Moments of Truth

  • Nathan Schneider

Back in 2013, a horrific story was reported out of Florida of a sinkhole that opened up beneath the floor of a bedroom in a suburb of Tampa. The AP reported that “Jeff Bush was sleeping in a bedroom when the earth opened up and devoured him and part of the house. Five other people escaped unharmed and Bush’s brother, Jeremy, tried in vain to dig him out of the hole. Jeff Bush’s body has never been found.” Jeremy Bush told reporters, “I ran toward my brother’s bedroom because I heard my brother scream. Everything was gone. My brother’s bed, my brother’s dresser, my brother’s TV. My brother was gone.”

I remember when I first heard that story in March of 2013. The hole has since reopened twice in the last decade, undoubtedly stirring up emotions in the family. As I’ve been reading through the book of Numbers, I couldn’t help but think of this story as I read the famous account of the rebellion of Korah in chapters 16.

Numbers is, if you will, a narrative-theological explanation for why the first generation of Israel never got to enter into the land of Canaan. They had all been witnesses to God’s glory and might. They had seen God deal with Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron. They had all participated in the Passover. They had all heard the cries that rang out throughout the land of Egypt as every mother discovered to their horror that their firstborn son was dead. They had all witnessed the incredible miracle of the Red Sea parting before them, their supernatural rescue, their terrifying encounter with God at Mt. Sinai where they received the law and entered into covenant relationship with Yahweh. They had seen the glory cloud lead through by day and the pillar of fire by night. They had seen the glory of God enter into the inaugurated tabernacle.

They had seen alot.

So when God led them to the outskirts of Canaan and sent twelve spies into the land to reconnoitre the landscape, the people should have been thrilled at the report. “We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this fruit is its fruit” (Num. 13:27), referring to the massive cluster of grapes, pomegranate and figs they collected in the valley of Eschol. Even when the spies got to the bad news—that the people inhabiting the land are strong, their cities are fortified, and the descendants of Anak live there—that shouldn’t have really been an issue. After the mighty acts God put on display in Egypt, could not God give them victory over the current inhabitants of Canaan?

But all those experiences were not enough to engender trust in the heart of the people. Instead, they refused to enter the land, and they blamed Moses and Aaron for bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. In fact, they even blame God for setting them up to fail! Despite Moses’ and Aaron’s best efforts to encourage the people to obey and trust the Lord, they hardened up their hearts even to the point of picking up stones to execute them (Num. 13:10). Only after God intervenes and rescues Moses and Aaron, and then, ironically, Moses intercedes for the people so that God wouldn’t destroy them outright, is the matter (sort of) settled.

Nevertheless, the divine pronouncement was set: “Surely all the men who have seen My glory and my signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it” (Num. 13:22–23). In other words, this first generation, who had been the first to witness God’s redemptive power, were consigned to die in the wilderness. It would be their children who would have the privilege of entering Canaan and taking possession of the land promised to them.

Fast-forward to Numbers 16. The events described in this chapter occurred at an unspecified time during Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. But they serve as an important piece of evidence for why this generation was judged so harshly. Here, a group numbering around 250, and led by a Levite named Korah along with two Reubenites named Dathan and Abiram, stage a coup to overthrow the leadership of Moses and challenge Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood.

Now, you remember that the although the tribe of Levi was known as the priestly tribe in that they were set apart fro the other tribes of Israel to be servants to God. They received no land like the others, but instead they were given cities and the surrounding pasture-land. Instead, they had the privilege of being God’s servants to tend to the work of the tabernacle (and later the temple). But as for the actual priestly work of offering sacrifices on the bronze altar and the altar of incense, that was a role reserved only for Aaron and his family (cf. Exod. 28:1ff; Lev. 8–9). And that was exactly what Korah and his rebellious cohort was challenging.

Their argument was rather simple. Building off of Moses’ words, that Israel was set apart to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6), they argued that Moses and Aaron had “gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Yahweh is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of Yahweh?” (Num. 16:3). Later, they would resurrect their old complaints, blaming Moses for leading them out of a land flowing with milk and honey into a barren wilderness rather than into Canaan like he promised (Num. 16:13–14).

This was, indeed, a crisis moment in Israel’s infant history, and in particular a crisis moment for Moses and for the priesthood. These rebels undoubtedly had no idea the kind of intercessory work Moses had done and continued to do on behalf of this obstinate nation that had kept God from exterminating them on multiple occasions (cf. Exod. 32:11f; 33:12f; Num. 14:11ff; etc.). Nevertheless, they despised his privileged position as one who spoke “face to face” with Yahweh, “just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11), and Aaron’s family as the privileged priestly family. They wanted a more egalitarian community. They wanted less hierarchy and more democracy. It didn’t matter that, as Levites, Korah and his clan had already been set apart for special service to God (Num. 16:9–10). That wasn’t enough. They wanted to be priests as well.

It’s a moments of truth like this that really define a person’s character. For Moses, who was facing a political and religious coup, he really only had two choices. He could fight off this rebellion his own way. Or he could put the matter into God’s hands and let the Lord vindicate his character and his motives.

When it comes down to it, that was the real heart of the matter. The accusation was that Moses was lording himself over the rest of the nation, elevating himself as more important and taking on a privileged position that belonged to everyone. The same was being said for Aaron. Their integrity was being challenged. Their motivations were under assault. And too often, when we get put in those kinds of situations, where our integrity and motivations are being undermined, our first instinct is too fight by any means necessary to vindicate ourselves.

But what really stands out to me is the little statement describing Moses’ first response. It says in verse 4, “When Moses heard this, he fell on his face” (Num. 16:4). That posture is one of humility and worship, and maybe a little bit of exasperation. Nevertheless, he turns not to defiantly face the crowd, but to appeal to the Lord: “He spoke to Korah and all his company, saying ‘Tomorrow morning Yahweh will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself” (Num. 16:5). Later, when Dathan and Abiram refused to present themselves concerning the matter but instead accused him of trying to deceive everyone about what he was really doing, he appealed to the Lord, contending that his motives have been innocent and that their accusations were baseless: “Do not regard their offering [referring to the incense they would offer the next day]! I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I done harm to any of them” (Num. 16:15). In other words, Moses had never taken advantage of his authority by profiting off of the people that he was leading.

In all of this, it’s important to note that although Moses definitely got angry (do you blame him?), he didn’t try to fight these rebels himself. He didn’t gather a loyal group of Israelites to squash the rebellion. He knew that the real issue under everything was that this rebellion wasn’t about Moses or Aaron. It was about God. They didn’t like the fact that this was how God had chosen to arrange the spiritual and political leadership of the nation. So he let God deal with it in such a way that it would be obvious to everyone that God had made his judgment on the matter.

He called Korah and his 250-strong cohort to assemble together with censers filled with incense (an act reserved only for the Aaronic priesthood). He announced to the group, “By this you shall know that Yahweh had sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, then Yahweh has not sent me. But if Yahweh brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned Yahweh” (Num. 16:28–30).

And that’s exactly how it went down. “As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Num. 16:31–33). Not only that, but God consumed the 250 men with Korah who were burning the incense (Num. 16:35).

Now, the theological lessons of Numbers 16 are clear. The chapter exposes the spiritual nature of that first generation. The next day, believe it or not, the people are back at it again, grumbling against Moses and Aaron, and 14,700 died in a plague because of it.

But it also reinforces the fact that God really did arrange Israel’s political and religious life around his sovereign selection of one particular family to serve as priests before him, and no one was allowed to challenge that decision. That’s the assertion at the close of the chapter: “So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered, and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before Yahweh; so that he will not become like Korah and his company—just as Yahweh had spoke to him through Moses” (Num. 16:40). Ironically, only Aaron—Israel’s true and only high priest—was able to end the plague that was killing so many people at the end of chapter 16. Gathering fire from the altar and placing it in his censer, he stood with Moses between the people and the plague and stopped the deaths from escalating (Num. 16:41–50).

In this way, even though Moses’ response to the people is noble and a good example to us, the bigger take away is the need for God’s people to see, recognize, and embrace God’s sovereign purposes and decisions, even when we don’t understand them or would prefer he had done it a different way. God dispenses his grace as he pleases. He gifts people in differing ways. Not everyone receives the same amount of gifting, or the same degree of skills and talents. Regardless of what your mom and dad told you as a kid, you can’t grow up to be anything you want to be. Embracing God’s plan for us involves embracing his providence in our lives and the ways he’s uniquely made us to be. When we rebel against that, we miss out on the blessing of living in the sweet spot of God’s will for our lives and we risk incurring God’s chastening discipline for it. “These things happened as examples for us,” Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10:11, and we do best to learn from them now rather than later.

Postscript on Korah

Now, as an addendum to this, you may be wondering whether God’s judgment came down too harshly on Korah. Well, if you’re wondering that, you haven’t learned the lesson of Numbers 16! However, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a brief glimpse into the amazing compassion and grace of our Savior.

Earlier in Numbers, when Moses was pleading for God to have mercy on the people after they refused to enter into Canaan and take possession of it, Moses interceded on the basis of God’s nature:

Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, ‘Because Yahweh could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness. But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great just as You have declared, ‘Yahweh is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations'” (Num. 14:15–18).

That’s an important word in all this because on first reading Numbers 16, you might come to the conclusion that Korah’s rebellion cost him not only his own life, but also the lives of his entire family (cf. Num. 16:27, 32). But you’d be wrong…

Tucked away in the account of the new census taken counting the numbers of the new generation poised to enter into Canaan after the last of the first generation died in the wilderness, Moses makes a pointed yet easily overlooked comment:

The sons of Eliab: Nemuel and Dathan and Abiram. These are the Dathan and Abiram who were called by the congregation, who contended against Moses and against Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against Yahweh, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up along with Korah, when that company died, when the fire devoured 250 men, so that they became a warning. The sons of Korah, however, did not die” (Num. 26:9–11).

Apparently, Korah’s sons refused to participate in their father’s rebellion, and God graciously spared them. Their descendants would go on to serve in the tabernacle under David and later in the temple (cf. 1 Chron. 6:22–28; 9:12–32) and compose a number of psalms (Pss 42–49; 84; 85; 87; 88). Decades and even centuries after the rebellion led by their ancestor Korah and chronicled in Numbers 16, the descendants of Korah still referred to themselves as “the sons of Korah” as a testimony that they were recipients of the grace of God. So every time you read a psalm and see that it’s “by the sons of Korah,” be reminder of the grace of God, and that there is always a remnant of God’s grace!