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Strange Incense

God's commandments are scoped. Some pertain to a specific time and place (example: Limhi fleeing the Lamanites). Some pertain to a specific group of people (example: Levites carrying the ark of the covenant). Some pertain to everyone, always (example: baptism). For some reason, we neglect to respect this pattern in scripture.

God has given many commandments. Here are some:
-The keeping of Hebrew holy days.
-The circumcision of children.
-Offering animal sacrifice according to specific instructions.
-Special grooming and dress rules for men and women.

While I know of no one who reads the story of Limhi and decides that they should move away from any proximate American Indians, I know a surprising number of people who take it upon themselves to live the above listed commandments, which were given either for a specific time and place or to a specific group of people.

Does the Lord care?

Let's start our answer to that question with the topic of strange incense.

Strange Incense

The Lord said:
Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon. (Exodus 30:9)

Lest we be confused about what God meant by strange incense, we are given two examples of people who broke this commandment.

The first example were the sons of Aaron. They offered strange incense and were killed by God for doing so:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

What did Nadab and Abihu actually do? Sometimes the website is incredibly informative for verses where a more clear translation is needed. If you google biblehub Leviticus 10:1 (or any other verse), it will land you a page that lists all Bible translations for that verse on one page. You can quickly scan through to see the similarities and differences between different translations. In this case, they almost all say something much clearer than the King James.

Here is the International Standard translation:
Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own censer, placed fire in it, covered it with incense, and brought it into the LORD's presence as unauthorized fire that he had never prescribed for them. (Leviticus 10:1, ISV.)

Nadab and Abihu conducted a practice that was a) unauthorized and b) not prescribed for them. This was not a one time event. The Lord said: stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, [should] come near to offer incense before the Lord; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the Lord said to him by the hand of Moses. (Leviticus 16:40)
You can go to read chapter 16 for the full story. In a nutshell, Korah and others decided that it was not right that only a few of the Israelites be appointed to offer sacrifices to God. Korah prepared his offering and God made the earth split right where he stood, causing him to fall to his death. The censors used by Korah were made into plates and fastened to the altar by God's command as a permanent reminder of how grave a sin it is to assume unto yourself ordinances prescribed to another by God.

Other Examples

Sons of Eli. Eli was the high priest at the time of the prophet Samuel's childhood. His two sons were priests. Their sin was that the form of priesthood duty that they practiced was different than that prescribed. Certain meat sacrifices became food for the people. These priests modified the practice so that they could have a greater portion of what was prescribed for them as well as certain portions that were never prescribed for them (see 1 Samuel 2:12-17). The Lord killed both of Eli's sons by the hand of the Philistines for this crime.

Ironically, while Eli's sons were punished for misappropriating God's ordinances as given to someone else, Eli himself was punished for not heeding a commandment given for everyone under the Law of Moses. This was the law that stated that all disobedient children ought to be publicly stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Eli's refusal to keep this commandment resulted in reduced faith in God in the congregation through the continued abuse of his sons, and eventually his own death.

Saul. In 1 Samuel 13 we read how Saul's encamped army waited seven days for the prophet Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to appoint their army for victory. When Samuel didn't show, the soldiers got anxious. To prevent desertion, Saul decided to offer the sacrifice himself. He was unauthorized to do so, and when Samuel came, he chastised Saul and told him that the Lord would take away his kingdom and give it to another (David) because of his sin.

A distinction

I want to make the distinction between mimicry and individual commandment. I am a very firm believer in the adage, "whatever God commands is right." I could list many examples of individuals I know who have received specific revelation to do all sorts of things (or not do all sorts of things) that I never would have supposed.

My base case assumption with all of them is that God has indeed commanded them as they said. Meanwhile, I realize that a person's receipt of a revelation does not imply that revelation applies to me. Although I always take it to God just in case, the default position is that it is not for me.

The situation of these folks is very different from the strange incense offerers. When God speaks to a person, that person is then operating on direct revelation from God. This is not the same as operating on a meta-understanding of something said to someone else. Meta-understandings are always incomplete and frequently incorrect.


If doing things that are a) unauthorized to you or b) not prescribed for you is serious enough to God that he has sent down fire, opened the earth, caused invasions of armies, and rescinded kingship to destroy those who do so in the past, we should take extreme caution not to repeat these sins.

How do you know if you are offering strange incense? Here is the test:

  • Is the source of this commandment something God said to you, or is it something God said to someone else? If the latter, it is possible that you are unauthorized to live that commandment.
  • If the latter, is there something somewhere where God said this applies to you specifically? If not, it is doubtful you are authorized to live that commandment.
  • If you suppose the commandment to apply to all people, was there ever a case of someone who we know to be exalted that did not have that commandment? If so, it is doubtful that your understanding of the commandment being general is correct.