The Torah portion for this Shabbat spans Numbers chapters 16-18 and is called Korach, named after the leader of an infamous rebellion against Moses and Aaron – one which ended catastrophically. This is now the third consecutive challenge to Moses’ leadership. The first was from his own siblings, Aaron and Miriam (on the pretext of his marrying an Ethiopian woman). The second was the evil report of the ten spies and their accusation that Moses had brought them into the desert to die. The consequence of each rebellion was dire.
Korach is a particularly grievous portion of the Torah, and as I read it through again, I wished for a moment that we didn’t have to revisit it every year. But at the same time, I knew deep down how important it is that we never forget how prone we are to sin and to rebellion.
Korah and three others, Datan, Aviram and On assembled 250 leading men, and challenged Moses and Aaron for leadership over Israel. They accused Moses of exalting himself, and claimed that all Israelis were holy and should be allowed to be priests. Now, I seem to recall Moses trying desperately to get out of the assignment in the first place, beseeching God to send somebody else. And, at this point, he’s 80+ years old! Who, at that stage of life, wants the burden of leading a nation full of kvetchers? Personally, I’d rather be in Myrtle Beach, sipping on an Arnold Palmer.
The excuse for the rebellion was the execution of a man who had violated the Sabbath. Now Korah says to Moses, “You have gone far enough!” and would have everyone believe that he is indignant over the execution, and that he merely seeks equal spiritual opportunity for all Israelis. Perhaps Korah had been building up resentment about the exclusive appointment of the Cohaneem, the priests (he not being one of them). What is certain is that he rejected Moses’ leadership, which was tantamount to rebellion against God who called and commissioned Moses. But Korah made himself out to be a real “man of the people”.
Do you really suppose he and his buddies assembled 250 of the most influential men of the nation that quickly? It takes considerable time and effort to build alliances and coalitions. I suspect he had been secretly rallying others behind him all along, making promises, ‘working the phones’ as it were, getting his supporters ready to act on his signal, at an opportune time.
I think Korah had long resented Moses’ position, and lay in wait to seize power, using the aforementioned execution as a pretext. I suggest this was raw personal ambition masquerading as spirituality. Jude 11-16 seems to confirm Korah’s wicked intentions. In essence, Korah was mimicking Satan who, in eternity past, gathered his own following to launch a heavenly coup d’etat.
Moses tells Korah and Co., “Tomorrow morning Adonai will show who is His and who is holy and who He chooses to bring near to Himself” (16:5) instructing them to come with firepans, censers and incense to the Tent of Meeting. Remember, under pain of death, only cohaneem – priests, were permitted to offer incense before Adonai. Korah was of the tribe of Levi, but not from Aaron’s family. So in essence, Moses was saying to Korah, “This thesis of yours, that any Israeli can offer incense to the Lord – let’s put it to the test. Are you ready to stake your life on it?”
The next morning, Korah and his crew showed up with their censers, but Datan and Aviram refused the summons. Korah and the 250 leading men lit their censers and put incense on it. What happened next was terrifying. God sent forth fire and slew those 250 men. And what of Korah, Datan and Aviram? At God’s directive, Moses warned the entire congregation to back away from their tents. Moses told the people, “If these men and their families die a natural death, then you’ll know that God didn’t send me. But if Adonai brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens… and swallows them up… and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned Adonai.” At that very moment, the earth split open right where those men’s tents were, and they and their families and belongings plunged into the earth and it immediately closed back up.
The people were terrified! But their fear quickly turned to hostility. The very next day a mob rose up and assembled against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the death of these leaders. Adonai suddenly appeared, warning Moses and Aaron to move away from the people, but instead Moses interceded for Israel, instructing Aaron to light incense and make atonement for the people. Meanwhile, 14,700 people (presumably the size of that mob) were struck with a plague and died. But Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession averted God’s wrath and Israel was spared.
In chapter 17, God commanded that a leader from each of the tribes bring a rod with their name etched on it, and come to the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s name was etched on the rod belonging to Levi. The rods were subsequently deposited in the Tent, and God said, “The rod of the man whom I choose will sprout.”
The very next day, when the rods were brought back out, Aaron’s rod had sprouted – and not just leaves, but buds, blossoms and ripe almonds! By this divine act we were to never again challenge God’s choice of Aaron’s family line as priests. That rod eventually was placed in the Ark of the Covenant as a perpetual reminder to the nation.
In chapter 18 Adonai reiterates the responsibilities of Levites and of priests, as well as their portions from Israel’s offerings.
Lessons from Korach:
We need to honor Adonai’s sovereign choices, and so honor Him. Israel paid a terrible price for disdaining Moses, God’s chosen mediator. Imagine how much severer will be the consequences for rebelling against Messiah Yeshua, the ultimate God-sent Mediator!
Steer clear of anyone who tries to create suspicion and ill-will against the pastor or leadership of a congregation. Like Korah and like Absalom, they are plotting rebellion, and if you don’t ‘back away from their tent’, you’ll suffer in the fallout.
If the judgment on Korach seems harsh, remember, this was the generation that witnessed God’s miracles in the deliverance from Egypt. And, consider, we have an even greater revelation! To whom much is given, much is required. Judgment will be even stricter for us!
Parasha Korach not only teaches us what rebellion looks like, but teaches us the characteristics of good and godly leaders. Good leaders are often reluctant leaders, recognizing a need, but preferring someone else have the spotlight. Yet what makes them good leaders is their willingness to step up and sacrifice. A good leader must also be strong – prepared to endure resentment and false accusation, since nothing has changed – human beings remain sinful and prone to envy, gossip and rebellion. Another trait of godly leaders is that, whereas they don’t seek conflict, they also don’t run from it, but face it squarely.
Perhaps the author of the Letter to the Messianic Jews was thinking about all the grief that Moses had to endure, when he wrote: Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. May Adonai give each of us a heart to serve and to obey.