Wow. Where do you begin with a chapter like Numbers 16?
I wonder if that wasn’t God’s predicament with the Israelites by this time. Where do you begin with people like this? I mean, do they not pay attention? At all?
For starters, let’s recap the events immediately preceding this chapter. The Israelites have finally journeyed away from Mount Sinai, where they have been encamped for a year. Of course, immediately preceding that, they were witness to ten miraculous plagues in Egypt. Plus, they got to walk through the Red Sea bed whilst skimming their fingers through the walls of water that were standing at attention on either side of them.
But let’s forget about that. While they were encamped at Mount Sinai, they were fed and watered (miraculously) by God and sustained by His power. (In Deuteronomy 8, Moses will remind the people of how, interestingly enough, their clothes and shoes never wore out, no matter how many miles they trekked in the desert.) And, during a time when all other nations never even saw the gods they prayed to, the Israelites had daily communication and visual "sightings" of their God — who loved them so much that He asked them to build a house for Him right in their midst.
Then, they get to the edge of the Promised Land. First they decide there’s no way they’re going in there. Uh, uh. No way. No how. They decide to elect a leader to take them back to Egypt. When that fails, they decide they’re suddenly ready to take the land after all. Moses warns them not to go, but they go anyway and get spanked all the way back to the border.
After all of that, God tries to communicate to them about the dangers of defiance. (Hmm, wonder why.) Are they listening? No way! They’re still trying to figure out how they can take charge of the situation, because they don’t much care for God’s leadership. So, we come to Numbers 16. Right on the heels of God’s sermon on defiance comes Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On (son of Pethel), and 250 other Israelites who had been appointed to be part of the council.
Everything they had been through with God... it didn’t matter. They had either forgotten it, never noticed in the first place, or decided they could do just as well without God. Yes, where do you begin with people like that? Can you begin with people like that?
Well, by the end of the next day, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 appointed Israelites were gone. The ground opened up and swallowed everyone associated with the three ringleaders (including some family members of Dathan and Abiram), and the others were consumed by the fire that came out from the Lord’s presence.
For what it’s worth, here are a few personal observations from the chapter:
1. Was God simply trying to "wipe out" the competition? I don’t think so. And here’s why — what happened to On, son of Pethel? He was listed in the first verse of this chapter as one of the four who initially came in rebellion to oppose Moses and Aaron. Yet, that’s the only time he’s mentioned. Neither he nor his family died the next day. Consequently, when we think of Numbers 16, we normally think only of "Korah, Dathan, and Abiram."
What about On? My guess is that On had a change of heart. He initially stepped forward in rebellion, but something changed his mind, and he became willing to listen. That’s it! That’s all God needs. Our misguided behavior is not the problem. Stubborn defiance is the problem. It cuts us off from our only Savior.
2. I think there is further evidence to support the idea that defiance is the real problem God is concerned with because of what didn't happen to Korah’s family. At the climax of this event, the earth opened up and swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The Bible also said family members of Dathan and Abiram who had come out and stood at the entrance of their tents were swallowed up. But not Korah's family. His wife and children apparently decided not to side with him in his rebellion. So, what became of them?
Have you ever sung that popular worship song, As The Deer? Those words come straight out of Psalm 42. And do you know who wrote Psalm 42? The sons of Korah. Though Korah is listed as one who died in utter rebellion, his own sons are credited with writing some of the most beautiful songs in Hebrew literature. Furthermore, the Korahites (descendants of Korah) are listed much later in Israel’s history as gatekeepers and worship leaders in the temple. So, to me, it seems reasonable to conclude that God didn’t just arbitrarily get rid of everyone who was related to Korah, but that those who were swallowed up were only those who had chosen to stand with those in defiance against God and His government.
3. This is, I think, one of the most startling revelations from Numbers 16: A mighty display of power/force doesn’t stop rebellion and defiance. Fascinating. The day after these incredible events, the people "grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 'You have killed the Lord’s people,' they said." (vs 41) I can’t believe that! How could they have turned on Moses and Aaron after the preceding day’s events?
Korah and his followers had accused Moses and Aaron of being imposters. And Moses responded by saying that if something miraculous didn’t occur to end Korah’s rebellion, then he would agree that he was not from God. And shortly after that, the ground opened up and swallowed a whole lot of people.
Just imagine that. You’re standing there, watching the drama unfold. You’ve heard the accusations, you’ve heard the responses, and now you’re wondering: Is anything going to happen? And then, you hear a loud rumbling and cracking sound, you watch the ground split in two and swallow the defiant rebels, and then see the ground close right back up over them. I mean, wouldn’t that at least make you stop and think? But not the Israelites! They were back the very next day accusing Moses and Aaron of killing their leadership hopefuls.
Astonishing. More, more, more evidence that defiance is truly deadly. It blinds you. It deafens you. It turns sensible creatures into raving lunatics. It destroys relationships.
So, I guess the only thing I can say about God from this chapter of Numbers is that I am awed and humbled by His utter willingness to hang in with us. He is infinitely patient and forbearing. I read a chapter like this and I think, Why does He even bother? He cares so deeply about us. He feels so passionately about us. He will do anything, anything at all, that He can do to save us.
Thank you, God.