Question: "What is the significance of Aaron standing between the dead and the living (Numbers 16:48)?"
Answer: Numbers 16 begins with 250 of Israel’s leaders challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were leaders of the rebellion. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Moses tells Aaron, the high priest, to make atonement for the people by standing between the dead and the living (Numbers 16:48). This act of standing between the dead and the living is significant for a few reasons.
Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled because they were envious of the honorable positions that Moses and Aaron held over the congregation. Along with 250 other prominent Israelite leaders, they provoked a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Moses proposed that all of them appear before the Lord and let Yahweh decide who was His chosen leader.
The next day, the Lord confirmed His choice of Moses and Aaron by opening up the earth to swallow every last dissenting leader associated with Korah, along with their households and all their possessions: “They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, ‘The earth is going to swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense” (Numbers 16:33–35).
After this, the Israelites blamed Moses and Aaron for the rebels’ deaths, so God brought a plague against the people. Moses, the benevolent mediator, immediately sent Aaron with a censer of incense to make atonement for the people, saying, “Quick, take an incense burner and place burning coals on it from the altar. Lay incense on it, and carry it out among the people to purify them and make them right with the LORD. The LORD’s anger is blazing against them—the plague has already begun” (Numbers 16:46, NLT).
To bring the atonement, Aaron would have to go near the dead bodies, and as a high priest, he was supposed to avoid all contact with the dead to remain ceremonially clean (Leviticus 21:11). But to save the living among them, he immediately obeyed Moses’ instruction. Aaron humbled himself and risked ritual contamination for the sake of the people. As he stood literally “between the living and the dead” with the incense in his hand, the devastating plague ended, but not before 14,700 more Israelites had died.
Aaron was a faithful intercessor and a model for all future ministers. With the smoke of his censer rising to God, he exemplified compassionate, forgiving intercession. Aaron’s actions as high priest form a beautifully symbolic picture of God’s servants interceding in the space between life and death. A genuine servant of God is intent on saving the lives of fellow humans.
In standing between the living and the dead, Aaron was a foreshadower of Jesus Christ. This image of the priestly intercessor has its ultimate fulfillment in the redemptive work of Christ. Jesus, a “high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17), sacrificed His own life and took upon Himself the sins of humanity through His death on the cross. He did this to gain salvation and eternal life for a rebellious human race infected with the “plague” of sin (1 John 2:2; Hebrews 9:15, 26).
The expression standing between the dead and the living also resonates in God’s command for His people to choose between disobedience, which ends in death, and obedience, which leads to life: “Today I am giving you a choice between life and death. . . . For I command you this day to love the LORD your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. . . . I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life” (Deuteronomy 30:15–20, NLT).
Finally, standing between the dead and the living is a picture of intercessory prayer. Throughout the Bible, incense is symbolic of prayer (Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10; Revelation 5:8; 8:3–4). In effect, Aaron was standing in the gap to intercede in prayer for the people of Israel.