Between life and death: Numbers 16

incense

Today’s reading: Numbers 16-17.

Aaron’s life in the exodus and the wilderness journey passes through many ups and downs, but today it reaches a high water mark. Instead of the repetitive and mostly routine services in the tabernacle, he finds himself in a life and death struggle for the children of Israel. By standing in the gap for them, he turns God’s judgement to mercy in a very Christ-like fashion.

His heroic intervention resulted from another foolish and prideful rebellion by a faction of dissatisfied Levites. Led by Korah, 250 Levites challenged Moses’ leadership and demanded change. They probably felt they should be given priestly duties along with Aaron’s family. God proved they were wrong to rebel by destroying Korah and his 250 followers with fire, then swallowed their families in a giant hole in the ground. At this point, you would expect the people of Israel to run from further confrontation. Instead they complained about what happened (sound familiar?) and caused God to send a deadly plague against them. If someone didn’t act quickly to avert God’s wrath, the entire nation of Israel would die.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. Numbers 16:46-48

I’m not sure the words do justice to Aaron’s heroism. He was rushing into the midst of the most deadly and rapid plague ever seen. Over 14,000 people died in moments. His offering for atonement was no proven recipe; it was a spur-of-the-moment see-if-it-works hope-Moses-is-right effort. Death and the plague were in front of him, the target of God’s wrath was behind him. He stood between the living and the dead, and death turned away. He became more like Christ in that moment than during any of his prescribed priestly sacrifices.

Why did God have mercy on Aaron? I don’t think it was because of the coals and incense in the censer, though I could be wrong. I think it was because Aaron, as High Priest, was doing exactly what God had raised him up to do, to stand between God and man, bringing offering for guilt from man, and bringing forgiveness from God.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16

Image by Jaci XIII on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

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