The days were quite bleak for Israel.
The LORD delivered them from Egypt, just as He had promised, but now they were stuck in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron are constantly annoyed at the people for their lack of devotion and constant trial of themselves and God. They were tired of the wilderness, tired of the manna, and about ready to go back to Egypt.
They had held out hope that they would truly enter the land that God had promised them, but most of the spies sent to survey the land bought back distressing reports of the size of the land’s inhabitants and the well-fortified cities in their midst. The Israelites mourned their fate, and now Moses had the audacity to tell them that God was so displeased that He swore that they would all have to die in the wilderness, and it would be their children who would take the land. Their attempt to take the land by force failed. They were huddled together in tents in a foreboding wilderness and consigned to die there.
It is in this climate of desperation and depression that Korah and some of his allies rise up against Moses and Aaron. They are convinced that the problem has to do with their earthly leadership– Moses and Aaron. Two hundred and fifty-three people are involved, and many of them renowned Israelites. They put forth their accusation against Moses.
Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD? (Numbers 16:3)
Alas, Korah and his fellow upstarts went too far. At the LORD’s command, all 250 men took censers of incense and stood by. Judgment came quickly upon Korah, his fellow conspirators, and their families: the earth opened up and Hades swallowed them all up alive. Fire came from God and destroyed the 250 who participated. A plague then went through the camp, claiming another 14,700 lives. God felt compelled to re-establish that Moses was His chosen mouthpiece and Aaron His chosen High Priest. Israel was left to tremble with fear.
These events, described mostly in Numbers 13-17, provide an insight into the challenge of human stubbornness and rebellion against authority. Israel’s constant testing of God was not enough; now the people fully rebelled against Moses and Aaron. It is quite easy to look down upon the children of Israel and their constant transgression of God’s will!
Yet do we really have a right to look down upon the children of Israel on account of the rebellion of Korah? Look at it from their perspective: they were given a death sentence. Moses and Aaron constantly nagged at them for their lack of faith. They were never good enough in the eyes of Moses and Aaron, and after everything that took place, they were now going to die in the wilderness?
After all, the LORD was with them! He Himself said that Israel was to be His chosen people (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6)! How could a holy God dwell in their midst if they were as bad as Moses and Aaron made them out to be? Surely Korah had a point. Surely these disenfranchised ex-slaves deserved better treatment than they were receiving!
Moses and Aaron were mere men, after all. Aaron made the golden calf (Exodus 32). Moses killed the Egyptian (Exodus 2). Who were they to tell others how unfaithful they were?
Korah’s rebellion is a prime example of humanity’s impulse to revolt against any authority that seems overbearing or without substance. God’s reaction to the rebellion is a sober warning for all of us who would serve Him.
This is especially true of Americans, who have a historical penchant for chafing under authority. This country was born in revolution against perceived authoritarian measures by the British. Legislation is often fought because it may infringe on rights, and people often refuse to be accountable to others– “it’s none of your business, and I will live my life like I want to live it.” The greatest authority seems to be the individual, and no one can tell him or her otherwise!
Rebellion against authority is not what God expects from those who would serve Him– instead, He seeks people who will submit to His authority and do His will (John 4:20-24, Matthew 11:28-29, Luke 6:46-49). God expects His children to serve Him as the primary authority, but also expects them to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). Humility, gentleness, and peace, critical attributes for the Christian (Galatians 5:22-24, Matthew 18:1-4), rarely lead to rebellion!
Whether he may like to admit it or not, the Christian is expected to be held accountable not only to God but also his fellow brethren in the local congregation, especially its elders when present (Galatians 6:2, James 5:16, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Since elders will be held accountable for how they have shepherded the flock (Hebrews 13:17), the flock’s business is their business!
Likewise, many people who would not dare to question the authority of God freely question and rebel against the authority of elders. The New Testament is not vague: elders are given authority: they have “rule over” the flock (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 5:17). They have God’s delegated authority to shepherd the flock. When the elders act within the bounds of Scriptural authority, to rebel against them is as rebelling against God Himself! If God condemned Korah and his associates for rebelling against Moses and Aaron, will he spare Christians who rebelled against the authority of their elders, constantly murmuring against them and perhaps actively working to undermine their authority or their decisions?
Finally, we must consider the substance of Korah’s argument: that since God dwelt among Israel, Israel must be holy, and therefore Moses and Aaron were going “too far.” Israel heard or read how they were God’s chosen people, and saw that God dwelt in their midst and the mighty actions He did on their behalf, and concluded that they were “good enough” as they were. It happened in Korah’s day. It happened in Isaiah’s day (Isaiah 1). It happened in Jeremiah’s day (Jeremiah 7). It took place in the time of Jesus (Luke 3). Even Christians often delude themselves with such thoughts: it does not matter what I do because I’m God’s chosen person.
God never intended for His election of anyone to serve as a carte blanche to sin. Paul demonstrates this quite powerfully in Romans 6: we were not raised again in newness of life in baptism to keep sinning, but instead we crucified the man of sin. We now serve God, not sin. We are not holy merely because we are Americans or baptized or anything of the sort: we are holy when we accept God’s grace and walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6).
Rebellion against God or His chosen authorities is not a good idea, and leads to calamity. Let us be humble servants of Jesus Christ, trusting not in ourselves but in Him, and walk in the paths that He walked!