When growing up, I knew who had it all down; who could figure out the answers to problems; who you could go to when you had puzzler: Me!
What a doofus. I still don’t know how to fix cars, I was only as good a cook as my mother made me, I only read because of my father’s zeal for reading, and I frankly didn’t know much beyond the small space in front of my nose. Teenagers, I look back with embarrassment, know everything. I sometimes wish I were that confident today.
In Numbers 16 and 17 we’re confronted with three stories, two a rebellion, concerned with who is in charge. Unlike the previous chapters, these stories are not solely concerned with the leadership of Moses (although his leadership is questioned), but the sphere of responsibility of Aaron the High Priest. The questions that arise concerning Aaron’s (and Moses’) leadership are grounded in theological propositions based on the Jewish confession at Sinai.
A Holy Nation of Priests
For it was at Mt. Sinai where God and Israel covenanted with one another: they agreeing to be obedient in all that God demands (Ex 19:8); God saying that the children of Israel would be holy nation, a royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6).
It was true: as his people, they would all participate in the life and activity of being the people of God. They would pray corporately. The households would choose the best to bring to the tabernacle. The income of the home was divvied up, a portion going for the Levites.
The story before Numbers 16 and 17 reveals just how serious this matter of personal holiness was. Here was a man, gathering wood on the Sabbath with an intent to light a fire and the question arose. Wood gathering wasn’t the man’s job but he was surely working on the Sabbath. What to do with him?
Says the Lord, bring the man outside of the camp and stone him. Very drastic, some of us might say, but remember Sinai. God is not some penciled in calendar slot to be rubbed out when more important tasks come along: he was the very means of ensuring that the people would be holy as He is holy. Refuse to hold him as holy then what does your Jewish confession matter?
So serious is the holiness of the people, that the Lord commands them to wear tassels on their clothing, hanging on cords of blue—a celestial color—so as to remind them that they are different, they have commandments that needs obeying, they follow the Lord and not their own hearts or eyes.
Three Stories Of the High Priest
It is in this context that Korah takes theological high ground to bring the charge that Moses and Aaron have gone too far. The entire congregation is holy, not just the priests—God said so. The entire nation is a royal priesthood, not just the priests—God said so. “You,” he said to Moses and Aaron “Bolster yourselves up over the rest of the holy assembly of royal priests.”
If you recall, when God rescued Israel during Passover, he saved (thus purchased) all the firstborns who dwelled in blood covered homes. Sometime later God exchanged the firstborns for one family. That one family would specifically serve God in or around or about the tabernacle, and later the temple. It was a privilege of the highest honor and God ensured that these people would be provided for by the rest of the clans of Israel. These were the Levites.
And back in Numbers 3-4 we discovered some of the duties of the Levites. You had the sons of Aaron who were to be the priests, serving within the tabernacle. The Sons of Kohath, also Levites, had the duties which involved carrying the ark, the table of the showbread, the lampstand, the two altars, and all the utensils of the sanctuary (Num 3: 31;4:1-20). This family was charged with carrying the things of God and all they represented, ensuring that they were protected from harm as they brought them to their next destination. Awful hard to have priestly service if you don’t have the work of the Kohathites, ensuring that bronze laver arrives on time. Even worse if the ark is lagging behind as the glory of the Lord sits awaiting somewhere on down the road. No, Kohath was so important that God wanted the line protected (Num 4:18-19).
Korah, a son of Kohath, was a Levite. He had an important work and responsibility. And yet, he disparaged his own position and looked across the way at the position of the High Priest and the honor afforded him. If what applies to him applies to us, thought Korah, then surely what he does I should be able to do. The Spirit that is in him is in some of us as well. What’s the difference? We should have that right.
Moses, hearing the charge had the right mind to be afraid and state that Korah has gone too far. He has taken a theological proposition and morphed it to say something else. He proposes a test for Korah and his followers of wanna-be-priests. Let them do the most minimal task, a task that the Son of the High Priest were killed for when they didn’t consider the Holiness of God (Lev 10:1-2), and then the people would see whom God chooses.
There were others standing, well, sitting behind Korah. These were part of the Reubenites (led by Dathan and Abiram). Unlike Korah who was seeking a position by manipulating theology, these people denied the position of Aaron and Moses altogether and just refused to listen to them. They’d stand behind Korah, sure, but not Moses—who pulled them out of a land flowing with milk and honey to this wilderness. When summoned to Moses they sent a message: We won’t come (Numbers 16:12). Twice (Num 16:14).
The test is proposed. The Church of Korah would offer their censers and the rest of Israel would step back from the tents of Dathan, Abiram, and now Korah—who now stood in front of their tents instead of sitting inside. “If,” said Moses “these people are in the right and they die of natural causes then God hasn’t sent him. But if they die a new way, and the ground opens up its maw and swallows them alive to the grave then you will see that they have spurned the Lord.”
And as he finished speaking Dathan, Abiram, Korah and all their tents were swallowed by the hungry earth with all of their possessions. And as if punctuating the point, fire shoots out from the tabernacle and incinerates the people who were carrying censers of incense.
In the second story the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron saying that they’re the reason the Lord’s people are dying—not their own sin and rebellion. It was enough for God to get ready to wipe out the Israelites but this story ends with Aaron, an old man, running with a censer providing intercession and atonement on behalf of the people. There stands the High Priest, his position coveted, yet doing what none of them had the authority or wherewithal to do: standing in between the dead and the living to ensure the end of the plaque (Num 16:47-48).
And in the third story we see God speaking telling the Israelite leaders to write their names on dead pieces of wood used for walking or guiding animals. One of the rods was to be inscribed with Aaron’s name. Placing the dead pieces of wood in the tabernacle, the congregation waited the night to see the results. The next day, Moses pulls out those same dead pieces of wood but one, with the family name Levi and Aaron’s name inscribed into it, is the only rod that is in every stage of life: it has buds, it has blossoms, and it is bearing fruit. It is only from this dead thing that the Lord has brought life—and life to the fullest.
Three stories then ensuring that the High Priest functioning in that position, is functioning alone in that position as God’s chosen vehicle. This one is chosen to do the work that others are not to do, his unique work is testified with signs, with provision of intercession, and by the miraculous gift of life. His position is unique. He is the one that makes atonement for the people—not them. He is the one who works in the inner sanctum—not them. He is the one to whom the Lord bestows his honor.
Oh yes, the people are holy. And royalty. And a priesthood. But it is the high priest of their confession that stood in that unique position ahead of them even if one of them.
Lessons For Our Learning
What lesson can be found for our learning (Romans 15:4), what examples do we find (1 Corinthians 10:11) in our situation? The Scriptures tell us that the High Priest of our confession is Christ Jesus who can sympathize with us because he was tempted like us (Heb 4:15) but isn’t equal to us in that he didn’t sin. Indeed, every high priest that came before was so fraught with sin that they had to worry about themselves when offering sacrifice—but our High Priest is different (Heb 5:1-3). Not only is he perfectly sinless but he stood in a position where God wanted Him to be (Heb 5:4) offering up prayers and supplications in extreme piety (Heb 5:7) and becoming, for all those He was making atonement for, the unique source of eternal life (Heb 5:9).
Some, in their error, try to become priests themselves, and offering up sacrifice of the body as if they can do something which God made no allowances for. Others, in their error, refuse to hold fast the head—Christ Jesus our High Priest—as the only source of life and heap upon themselves (and others) the heavy burdens of supposed other sources of sweetness…when all they’re really doing is returning people to bondage. The Lord is not enough their message implies, one can’t delight in that prize alone, one needs to look to angels or become self-abased, or believe the visions that have been seen (and that you should be seeing) or take ones nutrients from the observation of this or that feast (Col 2:11-19). And yet others, in their active rebellion, plant their roots the groundwork of the local assembly, flatter whoever they need to flatter to get honor, speak arrogantly-yet-humbly to gain whatever advantage as they abuse the things of God for their own gain and position (Jude 10-13).
Note Korah’s rebellion. Note the activity of the High Priest. Note the way that God has vindicated Aaron. Note our Lord and Savior—our High Priest. Note how he was vindicated by the only channel of miraculous life. Note how he does a work that He alone accomplishes in the midst of death and life on behalf of the people. Oh we’re holy, because of his work. Oh we’re a nation of priests because of His activity. But we should be nervous about seeking sources of sweetness outside of his position, activity and personhood. And we dare not heap on ourselves accolades, positions, titles or works that belong to Him alone.
When I did that in mom and dad’s house, I proved to be a fool. Oh the folly of doing that in God’s house.