“Old Mrs. Jones died yesterday.” “Old Mrs. Jones expired yesterday.” “Old Mrs. Jones passed away yesterday.” “Old Mrs. Jones kicked the bucket yesterday.” “Old Mrs. Jones bought the farm yesterday.” The English language has numerous words and idioms to describe death; thus, the one conveying news of another’s death must choose a word or phrase that captures the intended connotation.
Bible translators have choices to make when a word in the original language of Scripture can accurately be translated into two or more English words, such as the situation found in Numbers 20:29: “And when all the congregation saw that Aaron _____, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.” In recording the end of Aaron’s life, different words are used by different translators: died, passed away, was dead, hath expired. Translators of the English Standard Version stand alone in their choice of the word “perished” to describe Aaron’s departure from the earth. This is certainly an acceptable translation, since the Hebrew word announcing his death is used in other places in the Bible and is translated “perished” (see Genesis 7:21, Zechariah 13:8). Perished, however, has a unique connotation that is borne out by the definition of the English word. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word as follows: “to become destroyed or ruined; cease to exist.” With this definition in mind, the following question requires an answer: Does the word perished accurately described what happened to Aaron? A look at the circumstances leading to his death provides an answer.
Living with the Israelites must surely have taxed the patience of both Moses and Aaron. As “God’s people” wandered the wilderness due to their rebellion against God, they took numerous opportunities to let their dissatisfaction be known. They complained of hunger and thirst, often expressing the desire to return to Egypt. They complained about the leadership of Moses and Aaron, seeking others to lead them back to Egypt. Throughout this period of their history, Moses and Aaron were lights in the midst of a dark generation of rebels. Even when God would exercise just punishment for the people’s murmurings, often Moses and Aaron acted on their behalf; they sought mercy for a people they knew were in no way deserving of such favor. Still, they pleaded and a kind God listened.
Many generations later, the apostle Paul warned the Corinthian Christians that “bad company ruins good morals” (I Corinthians 15:33 ESV). Sadly, this fact was well-proven in the lives of Moses and Aaron. Upon hearing the people murmur yet again about their lack of water, God stood ready to provide for their needs. In speaking to Moses, the Lord commanded, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8). Sadly, the Lord’s command was not heeded: ‘Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock” (vv. 10-11). God was not pleased. Calling the two before Him, He stated, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (v. 12). Though righteous in so many ways, Moses and Aaron gave way to rebellion; just as the Israelites had not counted God as holy, through disobedience to His command and by crediting themselves for His gift of grace, Moses and Aaron also failed to count Him holy. Receiving the same punishment as their wayward compatriots, neither Moses nor Aaron would set foot in the land of God’s promise.
Upon reaching Mount Hor, the time had come for Aaron’s departure from the earth. God instructed Moses to take Aaron and his son Eleazar upon the mountain, where Aaron would transfer the high priestly garments to his son. As Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the people mourned, knowing what had happened to Aaron; but what had happened? Had he died or perished? Note again the English definition of the word perish: “to become destroyed or ruined.” Rebellion had ruined Aaron; it had destroyed his ability to effectively lead the people as their high priest. Not only this, it had ruined his opportunity to enjoy the blessings that lay in store for the next generation of Israelites. Though a strong word that is often reserved for such events as dying on a sinking ship, “perished” accurately reflects the outcome of one who gives in to rebellion against God; indeed, there is nothing peaceful about a death caused by such thought or action.
Readers looking back on this sad event often have a feeling of sympathy for these two men of God. In human reasoning, their actions could easily be justified and their punishment considered too harsh; however, God knows best and God knows justice. Instead of questioning God, the reader does well to reflect on his or her own spiritual status. There is little doubt that 21st century Christians live amongst a rebellious generation; therefore caution must be taken. Both Moses and Aaron prove that faithful people can succumb to the poor behavior of peers. In truth, all Christians deserve death because all have rebelled against God (see Romans 3:23). Surely, those who have known rebellion and the death sentence it entails will think twice before forfeiting the blood of Jesus in order to return to the rebellious state of sin. Still, bad company ruins good morals. May each child of God examine his or her own life and make sure that both actions and attitude demonstrate the respect which God deserves and not of those displayed by rebellious peers. God desires to save: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (II Peter 3:9). May every child of God live so that perishing is not an option; may each live so that when this life comes to an end, there will be a gentle passing into the arms of the Lord.