Today we are going to go further into detail on the rebellion against Moses and Aaron. In my last blog post on Numbers, in the story that began in Numbers 16, we find a general condition of upset and unrest among the people of Israel. They are demoralized by the false and cowardly report from 10 of the 12 scouts and Israel’s leadership’s subsequent decision to avoid the conquest of Canaan, their Promised Land.
The people were emotionally unstable and wanted change; new leadership seemed to them like a good place to start. It’s one thing for men to occasionally seek to remove one set of leaders and replace them with another; it’s quite another for people to try to usurp God’s will as was the case with this rebellion.
Korah, a Levite who is dissatisfied that the line of Aaron (a family line who is also from the tribe of Levi, but from a different clan than his own) is the only family line appointed as highly prestigious Priests.
Even though the entire tribe of Levi is separated from Israel for exceptional holiness and service to God, the Priests are given an even greater degree of sanctification than the other Levites. With the High Priest (currently Aaron) being given the highest level of holiness possible for any Hebrew.
Korah is jealous and disputes this; he challenges Aaron’s position and wants it for himself and wants the priesthood evenly distributed among other Levite clans. And this was typical tribal society behavior where tribes, and clans within tribes, were in a never-ending cycle of vying among themselves for dominance, status, and power.
But the majority of the tribe of Levi (those who were NOT of Aaron’s clan) were not the only ones who had a serious ax to grind; we found that two group leaders of the tribe of Reuben were challenging Moses for his job as the ultimate leader and authority over all Israel.
The founder of the tribe of Reuben (Reuben) had been dead for at least 300 years, so what Numbers 16 is referring to are his descendants.
Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob, expected that he (and therefore his future tribe) would become the dominant tribe among the 12 tribes of Israel. He also fully expected to have been awarded the leadership role over Israel using his birthright as the first son born to Jacob and thus receiving the customary blessings of the Firstborn from his father.
But Jacob rejected Reuben and refused to give him the Firstborn blessing, and therefore, the authority of the firstborn; this humiliating act would impact Reuben’s family (and eventual tribe) in a negative way from that moment forward.
Instead, Jacob split the provisions of the firstborn blessing that should have gone to Reuben, giving the right of leadership of the nation of Israel to Judah, and the right to inherit the largest portion of wealth to Joseph.
Reuben’s descendants (even after all this time) had neither accepted this humiliation nor gotten over the loss of leadership status that they felt should have always been theirs.
As a result, at this moment we find two tribal leaders of Reuben (Datan and Aviram) challenging Moses’ position as leader of Israel; they wanted the job.
Along with Korah, Datan, and Aviram were 250 leaders of other Israelite tribes who also wished to remove Moses and Aaron from their God-established positions and to take over the leadership of the nation of Israel for themselves.
Moses’ solution was to let God handle it using a public demonstration: each of these rebel leaders were to put hot coals onto a fire pan (also called a censer), lay incense on top of it, and take the smoking mixture to the entry to the Tent of Meeting.
Then God would in some undefined way settle the matter as to who would be those privileged few (Priests) that have access to the inner chambers of the sacred Tent, and who would have control over Israel.
LET’S READ NUMBERS 16:16–35
Korah and the 250 leaders and apparently a fair amount of the others (referred as the whole community, those who sided with the rebels) do as instructed and show up at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting with their fire pans.
Without a doubt, this was NOT at the door that was the entrance to the Sanctuary Tent itself, but rather the gate into the Tabernacle Courtyard, that everyone gathered.
Then the Presence of God (kavod, glory) appeared before everyone, and the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and tells them to stand aside, that He is going to annihilate everyone who is involved.
Now it must be that only Moses and Aaron heard God speak or else indeed all these men would have turned pale and run for their lives. And as had happened in the past, the Mediator of Israel falls on his face and begs for mercy for these very men whose goal it was to do away with Moses and Aaron in a coup.
Further, in verse 22, Moses asks, “would you send your wrath on an entire community because one man sinned?”
Obviously, this one man was Korah, the instigator of this whole mess. At least in Moses’ view, it was Korah who apparently stirred up Datan, and Aviram, who then helped Korah to stir up the others.
But understand what is being discussed here: the topic is collective punishment. Obviously not each man is guilty in the same way as the others, nor is the level of participation universally equal among them all.
Moses is both acknowledging and questioning this principle of collective punishment, and whether God is serious about acting on that principle in this case.
Now, this can all get a little confusing because the Bible keeps using the word “community” (congregation) over and over, but it is referring to a somewhat different group of people. It’s not totally unlike us pointing to a group and saying “these people,” and then pointing to a part of that same group and saying “these people.”
The Hebrew term ha-edah, which is what is being translated here into the word community, is a rather all-encompassing and flexible term that is used to refer to most any assembly of people when they are of a standard race, or performing an everyday action, or agreeing on a normal decision.
So the community that showed up at the Tent of Meeting with the rebels was those who sided with the rebel leaders. When the Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community (in Hebrew kol ha-edah) it was so everyone in the nation of Israel could see His presence.
When God told Moses to stand back from this community, it was because He was going to destroy them. God was referring to those rebels and their backers. When Moses asked God if He would destroy the Kol edah, the WHOLE community, because of one man’s sin, this was referring to all of Israel again.
When we get to verse 26 and Moses tells the community to stand away from the tents of the wicked men, the reference to the community, in this case, was to all those who did NOT stand with the rebels.
And this is emphasized when Moses tells the innocent to disassociate themselves from the rebels, not even to touch any item that belongs to them, lest they wind up being collateral damage when the guilty get punished.
We find this principle of separation woven throughout the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments.
- Believers must be separated from non-Believers.
- Clean from unclean.
- Sinners from the saved.
- Sheep from the goats.
- Lot had to be separated from the pagans of Sodom, or he would be collateral damage.
The trick is to discern how and how much God’s righteous are to separate from the unrighteous.
The Essenes of Yeshua’s day took that principle to one extreme and created their separate colonies with stringent rules of membership; they even established their headquarters out in the wilderness far away from everyone else at a place today called Qumran. Jesus, by the way, did not approve of this extreme kind of separation and said so.
On the other hand, as Believers, we are directly told in the Bible not to associate with murders, thieves, and those who do not belong to the Lord. We are to be in this world just not OF this world.
Notice that we find several things going on at once in this episode. First, it was ONLY Korah, the 250 leaders and their cohorts who showed up at the Tent of Meeting for this demonstration test involving the fire pans and incense.
Recall that Datan and Aviram refused to come to this event when Moses summoned them. And since they were, in essence, saying that it should be they and not Moses running the show, it’s easy to picture why they refused to respond when Moses sent for them. They were sending a message that they did not accept Moses’ authority and neither should anyone else.
So if you can’t bring Mohammed to the Mountain, you bring the Mountain to Mohammed. Verse 25 says, “Moses rose” and went to the tents of Datan and Aviram with the elders of Israel. The elders of Israel go along with Moses, leaving from the Eastern entrance into the Tabernacle Courtyard and venturing to the southern side of the encampment where Datan and Aviram’s tribe camped.
It’s important to remember that the tribe of Levi camped adjacent to the tribe of Reuben, so they formed a kind of neighborhood.
When Moses showed up at the tents of Datan and Aviram they came out to confront him; Moses pronounces judgment upon them.
He says, ‘if these men die naturally like all men,’ then Moses was acting on his accord, and it was NOT God who was ordering him to do all this. In other words, if God doesn’t do something spectacular to them then indeed they must have been correct all along: Moses was not the legitimate leader of Israel.
On the other hand, Moses says that if the ground opens up and swallows you up then you were wrong and death is your punishment. Well, no sooner had Moses finished speaking the last syllable, the ground suddenly and violently split opened beneath the tents of Datan, Aviram and those surrounding them, who sided with them, and they all fell into the deep crevice and perished.
The dead included the family of Korah and all those among his clan who sided with him; including women and children. Even their tents and their material possessions fell into the huge split in the earth. In other words, every last vestige of these rebels’ lives, all evidence that they had ever existed, was wiped out at the hand of God in a moment of His wrath.
And all the Israelites who saw what happened fled in a panic for fear they’d fall into this gaping crevice.
The last verse of the chapter then changes location; we’re taken back from the south side of the encampment where Moses had walked, to the east side, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
There Korah and the 250 men who had shown up with their unauthorized fire pans (censers), to challenge God’s established hierarchy; people who had no business or sufficient status even to come near to God were burned alive by fire coming from God’s presence.
If this isn’t a good picture of Hell, the Lake of Fire, and the ultimate punishment of the unrighteous I don’t know what is.
The rebels, their families, and everything they owned were purged from Israel because they had become unclean in God’s sight. Recall that a few years earlier some other men had also offered “strange fire” to God and they suffered the same fate: Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron.
But Nadav and Avihu held the proper status and had a right to offer incense to God; these rebellious men, just destroyed, did not. The problem was that Nadav and Avihu offered coals from something other than the Altar of Burnt Offering, which was the ONLY proper place for those coals to come from.
So the sin against God perpetrated by Korah, Datan, Aviram and the 250 men was even worse than what Nadav and Avihu had done. In the case of Nadav and Avihu only THEY suffered the divine wrath for they acted only on their behalf.
In the case of Korah, Datan, and Aviram, their entire immediate families, as well as anyone who even agreed with what they were doing, were destroyed.
Next, it says that all the rebels went down to Sheol. Sheol was the place of the dead, the grave. It was a place seen that lay below the surface of the ground.
Was Sheol contemplated in that era in the same way that we currently do, as a place where Satan and his demon henchmen dwell? As Hell or Hades, a place of fire and eternal torment for lost souls? No, it was not.
In fact, they weren’t at all clear what Sheol was other than it was the grave and in it, some afterlife existed. They weren’t clear what happened to the physical body in Sheol, after death, other than standard decomposition. They weren’t clear on what happened to the breath of existence that we usually call a soul when they died.
We’ll find throughout Torah that the Israelites were worried about what happened to them after death because Sheol was seen as everyone’s destiny, not just for the wicked.
But one of the worst things that could happen once in Sheol was that worms could eat up one’s body. And often that is what was thought to be a divine punishment for those who had died in an unrighteous state.
Why this extreme concern about what happened to their bodies after they were dead? First, they had no concept of heaven or going to live with God.
Remember they thought as the Egyptians thought, and Egyptians spent their entire lives getting ready for their death. Their afterlife based on the preservation of the physical body hence the desire for embalming and a safe place for their corpse to remain after they died.
So although Israel didn’t practice the death cult or body preservation of the Egyptians per se, they did have in their minds the dilemma of just what DID happen to them after their death and what to do about it and how to prepare for it.
The primary point of the punishment that is expressed in this story (by falling into the crevice and going down to Sheol) was that these people died at God’s hand. Or to sharpen that point a bit, they died prematurely as a consequence of their behavior. And dying before one’s natural lifespan had been spent was seen as a terrible thing and was greatly feared.
In my last blog post, I told you that one of the main lessons we should take from this are that in the first place redemption cannot only be rejected; but it can be given back to the will of the one who received it.
Just as Korah, Datan, Aviram, and hundreds if not thousands of their followers had determined to choose their old lives in Egypt rather than remain in their redemption FROM Egypt that they had already received from God. So it is with today’s Believers.
Put the emphasis on choosing; because all these rebels decided to go with Israel when they left Egypt…they certainly were not forced to go…and these same rebels wanted to make for themselves new leaders who would take them BACK to Egypt.
They CHOSE to give up their redemption. It works the same way for us. No one can take our redemption away from us, and there is no place we can go to where it becomes invalid.
But just as we choose to accept our redemption, we can opt to let go of it. And, tragically, some countless number of people already has chosen, and much more will ultimately decide, to go back to Egypt.
But even more tragically is what happens to us when we do refuse, or we give back our redemption, and it is demonstrated in full living color here in Numbers 16.
The consequence is that we are utterly and totally destroyed; there is no hope, there is no future. All that we had worked a lifetime to build becomes as nothing. And perhaps what is worse is that (specifically as male leaders of our families and congregations), we have the ability to lead others away from their redemption. We can influence the decisions of others. And, they can suffer the same fate we will because of our rebellion. A sobering thought, is it not?
Read John 15: 1-6 (CLB)
I am the real vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch, which is part of me but fails to bear fruit, he cuts off; and every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes, so that it may bear more fruit. Right now, because of the word, which I have spoken to you, you are pruned. Stay united with me, as I will with you- for just as the branch can’t put forth fruit by itself apart from the vine, so you can’t bear fruit apart from me. “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who stay united with me, and I with them, are the ones who bear much fruit; because apart from me you can’t do a thing. Unless a person remains united with me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered and thrown into the fire, where they are burned up.
Every branch (Believer) that IS part of Jesus but fails to bear fruits is CUT-OFF. And what happens to those cut-off branches that were at one time part of Messiah? They are thrown away, dried up, and then thrown into the fire where they are burned up. Quite clear.
But let me also show you another foundational God-principle that is demonstrated here, and it is this: not everyone is permitted to approach God. In fact, only the redeemed can come near to the Lord. But even more, only the redeemed that are declared HOLY on some greater level can come near the Lord.
On so many occasions I have referenced Paul, John, and others in the NT who allude to Believers being as “priests” to the Lord. And I think that this is both figurative and literal to some degree. We find here in Numbers that God declares that ONLY Priests can come near to His presence. And even then that is to a degree and based on status.
Regular Priests can come near to Him but only so near; it is ONLY the High Priest that is allowed to come closest to His glory, but even that is limited to only one day per year…Yom Kippur. Those who do attempt to approach God but who are not deemed BY GOD to be priests are destroyed, as were Korah and the rest of his bunch. Why? Because they were not authorized to be in His presence.
One of the MANY things that Salvation accomplishes is to give us authorized access to God. God, using our belief in Yeshua, Jesus our Messiah, authorizes us to come into a place that no others are allowed under any circumstance: near to Him.
Notice the dynamic and hierarchy set up in Israel: Moses is the sole Mediator. There IS no access to God without going through Moses, the Mediator. Those who tried to replace the Mediator or determined to go around God’s appointed Mediator weren’t just rejected; they were destroyed with no further hope of reinstatement.
Our ONLY possible access to God is by Jesus our Mediator. We must come to Yeshua before we can come near to God (No, I do not forget that Jesus IS God, but that’s another complicated matter).
It was Moses who anointed the first priests in God’s name. It is Christ that must anoint us with the Holy Spirit, which acts as our official authorization to come near to God.
But even then there is a limitation as to just how near to Him we are allowed in our present condition. Because even though He has given us new and clean spirits, these bodies are still made of corrupt material. Our minds still have evil inclinations.
Therefore we are told of a time when we will get new bodies made of uncorrupted material and new minds that will no longer remember the former days; THEN we’ll be able to get even nearer to the Father.
Now I can’t tell you if the writers of the NT simply saw a direct correlation between the ability of Levite priests to come near to God, and then with the advent of Jesus the new ability for ordinary people (Hebrew or Gentile) to get near to God through Christ.
And therefore from this understanding, they drew an analogy that we disciples of Yeshua are “like priests” in that regard. Or it may be that God views us as His “new” and transformed priesthood. All of that is open to discussion.
But what I can tell you is that the pattern for HOW one is permitted to come near to the Lord was set up a long time ago, and the DETAILS of that pattern are explained, here, in the Torah.