The Torah portion this Shabbat (Numbers 16-18) is called Korach, named after the leader of an infamous rebellion against Moses and Aaron – one which ended catastrophically. This is now the third challenge to Moses’ leadership. The first from his own siblings, Aaron and Miriam (allegedly for having married an Ethiopian woman). The second was the evil report of the ten spies and their accusation that Moses brouKorachght them into the desert to die. Each rebellion ended in disaster. Korach is an especially grievous parasha, but it is vital that we never forget how prone we ourselves are to sin and rebellion.
Korah, a Levite, along with Datan, Aviram and On, assembled 250 leading men, and challenged Moses and Aaron for leadership. They accused Moses of exalting himself, and claimed that all Israelis were holy and should be allowed to be priests. Ironically, Moses never wanted the job in the first place, asking God to send somebody else. And, at this point, he’s over 80 years old! Who, at that stage of life, wants the burden of leading a nation of kvetchers? Personally, I’d rather be sipping an Arnold Palmer in Myrtle Beach.
The pretext for the rebellion was the execution of a Sabbath-breaker. Korah said to Moses, “You’ve gone far enough!” and wanted everyone to think he was indignant over the execution, and seeking equal spiritual opportunity for all Israelis. Korah made himself out to be a real “man of the people”. Perhaps he’d been building up resentment about the exclusive appointment of the Cohaneem (he not being one of them). What is certain is that he rejected Moses’ leadership – tantamount to rebellion against God who commissioned Moses.
Do you really suppose Korah assembled 250 of the most influential Israelis that quickly? It takes time and effort to build a coalition. I suspect he’d been rallying others secretly all along, ‘working the phones’ as it were, getting them ready to act on his signal, at an opportune time.
I think Korah had long resented Moses’ position, and this was raw personal ambition masquerading as spirituality. Jude 11-16 seems to confirm Korah’s wicked intentions. In actuality, Korah was mimicking Satan who, in eternity past, gathered his own following to launch a heavenly coup.
Moses tells Korah and Co., “Tomorrow morning Adonai will show who is His and who is holy and who He chooses to bring near to Himself,” instructing them to come with firepans and incense to the Tent of Meeting. In essence, Moses said to Korah, “Your contention, that any Israeli can offer incense to the Lord – let’s put it to the test. Are you ready to stake your life on it?” Remember, under pain of death only cohaneem were authorized to offer incense before Adonai. Korah was from the tribe of Levi, but not a priest.
The next morning, Korah and the others showed up with their censers, but Datan and Aviram refused the summons. The 250 men lit their censers and put incense on it. What happened next was terrifying. God sent forth fire and slew them. God’s instructed Moses to warn the entire congregation to back away from the tents of Korah, Datan and Aviram. Moses declared, “If these men and their families die a natural death, then you’ll know that God didn’t send me. But if Adonai brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens… and swallows them up… and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned Adonai.” At that instant, the earth split open beneath the tents of those three, and they and their families plunged into the earth and it immediately closed back up.
The people were terrified, but fear quickly turned to hostility. The next day a mob rose up against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the deaths. Adonai appeared, warning Moses and Aaron to move away from the people. Instead, Moses interceded for Israel, instructing Aaron to light incense and atone for the people. But by that time over 14,000 people (the mob) were struck with a plague and died. Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession appeased God’s wrath and Israel was spared.
In chapter 17, God commanded that a leader from each of the tribes bring a rod with their name etched on it, and come to the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s name was etched on the rod belonging to Levi. The rods were deposited in the Tent, and God said, “The rod of the man whom I choose will sprout.”
The next day, when the twelve rods were brought back out, Aaron’s had sprouted – and not just leaves, but buds, blossoms and ripe almonds! This miracle established explicitly God’s choice of Aaron’s family line as priests. That rod was later placed in the Ark of the Covenant as a perpetual reminder to the nation.
In chapter 18 Adonai reiterated the responsibilities of Levites and of priests, as well as their portions from Israel’s offerings.
For thousands of years now, Moses has been revered by our people. But he was hated and ill-treated by his own generation. How cavalierly we look back and say to ourselves, “That was so wrong. I never would have joined in that mob.” Are you sure? Later, God sent us prophets, and they were likewise mistreated. Ultimately, God sent His Son, Messiah Yeshua, and look how Israel treated Him!
The painful lesson of parashat Korach is that when we spurn Adonai’s choices, we spurn Him. Israel paid a terrible price for their disdain of Moses. If the judgment on Korach seems harsh, remember, this was the generation that witnessed God’s miracles in the deliverance from Egypt. Consider, then, how much severer will be the consequences for disdaining Messiah Yeshua, the ultimate Mediator God sent. The higher the stakes, the weightier the outcome.
Consider the contrast between Korach, who sought to replace Moses, and Aaron and Hur, who upheld Moses’ arms when he became weary. What is your attitude towards the spiritual leader or leaders God has placed in your midst? Beware of those who would undermine them. Like Korah, they are plotting rebellion, and if you don’t ‘back away from their tent’, you’ll suffer in the fallout.
Perhaps the author of the Letter to the Messianic Jews was thinking about all the grief that Moses had to endure, when he wrote: Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. May Adonai give each of us a heart of humility and gratitude.