Meditations in Exodus: 85. Insurrection
Num 16:1,2 Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites–Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth–became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council.
I have used the word insurrection here, because whatever way you look at this, it is a rebellion, a mutiny and an uprising – and it is almost unbelievable. I say unbelievable because not long back Aaron and Miriam had taken a similar stance and Miriam had suffered disgrace and leprosy for a week by way of punishment. You will note a footnote at the end of verse 1 that suggests the alternative that says these four men – Korah, Dathan and Abiram and On – ‘took men’, they got others to side with them; in fact 250 men, men who were community leaders. This is a disaster, it is a challenge to Moses leadership and his authority before the Lord.
They say to Moses and Aaron, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (v.3) i.e. what makes you so great? What a bunch of idiots! Have they been deaf and blind for the last two years, have they not seen Moses role opposing Pharaoh in Egypt, have they not seen Moses’ leadership role in the desert, did they not see Moses going up and down the mountain talking to the Lord and receiving the Law? What is wrong with these people? It is called pride and pride blinds you to the truth. I have to confess I have been attacked three times in my leadership roles throughout my Christian life by those who wanted to take the role of leader from me so they could lead.
Moses’ response to this challenge to his leadership is to again fall on his face in prayer (v.4) and having listened to the Lord (assumed), “he said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the LORD will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers and tomorrow put fire and incense in them before the LORD. The man the LORD chooses will be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!” (v.5-7) There is an implication behind all this that Korah who is a Levite (and Levites looked after the Tabernacle) wants to be upgraded to a priest and so Moses says, “Very well, you want to be a priest and your followers want to be spiritual leaders? OK, tomorrow morning act like priests and bring censers with fire and incense in them and we’ll see what God does, who He chooses.
But then he confronts Korah with this specific charge – “you do the work of the Lord’s tabernacle… but now you are trying to get to the priesthood as well. It is against the Lord you… have banded together” (v.8-11) That makes it quite clear. Then “Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. But they said, “We will not come! Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert? And now you also want to lord it over us? Moreover, you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes of these men? No, we will not come!” (v.12-14) What world had they been living in? How had their memory changed Egypt from a place of harsh slavery to being “a land flowing with milk and honey”? They dig in!
This angers Moses and he talks to the Lord: “Do not accept their offering. I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them.” (v.15) He then reiterates his instruction to the men to bring censers next morning which they do (16-18) The glory of the LORD appears (v.19) and “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” (v.20,21)
So here we have a third time the Lord makes a statement for Moses to react against, a test if you like. Moses rises to it: “But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, “O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?” (v.22) Good call Moses! “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the assembly, `Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.” (v.23,24) Moses goes to them and warns the assembly (v.25-27) He addresses the people: “Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.” (v.28-30) It can’t be made any plainer.
The judgment is devastating: “As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, 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.” (v.31-35) It is utterly conclusive. There is a little follow on. The bronze censers of the 250 men were collected up by Aaron’s son and hammered into a sheet to cover the altar as a reminder for future generations that such a thing should never ever happen again.
What more can one say? It is like coming to the end of some great film full of action and suddenly, ‘The End’. Silence. It is over, but you are left there, standing and wondering. Why were these men so foolish as to mess with God? Sin. It’s there in every one of us and Satan comes to tempt us so that the Sin in us rises up and leads us into ever greater folly. May we learn.