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. . . a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. . . . Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” (Num 15:32, 35)
Korah . . . and certain Reubenites — Dathan and Abiram — became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “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?”
Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram . . . But they said, “We will not come! Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you also want to lord it over us! Moreover, you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you want to treat these men like slaves? No, we will not come!” (Num 16:1-3, 12-15)
To us, it sounds so inconsequential. A decision to gather wood on the Sabbath surely shouldn’t result in the death penalty — should it?
But this decision was far from trivial. The reality was that God was leading this great throng of people out of cruel slavery in Egypt, the only life they had ever known, and bringing them to the land of abundance He had promised Abraham. They weren’t making it easy. They kept finding fault with their living conditions, their provisions, the distance they had to travel. (Imagine being in a vehicle with thousands of kids, all constantly yelling “Are we there yet?”) When they were grumpy (which was most of the time) the blame game started, and they jumped on Moses, the leader God had given them.
Knowing how incredibly fickle they were (a lot like us), God allowed them to see clear evidence of His glory on Mount Sinai, His pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, His miraculous provision of water and food. He also gave them clear commandments and wrote them on stone so they couldn’t forget them. (These people had serious issues remembering things — most notably what God had done for them). Even with all this, they kept messing up on a pretty regular basis.
The Israelites lived in a world full of false gods, with all kinds of weird and sometimes bloodthirsty demands. Surrounded by this, a major aspect of their worship of God that set the Israelites apart was the Sabbath. This was a day dedicated to resting secure in the love and provision and power of the only true God, a God who had — and was — revealing more and more of Himself. To break the Sabbath was to break faith with the God who established it, to deny Him as the loving and all-wise Creator who gave them the Sabbath as a gift. It was throwing the gift back in God’s face; saying, “I’d rather do my own thing than honor You.” Knowing the inclinations of the people to backslide, and the impact of that kind of example on the community, God made this sin punishable by death. The people often didn’t have a good handle on the benefit of obedience, but death was something they understood.
God made it clear: He takes open rebellion and disrespect seriously. Sin starts with one person flouting God’s law. This man made no effort to hide his rebellion; by doing this in the sight of all, he was openly thumbing his nose at God. He was well aware of what he was doing and the consequences; he knew what he risked but did it anyway. You can almost hear him telling himself that God couldn’t really mean what He said.
But God did mean it. When Moses asked God what to do with the man, the answer was unequivocal. The man died so the people would understand that respect for God isn’t optional.
But that was far from the end of it. Instead of being convicted that God is to be honored, three of the leading men came to another conclusion: Moses was wrong to order the stoning. Furthermore, Moses and his brother Aaron were wrong about everything else too. They were just showing off, trying to make a power grab. There was nothing wrong with the people; they were holy. Nothing was their fault; the fault was that Moses wasn’t sent from God.
“We were already in a land flowing with milk and honey,” they said. “We were fine where we were. You’re the ones who brought us out to this godforsaken place to kill us. You said we’d be going to a great piece of real estate and there’d be fields and vineyards for the taking. But you just want us for your slaves. So get lost!” These three unwise men swayed 250 other community leaders who jumped on their bandwagon.
Talk about rewriting history! God had brought them out of miserable slavery; there was no milk and honey for them in Egypt. Instead, they had pleaded with God for deliverance while Pharaoh cracked the whip and killed their children.
After God took them out of Egypt, their own disobedience landed them in the wilderness. They had rebelled against the lordship of God, and were now rejecting Moses as His instrument. They refused to take responsibility for the results of their folly, so they transferred the blame to Moses and Aaron.
Turning reality on its head, in their version of events Moses hadn’t delivered them from slavery, but was determined to make them slaves. He’d taken them from milk and honey to slavery, instead of from slavery toward milk and honey.
To their credit, Moses and Aaron didn’t respond in kind. They knew the culpability of the leaders, and interceded for those who hadn’t joined in. God gave Moses His answer in details that would leave no doubt.
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: if these men die a natural death . . . then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them . . . then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”
Proving it was an open and shut case. In their dismissal of Moses, these leaders had really been holding God in contempt, and they received the sentence for contempt in God’s court. While Moses and Aaron would have excused these leaders, God did not. He burned them up, giving a foretaste of the fate of all who reject Christ.
Incredibly, the people seemed to have learned nothing from these events. The next day, they accused Moses and Aaron of “killing the Lord’s people.” Rebellion turned viral and killed thousands before Aaron was able to make atonement for them.
Some questions this raises in my mind are:
When fault is being assigned, do I take a hard look at myself first?
What were my expectations, and were they valid?
Is my memory faulty? Am I looking at the past with rose-colored glasses?
Am I ready to attack others instead of assessing my own responsibility? Am I jumping to conclusions about other people’s motives and goals?
Do I resent God’s commands and excuse those who knowingly break them? Am I on the side of sin, or of God’s Word?
Do I ignore the evidence of God’s justice that is right before my eyes, clinging to my fury until it spreads like wildfire?
Lord, please help us to remember that fault lines can lead to earthquakes that swallow us up!