Beyond the Lectionary Text: Numbers 16
by Erin M. Stout
Who has the LORD chosen? Who belongs to him? Who is holy? These are the questions at the heart of our passage.
But how we ask often matters as much as the content of the questions themselves. The people who oppose Moses and Aaron’s leadership, led by Korah, ask these questions with their own agendas in mind.
Korah, like Moses and Aaron, is a Levite. But as a descendant of Kohath, he does not share the priestly duties of Aaron’s line. Korah’s responsibilities involve carrying the holy things when they move camp. Whenever the Israelites pack up to travel to a new place, Aaron and his descendants are the first to draw near to the Tent of Meeting. They are the ones who remove the shielding curtain and cover up the holy things with blue and purple cloths. Only after they drape all the holy articles are Korah and his kin allowed to draw near and do the carrying. Apart from this, they must not touch or even look at the holy things, or they will die. There is a definite distinction between Aaron’s responsibilities and Korah’s. Aaron’s line draws near first, Korah’s second. Aaron’s line oversees the Kohathites carefully, down to assigning each person his work, and what he is to carry. Every time the Israelites get ready to move, Korah is reminded of his place: Aaron first, Korah second. Aaron drawing near, Korah a few steps behind. Aaron touching the holy things directly, Korah’s hands feeling the barrier of the cloths, which Aaron and his sons have draped. Every time Israel moves camp, Korah’s resentment grows.
Behind Korah are the brothers Dathan and Abiram. They have reason for resentment, too. They are descendants of Reuben, the firstborn son of Israel. But because of Reuben’s sin generations past, the responsibilities and privileges of the firstborn are no longer theirs. The LORD has reassigned that to the Levites.
Korah and the brothers do not approach Moses and Aaron alone. They have organized a formidable group of 250 men who have been “appointed members of the council” (v. 2). This is not a rag-tag group of rebels. They are leaders who are well-known and respected among the people. When they look at Moses and Aaron, they do not see strong leaders; they see doddering old men. When they look at the effects of their leadership, they do not see a land flowing with milk and honey; they see years of wandering through the wilderness, with no end in sight. Surely one from among this group could do a better job.
The questions Korah and his associates bring to Moses and Aaron are barbed: Who are you to assume sole leadership? Do you think you alone can draw near to the LORD? They come armed with theology to support them. They remember what the LORD had said at Sinai: “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So they argue, “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)
In response, Moses falls down in prayer, and then he answers the group: Do you want to draw near to God? Do you want to see who’s chosen and who is holy? Okay. Tomorrow go ahead and do the priests’ job. Pick up the holy things. You – along with Aaron – will take up censers and present the daily offering of fire and incense to the LORD. The LORD will show us who he’s chosen.
After addressing to the group Moses approaches the frontmen, though only Korah allows him a face-to-face conversation. Moses names the heart of the issue:
Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near to himself to do the work of the LORD’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood, too. It is against the LORD that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him? (vv. 8-11)
The next day Korah and his followers gather outside the Tent of Meeting, and the LORD reveals his glory to the whole assembly. The LORD instructs Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the group so he can strike down the rebels down. But Moses and Aaron fall facedown in prayer and intercede for the crowd: “O God, the God who gives breath to all living things, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?” (v. 22) The LORD listens to their prayer, and tells Moses to have the people move away from Korah, Dathan, Abiram.
Then, in a clear and terrifying display of his power, the LORD demonstrates emphatic vindication of Moses and Aaron, and definitive judgment against the rebels. The earth splits open, swallows up the frontmen and their families, and they go down to the grave alive. As for the 250 leaders who were fearlessly offering fire and incense to the LORD – that very fire “came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering incense” (v. 35). Could the message be more clear?
And yet, in case there is still any question about who the LORD has chosen for the priesthood, he gives instructions. Someone must go out and retrieve the censers from among “the smoldering remains”. They can’t just be left out, because they were offered to the LORD and are therefore holy. The person the LORD has chosen is “Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest” (v. 36). He, not Korah, is the one chosen to be Aaron’s successor.
Somehow, though, the Israelite community miss the point. Instead of recognizing that the LORD has set apart Moses and Aaron for special leadership and service, they turn against them. Instead of recognizing that the previous day’s events were a display of God’s judgment against Korah and his crew, they grumble against Moses and Aaron! “You have killed the LORD’s people!” they accuse. Their hearts are so hard that the truth will not penetrate.
So the LORD once again unleashes his wrath, and a plague breaks out among the people. The LORD warns Moses and Aaron, “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once” (v. 45) But instead of separating themselves from the people, they fall down and pray on their behalf. Then Moses tells Aaron, Quick! Get up, take your censer with incense, and make atonement for the people! (v. 46) And in a beautiful display of compassion and courage, old man Aaron runs toward the people. Taking his stand right between the dead (already nearly 15,000) and the living, he offers incense and makes atonement for the very people who opposed him. And the plague stops.
What a foreshadowing of the priesthood of Jesus Christ! Although “he was despised and rejected by mankind…and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3), he drew near to us as our perfect high priest. “Such a high priest truly meets our needs – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. . . . He sacrificed for [our] sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:26, 27).
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach the throne of God’s grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The narrator of our passage employs wordplay around the word “to separate.” Korah and his crew desired to be set apart for more esteemed positions of leadership. In response to Korah’s jealous indictment of Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership, Moses says, “Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them?” (v. 9) But it wasn’t enough. Therefore, before the LORD issued judgment against the rebels, he told Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once” (v. 21). God had separated Korah and his supporters to lead, but because of their rebelliousness, the LORD separated them instead to be destroyed.
The narrator also repeats a formula to highlight the nature of Aaron’s priestly office. In vv. 19-23, Korah and his followers gather at the Tent of Meeting. The glory of the LORD appears, and God tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the rebels so the LORD could put an end to them at once. But Moses and Aaron fall face down in intercession, and warn the people to move back from the tents of the rebels. This same formula is repeated in vv. 42-47, with a small but significant difference. The next day the entire community gather to oppose Moses and Aaron. The glory of the LORD appears and he tells Moses to get away from the assembly so he can put an end to them at once. Again, Moses and Aaron fall facedown. But then, rather than moving away from the people, Moses instructs Aaron to run toward them, stand in the middle of the plague, and make atonement for their sin. Mediating between God and sinful people – this is the heart of the priesthood.
When Ebola broke out in Liberia, medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly did not run away. Instead, he changed his focus from general medicine to specialized care for patients with Ebola. He knew the risks of being in close contact with people so sick (and eventually contracted the disease that almost took his life). But Dr. Brantly’s concern was for his patients. He said, “I wasn’t concerned I was going to catch Ebola. We were frustrated…with the limitations on what we could do for patients.” Dr. Brantly stood between the living and the dead, and – in the name of Jesus, our great High Priest – worked for life.
Rev. Erin (Marshalek) Stout is senior pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in New Brighton, MN.