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Numbers 16-17 Listen
Hey Moses! We want a democracy! (Numbers 16:1-3)
1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men:
2 And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown:
3 And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?
This is a very sophisticated, well-planned rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. But here's the fundamental problem; Moses and Aaron were chosen and appointed by God himself to lead Israel. And Moses didn't make his decisions arbitrarily, God spoke to Moses, and Moses spoke to the people. Therefore, this form of government is called a "theocracy." The prefix "theo" comes from a Greek word meaning "god." The Greek word "kratos" means "rule or control." And finally, the Greek word "demos" means "people." Now let's put those words together to form some governments. A "theocracy" is a government ruled by God, and a "democracy" is a government ruled by the people. Korah (a Levite) was one of the four "representatives" that approached Moses, but he had reinforcements, Dathan, Abiram and On. But wait! There's more! Apparently there had been a series of informal caucuses throughout Israel who had selected 250 more Levite representatives of the people to stand with these four men. Hey! Let's face it! The people of Israel were looking to abandon this theocracy under Moses in lieu of their own form of democracy. Verse 2 would indicate that these men were rather carefully selected for this purpose by the people of Israel themselves. Now pay close attention to the wording in verse 3. In essence, they proclaim to Moses that his relationship with God is no greater than that of any other of the Hebrews. In other words, "Moses, you're no holier than we are!" Additionally, they accuse Moses of assuming too much power.
Let's do a review of responsibilities to help with our grasp of the gravity of this situation. Moses and Aaron were Levites, but ONLY the direct descendants of Aaron could serve as actual priests; God said so. The world has always had its that's-not-fair crowd; that's exactly what we have here. While the non-descendant-of-Aaron Levites served God in tabernacle duties, they could never be actual priests. Who made up that law anyway? As far as they were concerned, it was Moses, who just happened to be the brother of Aaron, the High Priest. CAN YOU SAY NEPOTISM? Yeah...but here it wasn't nepotism; God (not Moses) appointed Aaron to be the first High Priest. Korah thinks electing priests is a better idea; what do you suppose God thinks?
Incidentally, Korah doesn't survive this attempted takeover; he thus becomes infamous in scripture with dishonorable mention in Jude 11 (see notes), "Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core." That's him, "Core" (Core = Korah). What's more, he's in pretty bad company there - Cain (who slew his brother Abel in Genesis 4:8, see notes) and Balaam (who assisted Israel's enemies in trying to corrupt Israel from within in Numbers 22-24 and 31 - see notes).
Moses: Let's check to see who is holy (Numbers 16:4-19)
4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face:
5 And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even to morrow the LORD will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him.
6 This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company;
7 And put fire therein, and put incense in them before the LORD to morrow: and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.
8 And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi:
9 Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them?
10 And he hath brought thee near to him, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also?
11 For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the LORD: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?
12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, We will not come up:
13 Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?
14 Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.
15 And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD, Respect not thou their offering: I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them.
16 And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow:
17 And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each of you his censer.
18 And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood in the door of the tabernacle of the congregation with Moses and Aaron.
19 And Korah gathered all the congregation against them unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the congregation.
First of all, let's do a holiness check on these 250 leaders the Hebrews have selected. There's the test in verse 5, "And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even to morrow the LORD will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him." The candidates are given censers (little bowls of fire and incense). Have those 250 would-be leaders forgotten about Aaron's own two sons, Nadab and Abihu, when they experimented with the censers back in Leviticus 10 (see notes)? Moses then calls for two of the other main leaders, Dathan and Abiram, who refuse to come to him. They even mock Moses. In verse 15, Moses appeals to God - asks God to have no respect for their offering.
So here's the procedure: Get your 250 people-selected leaders (all Levites according to verse 7) along with yourself (Korah) and appear before the Tabernacle tomorrow. Aaron will bring a censer as well. Lest you think this was a movement by a few crazy men, notice verse 19, "And Korah gathered all the congregation against them unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation:" The people of Israel had chosen to follow Korah. Obviously, they really were trying to adopt a form of democracy through their rebellion, and they had elected their own "holy" men to head it up. Well this is scary; let's recall Numbers 3:4 (see notes), "And Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the LORD..." The stage is set for a big event right before the eyes of all the Hebrews who have gathered around.
It's time for God to cast his vote (Numbers 16:20-50)
20 And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
21 Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.
22 And they fell upon their faces, and said, O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?
23 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
24 Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
25 And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him.
26 And he spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins.
27 So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children.
28 And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.
29 If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me.
30 But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.
31 And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them:
32 And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
33 They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.
34 And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also.
35 And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.
36 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
37 Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed.
38 The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before the LORD, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel.
39 And Eleazar the priest took the brasen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar:
40 To be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the LORD; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the LORD said to him by the hand of Moses.
41 But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD.
42 And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared.
43 And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation.
44 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
45 Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces.
46 And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the LORD; the plague is begun.
47 And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people.
48 And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed.
49 Now they that died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside them that died about the matter of Korah.
50 And Aaron returned unto Moses unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the plague was stayed.
God's first noted inclination here is to just consume by fire all the Israelites who are gathered around the Tabernacle, but Moses and Aaron intercede (verses 20-22). He convinces the people to return to their tents. You will notice that the Kohathites (of Korah) and the Reubenites (of Dathan, Abiram and On) were all situated on the south side of the Tabernacle (click here to see the layout). Moses heads down to their tents and finds them standing with their families in the doors of their tents. He prays and asks God to cast his first vote in the recall election of Moses. Here's the proposition: If these men are right, let them die natural deaths; if they are wrong, let the earth consume them. The intensity of the situation mounts as Moses warns in verse 26, "And he spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins." Here's God's vote in verse 32, "And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods." Subsequently, the people of Israel scatter for fear of their own lives. Oh! But what about the 250 people-appointed Levite men with censers? Well...they get an immediate trip to the land of Nadab and Abihu just as back in Leviticus 10 (see notes) - whooooosh - wiped out by fire. Verse 35 says, "And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense." Friends don't let friends play with censers!
So, with this miraculous demonstration by God under the direction of Moses, it's settled now, right? Well...not exactly. Look at verse 41, "But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD." What! These Israelites are a more stubborn bunch than we thought. What are they thinking!? And besides that, if by his own power Moses is able to orchestrate targeted earthquakes and massive fire from the sky on demand, wouldn't that be sufficient grounds for conforming to his wishes? God has a solution in verse 45, "Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment." Moses and Aaron again intercede even after the plague to destroy them all has begun (verse 46). Aaron, at the command of Moses, takes his censer and makes atonement for the rebel Israelites, but not before the plague takes 14,700 of them. Now the push for a democracy really is over. LESSON LEARNED: Never sue Moses for wrongful death; the judge is biased.
Let's have a vote of confidence for Aaron (Numbers 17)
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and take of every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to the house of their fathers twelve rods: write thou every man’s name upon his rod.
3 And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi: for one rod shall be for the head of the house of their fathers.
4 And thou shalt lay them up in the tabernacle of the congregation before the testimony, where I will meet with you.
5 And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom: and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, whereby they murmur against you.
6 And Moses spake unto the children of Israel, and every one of their princes gave him a rod apiece, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods: and the rod of Aaron was among their rods.
7 And Moses laid up the rods before the LORD in the tabernacle of witness.
8 And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.
9 And Moses brought out all the rods from before the LORD unto all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod.
10 And the LORD said unto Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the rebels; and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from me, that they die not.
11 And Moses did so: as the LORD commanded him, so did he.
12 And the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish.
13 Whosoever cometh any thing near unto the tabernacle of the LORD shall die: shall we be consumed with dying?
We're still dealing with the aftermath of the rebellion in chapter 16 (see above). Israel needs a definitive word from God declaring who is the God-authorized leader of Israel. Whose rod will bloom of the thirteen tribal leaders here? Will it be Aaron's, or one (or more) of the others. They place the rods in the Tabernacle overnight with their names carefully inscribed thereon. Next day - surprise! It's Aaron's! And not just a small amount of growth...just look at verse 8, "And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds." Now that's decisive!
It would appear from verse 12-13 that the nation-wide mutiny had been put to rest. That is evidenced in verses 12-13, "And the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish. Whosoever cometh any thing near unto the tabernacle of the LORD shall die: shall we be consumed with dying?" I guess that settles it...finally...the people understand that there really is something special about the Tabernacle, God's presence there and the people God appointed to serve.
Incidentally, according to Hebrews 9:4 (see notes), "Aaron’s rod that budded" was placed into the Ark of the Covenant along with a jar of manna and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, seen here in verse 10. However, we see in II Chronicles 5:10 (see notes) at the time that Solomon's Temple was dedicated, "There was nothing in the ark save the two tables which Moses put therein at Horeb, when the LORD made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of Egypt." Apparently the manna and rod had been removed prior to the dedication of Solomon's Temple.