The book of Numbers could just as easily be called the book of Rebellions. Already in our studies, we have seen rebellions due to inadequate food variety, to jealousy of leadership, and to fear of other nations. In our last study, we even found a rebellious man picking up sticks on a Sabbath, and we were reminded by God not to follow our hearts. The next chapter, the next rebellion, is the subject of this study.
God's Wrath Loves Company
When someone makes you angry, why get mad at only the person responsible? Why not take out your anger on their entire family? That is what God would do (and inherently what Jesus would do) as we see in this study of Numbers 16.
Despite God punishing four acts of rebellion thus far in the book of Numbers, amazingly there are some Israelites stupid enough to challenge Moses and his brother the High Priest, Aaron. The Levites Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and 250 other nameless men bring a protest against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1-3).
Moses tells them that they have gone too far, and tomorrow God will show them who He wants to lead the Israelites (Numbers 16:4-11). Dathan and Abiram tell Moses that they will not show up tomorrow just to have Moses brag about how he is in charge (Numbers 16:12-14).
Moses, ever humble, tells God that he has never wronged these men and that God should not accept their offerings (Numbers 16:15).
The day of the big showdown comes. Korah and his 250 men light their censers of incense for God (Numbers 16:16-20).
Then something odd happens. God tells Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16:21:
"Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once." NIVThere are a couple things to note here. First, notice how God is so imprecise with His wrath that He needs Moses and Aaron to move away from the target zone. Second, and more significant, notice how God is going to kill everyone who came out to see the showdown, not just the rebellious party.
Think this interpretation is overreaching? Read the next verse, Numbers 16:22:
But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, "O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?" NIVMoses calls into question God's justice in killing the entire assembly. Just like in the previous study, Moses is the voice of reason for God. It should be the other way around!
Moses is somewhat successful in making his plea to God, as we see from what follows in Numbers 16:23-35. God spares the assembly, and burns the 250 nameless men to death, but reserves a special punishment for Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. For those three, God opens the earth up underneath of their tents, swallowing up all of their possessions (Numbers 16:31-33), and including themselves along with their wives, children, and babies (Numbers 16:27).
Despite Moses reminding God to act with justice, God still kills innocent children along with the guilty father. Clearly, this is what God meant when He said “for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” in Exodus 20:5. (Except these people did not hate God, but rather they were jealous of the relationship which Moses and Aaron had with God and their position of leadership.) It kind of makes you wonder why God is surprised that the Israelites have a saying that “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” in Ezekiel 18:1-4.
The story does not end there. In a seemingly impossible display of more stupidity, the entire Israelite community grumbles against Moses and Aaron the next day, saying that they have killed God's people (Numbers 16:41).
God could not take anymore. He unleashes a plague to kill all of the Israelites. In a dramatic finish, Moses has Aaron burn incense to make atonement for them. Aaron runs out to the line of death and manages to stop the plague after only 14,700 Israelites had died (Numbers 16:42-50).
That calls up some deep philosophical and moral questions. God's will is to kill all of the Israelites during this episode, despite His promises to them. So by acting to bring about atonement, are Moses and Aaron acting against God's will? If so, then this is a sin. If not, then why did God unleash the plague to begin with? If Moses and Aaron had done nothing during the plague, would God hold them accountable for not taking action to thwart His wrath?
The closer you look at it, the more it looks like a tangled mess of lies, or, perhaps more appropriately, just an interesting work of religious fiction.