Wednesday, September 2, 2009

NUMBERS: Chapter 16

Chapter 16
Summary:One day a man named Korah (son of Izhar, grandson of Kohath, and descendant of Levi) took up a rebellion with Dathan and Abiram (both sons of Eliab), and On (the son of Peleth) - all three from the tribe of Reuben. The four men rose up against Moses with two hundred and fifty leaders - who were famous and well known throughout the congregation - on their side.

They made a stand against Moses and Aaron and proclaimed that both of them were assuming too much power over the people of Israel, questioning what made them superior over the rest of the people of Israel. The four men stated that God is amongst everyone in the congregation, making everyone equally holy, and again questioning as to why Moses and Aaron have elevated themselves above the rest of God's people.

When Moses heard this he "fell on his face", and then spoke to Korah and the rest of the men. Moses tells them that the following morning God will show them who in fact are his people, who are "holy", and whom he has chosen to "come near unto him" (meaning the priests).

Moses then tells Korah and his rebellion to take some incense censers and light incense in them in the morning and that they will see who God chooses and considers holy, and concludes that it is in fact them, the sons of Levi (Korah and his rebellion), assuming too much power.

Moses then questions Korah whether he thinks it's such a trivial thing that the Levites, such as Korah himself, had been chosen from amongst all of the people of Israel, to be nearer to God and to work in his tabernacle, to minister to the congregation on behalf of all of the people of Israel. Moses furthers questions that shouldn't it be enough for the Levites to have this "honor" and "privilege", and shouldn't be demanding control over the priesthood as well. Moses continues to assert that this is what Korah is truly after (control of the priesthood) and asks Korah for what reason has he chosen to speak up against Aaron.

Moses then attempts to summon Dathan and Abiram, but they refused to hear him. They instead asked Moses if it was such a "trivial thing" that Moses had brought them out of a land "flowing with milk and honey" (referring to Egypt) simply to kill them all out in the wilderness, while making himself a prince that rules over them. Moreover, they continued, they stated that Moses had not brought them into the "promised land", or given the people their inheritance of fields and vineyards. They then tell Moses that he's not fooling anybody and restate that they're done listening to him.

Moses was then filled with wrath and told God not to respect any sacrifices from those in the rebellion, adding that he himself had done nothing wrong to them - pointing out that he hadn't taken even a donkey from them, nor had he hurt any of them either.

Moses then turned to Korah and told him to bring all of his companions back here before God the following morning and the he and Aaron would meet them there as well, He tells Korah to make sure that all 250 men bring incense censers, and that Aaron would be there with his own censer as well.

The following morning Korah and his companions arrived at the door of the tabernacle and lit their censers, placing incense upon them and stood beside Moses and Aaron. The "glory of God" then appeared to the entire congregation and God spoke to Moses and Aaron telling them to get out of the way so that he can kill all of the people in the congregation.

Moses and Aaron "fell upon their faces" and asked God not to kill the entire congregation based upon the "sin" of one man. God relents and tells Moses to instead warn the congregation to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

Moses roses up and went towards the tents of Dathan and Abiram, and the 250 elders followed him. Moses spoke to the congregation and told them to get away from the tents of these "wicked men" and to touch none of their belongings, lest they be consumed by their "sins". The people moved away from Dathan and Abiram's tents, while Dathan and Abiram themselves appeared at the doorways of their tents alongside their wives, sons, and little children.

Moses then declared that hereby it will be known that God has in fact sent him to do all of these works, and that they were not done on his own will. He continues, saying that if these men (meaning Korah, Dathan, and Abiram - and apparently their families) die natural deaths, or die by disease or accident, then that will show that God has not sent him. However, Moses adds, that if the earth opens up and swallows them up with all that follow them, then it shall be understood that these men have provoked God.

As soon as Moses had finished speaking the ground began to split beneath them and swallowed them up, along with their houses and all their belongings. They, and everyone near them, went down alive into the pit and the earth closed up on them, killing them all. The people of Israel fled in terror, fearing that the earth would swallow them as well.

God sent forth a fire and immolated all of the 250 men who had offered incense.

God now tells Moses to have Aaron's son Eleazar retrieve the censers out of the fire and the smoldering pile of bodies, for God states that the censers are "holy". God further explains, that despite these censers having been wielded by these "sinners" (and now piles of smoldering corpses), since they were offered to God, the censers are considered "holy". God wants these "holy" censers to be made into broad plates to cover the altar as a "sign" for the people of Israel.

Eleazar took the 250 censers and beat them into a sheet of metal to cover the altar with. God states that this new metal covering is to be a reminder to the people of Israel that no one outside of Aaron's lineage, is to ever offer incense to God, lest they suffer the same fate as Korah and his companions.

The following morning however, the people of Israel began murmuring against Moses and Aaron, stating that they had killed God's people. As the congregation of angry people gathered around Moses and Aaron they looked over towards the tabernacle and saw the cloud covering it, and the "glory of God" appeared.

When Moses and Aaron approached the tabernacle, God told Moses to get out of the way so that he could kill all of the people. Moses and Aaron "fell on their faces", and Moses told Aaron to quickly grab an incense censer, light it with fire from the altar in the tabernacle, and burn some incense before the congregation to make "atonement" for them - as God's anger had already unleashed a plague amongst the people.

Aaron did as Moses instructed, and ran into the midst of the people witnessing that the plague had already begun. He quickly burned some incense and made an "atonement" for the people.

As Aaron stood amongst the living and the dead, his "atonement" for the people stopped the plague from doing any more harm - however, 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those God killed the previous day connected to Korah's rebellion.

Aaron returned and joined Moses at the door of the tabernacle after the plague had been stopped.
Thoughts:Chapter 16 in the book of Numbers offers many powerful statements against free thought, free will, and democracy, while providing revealing insight into the character and morality of both God and Moses. The main point that this chapter portrays is that authority (especially God's, or whatever Moses and Aaron present to be his authority) is not to be questioned, even with regards to reason and believing in equality.

Here, four men (led by a Levite named Korah) question Moses' leadership over the people of Israel. In light of their situation, it isn't unreasonable to sympathize with Korah and his companions' plight when we look at the full picture:
  • They'd been removed from their lives in Egypt, which while they suffered under their imposed slavery, the people of Israel have stated many times (even prior to the Exodus) that they at least had stability and plentiful diets and amenities that they were now lacking out in the wilderness.
  • After being taken out of Egypt, God had promised them a "land flowing with milk and honey", being the land of Canaan. Geologists point out that a journey from Egypt to Canaan, even under the conditions of people belonging to 14th century BC, would have taken only a few weeks in travel to get there. So far in our story, the people of Israel have been wandering around in the desert for over two years.
  • In this two year span, God has killed - or has imposed capital punishment upon - many thousands of people (and has to be talked out of killing all of the people of Israel several times by Moses) by many violent and disturbing methods: by the hand of the sword, stonings, immolation, and various plagues.
  • Upon spies being sent out to scope out the "promised land" and their (mostly) negative reports of "giants" inhabiting the land, the people panic and become pessimistic about their chances of invading and driving out the current inhabitants in their "promised land". In response to the spies' reports instilling the people with pessimism, God kills the spies (save two, Caleb and Joshua, who weren't pessimistic) and then tells the rest of the people of Israel, that due to their pessimism (based upon the reports of the spies God and Moses sent out in the first place) that they are no longer going to inherit the "promised land". God basically decides that he's going to make them all live out in the desert for the next forty years until they die out, so that the next generation of Israelites can inherit the land instead.
  • Save for a few rare occasions, God does not communicate directly to the people of Israel, instead almost always making Moses (and to lesser degrees, Aaron and his sons being priests) be the "middle man". When Moses and God communicate it is usually in private and in restricted areas that impose capital punishment upon any person or animal that intrudes upon them.
Basically, Korah and his three companions manage to convince 250 of some of the prominent leaders amongst the people of Israel, that things aren't exactly right or fair the way they're being run.

Korah and his companions confront Moses and Aaron and question their authority, and Korah states that everyone is one of God's children, making them all equal in contrast to God's dictatorship and favoritism towards certain factions of people, questioning why Moses and Aaron are elevated above the rest of God's people.

Moses replies with a challenge, which in light of his knowledge of what the outcome will be, reveals something disturbing about his character. Moses basically challenges Korah, his three companions, and the 250 leaders on his side to meet him and Aaron out by the tabernacle in the morning to hold a contest to see really who God has picked to lead the people of Israel. He dares all of the men to come out and offer incense to God (while Moses and Aaron will do the same thing and offer incense themselves) and that they'll see who in fact God considers "holy".

The ethical problem with Moses' dare is that he knows what the outcome will be - God has stated that only Aaron and his sons may make any direct offerings to God, and that anyone else attempting to do so will be killed. Moses knows that he is leading these men to their deaths and is daring them to wager their own lives with this challenge, which simply is not ethical.

Moses then turns the tables on Korah's argument, stating that instead it is Korah and his rebellion who are trying to assume too much power. Moses points out that Korah, being a Levite himself, should realize that it isn't a trivial thing that God has shown favoritism amongst the Levites. Moses states that the Levites are awarded with the "honor" and "privilege" of serving God in the tabernacle, and that they shouldn't be demanding to have control over the priesthood as well. He accuses Korah of simply wanting to take over the priesthood as his reason for speaking up against Aaron.

Moses then tries to speak to two of Korah's co-conspirators, Dathan and Abiram, but they both refused to hear him out. They instead ask Moses if it is such a "trivial thing" that he had led the people of Israel out of Egypt - claiming it a "land of milk and honey" itself - simply to die out in the wilderness, while he rules over them as a self appointed "prince". They also point out that Moses had not brought them into the "promised land", given them inheritance of fields and vineyards, or anything else the people had been promised. They finally cap it off by telling Moses that he's not fooling anyone and that they're done listening to him.

Moses, now filled with rage, tells God not to accept any of their sacrifices (which seems odd, considering that God has stated to Moses specifically that only Aaron and his sons are allowed to sacrifice anything to God anyways) and proclaims that he hasn't done anything wrong to these people in the rebellion - not so much as stolen a donkey from them, nor has he hurt any of them. This last statement is a bit troublesome considering that Moses has just dared them to do something (offering incense to God when they're not descended from Aaron) that he is fully aware will get them killed.

While the biblical apologist will state that Moses didn't force these men to do anything against their will, Moses is still negligent in leading them to their deaths. If you were arguing with a friend over whether a police offer has the right to shoot someone who points a gun at them, and you then dare your friend to point a gun at a police officer to test his theory, you would in fact be negligent for your friend being either arrested, shot, or killed from your coaxing him on - especially if you're fully aware that a cop has the right to fire upon a citizen who's aiming a weapon at him.

Moses then repeats his dare to Korah, telling him to make sure that all 250 men sign their death warrants by bringing incense censers. The following morning, Korah and the 250 leaders gathered outside the tabernacle with Moses and Aaron, and all lit their incense before the congregation of people, when the "glory of God" appeared before them.

God tells Moses to move out of the way so that he can get to the business of killing not just Korah and the 250 - but the entire congregation of people! Moses once again has to talk some sense and morality into God, questioning why the entire congregation has to be slaughtered for the "sins" of a few. Once again, Moses has to come to the rescue to prevent God from killing any and everybody in his sight, putting into question just how "perfect" is God's judgment when Moses has to keep talking him out of going on mass killing sprees all the time?

Ultimately God relents (and again changes his mind) and instead has Moses warn people to move away from the tents belonging to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses makes his way toward the tents and the 250 elders followed him. Moses tells the people of Israel to stay clear of these tents and not to even touch any of their belongings, lest they be "infected" by the "sins" of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

As the people backed away, Dathan and Abiram appeared at the doorways of their tents alongside of their wives, sons, and little children.

Moses then declares to the people that God has sent him to do all of these works, and claims that he is not doing this from his own will. He then states that if Korah, Dathan, and Abiram somehow manage to die "natural" deaths then the people will have just reason to disbelieve that Moses has been sent by God; however, Moses adds that if the ground were to open up and swallow the three men (Korah, Dathan, and Abiram) and all that follow them, then the people will have to accept that these people have met their fate by "provoking" God.

The problem with Moses' argument is numerous, it is a weak argument for and against Moses' claims, and seems to assert that Moses has some sort of command or control over God. For example, if God were to change his mind about how to punish the men, that would not necessarily proof that Moses wasn't sent by God - nor would Moses' "prophesy" of the earth swallowing up the men coming true be solid evidence for God sending Moses either.

The other problem I have with this verse is the accusation of provoking God. As we read earlier, Moses is also partially negligible for encouraging the "sin" of incense being offered to God by the 250 men. In that sense, Moses has also provoked God into reacting. The other problem with the argument, is regardless of whether Korah and his compatriots are right or wrong, their suspicions are reasonable. What this chapter's message is saying is that skepticism angers God, and that God's anger towards skepticism justifies killing people.

Skepticism is a reasonable position, and should not be construed as a bad thing in and of itself. If I tell you that I have a magic lamp that will grant you three wishes and I will gladly sell it to you for $200, you have every reason to apply skepticism towards my claim - even if I show you some magic tricks that I claim are being done by the "genie" who resides in the lamp. However, the position of God is that if you don't accept my magic tricks as being evidence of a genie living inside the lamp, that this somehow grants me the right to retaliate against you simply due to your skepticism. This is not by any means an ethical position, yet this is exactly the message coming across in Numbers 16 - believe without question or be destroyed, and might means right.

Back to our story, as soon as Moses finishes speaking, his "prophecy" appears to begin, and the ground begins to split and swallow up Dathan, Abiram, their families, houses, and all their belongings. They and everyone near them went down alive in to the resulting pit, and perished as the earth closed up on them - causing the people of Israel to flee in panic, fearing that they would be swallowed up by the earth as well. (Although this chapter seems to indicate that all the members of Korah's households perish, in Numbers Chapter 26, it is revealed that Korah's children were not killed by any of the events portrayed here.)

God follows up this act by setting all 250 men that offered incense on fire. God apparently is pretty fussy about his incense - you have to offer it properly with the right flame, as Nadab and Abihu found out in the last few seconds of their lives after God brutally immolated them in Leviticus Chapter 10; and you have to be from the right blood line, as 250 men here discovered in the fleeting moments of their lives - also brutally immolated for their "sin".

After barbecuing 250 people, God now wants Aaron's son Eleazar to retrieve the incense censers from out of the smoldering pile of bodies - because of course, the censers are "holy" because they were used to offer to God, regardless that they were wielded by "sinners". God tells Moses that after the censers are pulled out of the charred remains, he wants them to be hammered out into broad plates, which are to cover the altar in the tabernacle. This covering is to serve as a "reminder" that nobody aside from Aaron's priestly family is to ever offer incense to God. (A very morbid and threatening reminder indeed.)

However, the following morning the people of Israel began to complain again that perhaps Moses and Aaron daring 250 of their fellow Israelis wasn't such a great thing, and they accused them both of "killing God's people". While they could certainly be justified for implicating Moses (perhaps, not so much Aaron) as he was in fact negligent for their deaths - again, Moses basically "triple dog dared" the 250 men to offer incense to God - having justified reasons to be upset is not something that God takes into consideration.

In an unjustified retaliation God sends a plague down to kill off the people of Israel for complaining about Moses' "dare" that resulted in the deaths of 250 people. Moses at least has the sense to realize that these people don't deserve to die and he has Aaron scramble to grab some incense and offer it in atonement of the people of Israel before they all die from God's "divine death plague".

Aaron rushed and did as Moses told him, stopping the plague, but not before the plague caused the death of 14,700 people - that died simply for complaining about Moses and Aaron's negligence in the deaths of 250 of their fellow Israelites.

Upon stopping the plague that killed close to 15,000 people, Aaron returned to the door of the tabernacle where Moses stood.

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