Numbers 14: Radical Intercession.
Chapter 16 is the ultimate proof that Numbers isn’t boring. Welcome to the Showdown at Kadesh. It’s more like a Western shootout than Sunday school. Why has no Biblical epic movie been made of Numbers?
After the offerings and tassels of chapter 15, the action suddenly flares up again as if someone has thrown petrol on the flames of this book. A Levite named Korah leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, though the narrative tells us that it’s really God they are rebelling against, not the nation’s leaders (v. 11). There’s been grumbling and insubordination before – the whole community was complaining about food in chapter 11 and in chapter 12 Moses’ own brother and sister turn against him – but this is the big one.
Korah leads over 250 men against Moses. Listen to his charge:
“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?” (v. 3).
He is disputing Moses’ right to lead, accusing him of arrogance and presumption, but he is also questioning the whole order God has instituted. True, the whole nation has been chosen and set apart by God, but within Israel there are gradations of special responsibility and status. The Levites as a clan have been set apart for the Lord’s service (3:12), some of the Levites have been chosen as priests for special duties (3:10), and Moses has been elected by God to be the overall leader. Korah, himself a Levite, doesn’t like this arrangement, but under his cloak of concern for the community there are the unmistakeable signs of jealousy. He’s not happy with the position he’s been given by God, and wants more. In the first of this chapter’s ironies, Korah is guilty of the very things he accuses Moses of – pride and arrogance – whilst Moses, if we remember, never wanted the job in the first place (Exodus 3-4).
Korah’s words are telling. He tries to make himself and others holy on their own merits – the very thing the human race has spent its entire existence trying to do in vain. Like Korah, we all have a tendency to think we’re better than we are. The reality is, no one is holy unless God makes them holy. On our own, we’re very ordinary, and very sinful. ‘The Lord is with them’ reminds me of the cry of religious zealots down the centuries – claiming God’s support to bolster their own agenda. I think of Christians and Muslims alike who have abused God’s name in the pursuit of selfish gain – look no further than the Crusades. We should all be wary of this kind of statement – do you just want God to back you in your plans, or do you really want to fall in with God’s plans?
What’s also telling is Moses’ reaction. Yes, he gets angry later (v. 15), and very understandably so – we all get angry when wrongfully accused – but he starts off very measured. He points out the blessings his accusers already have and their ingratitude and over-reach in wanting more (vv. 8-10). Here’s a reminder for us to be grateful for what we have, and not strive for more until God calls us. He also refers things to God straightaway (vv. 4-7). He doesn’t retaliate or take matters into his own hands – he calls on God to make judgement. Here’s another lesson for us: don’t get dismayed by opposition, but trust God for vindication. Vengeance and judgement both belong to God, not us (Deut. 32:35; James 4:12).
We get a vivid insight into Moses’ personality and humanity in all of this. We see his humility, restraint and also his resolve. He doesn’t buckle under pressure or give ground from where God has put him. None of us should just give in when challenged. But Moses retains his humanity even in the face of challenge, and shows great compassion. When God seems ready to destroy the whole community, Moses pleads for them (v. 22). He intercedes for people who’ve been nothing but a burden for him.
When things get tough, God shows up. I can almost imagine Him watching this scene in vv. 1-18 and thinking “don’t make Me come down there!”. But that’s just what He does – God shows up in an impressive and no-nonsense way. When the ‘glory of the Lord appears’ (v. 19), we all have to take notice.
God’s judgement is swift, severe and targeted (vv. 31-35). Korah and his followers get swallowed up by the earth, falling into a great rift that opens in the ground. The innocent are spared, but the rebels get taken down. It’s pretty epic – designed specifically and foretold by Moses as something new to make sure no one thought it was just a freak of nature. Those who presumed to offer fire to the Lord are themselves consumed by fire, in another of the chapter’s tragic ironies.
You might be thinking it’s a bit OTT or too harsh by God, but this is the grim reality of what happens when people reject God and His servants. It’s also not as if God hadn’t warned them about this – the penalty for approaching God outside of the prescribed way was made very clear in ch. 3 v. 10. Thank goodness for the mercy God shows us in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3).
Speaking of Jesus, we get a glimpse of Him later in the chapter. The people are pretty shocked by what’s happened and start to rebel again. It’s hard to credit, after what they’ve just seen, but they still don’t submit to God, and so the drama goes on. Plague breaks out and people start dying. It’s only Moses’ quick thinking and Aaron’s quick acting that save Israel from a self-inflicted calamity. Aaron rushes out with a censer of incense and ‘made atonement for them’ (v. 47). It’s not altogether clear how, but it’s so striking when the narrative describes him as standing ‘between the living and the dead’ (v. 48).
This is seriously intense – the Old Testament is not for the faint-hearted. But in what Aaron does here, I see a foretaste of what Jesus does for us. He too makes atonement for His people (Hebrews 2:17). He too stands between the living and the dead – allowing us who are dead in our sins to become alive in grace (Romans 6:8-11). He too saves us from ourselves. So, I thank God for providing a mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Aaron stopped the plague. Jesus conquered the grave (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
This is radical intercession, and it makes me stop and think. Do we care enough about the spiritual health of our friends to intercede like this? Are we willing to go out and help people cross from death to life? Something to think about…
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