The prepared text for this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below–after the artwork. The sermon audio is available here at this link. Next Sunday’s passage is Numbers 16:41-17:11. In the passage for next week we’ll see this rebellion spread to the rest of Israel. My commentary on this portion of Numbers is available at this link.
Ever since the people of Israel left the wilderness of Sinai, we have seen one rebellion after another. The first time the people grumbled about their misfortunes in the hearing of the Lord, God’s anger was kindled and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outlying parts of the camp. It could have been far worse, but Moses prayed and the fire died down. Then the rabble among them—Gentiles who had come with them from Egypt and lived on the outskirts of the camp—grumbled about their craving for meat. Thus again the anger of the Lord blazed hotly. Unfortunately, Moses responded to their grumbling with his own rebellious words. He grumbled to the Lord about the people the Lord had entrusted to him: the Levites, the six hundred thousand some people of the twelve tribes plus their wives and children, and the rabble who accompanied them. Moses said that God had given him too heavy of a burden—that burden being these many unhappy people. Indeed, Moses took their criticism personally instead of seeing it as grumbling against God. So Moses whined to God that God was mistreating him. He even said that if God was going to treat him like this, then he wanted God to strike him dead then and there. It isn’t surprising that the people a short time later would grumble that they would rather have died in Egypt or die in the wilderness than to fall by the sword in the Promised Land. When Moses grumbled about the burden God had given him, he wasn’t any different than the people God called him to lead. He wasn’t willing to lay down his life to serve the people, in his despair he simply concluded everything is meaningless—let me die. It isn’t hard to sympathize with Moses. Still today there are congregations that grumble incessantly about all of their misfortunes and unfairly blame their pastor’s leadership. As I’ve said before, grumbling is contagious. Sometimes grumbling even becomes part of the culture of a church. Many otherwise good and faithful pastors and preachers, with far smaller flocks than Moses and confronted by less serious grumbling than Moses, have experienced a crisis of faith and began grumbling too. Moses was a great leader. There was no person on earth who was more meek. He allowed himself to be plagued by all kinds of self-doubt, but he was an excellent shepherd. Thus when the people grumbled against Moses, it was totally unfounded. They blamed Moses for not satisfying the cravings of their wicked hearts and they blamed him for the consequences of their own sins, when Moses was the one standing between them and God to save them. Aaron had to turn to Moses to pray for Miriam after they spoke against Moses because of his Cushite wife. Moses persuaded God to pardon the people of Israel after the ten spies gave a bad report about the Promised Land and they wanted to stone to death Caleb and Joshua and head back for Egypt. God wanted to start over again with Moses right then and there, but Moses convinced the Lord that it would be better to forgive the people again. Now the nation would have to wander in the wilderness for another forty years because they believed the report of the ten faithless scouts instead of believing in the Lord, but that wasn’t Moses’ fault. Moses didn’t lead the people presumptuously into the Promised Land to be killed in battle either. The people did that all on their own. Nothing the people of Israel did in that entire episode meant that Moses was a poor leader. Just the opposite. Then there is this case of the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. I promised you last week that I would say more about it. You might think that stoning the man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath is a little excessive. But consider this: that man knew it was against the law of God to work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10, 35:2), he also knew it was against the law of God to kindle a fire in his tent on the Sabbath day (Exodus 35:3), he was doing all of this out in the open for anyone to see, and if they let him go then someone would see the smoke rising from his tent. In other words, it wasn’t so much that he was gathering sticks—the manner of how he broke the Sabbath isn’t the point—it was that he was defiantly, brazenly, and publicly rebelling against the Lord. When that man went around gathering sticks, it was a premeditated act of open and utter rebellion against the Lord. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if Moses didn’t ask the Lord what they should do with the man and excused it as no big deal? God would have been really angry. They took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death. Many more people would’ve died if that man had been left alone to do his own thing. But my reason for rehearsing all of these examples of rebellion since they began their journey from the wilderness of Sinai is that this was a very rebellious generation. Yes, they stood up to be counted in the beginning and they started well when they set out on the journey from the wilderness of Sinai, but many of them were rebels at heart. Even those who weren’t rebels at heart, like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, could revolt on occasion against the Lord. And all of these incidents prepared the way for the worst act of rebellion yet. Actually it is two rebellions in one—as we’ll see—
Korah, Dathan and Abiram conspired together against the Lord and His anointed ones in a major southside rebellion and failed their trials by ordeal using incense burners and a new thing.
The southside rebellion wasn’t a revolt led by those at the bottom of society, but rather by two parties who were near the top and wanted to be in charge. These two parties—one the party of Korah the Kohathite and the other the party of Dathan and Abiram who were from the tribe of Reuben—conspired together to overthrow Aaron and Moses. The Kohathites were the Levites that lived on the south side of the tabernacle and moved the most holy things. The tribe of Reuben was the leading tribe also on the south side of the tabernacle. And the conspirators persuaded 250 well-known chiefs of the congregation to join them in this revolt. These are all people near the top of society but unhappy with their place in it. Indeed, the first of the Levites to be counted in Numbers were the Kohathites, the first of the people from the other twelve tribes to be counted in Numbers were those from Reuben, and those who were doing the counting were leaders in the community like the 250 well-known chiefs of the congregation. This rebellion was not being led by little-known people from the sons of the maidservants living on the north side of the tabernacle. Just the opposite. It was people near the top like Korah and Dathan and Abiram. We hear the agenda of the party of Korah the Kohathite first. They argued that everyone in the congregation is holy and YHWH is among them but Moses and Aaron exalted themselves above the rest of them. Korah was politically savvy. He makes it sound like he is asking for equality when he really wants to be a priest in charge of the tabernacle. Moses unmasked their agenda for what it really was in his response. It is true that all in the congregation are holy—the last section of the collection of laws we looked at last Sunday was the tassels the people put on their garments, which were a reminder of their holiness. But their accusation against Moses and Aaron was utterly false. They accused Moses and Aaron of exalting themselves when there was no one as meek as Moses on the earth and Moses immediately fell on his face to ask for God’s help. Moses’ first instinct wasn’t to refute the allegations but rather to go to the Lord. Moses and Aaron are not men who have presumptuously exalted themselves. And as Moses says, Korah wasn’t really grumbling against Aaron—he was grumbling against the Lord who had arranged the camp with the Kohathites in this second tier rather than making the Kohathites priests. Dathan and Abiram’s agenda was even more evil. When we heard their argument there wasn’t even a reference to YHWH. But their complaint was that Moses has taken them from the good land of Egypt (a land that they now romanticize as flowing with milk and honey) in order to kill them in the wilderness, even made himself a prince over the people of Israel, and he hasn’t delivered on his promise to give them the land of Canaan. When they say, “Will you put out the eyes of these men?” that is an idiomatic expression to say, ‘You can fool others but we see what you’re doing.’ They are attacking Moses’ motives. They are saying that Moses has done everything that he has done for his own personal gain. That’s why Moses says to YHWH that he has not taken one donkey from them and has not harmed one of them. Moses is not only saying that he hasn’t misused his position but even saying that he hasn’t profited from them or at their expense because of his position. Thus once again the accusation was utterly false. They too weren’t really rebelling against Moses but against YHWH for YHWH decided how the tribes would be arranged. (So the party of Korah the Kohathite was aiming to take down Aaron so that he could be a priest and the party of Dathan and Abiram was aiming to take down Moses so that they could lead Israel. The one party was seeking religious leadership and the other party was seeking political leadership and they conspired together against Aaron and Moses.)
And in typical ancient fashion these competing claims were decided using trials by ordeal. The trial by ordeal for the 250 chiefs involved the burning of incense. The test should have reminded their ringleader Korah of what happened to Nadab and Abihu. You may remember that when we were at the church picnic we heard about these two sons of Aaron who offered unauthorized fire before YHWH. It was mentioned in Numbers 3, but we looked at Leviticus 10:1-2 for a couple more details about the incident. Leviticus says, “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before YHWH, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before YHWH and consumed them, and they died before YHWH.” Now keep in mind that this happened when legitimate priests—sons of Aaron—offered unauthorized fire, which He had not commanded them. What might you think would happen then when someone who isn’t even a son of Aaron dares to burn incense before YHWH? Indeed, the outcome of this trial by ordeal was that fire came out from YHWH and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. Of course, fire didn’t come out and consume Aaron the priest when they burned incense because Korah the Kohathite’s accusations were false. Even more interesting is the other trial by ordeal for the two main parties and Moses. This one is different. God would’ve simply consumed the entire congregation in a moment. So He told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from everyone else but instead Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and convinced Him to not let the sin of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram destroy everyone else. This is the kind of leader Moses was now—it was a dangerous move. God told them to get out of the way. But Moses interceded for the people. As a result, we see the trial by ordeal for these ringleaders. This trial, as Moses explains it, means that if Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their families all end up dying later then they were right and YHWH didn’t send Moses but if YHWH sent Moses then something new would happen—the earth would open up and swallow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram alive. We all know what happened then. (This second trial by ordeal is an image of the final judgment—a judgment that happened for Jesus Christ about two thousand years later.)
We know the story of how the Pharisees and Sadducees conspired together so that the Romans would crucify Jesus and how Jesus passed His trial by ordeal using a new thing.
The trial by ordeal for Jesus was also something that had never happened before , but it was the reverse of the trial by ordeal for Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (on the one hand) and Moses (on the other hand). YHWH decided in favor of Moses by having the earth swallow alive Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their families. Fastforward about two thousand years and the trial by ordeal of Jesus was one where His dead body was laid in the earth behind a sealed stone and God decided in favor of Jesus by raising Him from the dead and rolling the stone away so that people could see His verdict on the third day. The earth swallowed Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, but the earth spit up Jesus . Korah, Dathan, and Abiram went alive to the place of the dead, but Jesus went from the place of the dead to being alive again. Jesus was not abandoned to Sheol (cf. Acts 2:31). The reason that you know the verdict of a trial by ordeal was in someone’s favor was that they came out of the trial alive. This is true regardless of the particular means used for the trial. For example, the trial by ordeal could be with fire like the fiery furnace that didn’t even singe a hair on the heads of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (otherwise known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) but consumed the men who threw the three in it or it could be with hungry lions in a den whose mouths were shut when Daniel was in it but who ate Daniel’s accusers and their families. Thus this trial by ordeal using a new thing showed that Jesus was telling the truth and the Father really did send Him and that the Pharisees and Sadducees and the Romans were rebels against the Lord speaking presumptuously like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. With the exception of those Pharisees and Sadducees and Roman soldiers who later repented of their conspiring against Jesus and believed in Him unto salvation, the rest await a final judgment where the verdict for them will not be favorable.
As people who believe in Jesus Christ, we echo Moses’ call to move away from those wicked religious leaders and their rebellion against God and His anointed one Jesus. We echo Moses’ call for people not only to join the church but to put themselves under the authority of church leaders called by God. As the author of Hebrews says in the New Testament, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to given an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17). We’ve seen what can happen when the grumbling of church members makes their leaders groan for that groaning can also turn into grumbling. We know that if someone continues to despise the Lord, then they are under the wrath of God. And we know that if someone believes in Jesus Christ, then that person is delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10). Better yet, they may not be delivered alone. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram all had children who were swallowed up by the earth. Yet we know from a later census that some of Korah’s descendants survived. In other words, some decided to move away from their father and side with Moses. In fact, parents with little children can carry them away from danger just as those who moved away from the tents of Korah. Salvation is both for you and your children. This is our message to the world: You don’t have to die with those who continue to repeat the rebellion of Adam . You can join us on our journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land and this time that journey is not under the wrath of God. Your parents might not believe but everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord and their little ones will be saved . Thanks be to God. Amen.