When We Grieve

My brother passed away this month …

It makes life look different somehow.  There’s a hollowness to it that is hard to ignore.  Of course, I realise that I’m not the first one to experience this and I certainly won’t be the last.

Not long before my brother’s death, a Torah portion that our family was studying touched me and I now find the lessons from it to be both challenging and a powerful picture of focusing on what truly matters.

In Leviticus 10 we read of a man that had two sons die on the same day. Nadab and Abihu died in the tabernacle – not by accident, but by fire sent directly from YHWH. They had just done something that was not prescribed by Him – possibly in a drunken state. Their deaths would be a perpetual reminder that disobedience and making our own path to God would not be overlooked. This would bring with it dire consequences.

Aaron, the High Priest, was the father of Nadab and Abihu. He and his two other sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were forbidden to mourn the loss of their family members. They were, instead, to continue their priestly work just as they had been anointed to do. We read of no hesitation from Aaron, no complaining or trying to reason a different outcome. We only read that they did according to the word that they had received.

Yet, the pain would have been there … the loss … the hollowness deep inside. Aaron’s sons had been punished justly, but they were still from his own flesh and blood. He wasn’t angry with YHWH for what had happened, but his sadness was so very real and it wouldn’t go away by pretending that nothing had happened. So how did he respond?

We get our clue of Aaron’s response in what seems to be a strange little story at the end of the chapter. Moses spoke to Aaron and his two remaining sons concerning an animal sacrifice (known as a “sin offering”) in which these three priests were to eat of the meat that remained of the offering. The ruling for the priests to do this was prescribed in the earlier chapters of Leviticus and their eating of it was symbolic of YHWH Himself accepting the offering. However, after these instructions were specifically given on that day, we read that Moses returned later to find that the offerings had been totally burnt up and none of it had been eaten. Moses was angry with Aaron’s remaining sons, and he certainly had reason to be. After all, their brothers had just been killed for not precisely following the instructions given to them! How could Aaron and his other sons possibly disobey straight after this event? Was rebellion just a deep family trait?

The chapter ends with these words of explanation: “And Aaron said unto Moses, Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before YHWH; and such things have befallen me: and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of YHWH?” And when Moses heard that, he was content.” (Lev 10:19-20). Moses was content with that answer? Really!?! What is going on here?

It appears that the family of priests, in their grief, ended up making all their offerings on that day into fully burnt offerings, known as an “olah offering”. It is an offering where nothing is left for the priests to eat, but is wholly burnt up to YHWH. I think we see in this act just how Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar dealt with their grief and how it may help us to deal with ours too.

The first time we see a burnt (olah) offering in Scripture is when Noah came out of the ark and onto dry land again after the flood, and the second occasion of a burnt offering is seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah. Both of these stories highlight what a burnt offering truly is. Noah had witnessed an incredible event in the history of mankind, and he understood that without YHWH’s intervention he would not be alive himself. He owed YHWH everything, absolutely everything! The burnt offering was a symbol of complete surrender to his God. Abraham shows us the same thing. He was willing to give up his one, chosen son for YHWH. In essence, he was giving up everything he had ever put his life’s hope in to say to YHWH that everything was truly His.

I believe Aaron was doing the same as these forefathers on that fateful day when two of his sons died. Aaron was saying to YHWH that not only did he have the right to take his sons if He chose to do so, but Aaron was willing to give up everything for YHWH. In his grief, he was not angry at God. Rather, it was in his silence that Aaron chose to accept his situation and to trust YHWH to always do what was just and good. Aaron wasn’t ignoring what had happened at all. He was simply offering everything!

When we grieve, I truly believe that we are best to turn to YHWH in the same humble way as these Scriptures teach. Is there anything that is truly mine? My wife, my children, my parents … my brother? No, I give it all to my Father who has given me these amazing gifts! So, when it feels like everything has been taken from us, we need to stand still in awe of our God. Our God is loving and He will comfort us in our times of sorrow – no matter how deep they are!


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