24 August 2009

The Other Exodus Story: Thoughts on Aaron, Part 1

This weekend was something of a letdown for me. I was coming off a very busy week--Jonah's birthday party, a Shakespeare play with students, the first German club meeting of the year, plenty of stuff.

But I was disappointed by one thing that DIDN'T go down: I had planned to speak at Highland Academy for Week of Prayer Wednesday night. Instead, I was called Tuesday night and told not to come. Apparently my alma mater had blacklisted me thanks to some "concerned" members of the Highland church. It's the kind of backstabbing that got me out of that church four years ago, so I can't say I was surprised...just disappointed and a little insulted.

I sat at Oasis Cafe on Friday night really trying to rejuvenate my faith. They're moving into a new church building soon, and I was doodling some possible logos. Suddenly I wrote: "study the story of Aaron," the Biblical leader whose opportunities were swiped away, too. I spent Sabbath in study and prayer, and this is what I learned.

One recurring theme of the Bible is the tale of two brothers--in many ways it's the only theme of the Bible. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, time and again the younger brother supplants the elder brother. The Father's love for the younger creates bitterness in the elder. The most significant--yet least analyzed--of these brother relationships is Moses and Aaron.

Moses and Aaron...Moses and Aaron...the two brothers are joined so tightly, they are practically Siamese. I searched for the three-word phrase, "Moses and Aaron," in an online concordance, and I found that it occurred 92 times in Scripture. Ninety-two times! There is something to this brotherhood. In fact, there is certainly something more to this brotherhood than most readings of the Bible might reveal.

When it comes down to it, the Exodus passed down to us from the Biblical writer looks quite different to us than the one the Israelites would have themselves witnessed. The difference is stark--we learn more of the words of God, the Israelites knew more about the words of Aaron,whom many would have considered the leader of their wandering tribes. Not Moses, but Aaron.

Aaron's is a story hidden in the scripture. Aaron is a leader chosen by God, ignored by the Bible. In the eyes of the people, he was the true leader: he was the only one of the brothers with title, his sons would dominate the priesthood for centuries, to the end of his life he wasmore famous than his brother, Moses, and his miraculous feats were nearly equal.

Yet Aaron was also a leader whose weaknesses were painfully obvious, a man who failed God repeatedly as a leader and as a support to his prophet/brother. He was a terrible father--if his sons, Nadab and Abihu, are any indication. Perhaps it is best to step outside of Christianity a little to explain: Aaron was a man of greatness, but not a man of Destiny.

The Elder Brother
Exodus 6:20 lists Aaron as the elder brother of Moses--both were sons, or possible ancestors of Amram and Levi (the genealogy uses four generations to span 430 years, so it's likely that there were gaps).

Much is made of Moses's growth away from Goshen, first in Pharaoh's palace and later in Midian, but it isn't difficult to trace the arc of Aaron and Miriam. By the time God calls Moses, Aaron is already a local leader. As later events would confirm, Miriam was a singer--likely one in great demand at parties and religious festivals.

Aaron called by God
The episode of the Burning Bush in Exodus 4 reveals a few clues about Aaron's status, too. Moses initially rejects God's call, saying, "O Lord, please send someone else to do it" (verse 13).

Then the Lord's anger burned against Moses and he said, "What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you." (verse 14)

This text is fascinating on a number of levels. First is the title. Why does God add "the Levite" to Aaron's name? Moses remembers his brother. That's like someone saying to me, "What about your sister, Julie Dittes?" As if I needed to know. I think that's because this is how Aaron is known throughout Israel. He can speak well. Perhaps he is already a religious leader in Goshen, the very role into which he will be officially ordained as High Priest. He is already well placed to carry Moses's message to the leaders of the twelve tribes.

Next, study the line, "He is already on his way to meet you." The Burning Bush tells this to Moses. Now, think about that word, already. Doesn't that mean that God spoke to Aaron too? Does that also mean that God called Aaron first? Moses was dithering in the desert; Aaron was on his way to Sinai. Moses has "never been eloquent;" Aaron "can speak well."

Aaron's Role.
Lest anyone doubt, God describes their responsibilities this way: "You [Moses] shall speak to him and put words in his mouth. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him" (verses 15-16). Aaron is to be the face of God to the people; Moses is to be the mouth. As God would say later, "See, I have made [Moses] like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet" (7.1)

The plan works. The Bible's single-most successful team is selected. First, the brothers meet in Sinai--at the base of the Mountain of God (verse 27), no less. They return to the Israelites. Aaron speaks, and he performs signs with his staff. It works: "And when [the Israelites] heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped" (verse 31).

Which brother is in the front, addressing the Pharaoh? If you guessed Moses, you're wrong. It's Aaron, the forgotten "star" of the Exodus.
Consider the following list of miracles and Aaron's part in them:
1. Aaron's rod consumes those of the sorcerers (7.12)
2. Aaron's rod turns the Nile to blood (7.19)
3. Aaron's rod brings frogs (8.6)
4. Aaron's rod brings gnats (8.17)

During the same time Moses (1) summons darkness (10.21); (2) summons locusts (10.13) [he uses his hand for these plagues, not his staff]; and (3) parts the Red Sea with his staff (15.21).

Even at the Red Sea, Moses gets little recognition from the people. Exodus 15 contains a psalm that Moses composed. This psalm is 17 verses long. Yet when Miriam enters to sing her famous verse, she is identified as "Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister" (15.20)! What?

To me, this would seem like someone at a Jackson Family reunion concert announcing, "Our next singer is LaToya, Randy's sister." You know, ignoring the most famous member of the family.

There are several versions of the Ten Commandments story--yet I'd never realized until today that Exodus 19.24 reads, "The Lord replied, 'Go down and bring Aaron up with you..." Two verses later, God utters the Decalogue.

In Chapter 24, Aaron climbs Mount Sinai where he communes with God: "Under [God's] feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank" (24.9-11).

It's a beautiful picture, and it's one that I want to end this part with. The next episode, Exodus 32, is the Golden Calf, where Aaron's weakness is all too evident. I'll write about that this weekend. But I want to pause with this heroic man of God, resting in the presence of God, leaning back on a sapphire sea, eating and drinking as if it were Heaven--the true Promised Land.

Think about Aaron. Think about how the Israelites would have seen this. From the Israelite perspective, the Exodus would have gone something like this:

"Aaron the Levite said one day, 'God has told me to go into the desert to find my brother. I'm going right away.' Three or four weeks later, Aaron returned. Next to him was a shorter, quieter man. This man was shy. He stuttered. When he spoke, he spoke only to Aaron. Aaron would speak to us.

"Aaron went into the palace of Pharaoh. He laid his staff on the ground before the king. It turned into a serpent. The pagan priests turned their staffs into serpents, too. But Aaron's snake ate theirs. When he picked it up, it turned back into a wooden staff.

"Aaron confronted Pharaoh on the Nile. He said, 'Let my people go!' Then he pointed his staff across the waters, and they turned to blood. Later he summoned other plagues with his staff: frogs and gnats came at his direction...."

It seems like such a different story, doesn't it? Yet it is the very one found in scripture, overshadowed by the story of Moses.

Aaron was a man of greatness--perfect for the part that God chose for him to play, the perfect speaker for his brother's words. Yet he was also a man of great imperfections, no friend of Destiny; for every time he spoke for himself, his own words betrayed him.

But that is a subject for another Note.