01 October 2009

High Priest, Father—Same Thing: Thoughts on the Life of Aaron, Part 3

For the past month I have been immersed in the life of Aaron, dynamic leader of Israel, forgotten brother of Moses, the first ordained High Priest. What a wonderful experience this has been, and I have especially enjoyed finding connections between his life—his strengths, his flaws—and my own.

I have looked at God's call to him—which probably preceded his brother's more famous Burning Bush experience—and the central role that he played in the events of Exodus. I have shown him welcomed into the presence of God Almighty, and I have shown the grievous mistakes he made before the Golden Calf and with his sister Miriam's coup against Moses.

At every step of this study I have been blessed by Aaron's example. I have seen in him many of the same frustrations I experience with my Destiny—when my view of myself begins to overshadow God's plans for me as a partner in His greater plan.

This last commentary is most difficult for me to write, then, because it touches on issues most important to me: fatherhood and priesthood. I just can't describe how important each of these roles is to me—and they meet in Aaron; they shine in his greatness and writhe in his weakness. I feel greatly the responsibility I have for raising and educating my kids. I feel deeply the desire to raise them as committed Christians—to consecrate them to God for lives of worship.

When I join Aaron, it is 2nd-greatest moment of his life, the dedication of the Tabernacle—an event that mirrors the dedication of Solomon's Temple 400 years later. As he has been for the past year, Moses is with Aaron, dressing him, giving him words to go out and speak to the people, reviewing the carefully given directions that dictate nearly every move he makes within this holy place.

Moses drapes straps over Aaron's shoulders called ephods. He connects to them a breastplate with twelve stones. On the stones and on the ephods are written twelve names—the names of all God's children. The stones seem to glow—and it's not just the Urim and Thummim, the oracles of God's will—all the stones shine, for today isn't just an ordination of one man by One God. It's an adoption ceremony: God is entrusting his children to Aaron, High Priest, the only God-ordained title that will exist in Israel for the next 400 years, the only dynasty established through covenant with God, one that will last longer than David's line.

But Aaron doesn't know this, not now. He bends forward, and Moses places a turban on his head. At the front of this turban is a plate that reads, "HOLY TO THE LORD." Sashes and tunics complete the outfit, with white undergarments and a blue mantle.

I want to linger on this image of "HOLY TO THE LORD," though. After all this is the high priest's duty, interceding between God's children and their true father, ensuring their holiness through sacrifice and ritual. But it is more than that to me—it is every father's duty, this duty of holiness and sacrifice for the children God has entrusted to him.

Now think upon the breastplate, the glowing Urim/"blessing" or Thummim/"curse" lighting the way. There is a reason these oracles are on the same plate as the names of the Children of God: Aaron has given up his will in order to serve God's will to his children. In this day of ordination, Aaron's mind and his heart will be redirected as he steps into the role of 'Father' to a nation.

God called me a month ago, trapped as I was in a morass of despondency, and He said, "Study the life of Aaron. This is what you are."

And I thought, 'Are you kidding me, Lord? A high priest? An over-reaching second fiddle perhaps.'

But this is what I am—it is what every father is, and Aaron shows the way.

The Ordination

Aaron adjusts the band around his head. The plate is gold. It weighs upon his brow. "Holy is the Lord," he thinks, he feels, he is. As he moves toward the door, he jingles when he walks. These tiny bells are the signal to those outside that Aaron walks with God—that he brings atonement. In later days, when faith waned, a rope would be tied to the priest's ankle. If the bells fell silent, Israel would know that atonement had failed, that their Father was dead. But on this first Day of Atonement, Aaron's bells had a far more inspiring sound: Father is at work, he is gaining atonement for God's children.

Outside the Tabernacle, Moses raises a small jug of oil to the cloud hovering above, then he anoints the Tabernacle and its furnishings. With the last of the oil, he anoints Aaron and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, in much the same way that Saul, David and Solomon were later declared kings in Israel.

The sun is higher in the sky now. The ordination continues. A bull shuffles forward. "Place your hands on his head," Moses directs. Aaron and his sons obey. The anointing oil is slowly spreading down the sides of their heads, and they feel the fur of the beast in their palms. Moses explains that all of their sins are flowing out of them into this bull.

The bull bellows. Moses has taken a sword and cut open its neck. Aaron and his sons kneel as the animal falls, unable to pull their hands away. Unsure of what to do next.

They watch as Moses collects the lifeblood in a bowl, anoints the horns of the altar outside the Tabernacle and pours the blood around the base. Now Moses butchers the bull before them, carefully removing only the fat, which sizzles on the altar's fire. The rest of the bull is dragged away.

A second animal, a ram, comes forward. "Place your hands on his head," Moses says again. Again Moses slaughters the beast, but after it is divided it is burned completely on the altar—a burnt offering to the Lord, Moses says.

By my estimation, it has been two or three hours now since Aaron put on the breastplate and the turban. The sun has probably risen close to noonday. A third animal comes forward. This second ram is the sacrifice of ordination. Aaron and his boys place hands on its head. This time, when Moses collects the blood of the slaughtered beast, he touches it to each man's right ear, right thumb, and right big toe—in much the same way, Christ, at his ordination on Calvary, will bleed at his ears (from the crown of thorns), his hands, and his feet. This time, when Moses divides the portions of the ram, most of the meat is set aside for Aaron and his sons to eat (it's quite detailed, and it's found in Leviticus 8.22-29).

A final anointing—this time oil mixed with blood—leaves dull read smears on the sleeves of the consecrated robes worn by Aaron and his boys.

The mood is somber—the bellows of the slaughtered beasts still ring in everyone's ears. Aaron and his sons must be a strange sight with blood dripping from their ear lobes, oil streaks in their hair, and blood stains on their clothes. "What has been done today was commanded by the Lord to make atonement for you," Moses tells them. Now they must wait at the door of the Tabernacle for seven days "and do what the Lord requires, so you will not die; for that is what I have been commanded" (Lv 8.34-35).

I have often heard it said that 'anyone can become a father.' There is no ordination ceremony to prepare a man to take on this role. There is no list of qualifications a man must have to 'fit the bill.' In recent generations, fathers seem almost expendable—as if the "accidents" weren't the unplanned children that are conceived but the dads haplessly trying to blend a lack of commitment with fatherhood. As society's emphasis of the holiness and exclusiveness of sexuality diminishes, the responsibility and exclusiveness of the father in the family diminishes, too.

Maybe fatherhood would regain some of its luster if it were ordained—as Aaron's fatherhood was ordained in Leviticus 8. What if men had to give up sinfulness in order to hold that precious baby at the mother's bedside? What if men sacrificed something precious to God in order to bring baby and mama home from the hospital? What if men entered fatherhood with the blood of ordination on their ear lobes, their thumbs, their toes?

Bringing a baby into the world involves pain and sacrifice on the part of the mother, after all. When my children came into the world, I supported Jenny as best I could, coaching her to breathe, letting her fingers dig into my hands with every painful contraction.

I made sacrifices, too. After Ellie was born, I gave up a part-time job as a journalist. After Owen was born, our dog, Hero—the "firstborn" animal of our marriage—died. After Jonah was born, my career goals in nonprofit administration were shelved. I know a little of what it means to sacrifice for a child, but I know nothing of ordination.

Yet well I know of the effects that my sins have upon my children. They are mirrors of my 'holiness,' and they reflect my sinfulness as well—my occasional bouts with anger or frustration, those times when "For the Holiness of the Lord" is clearly absent from my forehead, even the sins I think no one will notice, these are often reflected in Owen's own tantrums, Jonah's petulance or Ellie herself shutting herself off away from the family.

For seven days, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar wait at the entrance to the tabernacle. The Bible doesn't say what they do. They eat food from the sacrifices. They pray. They certainly don't go inside. They wait at the door and do "everything the Lord commanded through Moses" (Lv 8.36). Hadn't God said, "You will die," if they didn't follow Moses's explicit instructions?

The Greatest Day

On the eighth day of their sojourn, Moses returns. It is time for more sin offerings, only, this time Aaron and his sons will carry out the rites—as their ancestors will do for another thousand years. "This is what the Lord has commanded you to do," Moses tells his brother, nephews and all the Israelites assembled before them, "so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you" (Lv 9.6).

(In much the same way, Jesus will pray on the night before his crucifixion, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you" (John 17.1). The symbolism of crucifixion was purposefully intertwined with the act of ordination. While I doubt the Romans realized what they were doing at the time, the writers of the gospels certainly understood.)

Now Aaron slaughters a calf, another sin offering for himself. Now Aaron slaughters a ram, a burnt offering for the people. Now Aaron kills a goat, a sin offering for the people. It is Aaron who touches the horns of the altar with the blood of sacrifice. It is Aaron who places the approved parts of the butchered animals on the fire. His sons assist him. "His sons handed him the blood, and he sprinkled it against the altar on all sides," the Bible says, "They handed him the burnt offering piece by piece" (Lv 9.12-13).

The ceremony builds to its climax. There is no doubt, this is the most significant religious event in the Bible. It is covered twice in the Pentatuch, Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 and 9. In brilliance, significance and meaning, it far outpaces the dedication of Solomon's Temple in 2 Chronicles 3-7.

After the rites have been performed successfully, Aaron raises his hands in blessing. The crowd of Israelites—the entire nation—falls silent as he utters these immortal words:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face shine upon you

And be gracious to you;

The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace (Numbers 6.24-26)

The people shout for joy. They are united, they are one—just as God is One. A few minutes later, however, fire pours out of the sky and consumes the offerings roasting on the altar. Everybody ducks. Everyone falls to their knees. A few minutes later, they will rise—in reverence this time—and continue the festival. It is important to remember that in a culture of poverty and nomadism as Israel faced in Sinai, religious sacrifices coincide with the few times each year that people had meat to eat. Their tummies were as satisfied as their hearts.

The blessing is an important part of fatherhood. I've learned that my kids have ways of meeting the goals that I use to bless them. As I walked Jonah to the bus this morning, I blessed him: "May you listen to your teacher and find ways to help her." I've been repeating that blessing (or some form of it) for weeks now, and he has now started to get his behavior under control.

I bless Ellie, and I tell her, "You can be anything you want to be in life, as long as it's a writer." What does she do? She gets onto the NYU web site and outlines her college major (magazine writing) and minor. My children's blessings are limited only by what I'm willing to wish upon them.

That's how powerful the fatherhood/priesthood is.

Do father's bless their children? Do we share with them our fondest hopes or how we have tried to overcome our darkest fears? Do we put our hands on them—I usually touch my sons' chests when I bless them—and confer our wishes and God's wishes upon them? "I bless you, my son, my daughter." Those are powerful words, even today.

This would be a great place to stop—with Aaron the father of Israel, with people rejoicing, eating, partying. It's like the Norman Rockwell painting of the father cutting the Thanksgiving turkey with eager, happy faces of his family looking on. This is the kind of priest I could be: happy and fat, blessing not cursing. But Aaron has a dual role now. He is the God-ordained father of Israel; he is also the father of four boys. These roles will come into conflict immediately.

Nadab & Abihu

In the excitement of the moment—the sound of their father's blessing, the roar of the crowd, the heat of the heavenly fire—Nadab and Abihu enter the highest form of ecstasy. Maybe the seven days of waiting at the door of the Tabernacle has caused this, I don't know. They grab their priestly censors, light the incense, and rush into the Holy Place to offer praise (Leviticus 10.8-9 indicates they may have been drunk). Fire comes down again—or maybe it emits from the Most Holy Place, the Bible just says that "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Lv 10.2).

Uncle Moses rushes to the scene. He seems heartless. He quotes a previous law, "Among those who approach me I will show myself holy…I will be honored" (Lv 10.3). The specific instructions—the laws upon which Aaron and his sons had meditated for seven days at the Tabernacle door—had said that priests could offer incense only at dawn and dusk (Exodus 30.9).

Nadab, in his ecstasy, had forgotten the rule. Abihu, in his enthusiasm, had misjudged the holiness of the Lord. These two young men, who had only weeks before had seen God and feasted in his presence, had "offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command," and were dead (Exodus 24.9-10, Leviticus 10.1).

What is Aaron to do? Is he going to be a father (of Nadab and Abihu), or is he going to be a father (of Israel)? I'm sure he's heartbroken, seeing his two oldest sons lying dead in the Tabernacle. I'm sure he may even be angry—at them, at his brother, at God.

"Oh my precious sons," I hear him say, "Oh dear Nadab, oh sweet Abihu, oh what could have happened?" Aaron longs to weep, to tear his clothes.

Uncle Moses summons two cousins to carry the body outside the camp. (He gives no directions to bury the bodies.) He tells Aaron that he may not mourn.

"Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community…. Do not leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting or you will die, because the Lord's anointing oil is on you" (Leviticus 10.6-7)

What a dilemma! Ordained by God, Aaron's sons are…not his sons. The people are his sons and daughters. With the anointing oil upon him, with the names of God's children upon his breastplate, Aaron must remember that he serves a greater family now—that his every action conveys God to God's children. No child of Aaron's is greater than every child of God.

Aaron utters not a word. He obeys. He waits at the Tabernacle and lets his family mourn these two, precious boys of his.

Moses seems heartless to me in this episode. Twice (in verses 12 and 16) he uses the words "remaining sons" in his directions to Aaron, twisting the knife of heartache even deeper. I mean, if one of my children died, would I ever want to hear the words, "remaining children"? No way!

Moses even finds another part of the law that Eleazar and Ithamar have violated. They had burned the whole goat instead of eating its meat at the door of the Tabernacle. This time Aaron intercedes. "Such things have happened to me," he begs (I imagine a little desperation in his voice). Moses backs off. There is enough suffering in the Aaron family for this day.

This is where Aaron continues to get back to me. Aaron is a man of greatness, not a man of Destiny. It seems that every time he gets close to the brass ring, he gets stricken. Days after he reclines on the slopes of Sinai in the presence of God, he finds himself setting up an altar to the Golden Calf. No sooner has his staff bloomed with roses than his sister, Miriam, dies. This is the greatest blow of all: the cheers of a thousand blessed Israelites are silenced by the sounds of his sons' lifeless bodies hitting the floor of the Tabernacle.

This is a sacrifice too great—far too great for most men. In becoming a father to a nation, Aaron loses his sons. It's ironic, isn't it? I'm not saying that this is a quid pro quo. The Bible places the blame on the boys themselves for breaking rules they had meditated upon for seven consecutive days. This is a great loss—but a much greater gain.

As I reflect on fatherhood, I wonder again what one gives up to father a child given by God. Fatherhood isn't an addition—adding another room to the house, adding a bed to the room, etc. It is an upheaval that rightly establishes new precedents and extinguishes old priorities. This makes me want to review my life now—and wonder about the time when my kids were born. What changed? What was lost? How has my responsibility grown?

Am I strong enough to see the bigger picture? Or do I want to pull out my hair and tear my clothes at the loss of professional advancement, pleasures (Cincinnati Reds baseball and backpacking for me), and freedom?

Am I burdened…or blessed? Am I harried…or kept?

Do I stumble in darkness…or is something greater shining on me?

Is God gracious?

Do I see the loss, or do I see God's face smiling upon me? Do I feed the chaos of parenthood or sense the peace?

That's what Aaron makes me wonder. That's what his priesthood makes me feel.

I keep thinking this series will wrap up, but there's more. I'll put it together this weekend in Part 4.

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