Mount Hor Numbers 20:22-29

Mount Hor

Numbers 20:22-29

by John Kitto, Daily Bible Illustrations

When the Hebrew host was last at Kadesh, it had clearly been intended that their passage into the land of Canaan should be by the south. We now find, however, that this course is abandoned, and that it is intended to make the inroad from the east, above the head of the Dead Sea. The reason for this change is not given; and some have speculated that it arose from the nature of the country, or from the character of the inhabitants. But these reasons would have been equally operative against their first approach in that quarter; and the face of the country could have presented no obstacles comparable to the obstacle which the river Jordan offered to an approach on the east. It is our strong conviction, that the real reason of the change was, that the faith of the new generation might be strengthened by a miracle as signal as any that their fathers knew, and calculated to facilitate their intended conquest, by striking dismay into the hearts of the inhabitants.

In accordance with this intention, Moses sent ambassadors to the king of Edom, soliciting permission to pass through his territory, which was necessary to enable him to get into the country east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan. The message was highly conciliatory. The king was reminded of the relationship between the two nations; he was informed of their deliverance from Egypt; and he was told that they were on the way to the land which the Lord had promised them for a possession. To relieve him from any apprehensions from the passage of so large a host through his territory, he was assured that the Israelites had no hostile intentions, and would not in any way molest the inhabitants. They would only “pass through on their feet,” and would pay for whatever they required; even the water they would not drink without paying for it. This is a stipulation which would not be thought of with us; but was of very great importance in a country where the inhabitants depend, during the greater part of the year, upon the water which may be collected in the season when rain falls. The king returns a very churlish answer, not only refusing a passage through his country, but threatening to oppose them by force of arms if they made the attempt. This they were not allowed to do; but were enjoined to respect the fraternal tie which the Edomitish king was so little disposed to acknowledge. They were therefore to retrace their steps to the head of the eastern gulf of the Red Sea, where the land of Edom ended, and passing round the extremity of the chain of mountains, which constituted the chief part of that realm, put themselves on the eastern border of that territory, and so proceed northward to the region east of the Dead Sea. A reference to any map of this district, will show that the mountains of Edom extended along the eastern side of that broad valley (the Arabah), which lies between the Dead Sea and the gulf of Arabah. It is down this valley that they seem to have proceeded on their retrogressive movement. On the way they encamped at Mosera, which seems to have been at or near the present Wady Mûsa, in which he the ruins of Petra, the city whose marvellous excavations have only within the present century been brought to light, and which have since formed the theme of many able pencils and eloquent pens. The encampment must, we apprehend, have been in the neighborhood of the mouth of this valley, and in presence of Mount Hor.

This mountain is of important Scriptural interest; for, arrived at this spot, Aaron, in obedience to his recent doom, was commanded to go up to this mount, and die. He was to be accompanied by his brother and his eldest son, who were to divest him of his priestly robes, to receive his dying sigh, and to deposit his remains safely in this high place. The spot was probably selected, not only to impress the Israelites with the solemnity of the occasion, but to enable the dying pontiff to give one last look over the camp of Israel, surrounding, in goodly rows, the tabernacle of God; to survey the scene of his long pilgrimage; and to catch a distant glimpse of the utmost borders of the promised land, before stepping across the boundary between this world and the world to come. There is no doubt whatever about the mountain which was the scene of this transaction. Even local tradition has preserved the memory of this event, the mountain itself bears the name of Aaron (Harun); and upon the top an old Moslem tomb stands to his honor, which is much visited by Mohammedan pilgrims, few of whom quit the place without sacrificing a sheep in honor of the Jewish saint.

Mount Hor juts out in a singular manner, like an advanced post of the mountains of Edom; and from its isolated peak, the eye plunges down the rugged ribs of the mountain itself, into a maze of fathomless defiles, which, advancing out for some miles from the great central range, or back-bone of the country, and sinking gradually from the Wady el-Arabah, form the ancient territory of Edom, well styled in Scripture a “nest in the rocks,” a natural fortification, enclosing narrow valleys of difficult access; some of which are seen from this exalted post. Of this wilderness of craggy summits, some are sharp and jagged, without footing even for a gazelle; others are buttressed and built up as if by art, in huge square piles rising from a narrow table-land; while the great central range from which they project, is quite dissimilar in appearance, being rounded and smooth, and covered with fine pasturage, proverbially excellent. To the west, in the view from the summit of this mountain, lies the valley of el-Arabah, like the bed of a vast river, encumbered with shoals of sand, and sprinkled over with stunted shrubs; beyond expands the desert, in which Israel wandered for thirty-eight years, until the whole host perished; to the north are seen the mountains of the promised land, upon which, doubtless, Aaron cast his last look when he died; to the south the Arabah stretches away to the Red Sea, where Israel turned eastward, and thence northward “to compass the land of Edom;” to the east a magnificent range of yellowish mountains bound the view; between which and the mountains on which we stand, once lay nestled among the rocks the fair city of Petra. “So strongly marked are the features of this region, and so preserved by their sublime unchanging barrenness, that when we beheld at once the defiles of Edom, the frontier hills of Palestine, the Arabah, and, far stretched out to the westward, the great sepulchral wilderness, the lapse of ages is forgotten, and those touching and solemn events rise up before the mind with an almost startling reality.” Note: Bartlett, Forty Days in the Desert. See also Robinson, Wilson, Durbin, Irby and Mangles, etc. The first description of the spot by Burckhardt is still well worth consulting.

The building on the top of the mountain, called the Tomb of Aaron, and doubtless either upon or close to the spot where he died and was buried, differs little in appearance from the tombs of sheikhs in the principal villages of Egypt, and perhaps does not date farther back than many of these. It seems to have been constructed on the site of another and much better edifice, whose foundation walls are visible amid the rubbish, a part of whose beautiful mosaic pavement may be seen in the floor of the present tomb, and the sections of whose columns are worked into its walls, while a beautifully carved piece of pure white marble crowns the rude dome. The interior contains nothing but a small square tomb, about four feet high, constructed with the fragments of the former more costly building. On it, as votive offerings deposited by pilgrims, lie a few white and red rags, and above it hang some tattered garments and ostrich eggs. The panel at one end contains a long Arabic inscription. This is the visible tomb of the great high-priest, but the grave is in a vault below. Lighting a torch, one may descend into the vault by a flight of three steps, and stand before a niche cut in the living rock, and once defended by beautiful brass doors of open work, which now hang suspended by cords instead of turning on hinges. This subterraneous apartment is small, filled with rubbish, begrimed with the smoke of flambeaux, and altogether of a most forbidding aspect. It would seem to have been a small subterranean chapel; and no one will, of course, entertain the notion, that it was excavated by Moses and Eleazer when they buried the high-priest of Israel here.