My mother didn’t coddle whiners. If she thought I was overreacting in a situation, her standard go-to line was, “Keep it up, and I’ll give you something to cry about!”
My standard go-to complaint was about my brothers wrestling my cat. They’d put a towel over her head and roll her around ’til she was so scrambly, she literally climbed the walls via the drapes. It got me squalling every time—to their utter delight.
But I know now that my brothers’ teasing was a sign of their affection. They were boys after all. And OK. Maybe they were also siphoning off some hostility against me, their baby sister. But in hindsight, I see that it would’ve been more devastating if I’d never had their attention.
It’s a matter of perspective, which is some of what today’s reading is about.
The Israelites are now camped just outside the promised land. Here’s the catch up…
They’ve sent spies in to check it out and they’ve come back and given a bad report about how fierce the people are. God’s told them it’s their’s for the taking and that he’ll help them, but they don’t believe him, Nu 12:31-33.
And before you know it, the whole community is wailing again. If they’re not crying about the food, they’re crying about how the promised land is a bust. The bottom line is this: they fail to trust what God’s said about giving it to them. They accuse God of bringing them out of Egypt just to kill them by the sword and not keeping his word. What’s more, they want to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt, and they talk about stoning Moses and Aaron, Nu 14:1-10.
God meets with Moses and asks him, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” And he offers to kill them all with a plague and let Moses become the father of a new nation “greater and stronger than they,” Nu 14:11-12.
But Moses appeals to God based on his great love, “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion…In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of this people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now,” Nu 14:18-19.
God relents and forgives them, meaning he doesn’t wipe them all out, but there are consequences, and his judgment for their unbelief is severe: none of the adults, age 20 and up, will get to enter the promised land. It will be their children who are allowed to go in. The parents will have to suffer in the desert for 40 years “and know what it’s like to have me against you,” one year for every day the spies explored the land and disbelieved him, Nu 14:20-35.
Right on the heels of this dire situation comes today’s reading about another situation, equally as dire: a group of 250 men, mostly Levites along with other leaders of the community, rise up against Moses and Aaron. They’re led by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and they’ve decided that Moses has gotten high-handed and is making up the rules as he goes along, Nu 16:1-3.
Specifically, they don’t like it that only Aaron and his family can be priests, Nu 16:10. The Levite tribe was the one God had made responsible for taking care of his tabernacle. Aaron’s family were Levites who were further honored by being given the role of the priesthood.
“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?'” Nu 16:3.
Moses tries to reason with Korah, pointing out that their position as Levites is already an honored one and is near God’s very presence. What more could they want? Moses calls them out for “trying to get the priesthood, too,” and says their gripe is with God, not men. It’s God who makes the rules about who would be priests, not Moses and Aaron, Nu 16:11.
Moses tells the troublemakers they’ve gone too far, and he leaves the discipline up to God. He tells them to come back the next day and offer God incense in a censor, something only the priests can do, and they’ll see whether or not God accepts them, Nu 16:5-7.
Something about this rings a bell, and I remember Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who offered incense in a censor in the Most Holy Place, something only their father Aaron as high priest was allowed to do. They were killed on the spot for disregarding God’s commands about how to worship. They were already priests, from the family line of priests, and still they were judged for doing their own thing with incense rather than doing it the way God said, Le 10:1-2 (for the story of Nadab and Abihu, see https://iwantmore.blog/2021/02/20/).
Now the Levites are wanting to rise up to take over the priesthood, claiming they’re full of God’s Spirit and holy, worthy in their own minds, and Moses suggests their doing what Nadab and Abihu did, namely, Go ahead. Let’s see if God will accept you. Offer fire and incense to God and see how it works for you. It’s a crazy idea on his part, basically suggesting they put their lives on the line and risk God’s wrath, which would mean their death, Nu 16:6-7.
Surely they all know the story of Nadab and Abihu. After all, it just happened at Mt Sinai a year or two before. Surely they remember. Surely they know they’ll be risking their lives to offer God “strange fire,” Le 10:1.
I think Moses dares them to do it as a heads’ up to gut check and repent. He’s hoping for the shock effect to get their attention, as in, Guys, this won’t end well. Remember what happened the last time somebody offered incense to God their way? This is a loaded gun. Are you sure you want to take it into your own hands?
Moses summons Dathan and Abiram, but they refuse to come, saying Moses hasn’t delivered them to the promised land as he said he would, and now he’s trying to lord himself over them. They accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt’s paradise just so he can watch them die in the desert. And they claim that Egypt flowed with milk and honey and not Canaan, Nu 16:12-14.
This sounds like a day in crazy town, since they were enslaved in Egypt and Moses has brought them to the paradise of the promised land. It’s the community as a group who’s refused to go in. It’s hard to understand how they could believe so many lies, but they do. When you let go of believing God’s words, you lose touch with reality and truth and make yourself vulnerable for believing everything else. The enemy, The Deceiver, has his way with us, too.
It’s one thing to refuse the blessings of God, but it’s quite another thing to call them evil. Life without trusting God’s word is upside down and backward and people tend to blame God when it doesn’t work out. But God is resolute. He wants to destroy the entire community at this point, but Moses and Aaron plead with him to only punish the guilty ones, Nu 16:21.
The next day, Moses tells everyone to stand away from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their families and tents, “If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, 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 with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt,” Nu 16:29-30.
As soon as Moses stops talking, the earth splits open and swallows them alive, just as Moses said, along with their families and all their belongings. At their cries, the whole community runs away, shouting “The earth is going to swallow us, too!” As a finale, fire comes out from God and consumes the 250 men offering incense, Nu 16:31-35;
God really is a consuming fire, and his holiness is not to be trifled with. It’s easy to forget this part of who God is because his love is easier to snuggle up with. But it’s his holiness that gives his love strength and teeth. It’s his holiness that makes sure that our debt to him was actually paid, so we can be saved, so we are free to be his and our very best selves, He 12:29.
It’s a dramatic finish. The terrifying sight of the earth opening up must have had everyone shaking in their beds that night. Everyone except Moses and Aaron. God had given them a high-5 in front of their community. I’m guessing they’re hugely relieved. Aaron’s son Eleazar, is told to collect the bronze censors of the men who died and have them hammered into sheets to cover the altar as a reminder that no one but Aaron and his sons may be his priests, Nu 16:36-40.
What is it that had those 250 men so sure of themselves that they showed up with their censors full and ready to add fire from God’s altar? It’s the same sort of blind confidence that the spies had when they got back from checking out the land. It was unbelief in what God said. Both groups ignored God’s words and made up their own versions of the truth, as in, We know how things oughta be. It sounds so familiar, because it’s the human condition.
After being shut out of the promised land, you’d think they’d be sober minded and search their hearts before coming after Moses and staging a coup. But pride rises from its bed of unbelief. It doesn’t search the heart or take time to ask God. It closes the blinds and thinks it sees. It makes its own plans, because it knows better than others do, even better than God himself.
But God stands on his word, regardless of whether or not anyone else does. God doesn’t contradict himself or change his mind. He’s not whimsical or capricious. God said only the priests can offer incense, and he meant it. Coming any other way to him disrespects what he’s said. It also disrespects Jesus, the high priest who would come and offer himself, the perfect sacrifice, the fragrant incense, Le 16:12-13; 1 Sa 15:29; Mal 3:6; Eph 5:1-2; He 4:14, 8:1; 1 Jn 4:10.
Because God is holy, he doesn’t let sinful people dictate how they will come to him. We must come by the blood of the Lamb, by his Son, Jesus. There’s only one way into God’s presence and that’s through faith in him, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,” Ac 4:12.
If there was any other way that our debt to God for sin could be paid, God would surely have thought of it before he allowed the death of his beloved Son. Jesus prayed that if there were any other way to connect us to God, that God would allow it instead, “…yet not my will, but yours be done,” Lk 22:42.
Jesus died to give us the miracle of worship, of fellowship, of heart-to-heart talks and a 24/7 hotline to the throne room with a holy God who loves us down to our fingerprints and passions.
It was in order to connect with us and to hear from us and to laugh and cry and sigh with us that Jesus came and tore down the curtain between us, so we can be forever together with the Lover of Our Souls in this life and in the next.
Like the Levite’s, I’m prone to look at life around me and think it ought to be different and set about to make my little world secure. I disbelieve God’s words to me, that he’s on his throne and he’s handling what troubles me, so I can rest in his sovereignty and trust what he says to me, “The one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders,” De 30:12; Ps 11:4, 68:19.
Lord, keep seeking me.
Interestingly, some of the psalms were written by the “Sons of Korah,” like Psalms 45-48 among others. God redeemed Korah’s rebellious family legacy in the lives of his God honoring sons, http://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/the-other-psalmists-who-were-the-sons-of-korah.html).
Jesus has been arrested, and much of this chapter is dark–one sad, bad thing after another that leads up to and includes the crucifixion.
But there are some rays of light, too.
A Lot of Dark:
It’s very early morning when the religious leaders decide Jesus must die as a blasphemer because he claims to be God, so they take him to Pilate, who asks if he’s the king of the Jews. Jesus says yes he is, Mk 14:61-62, 15:1-2.
The chief priests accuse him of many things, but Jesus is silent, and Pilate is amazed. He releases Barabbas instead of Jesus, because he wants “to satisfy the crowds” who are hollering, “Crucify him!” He has Jesus beaten and turns him over to be crucified, Mk 15:3-15.
It’s ironic that the people yelling “Crucify him!” are the same people who just the week before welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with, “Hosanna in the highest…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” Mt 21:9; Mk 11:10.
The soldiers beat him and mock him. Pretending to worship, they kneel before him and put a purple robe on him and a crown of thorns and call out, “Hail! King of the Jews!” They hit him over the head with a staff again and again, and they spit on him. He’s given no rest or respect or peace in his last hours before death, Mk 15:16-19.
After beating him and hammering his body to a piece of wood, the soldiers gamble for his clothes. It’s a barbaric scene, callous of Jesus who hangs and suffers above them. And it’s dehumanizing for themselves, as they turn to their game and divide up his clothing, Mk 15:22-24.
Those who pass by “hurl insults” at him. So do the religious leaders. Both of the thieves who are crucified with him “also heap insults on him,” Mk 15:29-32.
There are three hours of darkness during the middle of the day, Mk 15:33.
Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mk 15:34.
When he speaks, folks misunderstand him and think he’s calling Elijah. A man runs to give him a drink of wine vinegar, and he’s told to leave Jesus alone. “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” they say, ridiculing him, Mk 15:33-36.
And “with a loud cry,” Jesus takes his last breath, Mk 15:37.
There’s nothing here but hate and derision and abandonment in these little vignettes before his death, except for the man who takes him a drink.
A Lot of Light:
Immediately upon his death the temple curtain is torn in two from top to bottom, and life and love seep into this bleak time and place, Mk 15:38:
–The centurion is said to have a moment of faith, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Mk 15:39.
–The women who follow him and care for his needs are mentioned, loving him from a distance as he’s dying, along with “many other women,” Mk 15:40-41.
–Joseph asks for Jesus’ body, buys linen, wraps Jesus in it, and puts him in his own new tomb, Mk 15:42-46.
–Mary and Mary watch where he’s laid after he’s taken off the cross, Mk 15:47.
If Jesus can bring about light and love in this dark time and place, there’s no situation where he can’t do the same.
As often happens, this psalm about enemies resonates. Thank you, God, for enabling me to thrive despite them…and because of them.
“Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.”
Not that last part, God.
Redeem my enemy and me.
Swallow our strife.
Open blind eyes.
like the centurion,
who saw Jesus and believed,
while at his post
and doing business.
Soften hard hearts.
Let us stop mid sentence,
like the thief who hurled insults
…and then didn’t.
Make us care,
like those who stood
at a distance
and loved him,
wanting to be near.
Help us trust
when we don’t understand
what you’re doing
or what we’re doing
Open deaf ears.
Help us hear what we fear.
Let evil be broken in us
and recoil on you.
Grace our speak.
Bring us into new life
Don’t let us go our way
to our graves,
alone and at odds.