15 October 2009

Priestly Inheritance: Final Thoughts on the Life of Aaron

The life of Aaron has taken me on a fascinating course through the Bible—it has opened many chapters to me (particularly in Numbers and Leviticus) that had previously been closed. It has given me new insights into the story of historic Israel, it has been a revelation about my role within my own family as a father.

There are just a few chapters left to reveal about this fascinating man and his descendants.

God's Gift to Aaron

I have already written about Aaron's death upon Mount Hor. I want to close with God's blessing of Aaron, found in Numbers 18. This follows quickly after Aaron's rod had bloomed, confirming his ordination as Father of Israel.

God begins by reminding Aaron of his sacred obligation. "You, your sons and your father's family are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary" (Numbers 18.1). One can read echoes of Nadab's ecstasy in these lines. "But only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain" (verse 7).

With this prologue out of the way, God's graciousness shines through. He had given Aaron God's own children to father—and Aaron had kept the faith. The oil on his head must have burned at the sight of his fallen sons—he must have felt so tempted to rip apart his holy garments and throw off the headplate and breastplate of the people. He had remained silent. He had remained the ordained father of all.

"I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift," God says, "I myself have put you in charge of the offerings presented to me; all the holy offerings the Israelites give me I give to you and your sons as your portion and regular share. You are to have the part of the most holy offerings that is kept from the fire" (Nm 18. 7-9).

God goes on to list the gifts: the finest olive oil, the new wine and grain, "all the land's firstfruits…everything in Israel that its devoted to the Lord is yours" (verses 13-14). In fact, Aaron as father will receive the "first offspring of every womb" or rather he must "redeem" them with a price of five shekels of silver. Basically, God is not only telling Aaron that "everything I have is yours," but he is also admitting that "everything I get is yours, too."

This isn't meant to make Aaron rich. He will have enough. His wealth won't be measured in shekels or property—in fact he and his sons are directed to own no property—"you will have no inheritance in [my children's] land, nor will you have any share among them" (Nm 18.20). But in a promise that is breathtakingly generous and loving, God promises something beyond riches:

"I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites" (Nm 18.20).

Notice the use of the words, "I am," to begin the promise. They are the same words from the Burning Bush. Aaron might have remembered this promise and translated slightly, "God is my share and my inheritance."

This would become Jesus' theme in the New Testament, too. He counseled his followers to keep very little property. Their "inheritance" would be eternal life: "The the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world" (Matthew 25.34).

When I think if my kids, I see how fatherhood changed my priorities. I spent money—and saved it—in far different ways than I had before they were born. More importantly the inheritance I sought—the legacy I wished for—became inextricably caught up in them. Their success became my "share," their future became my "legacy." I wasn't judged any more on my performance as a teacher or a writer—I would succeed or fail through them.

It's a tough order, I have to say, being a father. That's one thing Aaron teaches me again and again and again.

That Inheritance Thing

The seventh chapter of the Book of Ezra begins with a list of Ezra's ancestors

After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azaraiah, the son of Hilkiah, the son of Shallum, the son of Zado, the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest—this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given (verses 1-6).

In this important moment of Jewish history, Ezra takes time out to identify his place in God's plan for Israel. He is a descendant of Aaron—but he is not high priest. That role belongs to his brother, Joshua (an account of their father, Seraiah's capture by Nebuchadnezzar can be found in 2 Kings 25:18). No, Ezra sees himself in the role of Moses, dispensing the law and almost single-handedly rescuing the Jewish faith. He rebuilds the law and the scriptures in the same way that Nehemiah rebuilds the walls and the temple. His reforms are effective. Judah never turns to idols again after Ezra, as they had done so often before the Exile.

The restored priesthood would endure in Israel four another 300 years, until the time of the Arch-Villain, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes, who would interrupt temple services in a vain attempt to Hellenize Judea. Aaron's descendant, Onais III, would prove to be the last of the Aaronic line to serve as high priest. He was removed by Antiochus in 175 and subsequently murdered in 170. The two men who followed Onais were named Menelaus and Jason. These are Greek names and certain signs of efforts to install government-friendly high priests. (Having high priests named Menelaus and Jason would be equivalent of having a Pope named Abdullah or Siddhartha.) The high priesthood of Aaron's line lasted over 1,000 years. And it stretched further still.

An Interlude about Moses' Descendants

What about the lineage of Moses? Last Sabbath I was paging through the book of Judges, and I found a reference to Moses's progeny. It's found in one of those "What the….?" sections of Judges, chapters 17 & 18—you know, the ones where terrible deeds seem to go unpunished or noteworthy efforts seem inexplicable to the modern, religious mind.

An Ephriamite named Micah takes 200 shekels of silver and makes an idol. He sets up a shrine, and he hires a young Levite named Jonathan to run the services at the shrine for a sum of ten shekels of silver every year, clothes and food. The shrine draws a regular business of visitors. Micah even says, ironically, "Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest" (Judges 17.13).

Business goes well at Micah's shrine. A group of Danites arrive to get a blessing for their raid on the Canaanite city of Laish. "Go in peace," Jonathan tells them. "Your journey has the Lord's approval" (18.6). When the raid is successful, the Danites return to Micah's house, take the idols from the shrine, and entice Jonathan to continue his ministry with them.

The story closes with these words,

"There the Danites set up for themselves the idols, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh" (Judges 18.30-31)

True, Aaron's sons are struck down before his eyes. But his descendants ministered in Shiloh and Jerusalem (and Babylon and Persia) for almost 1,300 years. Moses's descendants ministered before idols in Dan for 600 years, or until the time of the captivity.

Aaron in the New Testament

So what happened to Aaron, then? How could the first ordained leader of Israel be a mere footnote—a cautionary tale—for modern Bible readers? His legacy stretched longer than David's, and his descendants' loyalty seldom wavered.

Most sources give Ezra credit for setting up the Great Assembly, a body of priests who would arbitrate Jewish law after the exile. In Christ's day, this body would be known as the Sanhedrin—the very group that accused Jesus of terrorism and begged Pilate for a death warrant. I know of no evidence that Annas or Caiphas were descendants of Aaron—by that time the position of High Priest was based on political considerations not lineage—but this connection would still be a painful reminder to writers of the New Testament nonetheless.

Another group within the Sanhedrin also had a strong connection to Aaron's lineage. As I have shown, Ezra traced his heritage through Zadok, King Solomon's high priest. The Zadokites would run the temple until the time of Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes. Some sources I've found say that the group known as the Sadducees were these same Zadokites, again the conservative, priestly ruling class. These, too, were among Christ's sharpest critics.

So Aaron's descendants didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is why Aaron is so overlooked in by the writer of Hebrews, whose goal was to portray Christ as the high priest for all. But he bypasses the first high priest and places Jesus squarely "in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron" (7.11). It's the only mention of Aaron in the whole book—despite the fact that it covers Christ's duties as our high priest.

Maybe it was the enmity between the first Christians and the last of the Sadducees (who would disappear after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) that would color the writer's thesis. Maybe it was the New Covenant—the ripped curtain between Holy and Most Holy Place symbolized the end of the high priest's role in spiritual atonement.

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