Every Bible student knows that separation is part of the key concept of holiness. Maybe we use “separation” as a circumlocution because “holy” isn’t exactly a trendy or even friendly term. Can we even talk about it without sounding way too religious?
The story of Nadav and Avihu is one of the most troubling in the Torah, but it provides a vital insight into the real meaning of separation and holiness.
Nadav and Avihu are the two oldest sons of Aaron, serving as priests on the day the Mishkan (tabernacle) is dedicated to the Lord. Moses and Aaron have just come out of the Mishkan and blessed the assembled Israelites. Fire comes out from the presence of the Lord and consumes the offering that is laid out on the altar. Then the glory of the Lord appears to all Israel and the people fall on their faces in worship. At that awesome moment, Nadav and Avihu step forward with “strange fire that the Lord had not commanded,” and fire comes out again from the presence of the Lord and consumes them (Lev. 9:23–10:2). The day of glorious worship is turned into a day of trauma and loss.
Moses provides an explanation for this horrific event: “This is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘In those who come near me, I will be holy, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (Lev. 10:3). As I said, we learn early in our studies of Scripture that holiness means separation or being set apart. It also entails glory or purity, so that the holy is set apart from the ordinary to display or reflect the glory of God. Leviticus 10:3 pairs “holy” with “glorified,” because the two terms overlap. But another word in this verse is essential to unlock its meaning—“near.” This is based on the Hebrew root qarav, which appears repeatedly and in differing forms throughout Leviticus, to describe both the act of bringing an offering and the offering itself. So, the second verse of Leviticus, in a hyper-literal translation, reads: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring-near a nearness-gift of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring-near your nearness-gift from the herd or from the flock.” The God of Israel is so holy as to be completely inaccessible to us, but the point of Leviticus is to provide access, nearness to him.
But there’s a catch—those who are near must reflect and conform to the same holiness that made God inaccessible. God’s undeserved mercy and kindness provide a way to draw near, but they don’t allow worshipers to draw near in any old way they want to. God told Moses, those who draw near to me will be separated from the ordinary, not-so-holy aspects of the world around them, and they’ll reflect my glory, even though they are only human.
But what exactly does it mean to be separate? Nadav and Avihu provide part of the picture. The Midrash is full of explanations for their failure, but a simple reading of the text suggests that they just failed to separate from doing their own thing. They use their religious position and clout as a platform for self-enhancement, as a stage for bringing something that the Lord hadn’t commanded. They had been headed toward the destination that’s the whole point of Leviticus, nearness to God, but they opted for a sort of religious rock-stardom, as they explored and expressed their own version of worship. This distortion of true worship is all too common today, and Moses’ reminder remains timely—drawing near to God must entail drawing away from self, separating from the self-discovery and self-absorption that drive the age we live in.
The moment with God is a moment that’s not about me. But beware—we can make such a big deal about it not being about me that it’s clearly all about me. We can be so obvious in separating from various outward things that we put ourselves in the spotlight. Instead, Moses reminds Aaron that those who are really near God draw the focus on to him and not themselves. That’s what real separation is all about.