Numbers 20:22-29

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Wherever precisely in the text of Numbers we moved from the early days of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness to the latter days, we are now, in chapter 20, near the end of the forty years. Miriam’s death was noted in 20:1. Now we have the more elaborate notice of the death of Aaron.

Text Comment

No one is sure of the location of this Mount Hor.

The phrase “gathered to his people” is the usual way of describing the death of a righteous man at a ripe old age. It is used to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. In contrast to this way of speaking, it is a sign of God’s curse not “to be gathered” (Jeremiah 8:2; 25:33). [Wenham] The phrase certainly suggests that the person thus described will be reunited with others of his family, viz. that real human life will continue beyond the grave. Remember David’s famous statement after the death of the baby that was the fruit of his adultery with Bathsheba: “I shall go to him…” [2 Sam. 12:23] In ordinary usage, being gathered to one’s people takes place between death and burial and that fact also indicates that it refers to entrance into the afterlife.

It used to be claimed that there was no doctrine of an afterlife in the Old Testament. Now that claim is much more rarely made as advances both in the understanding of ANE religions and of the vocabulary of OT have made it impossible to believe that the Hebrews were the only people in the ancient world who did not have such an expectation. I admit that the doctrine of the afterlife is not described in the OT in the same detail as we find in the NT, but the difference isn’t as great as some have thought. We know that we can find in the Old Testament the expectation of glorious life after death for the believer but not for the unbeliever, that God’s people will be vindicated after death, and that the Hebrews understood as well as anyone else that any serious concept of justice requires the hereafter in which can take place the balancing of the scales. [Cf. Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 228-230]

In any case, in this case, the phrase “gathered to his people” assures us that while Aaron (and Moses) died in the wilderness on account of a moral failure, they were not excluded from the true and eternal Promised Land. The fact that Aaron was also complicit in the sin at Meribah, when Moses struck the rock, raises interesting questions about what happened there. Did the two brothers confer before taking action? Or is Aaron guilty in some other way?

In Aaron’s case, there was an office to be filled and one that could be filled only by his son. The exchange of high-priestly uniform indicates the transfer of authority from the dying high priest to the one who would now assume the office. Israel’s life and the blessing of God upon her depended upon the ministrations of this office and the faithfulness of the man who occupied it to his calling. So the transition from one high priest to another was a very significant moment in the life of the nation. Only the office of the priesthood was inherited; the office of prophet, for example, was not handed down from father to son.

In Numbers 35:25, 28, 32 we read that the death of a high priest in Israel marked an epoch in the life of the people, some sort of generational change. Someone who had fled to a city of refuge because he had accidentally killed someone was required to remain there until the death of the high priest. Only then could he return to his property.

Eleazar was already a substantial figure in the Israelite priesthood as high-priest-to-be. We read of his oversight of the work of the Levites in Num. 3:32; of his responsibility for the entire sanctuary in 4:16; and of his role in preparing the cleansing waters from the sacrifice of the red heifer in 19:3. In other words, he was already second-in-command in the Israelite priesthood and was well known to the people as Aaron’s designated successor.

As Aaron had climbed the mountain with the other two men, we are left wondering precisely how the death came about. It does not seem to be the case that Aaron was so frail that death was obviously immanent. Rather, the impression seems to be that it was the appointed time and the Lord took him, standing right there as he was between Moses and Eleazar. Or did the men, the two brothers and the son, sit down and have a short conversation, say their farewells, and a last prayer before Aaron suddenly died?

According to Numbers 33:38-39 Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after Israel left Egypt and at the age of 123. That number fits with the note in Exodus 7:7 that Aaron was 83 years of age at the time of the exodus. 123 doesn’t sound so unlikely after the death of that 120 year old life-long smoker in France a few years ago! Aaron, of course, had spent most of his life eating leeks and garlic in Egypt. If that is the price one must pay to live to 123, it may make more appealing being gathered to one’s people at an earlier age, say three score years and ten!

All Israel would have observed Moses, Aaron, and Eleazar ascend Mt. Hor and would then have observed Moses and Eleazar descend, with Eleazar now wearing Aaron’s robes. The mystery and grandeur of Aaron’s death, which anticipates the death of Moses and his burial by the Lord, befits the death of Israel’s first high priest and the founder of Israel’s priesthood. [Milgrom, 169]

Ordinarily the dead were mourned for seven days, so the thirty days was a sign of Aaron’s importance and the dignity of his office.

What a long and consequential life this man had lived, though the last forty cast the first eighty into the shade! Aaron was the eldest son of Amram and Jochebed, three years older than his brother Moses, and both boys younger than their sister Miriam who, remember, was old enough to care for the infant Moses. They grew up in Egypt. Aaron and Miriam, of course, grew up in their parents’ home knowing, but presumably telling very few that their younger brother was growing up at court. What was it like for Aaron as a Hebrew in Egypt? Presumably he lived his adult life as a slave of some sort, working for a master, his life not his own; unless Moses had been able to exert some influence on behalf of his family. But if he had, what became of Aaron when Moses fled to Midian? And then, suddenly, forty years after his brother had left Egypt in a rush, Aaron was summoned by the Lord to meet Moses in the desert and without hesitation he obeyed.

He was a man of parts, as they used to say. He had gifts. When Moses complained that he was not an eloquent speaker, the Lord appointed Aaron as his second. He is even described as Moses’ “prophet” (Ex. 7:1). It seems that Aaron must have done much of the speaking to Pharaoh that is credited to Moses in the biblical narrative. When it says that “Moses said to Pharaoh,” in at least some, if not most cases, it was actually Aaron that did the speaking: a confident and able user of language. Undoubtedly he spoke at least two languages fluently: Egyptian and Hebrew, in whatever form Hebrew had developed as a distinct Semitic tongue at that time. Aaron also worked miracles in service of the Lord. He threw his staff down before Pharaoh and it became a snake. And it was Aaron who stretched his staff over the waters of Egypt and turned them into blood and who did the same again to make the frogs appear, and again the gnats. Before Pharaoh and throughout the period of the plagues Moses and Aaron were a team. Pharaoh would summon the two of them together. Who would not wish to have been able to overhear the conversations between those two brothers!

We next hear of Aaron when the Amalekites attacked Israel in the desert and Aaron, together with Hur, held up Moses’ hands in prayer so that Israel might prevail in battle. The narrative makes clear that the younger brother was the principal leader of Israel. At least once, later on, that fact rankled Aaron. But in most cases the narrative presents them as working in harmony and with a shared conviction.

So much was Aaron Israel’s second in command, when Moses was atop Mt. Sinai for the forty days his older brother was interim leader of the people. Aaron, along with his sons, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel was given to see the glory of the Lord. Moses was alone permitted to draw near; the others had to worship from afar. Still, it was a signal privilege. [Exodus 24] But Aaron did not have the spiritual strength that Moses had; he hadn’t the strength of will and so yielded, probably reluctantly but still he yielded, when the people proposed constructing an idol, a gold calf to worship. And this only forty days after his beholding the glory of God! It seems clear that Aaron, at least, supposed he was worshipping Yahweh by means of the idol, but it was idolatry nevertheless and he certainly should have known better. The entire episode reveals Aaron as less a leader than Moses, more easily influenced, and with less courage of his convictions. Nevertheless, it was Aaron whom God chose to be the first high priest of the people of Israel, a wonderful reminder that God is perfectly willing to use very imperfect instruments in accomplishing his will in the church and in the world. What Paul said of himself, Aaron could also have said, “We hold this treasure in jars of clay.” In that office, Aaron was the principal pastor or spiritual leader of the people and the only officer who could enter the Most Holy Place.

His great position makes it the more disappointing that on one occasion he and Miriam complained about Moses’ still greater authority, a gaff that ended with Miriam a leper having to be prayed for by her brother Moses. Later the shoe was on the other foot as some elements among the people rebelled against both Moses and Aaron. There it was Aaron who made atonement for the people to deliver them from a plague the Lord had sent as punishment for their rebellion. To make Aaron’s position as spiritual leader unmistakably clear to the people, his staff was placed among others, each representing an Israelite tribe, and only his budded, blossomed, and bore almonds. The priesthood he founded would last until A.D. 70, almost a millennium and a half. Do you know how few institutions in this history of this world last for 1,500 years?

In all of this material Aaron appears as living in the shadow of his younger brother Moses. Important as his role was, he was always secondary to Moses and episodes in his life seem to demonstrate why. Even at the end, when he transgressed with Moses at the second Meribah, it appears that he simply went along with Moses’ plan to strike the rock. He was too easily persuaded to do what was wrong. He was not the intrepid believer that Moses was. That may account for the fact that of the four sons born to him and his wife Elisheba two of them, Nadab and Abihu grew up to be, at least so it appears, young men with a rebellious streak. In their work as priests they violated the regulations that had been so clearly laid down and were executed by the Lord for their violations.

Still, all in all, Aaron was a faithful man. In some ways his was the typical life of a believing man: some splendid moments and some dismal ones, and that from the beginning to the end. We wonder what sort of husband he was; what sort of father, what sort of brother to Moses and Miriam, what sort of pastor. The midrash, the Jewish commentaries on the OT that come from the time before and after Jesus, contain traditions about Aaron.

“…the people loved Aaron because he strove to establish peace between the learned and the ignorant, among the learned and among the ignorant, and between man and wife. If he discovered that two men had fallen out, he hastened to first one, then to the other, saying to each: ‘My son, do you not know what the one you quarreled with is doing? He beats his heart, rends his garments and says, “Woe is me. How can I ever again face my friend against whom I have acted so?”’ Aaron would then speak to each separately until the former enemies mutually forgave each other and, as soon as they were again face to face, greeted each other as friends.” [Milgrom, 171]

In the tradition it was also asserted that Aaron saved many marriages from rupture by his efforts, his personal dealing with husbands about their treatment of their wives, and that this is why so many Israelite parents named their sons after him! [Milgrom, 171] Now I don’t know if any of that is true, but there is enough in the narrative to make it seem plausible that Aaron should have been a wise and discerning shepherd of souls. He is held up to us as an example of that in Hebrews 5. Certainly if he took seriously his work as one who represented the people in their sins to God he should have had a gospel heart!

The Bible is full of real people whose lives we know at least something about. The genealogies that we find so boring to read remind us that all of the history of redemption recorded in Holy Scripture took place amid the history of ordinary human beings. They were born, the delight of their parents, they grew up, they lived and worked, married and bore children, they grew old and then they died. And so it has continued from that time until this: the generations passing away one after another.

For all of those 123 years, no doubt Aaron felt as all have felt after him, that looking back upon it, his long life seemed but a day. He could still see his mother’s face when he was a child, still remember joys and sorrows felt as a young man, still feel the flush of young love, still remember what the world looked like long ago as if it were yesterday. This is the fact of human experience. It all passes so quickly, it is all done so soon. So it was for Aaron; so it will be for every one of us.

“So mused I silently, as o’er and o’er
I turned the wrinkled pages lying round,
The well-worn relics of long-buried years,
Which rise to life again in every page;
Brief memories of love, and grief, and peace,
With glimpses of still unforgotten scenes; –
Faces and names of former days are here.” [H. Bonar]

I look out over this congregation and think I can still see the faces of some who were here when I arrived, or who came during my years here, but who are with us no longer. Their lives were like Aaron’s in this: they had a beginning and an end, they had their ups and their downs, they had their successes and failures, but all along the way they trusted in the Lord and sought to serve him, and, so we know from Holy Scripture, when they died they were gathered to their people.

I can see Elizabeth Love, the Tacoma businesswoman, unmarried all her life, daughter of a man who was first a First Presbyterian Church elder and then a founding elder of Faith Presbyterian Church. She was what is called a pillar of the church. She was an older woman when I met her and became older and more frail as the years passed. A woman of intrepid faith, she had her ups and downs, her triumphs and tragedies, and, like Aaron, when her years were finished, she was gathered to her people. I sat many times in her living room at the house on North Cushman St. listening to her tell the story of the exodus from First Presbyterian in 1935, or of the founding of our church in 1953. Or think of Ken Anderson our beloved elder or Froujke Boyle, known to this congregation only in the latter years of her life. I talked with both Ken and Froukje at length about their lives, their experience, their trials and their joys. All of them would have said, as Aaron would have said of his 123 years, that it seemed as if it were yesterday: yesterday when he was a boy in Egypt, or a slave in Egypt, or with his brother Moses staring down Pharaoh those forty years ago. Did the three men reminisce on their way up the mountain or at the top of the mountain: tell some of their stories over again to Eleazar?

I have no recollection of my grandfather who died when I was two. His was an interesting and important life, a Presbyterian evangelist in the first half of the 20th century. My father had a life full of interest and excitement, ups and downs, but, of course, I only saw myself some of that. My own memories of his life are from the middle to the end. I have a more complete memory of my late sister’s life. I can remember vividly memories of us together in our childhood, in our teens, in college, and in adulthood. I can remember very clearly the days of her death and where and when I received the news that she had died in St. Louis that September night in 1996. What is a life: here today, gone tomorrow. And yet, a world of experiences, good and bad, a set of choices that matter not only for time but for eternity.

For at the last, aware as we are of Aaron’s faults, reminded even as we are here at this death, that he died when he did and where he did because of an inexcusable lapse in moral judgment, he was a believer in God. For all his faults he was a faithful servant of the Lord, and a man whose death was a translation to higher, more wonderful things: from an earthly sanctuary to the heavenly one. At the last here is the difference and the only difference: Israel died in the wilderness for her unbelief and was never gathered to her people. Aaron died in the wilderness but went from Mt. Hor to Mt. Zion. That is finally the story of his life: the story of the pilgrimage of faith leading to eternal life. Compared to that, nothing else really matters except the role he played in assisting others to live before the Lord so that at their death – which must come sooner or later – he or she would also be gathered to the people of God.

What will it be like to die? And what will others, especially other Christians, and serious Christians, what will others be able to say about our lives when we do? These are the great questions to put to anyone’s life.

I am reminded of the death of C.S. Lewis, like Aaron an eloquent, consequential man who lived an important life and who died peacefully, looking forward to seeing his Savior and the heavenly country of which he had written so brilliantly in his Narnia stories. For Lewis, aware that he was terminally ill, his last days were also days of climbing Mt. Hor with his closest companions: days of reading the books he most loved, spending time with his closest friends, getting ready. No doubt he traversed his past life in memory many times: from his boyhood in Belfast, his dear mother who died when he was a boy, his difficult but life-forming experiences in British private schools, the long march to faith in Jesus Christ, the books he wrote, his meeting Joy Gresham, their eventual love and marriage, and then her death. Several months before his death – you remember he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 – he had a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. As it happened he came out of the coma and lived for a few months more, quietly and happily by everyone’s account. He wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity that I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone through again…Poor Lazarus!” To another friend he wrote, “I was unexpectedly revived from a long coma, and perhaps the almost continuous prayers of my friends did it – but it wd. have been a luxuriously easy passage, and one almost regrets having the door shut in one’s face…When you die…look me up…It is all rather fun – solemn fun – isn’t it?” [A.M. Nicholi, The Question of God, 236-237]

Is that not what we have here in the death of a believing man? The key to all of life. If death is a gathering to one’s people, if it is the entrance to the Promised Land one’s life is one thing; if it is not it is something else altogether. The ups and downs, the failures and successes, the joys and the sorrows, the short years or the long, all of it is compressed into this single question: where does death lead? Where will I go when I die?

It is this “gathering to one’s people” that so beautifully encapsulates the point. The real burden of death is separation, is it not? True; it can be fear of what lies beyond, but for most people, that fear itself is heavily laden with the agony of separation from those we love. Our lives have been so inextricably intertwined with certain people; we cannot bear the thought that we must say “goodbye.” Lewis, again, gives voice to this. In a letter written near the end of his life he tells Arthur Greeves that he is comfortable and cheerful. The only “real snag” he says is that “it looks as if you and I shall never meet again in this life. This often saddens me very much.” [237]

Can you see the tears on Moses’ face and Eleazar’s as they descended the mountain after watching their brother and father die and after performing the sacred rite of burial for him there? But it is a sadness born of love and to be overcome soon enough as first Moses and then Eleazar were themselves gathered to their people, which is to say reunited with Aaron himself, now in the Promised Land and now unencumbered by the timidity and spiritual weakness that had undone him far too many times during the years of his pilgrimage. All that might be said of Aaron, to his credit and to his blame, is all of little account if only it can be said that he was gathered to his people!

I may have told some of you before that not long ago I read a fine book by a Presbyterian Church in America minister by the name of Ed Hartman. The book is entitled Homeward Bound. It is a book about death and about preparing for death. It includes a great deal of practical wisdom on the subject of death and dying from the Puritans. Ed Hartman was studying the Puritan doctrine of family and home at Westminster Seminary in California when he learned that his wife had been hospitalized, back home in Mississippi, with headaches that were causing her unbearable pain. It turned out to be a brain tumor and she died shortly thereafter, a young wife and mother, leaving her husband with four children, aged 8, 6, 4, and 2.

Ed Hartman tells us that in the last lucid conversation he had with his wife, Amy, three weeks before she died, he asked her, “Sweetheart, do you know what is happening to you?” She nodded her head slowly and replied, “I’m going home.” He asked her how she felt about that. With quiet calm she replied simply, “I’m okay, I know whom I’m going to see,” and then she drifted off to sleep. Several months before she died, Amy had stopped by the local florist’s shop on her way to visit a friend. She knew she was going to die but was not yet bed-ridden. While she was in the shop she noticed several large floral arrangements that had been prepared for a funeral scheduled later that day. Though the flowers were beautiful she did not like the pre-printed cards attached to the flower arrangements: “With Deepest Sympathy” or “With our Condolences.” She said to the florist, “Those cards are too depressing and I don’t want any of those on the flowers you prepare for my funeral. Let me see what you’ve got.” So she thumbed through all the florist’s pre-printed cards and found one she liked and told the florist to put it on all the cards sent with flowers to her funeral. Three months later, at her service, all the flowers at the church and the grave included the card she had selected: “Welcome to your new home.” [10-11]

Aaron died in the wilderness, as we must; he was buried there, as we must be. But after he died and before he was buried he was gathered to his people. So will be all those who have Aaron’s faith. And his life went on in his new home, wonderfully better, happier than ever it had been before. It was not so of most of the Israelites who died in the wilderness, but it was of Aaron. Two futures; two destinies: to be gathered to one’s people, or to enter the afterlife utterly alone.

You remember C.S. Lewis’ famous words:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – they are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals that we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” [The Weight of Glory]

Consider the whole course of Aaron’s life and then the whole course of yours. All the experiences, the ups the downs, the failures the triumphs, but then set beside all that this single fact: you will exist forever in glory or in shame. Take that to heart and then so live with the Promised Land in view that when you take off your robes to place them on your son it will be clear to him that you are going to the Promised Land and clear to you that he is following after.