After the debacle at Kadesh Barnea, Israel was sentenced to wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day that the spies spent in Canaan gathering their reconnaissance report. It was a terrible blow. They had witnessed the power of God arrayed against the almost invincible might of Egypt and they had seen Egypt reduced to ashes. And yet, even after everything they had been through, faced with giants who were smaller and weaker than Egypt they balked. Faced with danger that was not as fearsome as the rigors and unrelenting tyranny of Egypt they turned tail and ran.
Israel’s greatest weakness was its lack of faith in God. Not for want of examples of is might but merely from their own stubborn unwillingness to lay their lives and their futures in his hands. The resulting lack of surrender meant that everyone who had been older than twenty years at the time of the exodus died in the wilderness.
The power of God that had been exercised on their behalf, to give them a decisive victory, resulted in defeat because they weren’t willing to trust God and move forward in faith.
How many unmitigated disasters could be averted if we were only more willing to trust God’s word and act on it without question?
With the expiration date of the mandatory 40 years of wandering now within sight, Israel began to once more to approach Canaan. In order to do this, they needed to pass through Edom. Edom was inhabited by the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother and as such were considered kin of the Israelites.
The original plan was to cut through Edom without pausing to rest. The detour would have shaved off a nice chunk of time from their journey to Kadesh Barnea and made their lives easier. But the Edomites were reluctant, bordering on downright antagonistic. They refused to allow Israel safe passage through their borders. Instead of ordering them to fight, God instructed them to leave the Edomites alone and walk around the country. As the Lord pointed out, the Edomites were their brothers and there was nothing to be gained by fighting.
They turned their course and walked back through the wilderness, bone dry and baking beneath a relentless sun. Soon they passed under the shadow of Mt Hor. Here they paused and set up camp because this was to be the burial place of one of their beloved leaders.
God had decreed that Aaron should not enter Canaan and Mt Hor was the place that God had chosen to lay his servant to rest. It is one of the most touching and unique scenes in the Bible. Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s oldest son Eliezer wound their way up the rugged mountain track. Aaron was over 120 years old at this point and fit enough to climb Mt Hor on his own.
He was not frail or dying, not sickly and withered but as he climbed up the mountain he knew that he was going to the summit to die. When they reached the summit of Hor, they looked out over the vast spreading plane below, purple-blue in the distance, shimmering with warm, hazy waves. After a moment of reflection, they turned to the task at hand; removing the sacred robes off Aaron and placing them on Eliezer who would succeed him as high priest. It was a solemn, sad ceremony.
No doubt both Moses and Aaron would have remembered how Aaron had put on those garments 40 years before when he took up the work God had given him as High Priest. For 40 years the brothers had worked together, braving the stresses and perils associated with leading a motley crew of almost 1 million former slaves into freedom. They had accomplished so much because they had leaned hard on the arm of God.
But it was not only the moments of triumph that Aaron would have remembered. He would have remembered the debacle with the golden calf, and how, in a moment of weakness, he had failed God and led the entire camp into sin. He would have remembered the time he and Miriam, murmured against Moses. He would have remembered how Mirian, the instigator, had been stricken with leprosy. He would have remembered the terrible sin of his sons Nadab and Abihu when they offered strange fire before the Lord. He would have remembered how God had commanded him not to mourn their loss publicly.
He would have known that his unfaithfulness to God in these instances had cost him the reward of entering Canaan. While Aaron had offered the first sacrifice of the tabernacle in the wilderness, he would not have the privilege of offering the first sacrifice in Canaan. That honor would be given to Eliezer.
The Bible tells us “there Aaron died, and there he was buried”. It was a quiet death. A gentle laying down to sleep. A whispered exhalation, followed by profound stillness. Aaron was one of the most illustrious men to have walked the face of the earth and yet at his funeral he only had one of his sons and his beloved brother present.
When Eliezer and Moses returned to the camp without Aaron the camp was plunged into deep mourning. But it was Moses who grieved the most. Aaron had not only been his brother but his confidant, his wing-man through forty years of wilderness wandering and his best friend. To think that the dark valley of death now spanned as a gulf between them would have pierced Moses’ heart.
Aaron will always hold a special place in the history of God’s faithful people because he was God’s first high priest. He was a great man, though not an infallible one. A man of God though not a wholly unblemished one. He was a faithful servant though not always an obedient one. Yet God loved Aaron and forgave him a multitude of sins when he repented. And despite his weaknesses and failings, Aaron served God and lived his life to bless His people. No man or woman could do more.