A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Balaam is described in the Bible as a villain along with other Old Testament antagonists, and then dropped two names on you. One was probably familiar, the other maybe not so much.
Cain and Korah.
Cain is, of course, Adam and Eve’s first-born son, so presumably he was the first human being with a bellybutton. And tragically, he was also the first human being to commit murder – he killed his brother Abel in a jealous rage.
But you probably already knew that.
The story of Korah, on the other hand, might not be as familiar. But it’s pretty interesting, and also quite instructive.
There’s at least one other Korah in the Old Testament, but the guy I’m talking about today was a first cousin of Moses and Aaron, who like Cain, didn’t let the presence of a family relationship get in the way of selfishness, envy and malice.
Chapter 16 of the book of Numbers tells us that Korah was jealous that Moses was leader of the Israelites, and that only Aaron and his descendants were allowed to be priests – while the other Levites, including Korah and his cronies, were relegated to be mere helpers in the Tabernacle. Today, tomorrow and forever, as far as he knew.
Korah and a couple of Reubenites – Dathan, Abiram and On – recruited 250 followers and came to oppose (and presumably depose) Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘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?’ – Numbers 16:3B
That seems like a fair point, doesn’t it? If Israel is God’s chosen people, aren’t they all holy? Doesn’t that make them all priests, in a sense?
Maybe, but it’s a matter of degrees.
In the same way that the Tabernacle and Temple were both set up with holiest places inside holier places inside holy places, the Israelites were holy, but the Levites were appointed to the holier task of looking after the Tabernacle, while the Aaronites – a subset of the Levites – was appointed to the holiest role of serving in the priesthood.
Looking at this arrangement from a 21st-Century perspective, where we’re inundated and bombarded with American Dream messages like ‘Reach for the stars’ and ‘You can be anything that you want to be’, it seems pretty darn unfair that every Levite who’s not a descendant of Aaron is welcome to polish the pews, but eternally ineligible to preach the sermon.
But who established this system, again?
Not Moses and Aaron, as Korah conveniently suggests, but God Himself, as Moses clarifies:
‘”It is against the Lord that you and all your followers have banded together,'” Moses says in Numbers 16:11. “‘Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?’”
But clod that he is, Korah and his followers don’t back down. And what happens next is pretty epic:
28 Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: 29 If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”
31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. 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. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!”
35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
God smote Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and all 250 of their followers, in two very dramatic and decisive moves, leaving no room for doubt about who was right, and who was wrong.
Imagine Korah’s horror in that moment. A couple of days earlier, he was one of God’s elite: a Levite appointed and anointed to serve in the Tabernacle and minister to the people. But when given an inch, he demanded a mile and became an enemy of the very God he aspired to serve as priest.
And he died for it.
Is there a lesson for us in this? Do you ever feel unsatisfied with your situation – in your ministry, your church, your work life or your family life – and aspire to be more?
Is that ambition God’s idea, or yours?
This story really hits home for me these days, as I try to discern whether I’m called to be a priest. Am I anointed like Aaron, or a clod like Korah?
Hmm. Maybe you’re an anointed clod, Baldy.
Peace be with you.
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