Numbers 16
A Claim For Equality

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1. Korah the son of Izhar, Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth formed a faction, they rounded up two hundred and fifty leaders of Israel, and rebelled against Moses and Aaron. [That's] the story we read today. Let's listen to their reason for standing up against Moses and Aaron. They made the following claim. "You are going past your part. As each member of the entire community [of the nation] is holy, why do you try to stand above the assembly of the Lord even though the Lord is among us?," (verse three).

2. I think we should have to admit right off that this claim has a measure of validity to it. Please look at what the text says just before it. The Bible says there that "You shall remember to keep all of my commands, and you shall be a holy people as belonging unto your God," (15:40). It was not to just one part of the people but to all the members of Israel who were commanded to be holy. Then as it continues, [the text] says, "I am the Lord your God, who led you out of the land of Egypt in order to be your God. I am the Lord your God," (15:41). [Where it says,] "you," it means all the members of Israel and is not limited to the likes of Moses or Aaron. Therefore, the Lord is just as much God to the members of Israel [as to them]. Moses and Aaron weren't special beings in that sense.

3. Also, not only does this claim of equality have validity, but most often in real world communities it has major significance. That is, in different communities [and nations], the unjust oppression and the misuse of authority by a set individual or a part of the privileged class can and does happen. Religious communities are no exception. Indeed, I'd say it is more likely to happen in them. As a matter of fact, even in the history of Israel, and in the history of the church after that, this kind of thing has happened repeatedly. So, if we simply read this passage as "It is wrong in and of itself that they turned against those over them and made a claim for the right of equality," that would be more of a risk to say. That's because it would easily lead to invoking the absolutization of those in power.

4. In fact, their claim, even for many of the Israelites back then, seemed to have been accepted as justified. In verse nineteen the text has written in it that "Korah assembled the entire community, and confronted Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the tabernacle of the presence." To Korah, the entire community was his ally. In the same way then, today, when claims for equal rights are heard at various settings, many people give their approval to them. There is almost nobody openly in opposition.

5. But even still, we shouldn't skip over the fact that Korah, Dathan, Abiram and the people who followed them were judged and destroyed by God. For, at first glance it may have made sense and seemed just and even good, but the truth be told, in their claim a big problem lay hidden. We need to read carefully as to what the problem was here.

Korah's Dissatisfaction

6. With that then, first let's consider why Korah, Dathan and the others even starting to talk like this in the first place? (In verse one the text says the name On the son of Peleth, but since his name is not found among the condemned, I thought to omit [his name]). When we read the dialog between them and Moses, we see that each had their own complaints of dissatisfaction against the existing regime.

7. To begin, let's look at Korah the son of Izhar and his complaint. His house belonged to the clan of Kohath from among the tribe of Levi. The Levites were a tribe assigned the work of serving in the tabernacle of the Lord, that is, the work for the services. In Numbers chapter four is recorded the kind of work to which the Kohathites were entrusted. The scripture says, "The work of the sons of Kohath involved the holy things of God and the tabernacle of [his] presence," (4:4). In verse fifteen it is written specifically that "After Aaron and his sons covered the holy place and all its holy articles, at the movement of the camp, then the sons of Kohath came and took it up for transport," (4:15).

8. Well, here we find in the text the expression "Aaron and his sons." In fact, Aaron and his sons belonged to the Kohath clan. But, though in the same Kohath clan, they were given a special job. They were priests. Not all the members of the Kohath clan could become a priest, only just Aaron and his descendants alone could become priests. That seems to be the point with which Korah took issue. In short, it was that "Am I not of the same Kohath clan as they? Isn't Aaron my cousin? It makes me a priest as well." We see that from the words Moses spoke directly to Korah, "O sons of Levi, listen. The God of Israel placed you near himself as a people apportioned from the community of Israel, you do the work of the tabernacle of the Lord, standing before the community you can minister [there]. Are you dissatisfied with that? The Lord has drawn you and all the sons of Levi your brothers close to himself. Beyond that now, do you require the priesthood too?," (verses eight through ten).

9. "God has placed [you] near himself." -- He did; their duty was a gift from God's grace. Because God has drawn them near [unto himself], they could minister. In the first place, the service itself where a human being can draw near unto a holy God is a gift from God's grace. Therefore, you would expect to include with that a respectful fear and a thankfulness towards the God who has given them this duty. But, when they got in used to his grace and got to the point where they could not respond to his grace as the grace [it was], they unfortunately started to think of that which were gifts as rights [owed them]. It turned into a claim for rights [when] they had lost their thankfulness and respect.

10. From verses sixteen and following this dreadfully haughty figure [of theirs as] human beings is sketched out. Since they are claiming the priesthood as a right, Moses ordered that they stand before the Lord with their claim for authority and rights. Then, as Moses said, they made themselves priests by the "right of equality," they took their own incense burners, and stood with Aaron before the tabernacle of the presence. "As a matter of course, the incense which we ourselves have kindled will be duly accepted by God. Because the right to burn incense is equally given to us." That's what they were thinking [as] they were standing [there before the Lord]. But the results are recorded in verse thirty-five. "Then a fire came out from the Lord and burned up the two hundred and fifty men who had offered up the incense." This was God's answer to the human claim in which grace had been substituted into a right.

The Dissatisfaction Of Dathan And Abiram

11. Next, let's look at Dathan and Abiram's complaint. The dissatisfaction of Korah the son of Izhar was in things pertaining to the Aaronic priesthood, but in contrast, the complaint of Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab revolved around the Mosaic authority to leadership. When seen from their point of view, Moses seemed to be unfit as a leader. As a matter of fact, the people who were led out of Egypt were still wandering around the wilderness. The community had been placed under dire circumstances for a long time. Originally to begin with, the house of Dathan and Abiram belonged to the tribe of Reuben. Reuben was Jacob's eldest son. The Reubenites could be called the chief house of Israel. Therefore, the fact of Moses' belonging to the Levites and his standing as a leader as a Levite must have in and of itself been dissatisfying for them.

12. However, their true problem was revealed in their words in which they made the case that Moses was not fit as a leader. When Moses visited them and tried to call them aside to himself, they said, "We won't come. Isn't it enough that you lead us up out of the land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt] only to have us die in this wilderness? Do you want to reign over us? While you can't even lead us into the land flowing with milk and honey, you also haven't given us a field or a vineyard as our inheritance. Do you intend to gouge out the eyes of these people? We won't come," (verses twelve through fourteen).

13. In these words, a problem emerges with the exact same nature as that of the one that was in Korah the son of Izhar which we saw earlier. Originally, that they were made the people of God led out from Egypt was because of God's grace. "I am your God the Lord, who has led you out of the land of Egypt, in order to become your God," (15:41), says the scripture. Also, that they were given the promise of entering into a land flowing with milk and honey was entirely because of God's grace and nothing else. Therefore, as the Israelites rejoiced and gave thanks for God's grace as revealed through Moses, they had escaped from Egypt and crossed the Sea Of Reeds, (Exodus chapter fifteen).

14. But, now God's gift of deliverance had long been forgotten. They call Egypt [the land] from which they had come out "the land flowing with milk and honey." They say the reason they were led out from there was "to have them die in this wilderness." Then, even the promises given to them by God are no longer gifts [to them]. They make a complaint that "While you can't even lead us to the land flowing with milk and honey, you also haven't given us a field or vineyard for our inheritance." The promise based on being a gift in which they would be allowed to inherit this land flowing with milk and honey turned into a right for which they demanded. Thus, the leaders, unable to meet that demand, had come to be deemed unfit as leaders.

15. So, in spite of the fact that they had spoken about being led up out of Egypt and [their] inheriting the promised land, their [conversation] no longer included with it a thanksgiving and a respect for God. When they got in used to his grace and could no longer take his blessings as blessings, then the only thing left was moaning and groaning and only a claim for rights [after] having lost their thankfulness and respect. Then, when they were thinking of their being led into the land flowing with milk and honey as a right due to them, they never got to the land when it was all said and done. A huge tract of land along their journey opened its mouth and swallowed them up and all those who belonged to them. This was God's response to their human claim in which they had substituted grace for rights.

16. It is right and good on its own and often times is even necessary when humans make a claim for equal rights. But, when that [kind of] talk is made among believers, there is always something that we should never forget. It is that our current existence was not obtained by demanding our rights, but is solely based on the grace we received from God. We are under the cross of Christ, then we are in the presence of God. Would to God that we might never lose our thankfulness and respect for God!

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