Two weeks ago we looked at Numbers 11 and the uprising of the rabble against Moses to complain about the lack of variety in the food. Between then and now there have been two more rebellions – first from Miriam, his sister, and Aaron, his brother and the high priest. As well, ten of the twelve men who explore Canaan come back with reports of giants in the land and the impossibility of their taking it.
In Chapter 14 the people rebel and want to choose a leader who will take them back to Egypt. They wanted to choose a leader who could take them backwards. In response, God declares that none of the people (with two exceptions) will enter the land and they will wander in the desert for forty years – one year for each day they spent exploring the promised land.
Finally, they go up to fight the Canaanites against the counsel of Moses and they are defeated.
So, we are in Chapter 16 with a different kind of rebellion.
1. Verse 2:
These are not rabble and outsiders. These are the leaders of the community – the 250 men who are hand-picked to help Moses bear the burden of leading. They are, in the KJV, men who are “famous” in the community for their integrity.. They are the most educated. The upper class. They are not celebrities – just famous for being famous.. They are, literally, those who are called.
What kind of deception must it have been to influence 250 of the wisest men in Israel? What would overwhelm that many people without using force?
Bonhoeffer and the German Church/Prussians. How was the Lutheran church and the leadership of Germany fooled by Hitler when they thought he was such a buffoon? They thought he would help them get the recovery of national pride and power they wanted and they could then control him. Little did they know what kind of devil they had summoned.
What is more powerful than calling? What is more powerful than the collective wisdom of 250 men? Envy. Association with power. Pride.
2. Verse 3:
“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.”
This in spite of the facts of the last several chapters. Grumbling, rebellion, cowardice, lying, and disastrous defeat. “We are as holy as you are.”
This same logic is sometimes used under the guise of the priesthood of all believers. 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…” Korah and his followers want to depose Moses and Aaron because they are being elitist. It’s an appealing argument, isn’t it? It makes sense. You’ve had the office for long enough and it’s time to give others a chance. After all, none of us is better than anyone else. We are all created equal. They are the first populists – the forerunners of Huey Long and others who use the “goodness” of the people for their own purposes. What God meant as a blessing to the nations they have distorted to mean privilege and power. They want the status of leadership…but not the sacrifice. To do this they distort the meaning of the priesthood of all believers. We’ll see how that plays out.
Too often, this argument is used to prove our own authority or as my children used to say, “You’re not the boss of me.” We’ve all felt that way, have we not? After all, religion is a private matter and we each have access to God directly without a priest or intermediary. Korah was only demanding that Moses recognize he was not special or anointed in any way other than the way they all were.
Priesthood of All Believers:
Of course, Luther did believe that all Christians had direct access to God without recourse to “the tin gods and buffoons of this world, the pope with his priests.” But for Luther the priesthood of all believers did not mean, “I am my own Priest.” It meant rather: in the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God’s Word to one another and celebrate His presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship Priesthood of believers, then, has more to do with the Christian’s service than with his or her status.
The common error that the phrase “Priesthood of Believers” is synonymous with “private judgment” is most unfortunate and is certainly a misrepresentation . . . . Of course, the Reformers emphasized “private judgment,” but it was always “informed” judgment, and it was always controlled, checked, and corroborated by the corporate testimony of the congregation. Indeed Calvin himself fully realized that uncontrolled private judgment means subjectivism, eccentricity, anarchy, and chaos.
No one should deny the importance of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It is a precious and irreducible part of our Reformation heritage and our Baptist legacy. But let no one trivialize its meaning by equating it with modern individualism or theological minimalism. It is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of our life together in the Body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world for which Christ died.
C.S. Lewis addresses the attitude of “I’m as good as you” in Screwtape Proposes A Toast:
The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you. The first and most obvious advantage is that you thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid, resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that his statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.
And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: “Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.”
Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices. Those who were aware of feeling it felt it with shame; those who were not gave it no quarter in others. The delightful novelty of the present situation is that you can sanction it — make it respectable and even laudable — by the incantatory use of the word democratic.
Under the influence of this incantation those who are in any or every way inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever before to pull down everyone else to their own level. But that is not all. Under the same influence, those who come, or could come, nearer to a full humanity, actually draw back from fear of being undemocratic. I am credibly informed that young humans now sometimes suppress an incipient taste for classical music or good literature because it might prevent their Being Like Folks; that people who would really wish to be — and are offered the Grace which would enable them to be — honest, chaste, or temperate refuse it. To accept might make them Different, might offend against the Way of Life, take them out of Togetherness, impair their Integration with the Group. They might (horror of horrors!) become individuals.
All is summed up in the prayer which a young female human is said to have uttered recently: “O God, make me a normal twentieth century girl!” Thanks to our labours, this will mean increasingly: “Make me a minx, a moron, and a parasite.”
Meanwhile, as a delightful by-product, the few (fewer every day) who will not be made Normal or Regular and Like Folks and Integrated increasingly become in reality the prigs and cranks which the rabble would in any case have believed them to be. For suspicion often creates what it expects. (“Since, whatever I do, the neighbors are going to think me a witch, or a Communist agent, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and become one in reality.”) As a result we now have an intelligentsia which, though very small, is very useful to the cause of Hell.
But that is a mere by-product. What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any tyranny other than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.
For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be. For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs, only one result is possible.
3. Verses 8-11:
The special situation of the Levites. Deuteronomy 18:1-5:
“The Levitical priests—indeed, the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the food offerings presented to the LORD, for that is their inheritance. 2 They shall have no inheritance among their fellow Israelites; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them. 3 This is the share due the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the internal organs and the meat from the head. 4 You are to give them the first fruits of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, 5 for the LORD your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the LORD’s name always.”
They were there to serve those with power (the priests and, especially, the high priest) but they did not have power. They were close enough to power to want more of it. Even the wisest of them, those who were famous for integrity and leadership, were susceptible to it. They wanted the power and position of the priest – and felt they deserved it. Still, they did not understand the actual nature of the role. They thought the power was in the office and if they had the office they would have the power. Like the disciples of Jesus, they wanted to be great.
Luke 22:24-26: A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.
Acts 8:9-24: Simon the Sorcerer 9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. 14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” 24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
George Herbert was a village priest who struggled his whole life with ambition. In 1633 he wrote “Submission” and these are two stanzas from that. It illustrates the struggle of the Levites to live so close to power without having it for themselves:
Were it not better to bestow
Some place and power on me?
Then should thy praises with me grow,
And share in my degree.
How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
That I should then raise thee?
Perhaps great places and thy praise
Do not so well agree.
It’s a common temptation – not just to Levites. Just spend a week in Washington.
4. Verses 28-35:
Leadership was never Moses’ idea. He resisted it from the beginning and many times has complained about the burden of the people. I don’t think he could have identified with those who say, “I’ll do this as long as it is fun and when it’s no longer fun I’ll do something else.” It was never fun for Moses. It was always a burden – especially now that those who were called to relieve him have turned on him.
Korah and all his men and possessions are destroyed…but not his descendants. Numbers 26:11 mentions his line. As well, there are several Psalms attributed to the “sons of Korah”. One in particular takes on a whole new meaning once you know the story of Korah. Psalm 88. One particular line in Psalm 84 makes us think there is some redemption years later. 84:10: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” His grandchildren learned the lesson he never did. They learned what is important in life. In fact, one of his descendants is the prophet Samuel who, ironically, fights the people over the reverse issue – they want a king to rule over them. They do not want the responsibility for themselves. They want someone who will make them like everyone else.
The 250 men are destroyed by fire. In other words, a whole generation of leadership is wiped out in one day. Every single man who was called is destroyed by the devious heart. Fire is always a symbol of God’s unique judgement but it is also a symbol of purification – as in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14 “If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
5. Verses 46-50:
The true nature of the priest – to stand between the living and the dead and to make atonement. That is what Korah and the others did not understand. He wanted the power of the position but not the sacrifice. He wanted to be over people but not to risk his life for them. He used the language of religion and the ignorance of the people for his own purposes…and was swallowed up alive. It’s a lesson for all of us – especially in an election year. Be careful of aligning with those who use religious language to fool the wise and appeal to the anger of the people. Be careful of those who desire more power but not sacrifice. Beware of those who betray their own calling to advance themselves.