On the Edge of Promise: “Letting Go of Our Aarons”
Numbers 20: 22-29
to the biblical story, God’s original plan was to lead the Israelites out of
didn’t work out. The book of Numbers,
chapter 11, describes how the Israelites disappointed God by choosing not to
decided it would take a new generation to enter the Promised Land … that the
Israelites would not be ready for the Promised Land of freedom until the
entire generation who had been slaves in
would be the sons and daughters of the slaves in
Our theme this Lent is “On the Edge of Promise.” We are asking the questions: what kept the biblical Israelites stuck on the edge of the Promised Land? What do they finally have to do to make it to the Promised Land?
We ask these questions because it is not only the Israelites who are stuck on the edge of promise. The Israelites’ story is the story of every freedom movement, every new society being born, every congregation seeking to be faithful, and it is my story and your story. We, too, get stuck at the edge of Promise.
Between now and Easter (we’ll take a Sunday off next week to listen to Brahms) but otherwise between now and Easter we will look at what needed to finally happen for the Israelites to make it into the Promised Land.
This morning we are in Numbers, chapter 20. It is 38 years later, after the Israelites had failed to enter the Promised Land the first time, and the Israelites are once again on the edge of the Promised Land. What needs to happen this time finally in order for the Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land?
One of the very first things that needs to happen is that they need to let go of Aaron. They will eventually need to let go of Moses too, but they need to let go of Aaron first. If Moses had died before Aaron they probably would have never made it to the Promised Land.
This final push over the edge of Promise into the Promised Land begins with the death of Aaron, and the Israelites letting him go.
Aaron was Moses’ older brother. When God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery, Moses protested that he wasn’t up to the task because he was a poor public speaker, so God assigned Aaron to be his spokesperson.
Moses and Aaron went to confront Pharaoh together. Moses supplied the words, Aaron spoke them. It was Aaron who performed miracles with his staff to persuade Pharaoh that he was up against a powerful God. (Exodus 7: 8-13)
were a team in
Numbers 20: 24 says: “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.”
What happened at Meribah? After crossing out of slavery into the wilderness it was while the Israelites were camped at Meribah that they discovered there was not enough water. The Sinai wilderness was, after all, a desert. When the people realized there wasn’t water in the desert, they became very upset and anxious and contentious. Moses and Aaron became very upset and anxious. They went to the tent of meeting and fell on their faces and asked God what to do.
told them to take Aaron’s staff[i],
the one he had worked miracles with in
When they got to the rock, with all the upset and contentious people watching, instead of speaking to the rock as God had told Moses to do, Moses took Aaron’s staff and hit the rock with it twice, and then the water flowed. Meanwhile Aaron did nothing.
This is the rebellion which causes God to not let Moses and Aaron enter the Promised Land.
Scholars are nonplussed by this story. William Propp in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, asks, “Why is Moses punished for such a trivial sin and Aaron for no sin at all?”[ii] All Moses did was get upset and hit a rock. He didn’t hit a person or even an animal. Just a rock.
And Aaron? All Aaron did was stand there. Why would God punish this?
But the scholars don’t get it. It wasn’t that God punished Aaron and Moses by not allowing them to enter the Promised Land, it was that the Israelites couldn’t enter the Promised Land under Aaron’s and Moses’ leadership because if they did it wouldn’t turn out to be the Promised Land … they would turn it back into Egypt.
And here is the key. The Hebrew name Meribah means “strife.” Strife – conflict, discord, struggle. Strife.
The Israelites couldn’t handle strife. Moses and Aaron couldn’t handle strife. It caused Moses to become impatient and almost violent.
And what about Aaron? the scholars ask. Aaron didn’t do anything … which is exactly the point. Strife immobilized and paralyzed Aaron. He didn’t do anything.
Meribah, it becomes worse. Aaron becomes more and more disabled by strife …
until he is willing to do anything to avoid it. To avoid strife and appease
the people he even makes the Israelites’ an idol – the golden calf – while
Moses is up on
In order to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites need to let go of both Moses and Aaron, but they need to let go of Aaron first. Aaron is the embodiment of the fantasy/wish/dream all of us have that life could be lived without strife, community could exist without disagreements and conflict, we would just love each other and get along all the time.
But there is no Promised Land unless we can face our disagreements and conflicts and differences and work our way through them to reconciliation and peace.
Aaron was the embodiment of the Israelites’ wish – and our wish – for a cheap peace, pseudo-community, that ignores and covers over differences instead of recognizing them and working them through. He was the embodiment of the fantasy of a marriage or committed relationship where no one ever argues, a society without conflicting interests, a congregation in which everybody loves each other all the time without working at it, and a life without struggle.
To enter the Promised Land, the Israelites had to let go of Aaron.
Life is strife. Community is strife. A friend of mine says the only time we don’t have tension in our lives is when we are dead. Life is strife.
You can’t have a freedom movement without internal strife. Freedom movements start out with everyone unified and in one accord in a rosy glow, but they die unless people can move beyond this artificial unanimity and learn how to manage strife.
The civil rights movement, like every freedom movement, was full of internal strife. One of the early turning points of the civil rights movement, I think, was when Dr. King realized that he could manage the internal strife within the movement – that it would not destroy him and that it would not destroy the movement.
Dr. King said that Mother Pollard taught him this. Back in those days African-American congregations had church mothers. Some still do. They were wise, tough, parental older women who often held the churches together.
Mother Pollard (apparently no one knew her actual first name, she was just called Mother) – Mother Pollard became famous early in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Because of her age, some people had urged Mother Pollard to drop out of the boycott and ride the buses. Mother Pollard had refused. She made an offhand comment in response. She said: “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Her spontaneous remark became a classic refrain of the boycott.[iv]
There was a point when it was becoming clear that the boycott was not going to be a short-term effort. There began to be increasing discord and tension within the movement. The NAACP had refused to endorse the boycott, and Dr. King had publicly criticized the NAACP. He was getting nasty phone calls from white racists but he was bothered even more by a constant barrage of angry phone calls from African-Americans who were upset about the car pool or some other aspect of the boycott. There was a lot of disagreement about strategy.
At a rally in Ralph Abernathy’s church one night during the midst of all this, Dr. King’s speech had not gone as well as usual. Just after he finished speaking, Mother Pollard got up and slowly made her way to the front of the church. When the crowd saw her walk onto the platform they became quiet and especially attentive.
Mother Pollard motioned to Dr. King and said, “Come here, son.” Dr. King walked over to her and she put her arms around him in a motherly hug. “Something is wrong with you,” she said. “You didn’t talk strong tonight.”
Dr. King answered: “Oh no, Mother Pollard. Nothing is wrong. I am feeling fine as ever.”
Mother Pollard said to Dr. King: “Now you can’t fool me. I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks are bothering you?”
Everyone was watching. Dr. King was flustered and didn’t seem to know what to say. Mother Pollard moved her face close to his and said loudly: “I done told you we is with you all the way. But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.”
Dr. King said later that with her words, “fearlessness [came] over him in the form of raw power.[v]
“We is with you all the way. But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.” Even if we ain’t with you, God will take care of you.
We can’t enter the Promised Land unless we can live with and manage strife. Meribah. The Israelites had to give up the fantasy of life without strife before they could enter the Promised Land.
It is the same with congregations. Peter Steinke says the ability to face and deal with strife is the sign of a healthy church. “A healthy congregation,” he says, “is not one with an absence of trouble [but] one that actively and responsibly addresses or heals its disturbances.”[vi]
There is no healthy marriage without strife. There is no healthy family without strife. There is no healthy congregation without strife. There is no healthy society without strife.
One of my Lenten disciplines this year is to spend some time every day thinking and reading about war. Some of you have shared resources with me I have found very helpful. One way of being Aarons is to deny and avoid strife by pretending a cheap love that tries to paint over differences rather than work through them, a sort of golden calf orgy.
But isn’t war another way of trying to deny and avoid strife? Isn’t war really an attempt to live without strife by having one side conquer and destroy the other? War is the consequence of not being able to live with and tolerate our differences. We need to eradicate them.
We can’t enter the Promised Land unless we can live with and manage our strife without having a collapse over our differences or destroying one other. In the Promised Land we are able to stand other people not thinking like us, not acting like us, not being like us, not always liking us.
There is surely an Aaron inside all of us. The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Aaron inside us a “wish dream,” a “dream world.” The German word is Wunschbild, a wish picture.
Bonhoeffer says that many of us have a “wish dream” of what we think Christian community should be, and it ends up destroying Christian community. He writes: “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. [Anyone] who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”[vii]
This applies, I think, to every kind of community – marriage and committed relationships, family, neighborhood, congregation, nation. If we fall in love with what we think an ideal partner will be, it will be impossible to love the actual partner we have. If we fall in love with an ideal fantasy of marriage or partnership, it will be impossible to give ourselves to the real partnerships we make.
Bonhoeffer says falling in love with our wish dream fantasies can keep us from loving real people.
There is no community without strife, no life without struggle, no growth without pain. We want easy love so badly, but love is always costly. It always comes by way of the cross.
We need to let go of our Aarons to get to the Promised Land.
[i] Although the RSV translators suggest in Numbers it was Moses’ staff, William A. Propp argues convincingly that this is a mistranslation. The Hebrew only says “the staff” not “his staff” as it is translated. According to Propp, the story makes more sense if it was Aaron’s staff. Propp, “Meribah,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4 K-N (Doubleday), 703.
[ii] See “Meribah” above, 703.
[iii] In the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32: 1-6), verse 6 says “the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to revel.” The Hebrew word for “revel” has a connotation of “sexual play,” according to John I. Durham, Word Bible Commentary: Exodus (Word Books), 422.
Branch, Parting the Waters:
[v] Branch, 163-4.
[vii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Harper and Row), 26-7.