Ah…envy. That’s how the trouble started one day in the wilderness when a certain man named Korah decided to get mouthy with Moses and Aaron.
By the time we get to Numbers 16, the large mob of Hebrew ex-slaves that Yahweh rescued from Egypt is getting mighty tired of wandering around in a forsaken wilderness. Where is this lush Promised Land that they’ve heard so much about? How come Moses always gets to be the one in charge? A certain Levite man named Korah is getting fed up. After all, Yahweh has officially set apart the tribe of Levi as His favored tribe and Korah is a Levite. This means that Korah is special. But just being special isn’t good enough. Korah is jealous of Aaron’s status as the one and only high priest, and he’s also jealous of Yahweh’s clear favoritism of Moses. It’s high time for the spotlight to turn in Korah’s direction, so Korah starts badmouthing Moses and Aaron to other men.
After all, Korah could do a much better job of leading the people than the elderly Moses is doing. But if he’s going to succeed at ousting Yahweh’s main man, Korah will have to be crafty in how he goes about it. The first rule of a successful mutiny is to make the little people think you’re only interested in their welfare. No one will support you if they suspect you’re just on a power trip. So as Korah and his gang of 250 supporters march up to publicly challenge Moses, Korah is careful to sound like he’s really just trying to look out for the welfare of Israel.
One day Korah son of Izhar, a descendant of Kohath son of Levi, conspired with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, from the tribe of Reuben. They incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly. They united against Moses and Aaron and said, “You have gone too far! The whole community of Israel has been set apart by Yahweh, and He is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of Yahweh’s people?” (Num. 16:1-3)
Now whenever Satan is involved, truth gets twisted. Moses and Aaron have had their positions of leadership assigned to them by Yahweh, they didn’t promote themselves, and they aren’t on head trips. Korah and his shady friends know this deep down, but they’re too consumed with their own lust for power to care about how ugly things might get in this superheated situation. If someone should start throwing rocks at Moses and if those rocks should just happen to kill him, that would really be rather convenient.
So how does Moses react? He’s pretty ticked. He’s also massively outnumbered and needs to avoid a physical confrontation. So he pulls God onto his team and says:
“Tomorrow morning Yahweh will show us who belongs to Him and who is holy. Yahweh will allow only those whom He selects to enter His own Presence. Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your censers. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before Yahweh. Then we will see whom Yahweh chooses as His holy one. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far!” (Num. 16:5-7)
Moses’ rebuttal shows the confidence of a man who’s been keeping a clear conscience before God. Confidence in God has always been a matter of understanding that God judges us by our hearts. Moses knows that his heart is reverent and his ego is in check, so he is confident that Yahweh will defend him. He tells Korah and his mob to come back the next day with incense offerings held in censers. Censers were small metal bowls attached to chains. The bowls held hot coals which were used to heat aromatic oil. Metal lids with holes allowed the perfumed smoke to get out into the air and holding the censers by chains prevented people from getting burned.
Moses instructs each one of the rebels to show up with his own censer the following day. Each man is to present a personal incense offering to Yahweh. Moses and Aaron will do the same. Then they will let Yahweh decide who His chosen ones are.
But before the crowd leaves to get ready for the duel of offerings the next day, Moses has one more thing to say:
Then Moses spoke again to Korah: “Now listen, you Levites! Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near Him so you can serve in Yahweh’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, He has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well? Yahweh is the One you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” (Num. 16:8-11)
Here loyal Moses tries to direct the anger away from his older brother Aaron and make the valid point that Korah and his horde of bullies are really beefing against Yahweh.
Now Levites like Korah already had special work assigned to them. God appointed them to set up and take down the Tabernacle and to physically encamp around it as guardians of the holy area. Imagine if we believed today that the communion cups and plates were too special for ordinary people to touch. The Levites would be the guys who got the privilege of handling them. God had already included the Levites into the outer ring of His special incrowd, with Moses and Aaron in the center of that ring. Moses is right to accuse Korah of complaining against God Himself. He sees that Korah’s real problem is jealousy over how God has distributed His favor.
Now that the duel of offerings has been arranged and Moses has exposed Korah’s rotten attitude towards God, Moses puts out the word for Korah’s Reubenite buddies, Dathan and Abiram to come talk to him. While Moses was arguing with Korah, Dathan and Abiram disappeared into the massive Israelite camp. Now they’re sulking in their tents and they won’t come out. Instead they send a messenger back to Moses with this snarky response.
“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” (Num. 16:12-14)
Korah’s buddies are staying true to the original plan, which is to make Moses look like a jerk so that the rest of the people will want to overthrow him. This verbal telegram is intended to get everyone focused on how frustrated they are with being stuck in the wilderness. Where is the lush land Moses promised to lead them to? Notice how Egypt—that place where the Jews were enslaved and beaten—is described as a land flowing with milk and honey. This is the exact same description God used about the Promised Land, and the Reubenite boys are purposely stealing the phrase to amplify the miseries of the wilderness which Moses is constantly being held responsible for. Lastly, they throw in the accusation that Moses is only sending for them so he can harm them—another pointed attempt to cast Moses in a dark light.
Now Moses is super ticked and fed up with these outrageous accusations. He turns to Yahweh, and says:
“Do not accept their grain offerings! I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, and I have never hurt a single one of them!” (Num. 16:15)
Moses is asking God to pull out the big guns. For a man to have his offering rejected by Yahweh was scary stuff. Normally the advocate for Israel, Moses is fed up. Turning back to Korah, he reminds him and his mob of 250 men of the rules: everyone’s to come back the next day to the tent of meeting with their own incense offerings—Moses and Aaron included. Then Yahweh will settle this dispute.
The next day, everyone shows up as planned and God’s glory appears before the assembly to cast His verdict. Korah has done his utmost to stir up the whole community against Moses and he’s certain that this will be his moment of triumph. But then the mighty Yahweh speaks.
Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” (Num. 16:20-21)
God’s not messing around. He’s behind Moses 100% and is ready to obliterate the entire assembly. It’s a very sobering thing when the God of the universe backs you up. Standing in the Presence of such awesome Power has a way of changing a man’s perspective. Yesterday Moses was all for the idea of God smiting these little jerks. Now the thought of such intense wrath being unleashed is suddenly terrifying.
But Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground. “O God,” they pleaded, “You are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must You be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” (Num. 16:22)
Suddenly being avenged no longer seems important. The new priority is to calm God down. Standing in the terrifying aura of His wrath, Moses and Aaron rush to minimize the problem. God is threatening to wipe out the entire nation of Israel right then and there. That would be way too much carnage. They try to get God to just nail Korah instead. With the rebel leader gone, hopefully the mood for mutiny would fizzle. But killing just one man isn’t satisfying to God. He turns His focus on Korah as Moses asks, but He also targets the mouthy Reubenites who felt so free to insult His man.
Yahweh said to Moses, “Then tell all the people to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (Num. 16:23-24)
Moses hurries to warn everyone to back away from the three key family compounds.
“Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” So all the people stood back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrances of their tents, together with their wives and children and little ones. (Num. 16:26-27)
What’s going on? What’s all the fuss about? The cowardly Dathan and Abiram come out of hiding and see everyone staring at them. Now Moses calls out to everyone:
“This is how you will know that Yahweh has sent me to do all these things that I have done—for I have not done them on my own. If these men die a natural death, or if nothing unusual happens, then Yahweh has not sent me. But if Yahweh does something entirely new and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all their belongings, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have shown contempt for Yahweh.” (Num. 16:28-30)
Clearly God has let Moses in on what He’s about to do. Notice how Moses says the Lord is about to do something “totally new.” Obviously the earth hasn’t opened up before in anyone’s recollection.
He had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. All the people around them fled when they heard their screams. “The earth will swallow us, too!” they cried. (Num. 16:31-34)
Total panic ensues. Everyone’s running for their lives and while Moses is too distracted to protest, God decides His wrath isn’t quite satisfied.
Then fire blazed forth from Yahweh and burned up the 250 men who were offering incense. (Num. 16:35)
Now God is happy, and everyone’s appalled by the sight of 250 charred bodies lying on the ground.
And Yahweh said to Moses, “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pull all the incense burners from the fire, for they are holy. Also tell him to scatter the burning coals. Take the incense burners of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and hammer the metal into a thin sheet to overlay the altar. Since these burners were used in Yahweh’s Presence, they have become holy. Let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.” (Num. 16:36-38)
Yahweh feels this is a moment worth remembering, so He tells Eleazar to go picking through the smoking corpses to salvage all of the metal censers. He then instructs the censers to be hammered into sheets and overlaid on the altar as a nice reminder for all the Israelites not to challenge God’s Authority. If anyone other than Aaron tries to burn incense before the Lord from then on, they’ll end up like Korah.
Too bad it couldn’t have just stopped there. Too bad everyone had to get attitudinal again.
But the very next morning the whole community of Israel began grumbling again against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed Yahweh’s people!” (Num. 16:41)
Twenty-four hours later, the lesson seems to have been lost. Once again, the people are griping—this time blaming Moses and Aaron for what God Himself did. As if a man could crack open the earth or torch 250 bodies by himself. It makes no sense, but everyone’s nerves are on edge from the day before and they’ve decided Moses is too much of a threat to keep around. Revving themselves up into a murderous mob, they come at Moses and Aaron again before the tent of meeting. This time there’s no negotiating. Yahweh instantly appears and orders Moses:
“Get away from all these people so that I can instantly destroy them!” (Num. 16:45)
God’s done. All of Israel’s about to become food for the vultures. A plague—we’re not told what kind—starts moving through the mob, killing people instantly. And it’s moving fast. Moses rushes to come up with some way to appease God. He tells Aaron to load up a censer with another incense offering and go running out among the dropping bodies to see if God will notice and calm down. The plan takes a lot of courage, but Aaron does it. He goes charging out with his smoking censer and finds the line between the dead and the about-to-be-dead. As he stands there, boldly holding up his censer, Yahweh generously grants his symbolic request for atonement and the plague stops. Now there 14,700 more corpses to bury. Aaron walks back to Moses who is still standing by the tent, and we’re left to imagine the expressions on their faces.
Who says the Bible’s not exciting? Wow, what a story. Can you imagine having God back you up the way He did Moses and Aaron? What an incredible honor. And how typical of us humans to get bitter and jealous when someone is being extra blessed by God. What should we be learning from this story? Well, for starters, it’s not our place to tell God who He can and can’t favor. God blesses who He wants to bless, and He chooses who He wants to choose. Today you’re taught to pursue positions of influence in the Church. When power hungry Christians feel like no one is giving them the attention they deserve, they simply anoint themselves, pick a holy sounding title to flaunt, and go around telling everyone that they’ve got God’s special favor resting on them. Meanwhile, our Christian colleges crank out the “leadership seminars” and push for this ridiculous idea that we’re all supposed to be leaders. Well, no, we’re not. As much as our egos want to stand in the spotlight, we need to wait for God’s authorization before we dare to assume some position of authority over His flock. Before God authorizes us to lead, He’s going to train us how to serve Him well, and that means learning to not complain and grumble when He assigns us menial tasks which we feel are beneath our talents.
Korah had already received special favor from Yahweh but he lost it because he refused to be satisfied. Is there some area of your life in which God seems to be holding you back or blocking your way? Is there some leader in the Church who you’re just green with envy over? Recognize that your real issue is a lack of submission to God and ask the Holy Spirit to help you learn the lessons He wants to teach you. We don’t get to tell God how to run His Church, His world, or anything else. We are servants and we don’t get any say in what tasks God will assign to us. Rather than focus on what someone else is doing, we need to ask God to teach us how to serve Him well doing the work that He has assigned us to do.
At the end of this life, God isn’t going to be comparing your work to anyone else’s. He’s going to judge you solely by how you responded to His convictions and how serious you were about pleasing Him. We all get stuck in envious comparing at times, but we don’t have to just toss up our hands and decide to stay there forever. We also don’t have to let the feelings fester for so long that we end up trying to pull a Korah. How many obedient pastors have been driven out of their church congregations because someone was on a power trip? How many carnal glory hogs have we promoted to positions of power because we were too spineless to speak out against the majority when we knew in our hearts that the majority was wrong? It’s pretty disturbing that out of the whole assembly of Israel, no one sided with Moses. Everyone just hunkered down amid a few loud mouths and in the end they paid the price for their gutlessness.
Far too often we put man’s opinion above God’s. We act like it’s far worse to have people upset with us than it is to have God upset with us. Well, if we are willing to side with God’s enemies, then we deserve a share in the wrath that He pours down on their heads. You don’t get to disrespect God and then call on Him to protect you from all suffering and strife. It doesn’t work like that. So long as you’re on this earth, there are still consequences for sin. Christians and non-Christians alike will feel the heat of God’s anger if they insist on defying Him or siding with those who do. So if you want to avoid being knocked into a large crack in the earth or becoming a smoking corpse, then make sure you’re not holding back in your submission to God. We need to be asking the Holy Spirit to make us all that He wants us to be. When we leave this earth, we want it to be because God was eager to reward us for a job well done, not because He was fed up with our rebellion and wanting to remove our bad influence from this world.