The Blossoming of Aaron’s Rod by Augustin Hirschvogel, circa 1550, currently at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of the Israelites and their whiny ways. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: you’d think that people who witnessed amazing natural and unnatural miracles nearly every week would be a little more trusting in their deity as well as the guy who apparently speaks for Him. But here we go again anyway, with Chapter 16.

So, there’s this Israelite named Korah who’s a Levite. He and a couple of other men – Dathan and Abiram, who are Reubenites – start rabble-rousing and call for an uprising against Moses. They build up a group of about 250 men, who the Bible says are “…well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council…”, so you know that they’re actually respected within their tribes. As a group they confront Moses, yelling at him in Verse 3: “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?” Moses does what he always does in times of crisis – he throws himself face down on the ground. Nonetheless, he does fight back for a change, saying two things: 1) For Levites to challenge him, the tribe that God has set apart as especially holy, they’ve really got a lot of nerve, and 2) God Himself will choose who is holy and who is not, with a special censer ceremony the next day.

The next day comes and each man in the angry crowd has brought his requested incense censer, so there’s a line of 250 of them with each man standing behind. Aaron and Moses also have their incense censers. God tells Moses to have him and Aaron stand a little bit away from the others and their censers, so you know something big is about to happen. Moses asks God to spare anyone not with Korah, Dathan and Abiram and God agrees, so Moses tells the whole community that if you’re not with K, D and A, to stand out of the splash zone, so to speak. K, D and A and the other members of the angry mob all have their families standing with them, and then it’s time to light the censers.

Moses addresses everyone, saying that he has only been doing God’s bidding and everyone will now find out now how he’s not doing all the things that are happening – God is. With this demonstration, if the men die in weird and unexpected ways – ways that Moses couldn’t have orchestrated – then they should know that God has done it.

WHAM! The earth splits open under Korah and his family and they’re all swallowed up. It’s gruesome, too, as it says in Verse 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.” Yikes. Then fire erupts and consumes all the other men of the angry mob.

All the incense censers have remained unharmed though, and God has Moses tell Eleazar, Aaron’s son, to gather them all up and hammer them into sheets to overlay the Tabernacle’s altar. They are henceforth to be a permanent reminder to everyone that only a priest can burn incense before God. From here on out, anyway.

Well, if you think that all this punishment would prevent the Israelites from complaining for a while, you have truly underestimated the Israelites’ abilities to complain. The very next day, in Verse 41: “…the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. ‘You have killed the LORD’s people,’ they said.” I don’t know how the Israelites figured that Moses caused a huge sinkhole or flames of death, but the fact that it’s “the whole Israelite community” proves that the Israelites at this point are pretty much unteachable. God reaches this conclusion and tells Moses and Aaron to get out of the way, He’s done, and He’s going to put an end to them all. He sends down a plague that starts to work its way through the community (hey, like COVID-19, but way faster!). Moses and Aaron don’t wish to be the only two Israelites left, so Aaron lights his incense censer and starts to make atonement for the whole people – as high priest, he can do this – and it works, but not before 14,700 had already died from plague.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School! This whole episode is referred to as ‘Korah’s Rebellion’ by Biblical scholars and it’s interesting to see how the chapter is used by different groups. Biblical scholars are fascinated by the text, not only because of the story (it’s yet another example of rebellious Israelites) but because it’s a good example of how the Book of Numbers was written by multiple authors – not Moses, as is traditionally believed – who all had varied purposes. In his interesting thesis, A Narrative Critical Analysis of Korah’s Rebellion in Numbers 16 and 17, Dr. Donald James Taylor shows how the different, disjointed points of view represented in the text show that this one chapter alone had a few authors. However, pastors and priests love to use Numbers 16 to show how God has imbued them with authority. As Dr. Jack Arnold of Equipping Pastors International says in his study, “God distinctively put Moses and Aaron in their respective positions because they were God’s men and the most qualified. Today, God is still ruling His people, but not through one man. He rules in His church through Christ, the Head of the church, and Christ has delegated this authority to rule in the church to elders who are appointed to this office by God Himself.”

In Chapter 17, we’re not yet done with unhappy Israelites. Moses still needs to prove to them that he and Aaron are the authorities on earth, God’s divine representatives. God tells him to have all the twelve tribes provide a staff each from their leaders. On the Levites’ staff, he’s to write Aaron’s name. All the staffs are to be placed in the Tabernacle in front of the ark, and God will make it known who’s in charge by choosing a staff. Moses and all the tribes do this, and the next day Aaron’s staff is all budded out and even producing almonds. Moses brings out the staffs and says, basically, ‘Voila!’ At this display the Israelites still cry out, in Verses 12 – 13: “The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?” So this demonstration was basically a bust.

Wait, What? Unanswered Questions of the Bible: This story really perplexed me. We know that no one can enter the Tabernacle except Moses and the priests. So Moses takes the staffs into a place where no one – except those who have a solid stake in the outcome – can see what happens. The Israelites are supposed to take it on faith that Moses is telling the truth, that Aaron’s staff flowered and all – but we already know they really don’t have much faith in him at this point. So why should they listen to him now? They wouldn’t believe flames whooshing up out of nowhere and consuming an angry mob of 250 men, so why would something that looks like a magic trick (“Kazaam! Now this staff – which I hid away with all the others and no one except me and maybe Aaron could go in and see – is growing leaves and almonds!” It’s not a great proof story. Torah scholar Dr. Raanan Eichler has a really fascinating explanation for the story being there: it provides a suitable explanation for why temples tend to have an image of what seems to be an asherah pole in their sanctuaries, when the real reason is a bit of a problem. If you clicked that link, you’ll automatically see why having an asherah pole in your temple is odd – it’s a sacred cult object for the Canaanite god Asherah. Way, way, way back in the region of ancient Canaan, there was a bit of muddling of the religious practices among the groups that were emerging and somehow, this one item got accepted by the Israelites who started routinely keeping them in their temples and other worship spaces. When early Judaism was becoming monotheistic, having an item from a different deity in your sanctuary was an issue but apparently no one wanted to get rid of it altogether. So they gave it a new story with the pole now portraying Aaron’s budding staff as his proof of authority over the priesthood, and there you go.

Numbers 18 reinforces God’s directives to the Levites and priests. God tells Aaron that he and his sons, and the generations of his family to come, are to bear the responsibility for offenses caused against the sanctuary and the priesthood. God reiterates: only Levites are to serve as priests inside the Tabernacle. For their important work, they are to receive a portion of the offerings, whether they be grain- or sin- or guilt-related. Everything in Israel hereafter that is devoted to God is theirs as well, including the firstfruits of the harvest, the first offspring (most of which, including people, must be redeemed at a price, here it’s five shekels), whatever. The Levites are to be solely tied to the work of the Tabernacle (later the Temple), and so cannot inherit land and work it as others would. Finally, God says that the Levites themselves are to present a tenth of that tithe that they receive, the best and holiest parts, as their own offering to Him.

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