Sunday, January 10, 2010

Numbers 18-20: Who Will Mourn You?

I'm going to focus on two very small parts of these three chapters, but here are my notes/thoughts on the whole passage.

  • Chapter 18 is about duties of the Levites.  It says that they will "bear the guilt in connection with the sanctuary."  Does anybody know what that means?  I may have to look it up.
  • This is interesting.  In chapter 19 the priests have to slaughter a heifer in the presence of Eleazar (Aaron's son, the next high priest), and then burn it and place its ashes outside the camp.  Those ashes would be used when somebody was unclean, to cleanse them.  I'm not sure if they placed the ashes in water, or if the ashes somehow represent water, because it says they're kept "as water to remove impurity" and speaks about people washing in it.  Anyway, this is what Hebrews 9:13 is talking about when it mentions "the ashes of a heifer" cleansing people outwardly.  I always wondered what that was talking about.
  • Then it talks about people who are in contact with a dead person being unclean for 7 days.  If a person died in their tent, everyone in the tent was unclean too, and any jar or anything that didn't have a lid on it was unclean.  I think this must have been one of those sanitation things.  People didn't know about germs until the 1800s so they didn't know why people would get sick from being around someone else who was sick, and they also didn't know how long germs could live or anything like that.  So this was a way of keeping disease from spreading, I think.
  • At the beginning of chapter 20, Miriam dies.  The heading "Death of Miriam" is over the first seven verses in my Bible, but the only part that's actually about her is verse 1.
  • Then we have another water incident.  This is the part where God tells Moses to speak to a rock and it'll bring forth water, so what does Moses do?  He hits the rock, because that's the method that worked before.  And for this, God tells him he will not enter the promised land, because he didn't trust God to provide - he fell back on something that had worked earlier, maybe because he thought the power was in his staff or how hard he struck the rock and not in God who doesn't really need Moses to do anything in order to make water come from a rock.
  • The people reach Edom - if that name sounds familiar, it's the other name for Esau, and it's now the name of the land where his descendants are living.  The Israelites send a message asking to travel peacefully through the land and promise to stay on the highway - they won't even touch the wells to get a drink - and Edom says "no way, get out of here."  I think this shows that the old sibling rivalry is still very much alive and well.  I'm proud of what Israel does, though. Instead of getting mad and attacking Edom, they travel all the way around the country to get where they're going next.
  • At the end of the chapter, Aaron dies.  He gets seven verses.  What happens is he goes up to a mountain and his priest uniform gets put on his son Eleazar, and then Aaron dies.
As you have probably guessed, I'm focusing this post on comparing the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  This is what the text says about Miriam's death:  "Now Miriam died there and was buried there."  She doesn't even get a full verse because the first part of the verse just says that they arrived in the wilderness of Zin and the people stayed at Kadesh.

This is what the text says about Aaron's death:
"Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah.  Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar.  So Aaron will be gathered to his people, and will die there."  So Moses di just as the LORD had commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.  After Moses had stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar, Aaron died there on the mountain top.  Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain.  When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days."

Quite a bit of difference, isn't there?  We don't even know how Miriam died or whether people mourned for her.  With Aaron we get a whole story - that's more than what we got with Abraham, if you can remember back that far.  And we find that people mourned him thirty days.  Remember when Ronald Reagan died, and Bush commanded that all flags be raised to half-mast for thirty days?  That's not what this was like.  Mourning was something very important to ancient people - in fact, some people could do it professionally.  It involved sackcloth and fasting and wailing and all that sort of thing - it was a big deal, and it did usually last for a few days as far as I can recall.  But this was hardcore.

What I find really great about this passage is that it happens right after the waters of Meribah incident, where God tells Moses and Aaron that because of their lack of trust, they won't enter the promised land.  The last significant event in Aaron's life was a screw-up.  And still he gets to go up to a mountain to die in peace next to his brother and his son, and he gets a celebrity funeral.  I think it goes to show, you don't have to have lived a perfect life to die a good death.  But in contrast with Miriam's death, I think it also shows that you're not going to get an epigram like that unless there's a good reason for it.  Aaron may have been number two to Moses for most of his life, and he may have griped and complained about it, and he was even the one who made the golden calf back in Exodus, but he was the high priest of Israel, handpicked by God for a divine purpose.  And the people may have whined about God playing favorites with Moses and Aaron, but when one of their leaders died, they felt it so deeply that they showed him tremendous honor in his death.

I guess it's just something to think about.  Who would mourn you for thirty days when you die?

No comments: