Monday, August 21, 2017

The Priests

Throughout the Exodus and the events leading from Israel's slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, the biblical text spends a great deal of its time talking about Moses, even though Moses himself would probably have objected to that idea, claiming he was not much of a man and that God should have sent someone else. 

In fact, that's essentially what Moses said when God told him to go in the first place. The whole idea was so objectionable to Moses that he begs God to try something else. God gives in and gives Moses his brother, Aaron, gives Israel her first priest, and gives us one of the most major lesser-known characters in all of Scripture.

Read closely through the Mosaic testimonies, and you'll see just how much Aaron is front and center. Moses goes up the mountain, sure, but the people aren't looking for him; they're looking at Aaron, wondering what their next move is. It's Aaron's staff that's placed among the twelve to sprout and grow and to prove God's favor on the Aaronic family. It is Aaron who lifts his hands and delivers the priestly blessing over the people, a benediction that is still copied today. It is Aaron who offers the sacrifices, Aaron who makes atonement for Israel's sin.

Moses meets with God, but it is Aaron who meets the people. 

It's easy to read right past this because so much emphasis is on Moses in these stories, but this is so important. And I don't think we can truly understand what this means until both brothers - Moses and Aaron - are dead. 

Fast forward to Numbers 27 where God is preparing Moses to die. Aaron is already dead by this point, succeeded by his son, Eleazar, as priest over the people. (And we don't know much about him, either. Watch how he gets kind of drawn into the background in the same way.) God's drawing Moses to the mountain yet again, this time to look out over the Promised Land that he'll never inherit, and he is to take Joshua with him. There on the mountain, he will transfer his power, position, and leadership to Joshua. God says that Moses will give his authority to his successor. 

But look at what that means for Joshua. He will stand in front of the priest Eleazar, who will use the Urim to make decisions in the Lord's presence. At his command Joshua and the whole community of Israel will go into battle. And at his command they will return. (Num. 27:21)

Did you catch that? Moses, the man we've been drawn to believe is the leader of all Israel, the one we think is calling the shots, is giving his authority to a worthy warrior, a skilled leader, who will take all of his cues from the priest, the son of Aaron who now stands in the Most Holy Place. 

This is a tremendous shift. At the beginning of Moses's story, when God provides him a helper, God plainly says that Moses will speak to God, then Moses will speak to Aaron and will tell Aaron what to say. We know this is how it worked for some time, although we also see the sin that crept in with this arrangement: Moses spent all his time with God, Aaron started speaking on his own. 

It's all too easy to do, really - Aaron got so drawn in to what he was doing for the people that it just seemed natural to roll with it. He started making it up as he went, taking his cues from those who were responding to him. Moses spent so much time on the mountain that he forgot what the desert felt like. Every time he went back down to the people, he was frustrated by them. Every. single. time.

What happens when Moses transfers his authority to Joshua, who must stand before the priest Eleazar, is that God is essentially eliminating this dichotomous leadership. He's bringing the divergent paths together in both men - the priest and the leader. The priest now cannot simply minister to the people; he is also responsible for seeking God. The leader now cannot simply move on God's Word; it has to come to him through God's priest, a person. In this way, both men - both positions - become accountable at both extremes. Both have a responsibility to God and to Israel. 

It's one of those things we have to read backward to really understand. We have to read from Joshua and Eleazar back to Moses and Aaron to see what wasn't working and how the new structure is a corrective to the old one. And the moral of the story is quite clear:

We cannot spend all of our time on the mountain, nor can we spend it in the camp. Our lives, our holy lives, our royal priesthood, requires both. Our leadership requires both. 

And should we need any further evidence of that, we need look no further than the Great High Priest Himself, Jesus Christ, who met with God on the mountain and covered His feet in Galilean dust. 

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