(More depressing reading – perhaps why people like to skip Numbers. I’ve also left out chapter 15 in order to move the narrative along.
Again there will be quite long passages to read – you may need to share it with willing readers. It might be best to read each section and then comment on it, rather than reading the whole chapter first.)
Remember, God had told the Israelites that because of their disobedience, they were now condemned to spent the next forty years wandering in the desert.
39 When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. 40 Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, ‘Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!’
41 But Moses said, ‘Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! 42 Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, 43 for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.’
44 Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up towards the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.
They disobeyed the Lord when he wanted them to take the land; now they disobeyed the Lord when he told them not to. How did the Lord punish them for their disobedience this time?
He simply allowed them to learn for themselves that without him they would not succeed:
45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.
(We are skipping Numbers 15)
1 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 2 and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. 3 They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘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?’
Who are these people?
Firstly who was Korah?
(Display or give out pictures of the Israelite camp.)
He was of the tribe of Kohath and was a Levite. Not a priest, but one of those with the duty of carrying the holy things from the Tabernacle whenever the camp moved.
Next who were ‘certain Reubenites – Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth’?
When people set up their tents, I doubt they were as neatly arranged as the plan suggests. We can see that parts of the tribes of Kohath and Reuben could well be near each other.
Actually, if there were dissenters, they may well have contrived to be on the outskirts of their tribal group.
In addition there were another 250 ‘well-known community leaders’
What was their complaint?
(As the whole community was holy, why should only Moses be their leader?)
On what did they base their statement? On the wilful disobedience of the whole group which had led to their 40-year punishment?
4 When Moses heard this, he fell face down. 5 Then 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 make that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. 6 You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: take censers 7 and tomorrow put burning coals 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!’
It was obvious to Moses that Korah was heading up the rebellion so he now speaks specifically to him.
8 Moses also said to Korah, ‘Now listen, you Levites! 9 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? 10 He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. 11 It is against the Lord that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?’
It seems to have been similar to Miriam’s complaint – ‘why can’t we be priests too’?
12 Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. But they said, ‘We will not come! 13 Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you also want to lord it over us! 14 Moreover, you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you want to treat these men like slaves? No, we will not come!’
15 Then Moses became very angry and said 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.’
The Reubenites too objected to Moses’ leadership – so much so that they now refused to do what he told them. Look again at their twisted arguments in verses 13 and 14.
16 Moses said to Korah, ‘You and all your followers are to appear before the Lord tomorrow – you and they and Aaron. 17 Each man is to take his censer and put incense in it – 250 censers in all – and present it before the Lord. You and Aaron are to present your censers also.’ 18 So each of them took his censer, put burning coals and incense in it, and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 19 When Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the glory of the Lord appeared to the entire assembly. 20 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 21 ‘Separate yourselves from this assembly so that I can put an end to them at once.’
Not unexpectedly, God suggested to Moses and Aaron that if they would like to move out of the way he would wipe these rebellious people from the face of the earth.
22 But Moses and Aaron fell face down and cried out, ‘O God, the God who gives breath to all living things, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?’
Moses and Aaron were aware that there were leaders and followers in this rebellion, and realistically only the leaders should be punished.
23 Then the Lord said to Moses, 24 ‘Say to the assembly, ‘Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.”’
25 Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 He warned the assembly, ‘Move back from the tents of these wicked men! Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins.’ 27 So they moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram had come out and were standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents.
This seems to confirm that these three people had chosen to erect their tents near each other – and possibly not near the rest of their tribe.
28 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: 29 if these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 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 realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.’
31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, ‘The earth is going to swallow us too!’
Some people don’t like the idea of miracles, but having a specific earthquake to open the ground under three tents and then close again at that particular time is very hard to explain away! God is almighty and can and will do whatever he chooses.
35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
The followers who thought they had got away with it also had to be punished, but their families were spared.
36 The Lord said to Moses, 37 ‘Tell Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, to remove the censers from the charred remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the censers are holy – 38 the censers of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives. Hammer the censers into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before the Lord and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites.’
39 So Eleazar the priest collected the bronze censers brought by those who had been burned to death, and he had them hammered out to overlay the altar, 40 as the Lord directed him through Moses. This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the Lord, or he would become like Korah and his followers.
A useful ‘visual aid’ in case someone else thought they could have a try for the Priesthood.
41 The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. ‘You have killed the Lord’s people,’ they said.
People never like to admit they are personally responsible for their sin. Maybe it’s the fault of their parents, or the way they were brought up, or society in general; always someone else – which is why they shouldn’t be punished.
Here the complaint seems to be: the people who had been killed weren’t guilty of anything that warranted the death penalty so it must be Moses and Aaron’s fault that they died.
(They seem to be in denial concerning the events in Verses 21, 23, 31, 32 and 35.)
42 But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned towards the tent of meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord said to Moses, 45 ‘Get away from this assembly so that I can put an end to them at once.’ And they fell face down.
This is the third time that Moses and Aaron’s response has been to prostrate themselves before God in supplication for the people (See verses 4 and 22).
We don’t know what Moses prayed or what God replied, but Moses’ response was immediate:
46 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.’
It was now to be made even more obvious that Aaron was the priest appointed by God to intercede for the people. Only he could stand between God and mankind to make atonement for their sins.
47 So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. 48 He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. 49 But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. 50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the tent of meeting, for the plague had stopped.
Would someone like to explain what it means for Christians to be ‘priests of God’ (1 Peter 2:9)?
(The Christian’s entire life is a sacrifice to God; the Lord owns us — body, heart, soul, mind, and might (Acts 20:28 1Corinthians 6:19-20) and as priests we have a responsibility to represent God to man, and man to God.)
You would think that by now the people might have learned the lesson that if they were to accept God’s covenant blessings, then they had to be obedient.
They must also stop ‘this constant grumbling’ (Numbers 17:5).
God now takes the initiative:
Read Numbers 17:1-13
1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 ‘Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. 3 On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. 4 Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the ark of the covenant law, where I meet with you. 5 The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.’
If dead wood could be made to show signs of life, then that should be enough to prove to the people that Aaron was God’s choice.
6 So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. 7 Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law.
8 The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.
Again, a miracle! Signs of a bud growing overnight would be amazing, but leaves, flowers and fruit (plural!) could not be explained away
9 Then Moses brought out all the staffs from the Lord’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each of the leaders took his own staff.
10 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.’ 11 Moses did just as the Lord commanded him.
But would the people be convinced?
12 The Israelites said to Moses, ‘We shall die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?’
At last the people are beginning to understand something of the awesome holiness of God and the dangers of rebellion!
Again we are going to skip two more chapters and will resume in chapter 20.