What is Korah’s Rebellion?
Reading: Numbers 16
The account of Korah’s rebellion (Korah and 250 men rise up in rebellion against Moses and Aaron; the earth opens and swallows them in the end) is sometimes used as a defense of authority against anyone who might be questioning authority. This event may have some things to say about authority in the church, but it is not the primary point. In fact, the distraction to this issue of “Who’s in charge?” may prevent us from seeing the glorious truth that this story is really about.
We are told at the beginning that 250 prominent Israelite men, leaders in the community, representatives in the assembly, rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The claim, “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?” (Numbers 16:3), is not a general complaint about their authority, nor a general complaint about how they view themselves as being better than the rest of the community. This becomes clear when we get to the end of the story. One might call this verse the moral to the story.
This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers. (Numbers 16:40)
The rebellion, it turns out was about Moses (really, the Lord) saying that only Aaron and his descendants could burn incense before the Lord. Korah and the 250 leaders (who already had a level of authority in the community) were claiming everyone in the community is holy enough to offer incense before the Lord in the tent of meeting. This also makes a lot more sense out of Moses telling these men to come the next day and bring their censors and burning incense to let the Lord decide who was right and wrong (Numbers 16:6-7). And it explains why, after all was said and done they were to take the 250 censors they had used and hammer them into a plating to go over the altar to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron (a priest) could approach the alter to offer incense (Numbers 16:39-40).
Aaron had already lost two sons in the service of offering incense because they did not follow the prescribed way (Leviticus 10:1-2). In some sense, I am sure he would have been happy to turn this responsibility over to someone else. Serving as priest was costly. Korah and his followers seemed to think it was about privilege. Worse yet, they did not realize there was a problem–that they needed an intermediary between them and God. God is holy; they were sinful. Their incense would not be acceptable to God. Only incense brought in the prescribed way, through mediation and sacrifice, would be acceptable.
It may be that Christians sometimes miss the greater point of this story because of familiarity with the truths of the New Covenant clearly laid out in Hebrews. As believers in Jesus we are all invited to draw near without any fear of punishment (Heb. 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:19-22, 12:18-22). There is only one thing that makes the difference between these verses in Hebrews and Korah’s rebellion. The freedom with which Hebrews calls us to draw near to God in prayer (remember our prayer is incense before God–Revelation 5:8) is only possible because of our Great High Priest. It is not possible because Korah was right (“The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them”). Korah was wrong.
Aaron and his family showed us that we need a mediator. Jesus is that mediator. The reason the earth doesn’t swallow us alive (or some other version of God’s wrath) when we approach the throne of grace is because we come through Jesus Christ. We come by a new and living way opened through his death on the cross. (See the Hebrews verses listed above.)
Many today promote the idea that there are many ways to God. That is Korah’s rebellion. Everything but coming to God through our Lord Jesus Christ is ultimately Korah’s rebellion. If it were not for God’s patience and endurance, judgment would long ago have been poured out.
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