05 September 2009

Great, just not THAT Great: Thoughts on the Life of Aaron, Part 2

When I left Aaron two weeks ago, he was in heaven--or at least the closest thing to it. With his brother, Moses, his sons, Nadab and Abihu, and the elders of Israel, he was resting in the presence of God, reclined on ground that looked like a sapphire sea (Exodus 24.9-11).

At the time he was the most famous man in Israel, a man whom most Israelites would have seen as their leader. His staff had created wonders in Egypt. He was the mouthpiece of Moses, his shy, stuttering brother, who was in turn the mouthpiece of God. As I wrote before, Aaron was a man of greatness, but not a man of Destiny.

Why was this? I must admit, I admire Aaron. I enjoy being in front of people; I think I would jump at the chance to lead God's people and perform great wonders. Yet time and again in my life, often at the very point where I felt that God was ready for me to take that next step in His service, I have instead been held back. The skills and talents seem to be there, but Destiny isn't. Studying the life of Aaron helps to uncover the wrinkles in God's plan, and it helps me to understand a little more of my place there.

When Moses leaves his brother--for probably the first time since their reunion at the base of Sinai a year earlier--it is to climb to the mountain's summit in the company of Joshua, his aide. Aaron returns with Hur to look over the camp (24.12-14).

The Priesthood
The next seven chapters of Exodus are all about Aaron, even if they might be the words given to Moses on Sinai. Perhaps this might be seen as the coronation of Aaron. God spends this time telling Moses about Aaron--his role as high priest of the Tabernacle to be built at the base of the mountain.

I imagine shy Moses glowing with pride at these instructions for his brother, whom God mentions 37 times by name in chapters 28-31. God also names the son of Aaron's co-regent, Hur, as the one who will craft the sacred furniture for the Tabernacle.

But a strange thing happens at the very time that God says, "Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites...so [he] may serve me as priest" (28.1). A religious festival has begun, and the faint sound of dancing echoes to the top of the mountain. How could this happen--and under Aaron's watch no less?

Aaron invites the people to the calf where he, uh, plans to sacrifice to the Lord. Everyone is too busy partying to notice a Higher Power.
The Golden Calf
The situation at the base of the mountain demonstrates a gross lack of leadership on Aaron's part.

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Go down, because yor people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves and idol cast in the shape of a calf" (Exodus 32.7-8)

A close look at the text reveals some interesting weaknesses on Aaron's part--and affirms one of the theses I have made to this point. Aaron, the man who had stood up to Pharaoh, whose staff had consumed those of the best magicians, is apparently unable to say "No" to the people, his people.They ask, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." (verse 1, italics added). Can it be any clearer who the leader of Israel is--at least in the minds of the people? "This fellow Moses"--few have seen him, far fewer have heard him deliver an order. It has all been Aaron's leading in their eyes.

Of course this would be a good opportunity for Aaron to unveil the brains behind this operation--or at least look to God for leading. Instead he compromises--seeking a middle way between outright idolatry and public approval. He gathers gold from the people and builds the calf they wanted (some form of the Apis bulls who were mummified by Egyptians at their deaths). He also orders an altar to be built (he has been serving as a quasi-priest for Israel since long before his brother returned). "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord," he insists (v 5). Is he clueless? I'll try to be kind and just insist that he is woefully incompetent for this interim job.

Aaron spins a 2nd story when Moses returns. "You know how prone these people are to evil," he explains. "They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (verses 22 & 24). Did he wave a wand or something? The process of building any given idol could be described as "deliberate." Either a huge cast was made for the liquefied metal, or the metal had to be layered over a wooden or stone base. To a modern person, this would be like saying, "They gave me metal, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this dishwasher!"

A few hours later, Aaron begins to atone...and it involves a lot of blood--human blood. The party hasn't let up with Moses' return--few people noticed the tablets smashed or the small, angry man who stuttered with fury when he looked upon them. God knows how to end it. With the other Levites, Aaron meets Moses at one end of the camp with his sword drawn. Following God's orders they break into houses of feasting, dancing and lovemaking. They "kill...brother[s] and friend[s] and neighbor[s]," over 3,000 before the noise dies down (28). God follows this with a plague that will punish them "because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made" (35).

I may be projecting too much, but this episode demonstrates to me a fundamental weakness of Aaron--and of myself at times. He doesn't see himself as a partner. Deep down inside, he's the leader. The Israelites are perfectly willing to accommodate his vanity. Moses would have stopped this; God would have, too; maybe even young Joshua would have stood up to the people, but Aaron casts their offerings into the fire and out jumps a calf.

Of course this only widens the gulf of the people's perception of the two brothers. Moses is the one always saying, "No--says the Lord." Aaron is accommodating and friendly. Moses orders; Aaron listens. It won't be the last test of leadership for Aaron, that is certain.

The Siblings' Coup
Aaron's 2nd chance to lead begins with his sister, Miriam. A popular singer of the time and a cultural leader, she takes exception to Moses' leadership and to his dark-skinned wife. "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" she asks. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" (Numbers 12.2).

The writer of Numbers puts the blame on both Aaron and Miriam, but later events bear out Miriam's leadership in this coup. It was a case of greatness again. Aaron appeared to be the leader--and Miriam had had her moment--one of the all-time great moments in songwriting--with her inspired singing outside the Red Sea. Why couldn't they lead? Surely the Lord had used them, too.

That leads to this revealing note in Numbers 12.3: "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." This small, shy man suddenly has no one to speak for him--or to sing for him--his speaker and his singer are in open revolt.

That's why God steps in, summoning Aaron and Miriam to the front of the Tabernacle, surrounding them with cloud, and speaking directly to them. "With [Moses] I speak face to face.... He sees the form of the Lord" (verse 8).

This is the dichotomy, then. Aaron the High Priest channels the Hidden Lord, dressed in priestly robes, cleansing the Most Holy Place every year on the Day of Atonement. Moses sees God face to face. God speaks through all whom He has chosen. Yet Moses, and his unique, hidden, behind-the-scenes role, was specially chosen. Aaron was High Priest. He had the most visible leadership role in the camp. Why did he feel compelled to covet Moses' insider role, too?

When the cloud lifts, Miriam is leprous. Aaron describes it vividly, "like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away" (v 12). Again Aaron is the peacemaker. He is in his role of "not too evil, not too good." He intercedes for his sister with Moses (he himself has not been stricken, implying that his role in the plot was not as great as Miriam's). Moses intercedes with God. The brothers' roles are clear now: Aaron is minister to the people; Moses listens to God.

One Final Miracle with the Staff
Korah's rebellion, found in Numbers 16-17, mirrors the plot of Miriam and Aaron. "The whole community is holy every one of them, and the Lord is with them," Korah tells Aaron and Moses, "Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord's assembly?" (16.3).

Just as Miriam had complained, "Does not God speak through us, too?" Korah believes in the "priesthood of all believers." A Christian might consider him ahead of his time, but Moses sees another challenge to his leadership. He dares the rebels to test the Lord by burning incense before him. Then he steps back as the earth swallows up Korah and the plot leaders and fire comes from heaven to burn up the other illicit, incense-wielding priests.

The next day God summons Aaron to wield incense throughout the camp, making atonement for the sins of the self-ordained priests. This really is a walk back through Aaron's own errors. The memory of his own rebellion must be very fresh as he thinks of those consumed by earth and fire. As he walks between the tents of the suffering, he must remember the 3,000 "brothers, friends and neighbors" he and his fellow Levites had massacred as they quelled the riot around the Golden Calf.

At one time he might have led such a rebellion. Now Aaron knows his place. Moses knows it, too. Aaron is the Leader of Israel. The miracle of the twelve staffs emphasizes two points about Israel's leadership: first, Aaron is indeed chosen by God for his role as High Priest; second, Moses apparently doesn't factor into the chain of command at all. He isn't the leader of the Levites or of Israel--Aaron is. He is merely the mouthpiece of God.

Aaron's rod--the same rod that consumed the magicians' staffs, that had turned the Nile to blood and had summoned frogs from its rust-colored waters--it blooms. God has spoken--beautifully. Moses places it in the sacred box in the Most Holy Place--the sacred room entered only once a year, by Aaron alone, where a big smile must break across his face as he cleans and performs his sacred duties. More than anything Aaron had said or done, this flowering staff conveyed God's call, the sole source of Aaron's authority.

This shows me that I need to be aware of the true signs of Destiny that God provides. It may not show up in my role in the organizational chart or in awards or public accolades. It may be found in some everyday thing--my child, my talent, my smallest gift--that blooms in the light of God's approval.

Aaron and Me
Tonight Jenny and I were practicing some songs to sing at church on Wednesday night. Jenny has picked up her guitar again, and I'm always looking for an excuse to play mandolin. As we practiced the songs, Jenny said, "It always sounds better when I sing lead, and you sing harmony. It's really magical."

She's right. I love to sing high harmony. But sometimes it's a little frustrating. I want to lead. Sure, Jenny can sing alto quite well, but it doesn't sound the same. Only when I back off and sing high can we work together as a duo.

That's not the only place where I have been called to be "great, just not THAT great." There have been a number of times where I have tried to lead our family down my career course. All have ended in disaster. At best, I have found myself at career dead ends. At worst, I've lost my job.

Yet God has blessed us richly when we followed Jenny's call, first to Superior, Arizona, then to Westmoreland, TN. More importantly, I have been able to strengthen her work when we have followed her lead. It's a natural, God-led thing--yet it is one that I have resisted on occasion, just as Aaron battled with his leadership role.

I can't say that I'm particularly emboldened by my destiny, and I don't go around bragging about my meager career accomplishments. I can say, though, that I'm glad to be a part of a God-ordained team. He led me to Jenny, and our partnership has created three excellent Dittes kids, and touched the lives of literally thousands of other people.

Mount Hor
Aaron's life ends soon after the climactic moment that his brother strikes a rock and brings down God's wrath. The Israelites are ready to skirt up the eastern edge of the Dead Sea, but God summons Aaron to the summit of Mount Hor. He removes his priestly garments and gives them to his son, Eleazar.

The non-canonical Jewish work, the Haggadah contains a beautiful description of Aaron's death:

Accompanied by Moses, his brother, and by Eleazar, his son, Aaron went to the summit of Mount Hor, where the rock suddenly opened before him and a beautiful cave lit by a lamp presented itself to his view.

"Take off thy priestly raiment and place it upon thy son Eleazar!" said Moses; "and then follow me." Aaron did as commanded; and they entered the cave, where was prepared a bed around which angels stood.

"Go lie down upon thy bed, my brother," Moses continued; and Aaron obeyed without a murmur. Then his soul departed as if by a kiss from God.
Source: the Jewish Encyclopedia

Eleazar and Moses returned without the High Priest, and the entire nation of Israel burst into mourning. "The entire house of Israel mourned for [Aaron] thirty days" (Numbers 20.29). He died the most famous man among his people. Many commentators feel that the Israelites' mourning for Aaron went beyond the mourning for Moses that would take place when he died a few years later (They use a translation that I can't find in my NIV, but apparently older documents show that men AND women mourned for Aaron, while it was only the leaders and men who observed the mourning period for Moses.)

Aaron was called to a specific role in Israel's Exodus: it was a role of greatness, but not of destiny. He struggled with this role at times, he even rebelled, but in the end he was at peace with his place in God's presence and at his brother's side.

There just isn't enough space here to do Aaron justice. I want to focus on him as a father and a High Priest, but that will need to wait for another Sabbath day's meditation. It gives me something to look forward to this week.

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