The prepared text of this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below. You can find the sermon audio at this link here. You cannot explore this post without seeing how this ancient text about ending a plague is relevant today. Next Sunday we will look at Numbers 17:12-19:22. I encouraged the congregation to read that passage during the week because I will not read the whole of it on Sunday morning. For further reading on Numbers, I would suggest this post from my commentary on the book.
In the previous scene, Korah the Kohathite argued that all in the congregation are holy, therefore Aaron wasn’t special and Korah should be a priest of God. If that weren’t enough, Dathan and Abiram accused Moses of bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt in order to kill them in the wilderness as if YHWH didn’t exist. The Levite leader of this uprising assembled the whole congregation of Israel against Moses and Aaron at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of YHWH appeared to all the congregation. It is a picture of Judgment Day—the Day of YHWH. When Miriam and Aaron were grumbling against Moses out of envy, YHWH came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam (Num 12:5). It was a judgment scene, but not as serious as later rebellions—which is probably the reason that He came in judgment in a pillar of cloud rather than in glory. When the people of Israel were ready to stone Joshua and Caleb for their faithful minority report we heard, “But the glory of YHWH appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel” (Num 14:10). YHWH wanted to start all over with Moses, but Moses interceded for the people. Then as we were saying when Korah assembled the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting, then “the glory of YHWH appeared to all the congregation” (Num 16:19). This time YHWH was less patient. He told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the congregation that He might consume them in a moment and Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and interceded for the people. Part of the argument Moses made that time was that the whole congregation shouldn’t perish because of the transgression of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 community leaders. Thus YHWH told Moses to get the people of Israel to separate themselves from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and the earth swallowed their tents whole and fire came from YHWH and consumed the 250 community leaders carrying incense burners. You would think that this demonstration would put an end to the grumbling of the people of Israel against Moses and Aaron, which is really grumbling against YHWH, and thus YHWH would no longer have to come in judgment and tell Moses and Aaron to get out of the way so that He could consume the people of Israel in a moment. But on the next day…
The transgression of grumbling was like a plague that can survive fire and earth-swallowing to infect the rest of the nation with deadly consequences.
The disease spread the very next day after these earth-shattering events to the whole congregation of Israel. No longer was it a select few ringleaders trying to overthrow Moses and Aaron, but now the whole people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The content of that grumbling is telling—it is a mixture of the rebellions of Dathan and Abiram, and Korah. They say, “You have killed the people of YHWH.” Dathan and Abriam accused Moses of bringing the Hebrew people into the wilderness to kill them. Korah’s politically astute complaint was that all the people were holy and therefore Aaron was no one special. He would have said that they were the people of YHWH. Put these two things together and you get the people’s grumbling statement, “You have killed the people of YHWH.” The people blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the 250 community leaders and Dathan, Abiram, Korah, and their households. Of course, they had seen the judgment of YHWH. It wasn’t Moses and Aaron who killed all of those people. So they were really grumbling against YHWH. But they directed their anger at Moses and Aaron. Thankfully for them, Moses and Aaron didn’t take it personally. These meek men fell on their faces when God said again that He wanted to consume the people in a moment. Just as I said last time, this was a dangerous move. God told Moses and Aaron to get out of the way. But Moses and Aaron put themselves into harm’s way instead.
Nevertheless, the plague of grumbling still had deadly consequences. God didn’t consume them in a moment because of the intercession of Moses, but He sent a plague among them. It isn’t an accident that the transgression of grumbling acts like a disease that can survive apocalyptic doomsday events and thus God responded to it with a doomsday plague. Moses describes it this way, saying, “wrath has gone out from YHWH; the plague has begun” (Num 16:47). Remember that the arrangement of these passages is on purpose. These episodes of rebellion follow a collection of laws. After hearing the laws, the people rebelled even more and that brought God’s wrath upon them. Thus once again we see that the law increased the trespass (cf. Rom 5:20) and the law brings wrath (cf. Rom 4:15). By the time the plague was over, 14,700 people had died. This number is besides those who died in the affair of Korah. Part of the reason that the text goes out of its way to mention the rebellion of Korah is to make sure that you see the parallel. Not only is the new rebellion an extension of Korah’s rebellion, but this plague was another Judgment Day or end-of-the-world event. The number of those who died is obviously a multiple both of seven and ten—numbers meaning complete and full—at least because those who died represented the whole nation. That generation wanted to die in the wilderness, so they were rebelling against God and He was giving them what they wanted. It is also no accident that the passage we will look at next Sunday is another collection of laws. After all, the law was added because of transgressions (cf. Gal 3:19). It is only fitting that after these major transgressions there would be another collection of laws. And now we know what to expect next. (But first we have good news to talk about.)
The good news concerns both stopping the plague killing Israel and stopping the plague of grumbling.
In this passage, Aaron stopped this plague by burning incense and making atonement for the people of Israel while standing between the dead and the living. Aaron is again to be commended for this brave move for he was in very real danger of coming into contact with the dead and becoming unclean (even if he wouldn’t catch the plague and die). Aaron didn’t take the long way around like the priest who passed by the man on the road to Jericho in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. No, Aaron went straight into the breach between the living and the dead. And in that breach, Aaron burned incense and made atonement for Israel so that those who were living would not join those who were dying. But consider too how appropriate it was that Aaron stopped the plague by burning incense and making atonement for the people of Israel. Part of the reason for bringing up the “affair of Korah” again is that Korah and his followers believed that they should be priests and the 250 community leaders carried incense burners as a test and ended up being consumed by the fire of YHWH. They could not even save themselves. But now Aaron carried an incense burner and made atonement for Israel so that the plague stopped. Indeed, Aaron was once again saving the lives of the same people who grumbled that Aaron killed the people of YHWH. Now Aaron, the anointed priest, is a type of the anointed one Jesus. So fast-forward about two thousand years and remember Jesus Christ whose sacrificial death was a pleasing aroma to the Father because of His purity and who made atonement for the people of God because of their sins. Jesus didn’t just stand in the breach between the living and the dead—Jesus died for our sins. His death saved the lives of grumbling people like us so that we can take the pleasing aroma of Christ to the walking dead among us. Indeed, in Christ we are a living sacrifice with a pleasing aroma. Paul said, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:14-16). Christ is always leading us in triumphal procession and through us spreading His aroma to God while we’re standing between the dead and the living. But don’t imagine us as being like a conquering military commander returning to Rome with a trail of slaves behind him. Christ has turned the world upside down—for Christ led Paul in triumphal procession to Rome in chains. (So that answered stopping the plague killing Israel. And that is how we bring an end to the plague killing the people of our community, state, nation, and world. What about stopping the plague of grumbling itself? Well that’s the reason for the second half of our passage today.)
In the passage, we see the prophetic sign of a staff that budded, blossomed, and produced almonds as its fruit. This staff would be a permanent prophetic sign to prompt rebellious people to repent of their grumbling and live. Indeed, the point of the sign was that God would bring an end to the regular ongoing grumbling of Israel. The Hebrew word for staff also means tribe. So these staffs represented the tribes of Israel. But they also had the names of the head of each house on them—thus the one for the tribe of Levi had the name of Aaron. This is important because the staff of the man God chose would sprout and we have already discussed how Aaron is a type of Jesus Christ in this passage. These staffs were also dead pieces of wood, which is important. But as we noted already, Aaron’s staff didn’t just sprout—it budded, blossomed, and produced almonds as its fruit. When the heads of these houses saw this, they not only knew that God chose Aaron and therefore they should stop grumbling against Aaron but it would also have reminded them of the lampstand in the tabernacle. The lampstand also is a tree of life with decorations of buds, blossoms, and almonds. Once again this reminds us of the passage earlier in Numbers where we saw the lampstand was staged to shine on the showbread just as God was shining His face upon Israel and their offerings. There also is a reason that the fruit of these trees is almonds. The almond tree blossoms early and thus tells us spring is starting. This staff that was dead and now is alive and bearing the fruit of almonds is a prophetic sign pointing to the resurrection of Christ. His resurrection is the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead. His resurrection is an early sign of spring. It is a sign that the winter of sin and death is coming to an end. This prophetic sign did indeed point to something that can stop the plague of grumbling. We already know that the law is powerless to stop grumbling not because of any flaw in the law but because of the flaw in all who descend from Adam and Eve by ordinary generation. But the risen Jesus who poured out the Spirit, can change hearts from wanting to believe that God is out to kill them to wanting to believe in God and therefore from wanting to grumble against God to wanting to praise God. After all, we’ve seen that grumbling is the fruit of unbelief—so the fruit of faith is to praise God. Thus we too can begin to bear fruit even now as we wait for the resurrection of the dead when the plague of grumbling will end forever as Jesus comes in glory. May God be praised. Amen.