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“And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in Mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, Saying, 

Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah.

Numbers 20:23, 24

It was a stringent measure of judgment that fell to Moses and Aaron at the waters of Meribah. They had disobeyed the commandment of the Lord. To them it had seemed a matter of discretion. When the people had murmured rebelliously for lack of water, God had commanded them to go out into the wilderness and to speak to the rock there. They had felt that this was much too lenient. To them it seemed important that there should be at least a sign of judgment condemning the people for their sin and warning them of the wrath of God. It was this that moved Moses when he approached the rock to strike the rock in anger rather than speaking to it as God had commanded. It was a great sin. Regardless of how good their intentions might seem to have been, they had perverted the way of God. For men in their position of leadership and influence, it was inexcusable. With quick justice God pronounced the verdict, “Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”

For Moses and Aaron there was no more painful verdict that could be given. As children of the covenant, all of their lives had been spent in the hope of the land of promise. Even more, the last forty years of their lives had been spent in working for the fulfillment of that hope. No one had been more tireless in encouraging the people to hold to the faithfulness of God in confidence that He would give them the land of Canaan. When, while standing at the very entrance to the land of Canaan, all the people had rebelled and refused to enter in, they had been of the few that had remained faithful. And now just as the entrance was to be realized, they were being deprived of the privilege so dear to their hearts.

We are not given the details, but we do know that a number of times Moses petitioned the Lord if this verdict might not be changed. It was to no avail. The judgment of God had been given and could not be reversed. The sin which Moses and Aaron had committed was a great sin, greater than might at first be thought. The seriousness of their offense derived from the positions which they filled. Both Moses and Aaron, each in his own official capacity, stood as a representative of God before the people and as a type of Jesus Christ. Their words and deeds were sealed by the authority of God before the people. When therefore they agreed together to present to the people something different than God had commanded under the official seal of their offices, they became guilty of placing themselves in the place of God and substituting their word for His. It was a sin that could not be overlooked or ignored. It was a sin that could not go unpunished. As they had so often announced the judgment of God upon Israel for the sin of the people, so with the same measure their sin also had to be judged. To have exempted’ them from punishment would have made God a respecter of persons. This He could not be.

Even more painful was this punishment for Moses and Aaron because the time had come for Israel to move on toward the promised land. It was for this that they had lived in hope since as little children they had sat in the home of faithful Amram and Jocabed. For it they had expended the strength of their lives, resisting both the wicked hatred of Pharaoh and the murmuring unfaithfulness of the people. For forty years they had patiently waited while the older, rebellious generation died in the wilderness, and all the time they had been left to believe that with Joshua and Caleb they would be allowed to enter in. And now just when the time was ripe this entrance was denied. Nor were they allowed to forget the promise toward which the people were heading. They were still the leaders of the nation. Upon them fell the responsibility of preparing to enter Canaan and of leading them on the way, even while they knew that they themselves would not be allowed to enter in. Daily their failure in service was brought again before their minds. They were unworthy of entering Canaan. To the people it was a warning of the seriousness of sin.

Continuing faithfully in his labors, Moses addressed a message unto the king of Edom requesting permission to pass through his land. Because this was the seed of Esau, Jacob’s brother and Isaac’s son, Israel was forbidden to fight with them at this time. It was a friendly request that Moses sent. “Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us, and our father: how our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers: and when we cried unto the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border: let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.”

With Edom, however, there was no sympathy for Moses’ request. It was true that they were brothers with Israel through Isaac; but for Israel they held no love. They were true children of their father Esau. The underlying desire of Esau’s life had always been to prove that he could get along without the aid of the God upon which his fathers Isaac and Abraham had always relied. He had been a proud man who had always hated God and hated his brother Jacob of his covenant relation with God. This hatred he passed on to his children. Thus the message of Moses which was actually intended to create sympathy in the Edomites, based on the mutual relationship of their fathers to the God of Abraham, only aroused the old animosities anew. The answer they gave was brief, “Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.”

To Moses and the children of Israel this answer came as a shock. They could not understand the deep seated hatred that smoldered on in the hearts of the Edomites. All they could imagine was that the Edomites were afraid that the children of Israel would damage their land. Once again they sent their messengers with their promises. “We will go by the high way: and if I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it: I will only, without doing any thing else, go through on my feet.”

The laconic reply came back, “Thou shalt not go through.” Even more to support their reply, the Edomites sent forth their armies to see that Israel did not trespass upon their land. It was a strong band of experienced fighters filled with the fierce pride and hatred of their father. They were determined in their opposition to Israel and Israel’s God.

It is almost with surprise that we find Israel commanded to turn back from the borders of Edom. After all, we know from Scripture that Edom was a reprobate nation. Already before Esau was born this was foretold to Rebecca when God said to her, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). In Malachi this is explained to mean, “And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the LORD of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation forever” (Mal. 1:3, 4). We wonder, therefore, why God did not send forth the armies of Israel to destroy this wicked nation. But the time was not ripe. Nothing would be done that might seem to give Edom an excuse to live in hatred toward Israel. It had to become evident that Edom’s hatred came without provocation from the wickedness of the heart. Then in the proper time God would descend upon them in judgment. But until that time Israel was commanded to turn away from Edom’s borders.

And also there was another reason. This new route brought Israel to the foot of Mount Hor, and it was necessary for them to pass that way. It was God’s will that upon that mountain Aaron, the High Priest, should be taken away.

There at Mount Hor God came and spoke to Moses and Aaron together. Mercifully God did not speak to Moses alone as He usually did for that would have necessitated Moses’ passing the message along to his brother. It would have been a duty almost too painful for him. The Word of God was short and to the point. “Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto Mount Hor. And strip Aaron of his garments and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there.”

Obediently the three men commanded by God took their departure from the camp and together ascended the mount. It was a sad journey that they took. Even the people in the camp, although they had not been told what was to happen, could not help but feel that there was something very ominous in what was taking place. The fact that Aaron wore the rich robes of his high priestly office implied that what was to happen was important, and the steps of the three men making their way up the mountain could hardly help but betray that there was no joy or promise in what was to take place. But the concern of the people in their ignorance could not begin to compare with the sorrow of the three men who knew what was to happen. There was the younger man Eleazar. With love and admiration he had often watched his father performing the duties of his office. He had observed the duties and responsibilities time and time again. Now all was to fall upon his shoulders, and his father would not be there to help him. The anticipation could only make him tremble, But even heavier was the burden that rested upon Moses. Through all of his labor Aaron had been a companion near to help him. As brothers they had labored together in love. Aaron’s hope as his had been to enter the land of Canaan, and now he had to watch while his life was taken away with the goal unaccomplished. But the greatest sorrow was that of Aaron. His death pointed out for all to see his sin, his weakness and limitation. In the function of his office he had fallen short, and his untimely death without the borders of Canaan testified to all that he had been a failure. Another must take his place in entering the land of promise.

In solemn silence the three men went about their duty upon the mountain. With only the heavens watching on, the robes of office were transferred from father to child. All wished that the time was not quite yet. All knew that it could not be other. God had spoken and in faithful obedience they accepted it as good. We do not know what final parting words were spoken. We do not know what final prayers were uttered. But there upon the mountain one of the great saints of Israel was taken into rest.

There was sorrow in Israel’s camp when Moses and Eleazar returned without Aaron. For thirty days they mourned his death. The fact of his death was for the nation an occasion of grief. The time and the manner was a warning of the seriousness of sin.