Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befallen us: how our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt for a long time; and the Egyptians oppressed us and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt; and here we are in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’
But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.’ The Israelites said to him, ‘We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against them with a large force, heavily armed. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory; so Israel turned away from them.
They set out from Kadesh, and the Israelites, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, ‘Let Aaron be gathered to his people. For he shall not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and his son Eleazar, and bring them up Mount Hor; strip Aaron of his vestments, and put them on his son Eleazar. But Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and shall die there.’ Moses did as the Lord had commanded; they went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole congregation. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments, and put them on his son Eleazar; and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron for thirty days. — Numbers 20:14-29 (NRSV)
In the saga of the Israelites after their leaving Egypt, these two episodes seem to be a little unrelated, other than that they both take place on the journey. The first tells of the Israelites coming to the borders of Edom, the land of the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s (Israel’s) twin brother. Moses had sent messengers to ask permission to cross their territory, even offering to pay for any provisions or damage, calling on the king of Edom to remember the bonds of kinship. The king refused, and the Israelites headed another way.
The second story is also about kinship, in a way. Aaron, Moses’s brother and chief priest of the Israelite band, was about to die. He had done a lot of good things, but he had also done some snarky ones, including fomenting discord with his sister and fellow prophet Miriam over Moses’ leadership (for which Miriam got punished and Aaron didn’t), yielding to pressure and fashioning a golden calf for the people to worship, and being with Moses when Moses struck the rock to which God had ordered him to speak. His ultimate punishment was death on the journey, not in the promised land — as was the punishment for the entire generation of Israelites who had begun the exodus from Egypt, including Moses.
With Aaron on his deathbed, his successor as chief priest needed to be appointed. The successor would not only inherit the responsibilities for leading the rites and practices of the Israelites, but also the very raiment that marked the high priest. The tunic, the turban, the breastpiece, robe, ephod, even the breeches all had a practical meaning (as a reminder of various laws and practices) but also symbolic ones. The handing over of these garments, or, as the text puts it, the “stripping” of Aaron and the placing on Eleazar conveys the transfer of power and prestige, but also responsibility as well. Elisha inherited Elijah’s mantle, and with it the position of chief prophet for Israel.
Often when there is a change of leadership it is referred to as the successor inheriting the mantle of the predecessor, even if the successor takes the corporation, church or group in an entirely different direction. Inheriting a mantle conveys responsibility for the welfare of those being led, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Televangelists’ children often inherit the church that their father had built up through charisma and God’s guidance, but the second generation doesn’t always sustain the growth and may even lead to the downfall of the entire edifice. Children of corporate moguls may (or may not) be successful in continuing the growth of the company that had made their parent so successful. Even disciples might not live up to the responsibility laid on them by the visible or invisible “mantle” of their teacher. Sometimes the parent themselves see that the offspring are not really interested in the family business or adept at management at the level to which they might be raised. A successful parent does not always mean a successful child as successor.
Aaron made mistakes, of that there was no doubt. He also tried to do what God wanted, but his humanity made him as fallible as any other human being. Priestly garb or not, he could only do his best, even if that weren’t always good enough. I wonder — does God choose people for special jobs or positions knowing that they might fail simply because of their human nature? Does God lay a mantle on them with the expectation that they will grow into it or that it will always remain a size or two too large? How much do we expect of our children? Do we lay on them the mantle of wanting them to do better than we did as parents, workers and examples?
I think I need to look at the mantle God has laid on me, but first I have to discern what that mantle is. It’s not an obvious one, like Aaron’s ephod, tunic and turban or Elijah’s cloak, but it’s there somewhere. Identifying the mantle is one thing, growing into it is another. It sounds like a project that may take me years, and there might be a few golden calves or struck rocks on the way. Still, all I can do is my best. God expects that, but still allows for my humanity.
Somehow, that is a comforting thought.