is serious about how He is worshiped (Lev 10:1).

All too frequently my first reaction to Old Testament characters like Aaron and Nadab and Abihu is “How in the world could they have done something so stupid, especially after they had seen God and eaten a covenant meal like that?” But as time passes and I get older, I’m less critical of the Aarons and Nadabs and Abihus in the pages of Scripture because I see more of my own sin in their stories. Or perhaps, their stories somehow point to and reveal the sin in my story. How many times have I been a part of a corporate worship gathering and sensed my affections for God elevated to new heights because of God’s self-revelation through Christ and Scripture [1], but within hours of that gathering I succumb to satisfying my soul with an idol like food or entertainment? How many times has God clearly revealed something to me in His Word and within a few weeks the once-clear revelation is lost in a foggy mist of my own desires and disobedience?

What Exodus 24:9 reminded me of this past week is that I need to be ever-vigilant to realize how easily and quickly my heart can move from awed obedience to selfish sin. Aaron and his sons seemed to let down after they worshiped. Perhaps they dropped their guard thinking that somehow the phenomenal experience of covenant worship rendered them immune from the sin of idolatry and disobedience. Although it was years later that David wrote, “taste and see that the LORD is good” in Psalm 34, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu stand as powerful witnesses of what can happen when the latter half of that verse is neglected... they simply did not continue to “take refuge in Him."

After nearly three decades of leading worship, I’m finally starting to realize that I’m most vulnerable to sin and selfishness after I’ve had times of significantly meaningful worship. I let down. I think I deserve a break and that somehow I’m entitled to a little self-indulgence. And here is something else I’m becoming more aware of: the evil one is more than willing to assist my own selfish slant toward self- indulgence. As the years pass, the stories of Aaron and his sons cause me to scoff less at their stupidity and cause me to be more cognizant of my own. Peter says it incredibly well: “Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him and be firm in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers all over the world” (1 Pet 5:8-11).

So the next time we have the urge to roll our eyes in disgust at folks like Nadab and Abihu, maybe we need to remember that we should run to “take refuge in Him” after we have “tasted and seen.”

[1]. This is a paraphrase from John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 43.

Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.