Or – alternative readings of Numbers Chapter 16.
I’m reading the Old Testament book of Numbers at the moment.
It’s a book worth spending time on, because of parallels with the situation of the Christian church. The narrative of the book of Numbers is set in the time after Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but before they enter the land of promise. The Christian story is also set between a time of deliverance through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and the future time when God will fulfil the promise of a ‘New Heaven and a New Earth.’
It’s a story of a community that at times is divided because of the challenges that they face in their wilderness wanderings. it’s a time of formation, with Israel trying to work out what is their identity and mission, as competing voices clamour to be heard.
In Numbers chapter 16, we read of a rebellion headed by Korah, one of the Levite tribe.
The Levites as a tribe were given the responsibility and privilege of serving in the Tabernacle, the ‘Tent of Meeting,’ which was the focus of Israel’s worship. However, their duties were limited, and overseen by Aaron and the other priests. Korah’s issue is that some Levites were seen to be better than others. His point is that the whole of Israel have been called and have an equal status – all are holy.
16 1 Now Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram took 2 two hundred and fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men, and they confronted Moses. 3 They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’
4 When Moses heard it, he fell on his face. 5 Then he said to Korah and all his company, ‘In the morning the Lord will make known who is his, and who is holy, and who will be allowed to approach him; the one whom he will choose he will allow to approach him. 6 Do this: take censers, Korah and all your company, 7 and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before the Lord; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You Levites have gone too far!’
8 Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you Levites! 9 Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? 10 He has allowed you to approach him, and all your brother Levites with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well! 11 Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against the Lord. What is Aaron that you rail against him?’
As the story progresses, Korah and his large number of followers are portrayed as faithless, wishing they were back in what they see as the relative comfort of Egypt, and angry that Moses’ leadership style is too authoritarian.
Moses and Aaron are portrayed as men full of integrity, not making any profit out of their leadership position.
Then God comes into the story, and is clearly on the side of Moses and Aaron, the result being that Korah and all his followers die.
As I reflect on this passage, I’m asking two question:
1: Who wrote the account ? Usually it’s the winners who write history. In this case it was likely the priestly class who are the authors.
2: Is it possible to read it from different standpoints ?
So, reading it from the point of view of the leaders, we’ve got a revolt that threatens what God is doing and the leaders of the uprising must be punished. Leaders are ordained by God and should be obeyed, or else !
Or, could you read this from ‘below,’ from the point of view of the rebels, and say to the priestly class / leaders about their reading of events – well that’s what you would say! The truth of it is that when people without power and influence try to have their say to bring about change, they usually end up worse off, as on this occasion. The leaders use their position, and invoke God or some other power as being on their side.
The way the priests wrote it, they come down on the side of Moses, but my sympathies are with Korah. More importantly, we need to read this through a New Testament lens. For St Paul, there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, Slave and Free, Male and Female – the biggest distinctions in the world of 1st century Judaism. All are equal in Christ.
The impulse to make distinctions between people is a powerful one. It’s embedded in our culture of achievement. Some are seen to be intrinsically worth more than others. To varying degrees, this separation can still occur on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, wealth, education, class, etc, and in the church, ordination. In opposition to this divisive approach, the Gospel declares that in Christ we are of equal value, with no distinction and no requirement to meet a certain standard.
There are applications for leadership here. A reading of the incident that is sympathetic to Moses, but also trying to be a ‘critical friend,’ might say that Moses has become too remote from the people with the result that they complain without understanding what Moses is doing. We see that all the time in the church and in secular environments. Leaders need to keep in close touch with those in their care.
A more critical judgment of Moses (and Aaron) might say that they have become proud of their status, and see themselves as beyond reproach. If leaders in a church become too separate, the danger is that they see themsleves, or are seen by others as more holy than the rest. This quickly leads to a culture either of dependence or rebellion, rather than a healthy interdependence that recognises the holiness of all.
Grace and Peace, especially to all in leadership.