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B'Midbar/Numbers 17:13 And he stood between the dead and the living and the plague was stopped.
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Coming in between the high drama of Korah's rebellion, where two hundred and fifty men were killed by fire coming from the L-rd, before the earth opened to swallow the tents of Dathan and Aviram who had supported Korah, and the miraculous sign of Aharon's rod which "sprouted, not only buds but flowers and ripe almonds as well" (17:23, CJB), the episode of the plague can become lost. The people complain against Moshe and Aharon, holding them responsible for the death of all the rebels, andHaShem vows once again to destroy the entire community. Moshe tells Aharon to fill his censer with burning coals from the altar and to hurry into the middle of the assembly to make atonement for them for a plague had already started among the people. Although 14,700 people have already been killed by the plague, Aharon's swift action prevents the plague from striking down any more.
In the text we see a text-book usage of the preposition ; unlike in English where we would say "between ... and ...", in biblical Hebrew it is nearly always used in pairs: "between ... and between ...". The preposition is derived from the root , one of whose meanings is "to distinguish or discern" (Davidson). Here the contrast between the two alternatives could not be sharper: , strictly a Qal mp participle, "the dying" but frequently used as a substantive for "the dead" and , another Qal mp participle, "the living". The final verb - the Niphal prefix 3fs form of the root , "to shut, close up; to hold back, restrain, detain" (Davidson), in a vav-conversive construction - shows that rather than stopping of its own volition, the plague was stopped. Ovadiah Sforno says that "after he stood there, he remained there to protect the sick ones that they should not die"; this was the exact opposite of the command both he and Moshe had just been given: "separate yourselves from among this congregation" (B'Midbar 16:21, 17:10). TheSforno points to the effectiveness of Aharon's position: "No-one else became ill due to the illness caused by the plague." It just worked!
In his book of articles on the weekly Torah portions, Reuven Hammer tells us that "There are times when ritual actions achieve atonement. Perhaps we should understand them as prayers without words, actions that beg for divine mercy and are answered by the cessation of the plague"1. He simply did as he was told and that was enough. At the same time, what he did was unorthodox in a number of ways. How should we make sense of the other apparent questions raised by this narrative?
In the first place, incense is only ever to be offered within the sanctuary; the incense portion of the grain offerings burned on the altar of burnt offerings, "the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the L-RD" (Vayikra 2:2, NASB), twice each day on the incense altar that stands before the curtain separating the holy place from the Holy of Holies, "Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aharon sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it" (Shemot 30:7-8, ESV), and on the censer of the High Priest inside the curtain in the Holy of Holies each year on Yom Kippur: "[he shall] put the incense on the fire before the L-RD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat" (Vayikra 16:13, ESV). Infractions were treated seriously: Aharon's sons Nadab and Abihu lost their lives by burning incense in a public place: "each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the L-RD" (Vayikra 10:1, ESV), while the trial by ordeal undertaken by Korah's two hundred and fifty men was also about incense on firepans outside the Sanctuary. A second reason why Aharon's behaviour was unusual was because the High Priest was strictly forbidden any contact with the dead: "He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother" (Vayikra 21:11, ESV), yet he "stood between the dead and the living". Jacob Milgrom explains that in both cases, the commandments are set aside for the higher priority of saving life: while "forbidden to come into contact with the dead, he does so in this case in order to save the living."
Targum Neophiti paraphrases the text to read: "He stood among the dead, begging mercy for the living", adding intercession to the act of atonement. King David exercises a similar act of intercession after he has sinned against the L-rd by conducting a census of Israel. A three-day plague falls upon Israel and at its peak the prophet Gad tells David, "Go and set up an altar to the L-RD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite" (2 Samuel 24:18, JPS). David complies, even though he insists on buying the threshing floor, the ox team and all their tackle for fifty silver shekels. The text tells us that when "David built there an altar to the L-RD and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, the L-RD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague against Israel was checked" (v. 25, JPS). Milgrom adds: "Strikingly, it is the prophet, at the command of God, who suggests this solution, implying that G-d Himself could stop the destroying angel only by sacrificial means".
Don IsaacAbravanel makes a surprising statement: "There is no doubt that Moshe could have stopped the plague himself; but he wanted to give this honour to Aharon." In both the preceding conflict with Korah and the following demonstration with Aharon's staff, Moshe is the leader who acts, who hears from G-d and intercedes for the people. Would it not be natural for Moshe to act again here: to pray for the people and to bring the plague to a stop? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch responds, "Aaron had to rush into the midst of the nation condemned to death, and with the smoke from the incense rising up to G-d, the symbol of the most complete giving oneself up to G-d, place himself between the dying and the living, making atonement for them and proving himself and his mission, contrary to their accusation, the redeeming conqueror of death." Perhaps Hirsch is closer to the truth here than he thinks!
The Orthodox Study Bible2, taking its lead from the writings of the early church fathers, makes the type/anti-type explicit: "The high priest Aharon took his censer, put hot coals in it, threw incense on the coals, then censed the people. This action made atonement for then, and the plague ceased. Christ our Great High Priest offered His life-giving body on the cross (the hot coals from the altar). The smoke of the incense ascends, and Christ the Great High Priest ascended into the heavenly Holy of Holies,and sprinkled the life-giving blood of His cross on the heavenly altar."
The themes of living and dying appear together again in the Greek Scriptures. Peter tells the people assembled at Cornelius' house that Yeshua is "the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42, ESV). Rav Sha'ul goes further and explains that "Messiah died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living" (Romans 14:9, ESV). In Peter's first letter, he adds that everyone: "will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead" (1 Peter 4:5-6, ESV). Both the living and the dead will be judged by Yeshua, whether physically dead or alive when He returns. This is why the gospel has been preached to both the living and dead, so that no-one should be without excuse and all should be made aware of the offer of salvation and the choice that they have to make.
The incense from Aharon's censer rose from the midst of the people as he stood in the desert between the living and the dead. The blood of Yeshua's rose from His sacrifice on the cross, in the midst of the people Israel as He was crucified between two thieves outside the walls of Jerusalem and stands alive today between the living and the dead of the ages. If the incense stopped the plague and made atonement, "how much more will the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to G-d, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living G-d" (Hebrews 9:14, ESV). We too are called to stand between the living and the dead in our world, to let our lives and words rise before G-d as a sweet-smelling savour as we give ourselves over to His service. We too can bring life to the dead for "we are the aroma of the Messiah, both among those being saved and among those being lost" (2 Corinthians 2:15, CJB).
1. - Reuven Hammer, Entering Torah - Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion, Gefen Publishing House, 2009, page 223
2. - The Orthodox Study Bible, St Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Thomas Nelson, 2008
Further Study: Isaiah 26:19; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:24-25
Where will you go to find life? As the angel said to the women who came to
the empty tomb, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5,
ESV). Let us today turn away from death and the things that
lead to death and find new life in the life of our crucified and risen
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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© Jonathan Allen, 2014
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.