But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’S people.” It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Then they fell on their faces. Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!” Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.
Say what you will about Aaron. He has his own moments of rebellion and failure, of which the golden calf is not least, but in this moment, I am struck by his courage. He shows us something about what a pastor ought to be.
The Lord has finally had enough of the Israelites’ grumbling and determines to destroy them. (You see, when they grumble against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, they grumble against the guidance of God Himself, who directs Moses and Aaron.) I know I probably would have said, “Go to it, Lord! They deserve it!” But when Moses tells his brother to make atonement for the people’s sin, the priest does not hesitate.
It’s right there in verse 47. Aaron “ran into the midst of the assembly.” As fast as he can, Aaron bravely steps between the people and imminent destruction at the hands of a (rightfully) wrathful God. Without regard for his own safety (plagues are contagious!), he acts quickly, doing what he must to deliver the Israelites from the consequences of their rebellion.
In my opinion, Aaron did several things in this one act. First, he showed grace to the people. They deserved what they were about to receive, but he did what was necessary to give them what they did not deserve: continued life. Sounds like someone else I know. (I believe this is what’s known as displaying Godly character!)
Second, he showed that He loved the people. What evidence do I have for this? It is just my opinion, but I find it hard to believe that someone would rush into the midst of a plague-ridden mass of people whom he did not love.
Finally, he showed faith in God’s plan. If he had not believed God’s promise to give the nation of Israel a land of its own, what would have been the purpose of saving them? He shows great trust that God will do what he promised for the descendants of Abraham despite the destruction that occurs here.
Like all of us, Aaron was human, but for at least this moment, he gives us a picture of a true pastor. I pray that all of us – full-time, bi-vocational, paid, volunteer, church staff, or lay-people – who seek to lead the people of God in some capacity would strive to act as Aaron acts here.