Last week we read how the people once again complained to Moses and Aaron because there was no water for them to drink. And instead of trusting in the Lord to help them, they assembled against Moses and Aaron and began to quarrel with them. Well, when Moses and Aaron turned to the Lord, he made clear that he would give them water from out of the rock. And he did so. However, Moses dishonoured the Lord by disobeying him, because instead of speaking to the rock, as the Lord has instructed, Moses berated the people and struck the rock. And because he and Aaron doubted the word of the Lord and dishonoured him before the people, the Lord announced that they would not bring the people into the Promised Land.
And so, in today’s reading, we read the account of Aaron’s death. Later — at the end of Deuteronomy — we’ll read the account of Moses’s death. And so, just as the Lord said, both of these men were prevented from entering the Promised Land of Canaan.
But before we get to Aaron’s death, we have the account of this encounter with the people of Edom. And so, today’s passage can be divided into two: verses 14 to 21 are about asking permission from Edom to pass through their land; verses 22 to 29 are about the death of Aaron.
Verses 14 to 21
As you see from verse 14, the people are still at Kadesh. I mentioned last week that Kadesh was the place where — forty years previously — the spies reported to the Israelites on their exploration of the Promised Land. Now, after wandering in the wilderness since that time, the Lord has led them back to Kadesh. And from Kadesh Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom to ask permission to go through the land of Edom, because the easiest route from Kadesh to Canaan was to go east through the land of Edom.
And in his letter, Moses first of all refers to how the people of Israel and the people of Edom are related. The people of Edom, you see, were descended from Esau, who was Jacob’s twin brother. So, the Israelites were descended from Jacob; and the Edomites were descended from Esau. Presumably Moses is hoping that the Edomites will look with special favour on them, since they’re related.
Moses also seems to be trying to elicit sympathy from the king of Edom by mentioning all the hardships they has suffered in Egypt where they were ill-treated by the Egyptians. However, he also confessed how the Lord heard their cry and sent his angel to bring them out.
And so, he comes to his request: please let us pass through your country. And he reassures the king that they won’t be a burden or a nuisance: we won’t go through your fields and vineyards to take your crops; and we won’t drink the water from your wells. We’ll keep to the main highway, because all we want to do is pass through.
However, the king of Edom refused. In fact, he issued Moses with a warning: if you try to pass through, we’ll attack you with the sword.
Moses therefore tried again, insisting that they’ll stay on the main road. However, he adds that if they use any of their water, they’ll pay for it. Money can open a lot of doors; and here’s a chance for the Edomites to get some money from the Israelites. Furthermore he adds that they only want to pass through on foot. In other words, you don’t need to fear that we’re coming on chariots like an invading army. We’re coming peacefully, on foot, because we only want to pass through and we have no interest in attacking Edom.
But still the king refused. More than that, Edom came out against the Israelites with a large and powerful army. The message was clear: you better not try, otherwise we’ll attack you.
And so, we read in verse 21 that since Edom refused to let them go through their land, Israel turned away from them. According to what we read in verse 4 of chapter 21, turning away from Edom meant they turned south towards the Red Sea in order to go around Edom.
One of the commentators makes the point that while the Edomites had a large and powerful army, so did the Canaanites. And, as we discover from the book of Joshua, the Israelites had no hesitation in attacking the Canaanites. So, why didn’t they engage the Edomites in battle? Why didn’t they attack the Edomites and destroy them?
It’s because the land of Edom was not part of the Promised Land. The Lord promised to give to the Israelites the land of Canaan. He therefore gave the Israelites the right to attack the Canaanites and to remove them from the land. But since the land of Edom was not part of the Promised Land, the Israelites had no right to take the land or to attack the people of Edom. Furthermore, when the Lord commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanites, he did so in order to punish the Canaanites for their sins. They were a wicked people; and the Lord used the Israelites to punish them for their wickedness.
In the same way, many years later, the Lord used the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their wickedness. However, that was not the Lord’s plan for the Edomites; and so, instead of engaging them in battle, the Israelites turned away from Edom and left them alone.
But then the other thing to say here is that this once again demonstrates that life in the wilderness was often hard and frustrating and full of hardships for the people of Israel. Sometimes they were short of food; sometimes they were short of water; sometimes — as happened here — they were faced with enemies who threatened them. But no matter what they faced, they needed to remember to trust in the Lord who went before them in the pillar of cloud and fire. They needed to trust in him to help them, because he had promised — hadn’t he? — to bring them into the Promised Land and to give it to them. So, whether they were short of food and water, whether they were faced with enemies, the Lord was with them to help them.
And believers in every generation are like the Israelites in that we are a pilgrim people, on our way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life. And the way to our Promised Land is also full of troubles and trials and dangers and disappointments and setbacks. Things get in our way; circumstances are against us; we wonder why this is happening to us and why has this problem entered my life?
But whatever we face, we must believe that the Lord is with us; that he cares for us and will not forsake us. And we can trust in him, because the Lord Jesus has promised — hasn’t he? — that he will not lose any of his people but will keep them until the day we are raised from the dead and enter the new creation, which is our Promised Land. And so, we can trust in him to remove whatever trials we face or to help us endure whatever trials we face. We can trust in him, because he has promised to keep us.
Verses 22 to 29
Let’s move on to the second part of today’s reading and it’s the death of Aaron.
We’re told in verse 22 that they moved from Kadesh to Mount Hor. And there the Lord announced to Moses and Aaron that it was time for Aaron to be gathered to his people. That same expression was used before to refer to the deaths of Abraham and Issac and Jacob. It will also be used for Moses’s death. And so, it tends to be used to describe the death of righteous men. Nevertheless, the Lord went on to explain that the reason Aaron will not enter the Promised Land but must die here on the mountain is because he and Moses rebelled against God’s command at the waters of Meribah.
However, the priesthood must not perish with Aaron, because there needed to be someone to go into the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle to make atonement for the sins of the people. And so, the Lord commanded that Eleazar — Aaron’s son — should join Moses and Aaron on Mount Hor where Aaron’s body would be laid. The priestly garments were to be taken from Aaron and put on Eleazar, because he would replace his father and become the High Priest for the people.
And so, we read in verse 27 that Moses did as the Lord commanded. All three of them went up Mount Hor; Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and put them on Eleazar; and Aaron died on the mountain. And after Moses and Eleazar came down the mountain, the whole community mourned for him for thirty days. This was a sign of their respect for Aaron, because the normal period of mourning was seven days.
The writer to the Hebrews helps us to see what we can learn from Aaron’s death, because in Hebrews 7 he tells us that there were many priests, because death prevented them from continuing in office. So, Aaron was High Priest for a time, but then he died and his son replaced him; Eleazar was High Priest for a time, but then he too died and his son replace him; and so it went on, through the generations. The ancient historian Josephus reports that there were 83 High Priests in total until the Romans destroyed the temple in AD70. There were many priests, because each one died. But — the writer to the Hebrews says — because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. He lives forever, because after he died on the cross, he was raised and now lives forever and forever.
And because he lives forever and has a permanent priesthood — because he is a priest for ever — he’s able to save forever those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Aaron could intercede for the people while he was alive. And we’ve read how he and Moses often went to the Lord to pray for the people. But after he died, he couldn’t intercede for anyone. After he died, he couldn’t help anyone. But the Lord Jesus lives forever. And so, he’s able to intercede for us always; he’s able to help us always; he’s able to represent us before the Father always; and he’s able to save forever those who come to God through him. The Apostle Paul makes the same point in Romans 8 where he says:
Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Yes, he died; but then he was raised to life, everlasting life; and so, he’s now at the right hand of God the Father to intercede for his people so that we’re provided with everything we need to ensure that we will enter eternal life to be with the Lord forever.
And so, since we’re pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life, we must remember and believe that the Lord is with us and will never forsake us. And the Lord Jesus — our Great High Priest — is always interceding for us to ensure that we have all that we need to endure and to persevere and to reach our goal, which is everlasting life in the presence of the Lord.