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Well, if you'll remember (of course you will!) Aaron had four sons—"Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar" (3:2). Nadab and Abihu perished in an unfortunate incident during Leviticus. The dunces offered God "unholy fire" (3:4) and were struck dead right then and there. Seriously. Rookie mistake.
Aaron's other two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, on the other hand, managed not to screw up things inside the tabernacle and served God as priests until they died. Of natural causes. You go, younger brothers.
Aaron was the first ever Jewish priest (also called a kohen). God, via Moses, gave Aaron and his male descendants the power of the priesthood forever (3:3). Even today, in Judaism, modern priests are said to be descended from the line of Aaron. So, just what did the job of a priest entail back then?
It looks like a pretty awesome gig, right?
Well, there was the whole mess-up-anything-and-I'll-kill-you thing going on, too. Remember Nadab and Abihu? If anything was mishandled inside the tabernacle the penalty was… death. Hey, God is really serious about the way he wants his candlesticks displayed.
So really, being Aaron wasn't always that fun and exciting. Sure, he was in charge of the tabernacle and was pretty much second-in-command to his brother, but that also means he got lots of grief. When the Israelites questioned Moses, they took some jabs at Aaron, too.
When the 250 men approach Moses to complain, they're kind of annoyed that they can't be the ones who talk to God and get to burn incense inside the tabernacle (like Aaron). Of course, God's got Aaron's back and he strikes all these naysayers dead. Or as God puts it "no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord" (16:40). Bam.
Another time, God tries to settle all this squabbling by asking one man from each of the twelve tribes to leave a staff inside the tabernacle. The next morning, Aaron's staff "had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds" (17:8). Get it, guys? God's kind of down with Aaron.
But Aaron isn't immune to this kind of jealousy either. He and his sister, Miriam, gang up against Moses and wonder why they don't get to talk to God, too. Getting to be the only one who walks inside the tent of meeting isn't good enough for you, Aaron?
To his credit, when Aaron sees that God has punished Miriam for their disobedience he begs Moses, "Oh, my Lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed" (12:1). Foolish is right. After that, when Moses tells Aaron to jump, he asks, "How high? And how many sticks of incense do you want me to light while doing so?"
For his noble service to the Lord, Aaron gets to live a long life—he finally dies when he's at the ripe old age of 123 (33:39). Of course, this is after forty years of wandering with the other Israelites in the wilderness. Whoa. That's pretty bad timing.
Even after all the good he's done, Aaron also gets shut out of the Promised Land with Moses. If only they had been more careful when using their staffs to get water out of that rock. God does not play around when it comes to this stuff:
"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." (20:24)
On the plus side, Aaron does get to pass the torch to his son, Eleazar. God instructs them to go up to Mount Hor where "Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments, and put them on his son Eleazar" (20:28). Then, Aaron dies. Bummer.
Luckily, Eleazar goes on to have a pretty awesome career as a priest. In Numbers alone he:
He's a pretty important guy.
And even Eleazar's son Phinehas gets in on the action. When Moses refuses to do anything about the man who married the Midianite woman (sinner!), Phinehas is the one who takes a spear and stabs the man and his wife. It's gruesome, but good. God says, "Phinehas[…] has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf" (25:11). Gee, thanks, Phinehas.
But what happened to Aaron's other son? Ithamar? Itha-who? Exactly. Sure, he still gets to be a priest along with his older brother, but he doesn't get any of the cool duties. Basically, this brother gets to look after some of the Levites while they're moving the tabernacle (4:28, 33). It's a lightweight job.
It seems like there might have been some tension between the descendents of Eleazar and Ithamar. Both had a claim to the priesthood, but which family line would get the position of high priest? Clearly, Numbers is coming down on the side of Eleazar and company.
Hey, better luck next time, Ithamar.