The rebellion of Korah and its aftermath left a level of uncertainty among the people concerning the divine appointment of Aaron and his sons as the true priests of God. God would prove once and for all that He had chosen Aaron and his sons. The test was simple. The leader of each tribe would bring his staff to the tent of meeting. Aaron would bring the staff for the tribe of Levi. The fact that all twelve tribes were represented means that all twelve tribes were involved in the insurrection. God promised the staff of the man he chose would sprout. There would be no doubt. What we see next is miraculous and not surprising. Aaron's staff not only budded but it blossomed and produced ripe almonds. Now the people knew Aaron was the one God had chosen, but in true Israelite fashion they overreacted, sure if they came too close to the tabernacle they would die.
Chapter 18 brings another list, this time the rules for the offerings for the priests and Levites. There are benefits to being a priest. Some of the choicest cuts of meat were theirs from the sacrifices brought for offerings. They also received grain, oil, and later wine from the offerings. In verse 22 we see the words “from now on the Israelites must not go near the tent of meeting or they will bear the consequences of their sin and they will die.” This expression...bears the iniquity speaks of the formidable work that was demanded of the priests of God. The word iniquity relates to the whole sphere of sin, guilt, and responsibility for an offense. If the people had no advocate before the Lord, they would die in their offenses. The priests stood as intermediaries between God and man. Ultimately, all such work points forward to the work of Jesus, our high priest. The Levites were the servants of the priests, but they were limited in what they were allowed to do. This is what had bothered Korah. He was a Levite who wanted to function as a priest. Only the priests were allowed to attend to the duties of the sanctuary and the altar. And the outsider referenced here was not a foreigner but a non-authorized Israelite. When one who was not authorized approached the altar or the holy places, that person was inviting punishment. In chapter 18 we see the instructions for tithing, the ten percent that God commanded His people to give back to Him.
There are more laws in chapter 19, the first of which always raises questions. This is the law of purification involving a red heifer, cedar wood, scarlet wool and hyssop. Everything about this sacrifice was unusual. The red heifer was to be sacrificed outside the camp. Ordinarily the sacrificial animal was male; this one was female. This is the only offering made where the color of the animal was specified. The animal was slain by a layman and not a priest. The blood was not caught in a basin and poured out. It was burned with the carcass. The ashes were gathered and mixed with water and used for ceremonial purification. And the whole animal was burned in the fire. As with other sacrifices the animal had to be spotless and without blemish and never yoked for service. The red color may point to the blood being shed. Aaron's son and successor Eleazar led the animal outside the camp where a layman killed it in sight of the priest. Eleazar caught some of the blood and sprinkled it in the direction of the tabernacle, seven times. The three items listed...cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop... were involved in the cleansing of a healed leper. We read about that in Leviticus 14.
Cedar wood was used because of its durability and resistance to decay, symbolizing recovery from the decay that threatened the person's life. Scarlet was most likely a thread or cord. Scarlet symbolized the blood that brought victory over sin and death. Hyssop was an aromatic herb that was porous and absorbed liquid. It was used for flavoring food, fragrance, and medicine. It was a branch of hyssop that the soldiers used to give Jesus a drink as He hung on the cross. The ashes from all this were mixed with water and used for purification for Israelites who had come into contact with a dead body. Because of their contact with a carcass, both the priest and the man assisting him were considered ceremonially unclean and had to wash themselves and their clothes before returning to camp in the evening.
The efficacy of this ritual lay in the transfer of impurity from the defiled person to the heifer. The corrupted animal was burned outside the camp, so it didn't pollute the congregation in the same way it had those whom it had already come into contact with it. Ironically, as the heifer and its associated impurity were completely destroyed the resulting ashes were able to purify those who had become ritually defiled. The New Testament reinforces the significance of the red heifer in relation to the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ. Just as the heifer was slaughtered outside the camp so Jesus who bore the sins and impurities of all humanity, was crucified outside Jerusalem in order to achieve redemption through His blood for all sinners.
We also see in today's reading the level of frustration Moses had with the Israelites. His sister Miriam died, and the people mourned for her. Miriam was Moses' sister who saved his life when he was a baby floating on the edge of the Nile River in Egypt. She had led the singing and praise after the people had crossed the Red Sea. And she had endured all the wilderness trials with her two brothers. No doubt Moses and Aaron were tired, grieving and fed up with the people. There was no water. Never mind God had provided everything they needed when they needed it, but still the people grumbled. Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting and there they met the Lord who commanded them to speak to the rock and there would be plenty of water. Moses was human too, and when he and Aaron arrived at the rock, he beat it with his staff, the same one that he had held to part the Red Sea. But God did not tell Moses to beat the rock, He said to speak to it. That one action of disobedience cost both Moses and Aaron a chance to enter the promised land. It seems totally unfair given what they had had to put up with, but God demands obedience, especially from His leaders.
Not only do we see the death of Moses’ sister Miriam, but we also see the death of his brother Aaron. Israel is on the move, going from Kadesh to Mount Hor. God's instructions to Moses were to climb Mount Hor with Aaron and his son Eleazar. Once at the top Moses was to remove the high priestly garments from Aaron and put them in Eleazar. Once this was completed Aaron died and Moses and Eleazar came back down the mountain and the people of Israel mourned for 30 days. Moses said goodbye to his beloved brother and Eleazar to his revered father.
Moses has experienced two family deaths, two confrontations with critics in the camp, and a personal failure at Kadesh. Yet he picked up his rod and went back to work, a faithful servant of the Lord until the end. It is a reminder to us that no matter what mistakes we make it is always too soon to quit.
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W.