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  • Writer's pictureTight Spine

Smoke gets in your eyes - Part 2

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

Moses stepped back and bumped into two of the elders of Israel and realized that the mass of them had followed him there. Each set of eyes were somber but supportive. The growing crowd was pushing toward the tents of the three families. Moses called out a warning to the people gathering, “Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram!” The elders fanned out, echoing words of warning and shooing people away. Returning, the elders gathered again around Moses at a safe distance away. The tight community had complied and receded. The tension grew and the sky darkened. Dathan and Abiram nervously fidgeted next to their wives with their children huddled around them. The two men and their families sheepishly looked to Korah’s wives, who stood yards away in front of their tents. They stood alone with their children. Korah was at the Tabernacle with all of the other men, preparing to offer incense.

In a flash, the ground split directly in front of Moses and spanned the distance under the tents of the three families. Moses did not hear the screams of the people around him, as his eyes were locked on the deep brown eyes of a little girl in the arms of Korah’s first wife.


Night fell and Moses lay in the darkness of his tent. In the shadows of his tent he relived the toddler’s eyes widening ever so briefly as the ground split. The spring of her tight curls and her dimpled fingers spreading upward were the last things he saw as the ground gave away and the abyss took her, the doll in her arms, and her entire family to the grave. Moses was the last man she ever saw.

The cries of the people echoed in the night from the various tents around him. Bitter sobs ebbed in his throat. The day had been utterly horrible. Every single tent peg, every sandal, and every person living in the family tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were gone - vanished. It was as if they had never existed. Korah’s older children that had their own families and tents were spared, but the rest were gone. Wiped away. Erased.

Moses turned in bed, squeezing tears through his tightly shut eyes as he moaned to God – now face down on the pillow. Feeling the pressure on his face, he was tortured by another facet of the memory. He had been lifted off of the ground by two elders, his forehead and cheeks bearing small bits of earth and impression of tiny pebbles, small twigs and leaves clung to his beard as his mouth gaped, throat raw from screaming. The tips of his fingers ached against the sheets from fresh cuts and abrasions. He had madly clawed at the freshly disturbed dirt before him. The little girl and her family were gone in the blink of an eye. The ground was freshly disturbed but flat, as if prepared for spring planting.

The same men that had helped him to his feet had walked him, all of them sobbing, back to the Tabernacle. They could smell burnt hair long before entering the courtyard. Mothers were screaming and wailing, some being held back by Levites and others too terrified to come any closer, and some women were sitting profoundly silent on the ground in shock. He had made his way, shaking, to the front of the tent. Korah and the two hundred and fifty men lay smoldering on the ground, arms and legs drawn as if crouching to spar with some unseen enemy.

God had not spared a single man. In the middle of all of the screams and smoke stood Aaron. Barely standing, but standing. His eyes were vacant, his face slack, and his hands hung limply at his sides. Moses had gone to him and the two held each other, not saying a word. Over Aaron’s shoulder Moses saw his hand still clenched around a fistful of dirt that he had carried from the camp. Continuing to sob he willed his hand to relax, and released the soil into the light wind that had stirred around the two men.

Though Moses could once again feel his bedclothes around him, he could still smell of soil suspended in the air, the smell of charred flesh, the smell of burning hair. His mind replayed the blackened ground, the smoking bodies, the screaming. He shuddered and a fresh cry formed in his throat - Lord, the screaming. And now, the whole community was grieving in the dark of night as Egypt had. Oh God, Moses thought – please do not forsake your people. These are your people. Not someone else’s first born, not someone else’s kids. Remember your people.


Moses blinked to the low morning sunlight. His head throbbed as he dressed and slowly made his way to the Tent. Ashes were on every head and face he passed, their garments torn. Children eerily quiet. Women sniffled, heads down as they tended morning fires. Moses found Aaron at the Tabernacle crouched near the side of the tent. The dead had been removed in the night.

Moses stared for a long time at the side of Aaron’s weary face and finally asked if he had slept at all. Aaron shook his head and absentmindedly ran his fingertips through the bells and pomegranates in the fringe on the hem of his robe. His low voice explained that his wife had met him at the courtyard entrance and the two had spent the night trying to comfort each other the best way they knew. Elisheba had whispered something in his ear that had made so much sense. Something to the effect that the community couldn’t have understand the burden of the priesthood until now.

The brothers sighed together and looked again over their shoulders at the charred ground. The censers had been removed, just as the Lord had commanded. To the northeast, the hammering had begun. Bezalel and Oholiab would oversee the censers being pounded thin to overlay the altar. It would be a visible and ever-present reminder that no one except a descendant of Aaron could burn incense before the Lord.

So much death in one day. Moses and Aaron crouched there, alternately looking at each other and the ground in front of the tent. There were no words. The silence between them did not last long. Aaron lightly hit Moses on the shoulder and he looked up. Unfathomable. The people were gathering and filing into the courtyard temple. Brows were furrowed, fists shaking in the air, and they yelled, “You have killed the Lord’s people!”

Aaron groaned aloud, “Oh Lord, will they never learn?!” and the two men went to face the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cloud had covered the tent and the Glory of the Lord appeared. The Lord called out to Aaron and Moses, “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once!”

The brothers fell face down on the charred earth. Moses saw others fall down, too. However, they were not on their faces in fear, but on their backs in agony.

Moses turned his face to Aaron and said, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar – hurry to the assembly and make atonement for them. A plague has started, wrath from the Lord.” Aaron pulled himself to his feet and ran to his ministry tools, preparing his censer. He did not carefully measure the incense, he added several fistfuls to the censer before closing it and the coals sprang to life.

Around him men and women writhed and quaked on the ground, skin breaking out in blisters and foam bubbling in their mouths and nostrils. Praying and walking through the people, he offered the incense making atonement for them.

Aaron stood between the living and the dead.

On one side of him the people were dying and on the other, the people lived. Tears streamed down his face and beard, eyes stinging from the billowing smoke made of gum resin, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense. The smoke was so thick, he could taste it as he called out for repentance and for forgiveness for hours while witnessing horrors around him. His sons brought refilled censers to him several times.

Eventually the plague stopped spreading, but not before scores of people died. People piled on top of each other, for as far as Aaron could see. Eleazar and Ithamar counted the dead, and reported to Moses and Aaron that 14,700 had perished. This was on top of the dead from the day before, the 251 that passed away in front of the Tent and the families that were swallowed whole by the earth.

That day, all of the priesthood had handled the dead. Every Levite was ceremoniously unclean and the entire community labored to bury the masses into the evening. Aaron prayed to God for forgiveness of this as he continued the duties of the high priest that day, knowing that at any other time this would be forbidden. But to forsake tending to the Tabernacle, he couldn’t fathom not serving the Lord diligently after everything that happened. He wanted the Lord to know that despite it all, he would still serve Him.


Aaron’s wife Elisheba bathed him in the privacy of their tent that night. The tents in the community, in stark contrast to the night before, were silent in overwhelming grief. Aaron’s eyes were blood red from the sting of incense and tears, and he struggled to make eye contact with his beloved. His shoulders sagged and he occasionally sobbed as Elisheba lovingly lathered his hair and beard. She had insisted, knowing his dreams and his sleep would be affected by the smell of so much incense. After a quick rinse, she used a large flask of olive oil to dilute the incense that was still in and on his skin and hair. It was an extravagance that Miriam had helped her procure through trade earlier in the day. Lathering again, she carefully rewashed him to remove as much of the scent as she could.

Aaron stood in the basin as she poured pitcher after pitcher of warm water over his head to rinse and as he warmed, she notice his shoulders slumped a little less. Even so, he was more than exhausted. She could see he was soul weary with despair. The cost of rebellion was paid by more than those who sinned over the last three days. Moses and her husband bore the burden of serving not only the Lord, but the whole community.

Elisheba tenderly helped Aaron into clean undergarments and a robe, and just before tucking him into their marital bed she carefully massaged his chapped hands with the balm that Miriam had brought to her. Elisheba leaned over him and kissed his forehead.

And finally, Aaron slept.

Exodus 6:23 – Aaron’s wife

Exodus 30 – Incense Recipe

Numbers 16

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