When one surveys the world, the abuse of power seems to take center stage in the struggles of humanity. Political dissention and police brutality have clearly illustrated the danger sin poses on people with power. The willful abuse of such power is prevalent throughout history. The pages of the Bible are replete with instances of corruption and exploitation, along with God’s response. God’s feelings on the matter are made evident in two pairs of Levite sons: Nadab and Abihu, and Hophni and Phinehas.
Nadab & Abihu
Nadab and Abihu were the first sons of Aaron1, and thus, also the nephews of Moses. They were Levitical Priests with a substantial amount of authority and power in their community. They even participated in the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant.2 The most infamous moment in their lives is found in Leviticus Chapter 10. While serving in their priestly duties, horrifically, they died from a “fire that came out from before the LORD.” They were executed by God because they offered “strange fire” before the Lord.3
The exact nature of their sin is a mystery; evidently, they did not do as God commanded. Perhaps they offered their sacrifice at the wrong time or in the wrong way; maybe they used materials that were not sanctified or specified by God. Unlike the exact details of their sin, the result is painfully clear – God consumed them and took their lives. Two words summarize their sin: profanity and presumption. They offered God something profane, something not made holy. They presumed to do something in worship that God had not told them to do.
One might argue that Aaron’s two oldest sons had decided to do things their own way. Many people with authority are inclined to lean on their own understanding, rather than looking for the Lord’s guidance. Such inclinations are illustrative of human nature. Naturally, we wish to mold the world in our image, to have it our way.
When constructing the Transcontinental Railroad, which joined the eastern and western United States, workers had to blast and dig through the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. Man will quite literally move mountains to accomplish whatever he wants. Aaron’s sons were acting on their own, human nature, clearly illustrating man’s desire to have it his way. Is it surprising, then, when those with power abuse it to seek their own desires?
Hophni & Phinehas
Hophni and Phineas were the sons of Eli, High Priest at the time. If their father’s status as a kohen is to be understood, one can ascertain Hophni and Phinehas were also descended from Aaron. Their offenses are more blatant and can be studied in I Samuel Chapter 2. Firstly, Hophni and Phinehas began abusing their position to steal from sacrifices. They used a fork to pull meat from a pot and ate whatever they took out – rather than consuming their prescribed portion. The meat was supposed to be given unto God, and priests were supposed to eat only certain parts.4 In so doing, Eli’s sons abused their power, willfully sinning against God. In fact, the Bible specifically says they were treating the offering with contempt.5
Secondly, Hophni and Phineas were engaging in sexual escapades with the women serving at the tabernacle.6 Whether these encounters were consensual or not, the Bible does not say. Yet, to be sure, I Samuel 2:12 refers to Hophni and Phinehas as “worthless.” In addition to plundering extra food, these brothers were using their power for sexual gratification.
In both cases, God chose to strike these men down. Nadab and Abihu were consumed with heavenly fire. Hophni and Phinehas died in battle. Adding to the deaths of the latter two sons, was the loss of thirty-thousand Israelite soldiers, the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, and the death of Eli.7 The fate of these men perfectly illustrates “the wages of sin is death”.8
Beyond understanding God’s righteous judgement, juxtaposed to mercy, there is a clear picture of how God sees abuses of power. Two broad conclusions can be made, considering these stories and other scriptural passages: (1) Authority is a gift of responsibility from God. (2) To abuse this gift is sinful, and a sure-fire way to arouse God’s anger.
If there is any human being alive with any authority at all, that power was not earned. The authority allocated by a position, a badge, a title, or an address change to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is given by God. In other instances, God may allow a person to come to power, like the totalitarian leaders of the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”9 All human authority is likewise limited, since ultimate authority rests in the hands of God alone. Jesus stated, prefacing the Great Commission, that all authority in heaven and on earth was his.
God’s gift of authority comes with the price of responsibility. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben was correct. Great power does come with great responsibility – for all authority figures. Consider local church leaders. They are to discern and decide how to best fulfill God’s wishes. According to James, those with authority (at least teachers in the church) will be judged with greater strictness.10 In like manner, the Hebrews writer implies that leaders will “give an account” for their actions.11 God’s rationale for higher scrutiny comes from a higher level of responsibility.
As aforementioned, to abuse one’s authority is to surely sin and anger God. Nadab and Abihu did what they thought best, rather than what God commanded. Hophni and Phineas took advantage of their position, and of their Jewish brethren. For an even deeper understanding of God’s “Feelings” about abuse of power, look at the entire Old Testament narrative.
The Exodus from Egypt is a greater example of God removing his people from oppression and destroying those who were oppressive. Later, during the days of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, sinful Israelite kings began abusing their power. God truly is no respecter of persons. He despises oppression both perpetrated against and by his covenant people!12 These two major prophets declared God’s judgment was coming.13 Israel’s and Judah’s exile into captivity was orchestrated by God for many reasons, one being the abuse of power. Truly, when one abuses a position God bequeaths, such action checks every box on the seven abominable things God fervently hates.14
What does this mean for me?
Politicians, and anyone in power, offer a candid reflection of the general population. Simon Sinek once stated that a “narcissistic population gets narcissistic politicians.”15 When one is quick to judge those who have abused their authority, firstly, look inward. Those who fall prey to the tempting trappings of power illustrate human nature and sin. We, too, have been guilty of abusing our own abilities, however limited they may be.
Everyone who is not Jesus has sinned, period. Many Christians tend to blame Adam and Eve for all humanity’s exile from Eden. However, just as they chose to eat of the forbidden fruit, we chose to sin. If we were in Eden, we would each have taken a nice bite as well. If we all had authority, we would also have a proclivity to abuse it.
James Madison once said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power.” All four of these Levite priests abused both liberty and power. Still, I wonder how many of us abuse our liberties enabling others to abuse their powers? Our obligation, as kingdom dwellers, is to see the abuse of power as God does – sinful.16 Though we may wish for retribution, we also recognize God as the supreme authority. As such, we can comfortably rest in God’s timing for all things17, and we pray for those with power not to misuse it! – Jacob Roberts
1 Exodus 6:23
2 Exodus 24:1, 9
3 Leviticus 10:1
4 Leviticus 7:30-34
5 I Samuel 2:17
6 I Samuel 2:22
7 I Sam. 4:17-18
8 Romans 6:23
9 Romans 13:1-3 ESV; see also: I Peter 2:18-20
10 James 3:1ff
11 Hebrews 13:17
12 Acts 10:34
13 Isaiah 3:14-15; 10:1–4; 30:12–14; Jeremiah 6:6-8; 9:6–11; 22:17-19
14 Proverbs 6:16-19; the willful abuse of power can be easily linked to every one of the things the “Lord hates.”
16 Romans 12:9
17 Romans 12:19