“Inevitable Challenges”

Numbers 16:1-18:32
1 Samuel 11:14-12:22

by Mark Huey

Every year as one studies the testimonies of the Torah, there is an annual reminder that the challenges of ministerial leadership always persist—and such a reminder gives added meaning to the words written by the Apostle Paul regarding the benefits of reviewing these ancient writings (1 Corinthians 10:11). Last week’s Torah reading Shelakh-Lekha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) dealt with the bad report and missteps of the ten spies, and the subsequent poor choices of a faithless horde of Israelites which attempted to enter the Promised Land without the blessing of the Lord. Now, the record turns to the infamous report about one significant affront to Moses and Aaron’s leadership role by Korah. Here, for two chapters in the Book of Numbers, the specific details of the rebellious confrontation and ensuing punishment are recorded for all to consider, with an additional chapter devoted to emphasizing the solemn responsibilities placed upon those called into the priesthood. Needless to say, everyone who reads and studies this parashah should seriously consider his or her own respective roles and callings in the contemporary Body of the Messiah, and be mindful that the Holy One has expectations of each of us with our gifts, talents, and skills.

Human jealousy and envy are emotional traits of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) which are generated when people believe they are something they are not. In the case of Korah and his family (Kohathites), who were given the exalted responsibilities to handle the most holy sacred objects (Numbers 3:29-31; 10:21), the temptation to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron overcame them. Apparently, the charismatic Korah, a son of Levi, was so persuasive in his argument with other Israelites, that by the time he chose to confront Moses, he was able to gather a number of cohorts, namely: Dathan, Abiram, and On (Deuteronomy 11:6). Being descendants of Reuben, they might have thought that being of the line of the firstborn son of Jacob, naturally gave them some leadership privileges. However, we see that their concerted effort to elevate themselves was soundly and tragically rebuked by the Lord. When reading this passage, note how Moses’ initial reaction to Korah’s insubordination was to fall on his face appealing to the Lord—which is an identical response to what he and Aaron did earlier when the Israelites, riled up by the bad report of the ten spies, demanded new leadership (Numbers 14:4-5). From such two incidents depicting the eventual grumbling of complainants from the assembly or envious self-serving individuals, modern-day servants of God have been given a tremendous example of how to properly seek Him for His response, to the inevitable challenges to either their leadership roles or whatever challenges may be presented to the faith community:

“Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took action, and they rose up before Moses, together with some of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown. They assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’ When Moses heard this, he fell on his face; and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself. Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company, and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the LORD tomorrow; and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!’ Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you sons of Levi, is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD; but as for Aaron, who is he that you grumble against him?’ (Numbers 16:1-11).

In Moses’ initial response to Korah, he reminded him that as descendants of Levi, the Kohathites had already been separated from the congregation of Israel and given unique roles regarding the transport of the holy objects. But apparently, those responsibilities were not sufficient for Korah, and he was jealous of Aaron’s priestly position to the point of instigating all of the grumbling. Then to justify their complicity with Korah, his willing allies Dathan and Abiram fell back on the earlier congregational complaint that Moses had not yet led Israel into the Promised Land. The implication was that Moses had failed in his leadership role, and that he was simply taking advantage of his position to benefit him and his family. This accusation was rebuked by a stern reminder that Moses had never taken as much as a donkey and certainly done no harm to anyone. At this point, Moses turned back to Korah with how the Lord was going to personally resolve this dispute, by showing just who had His favor. Of course, when the glory of the Lord finally appeared to verify the actions taken, Moses and Aaron once again prostrated themselves on their faces in order to plead with Him for mercy on the balance of the congregation:

“Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come up. Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!’ Then Moses became very angry and said to the LORD, ‘Do not regard their offering! I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I done harm to any of them.’ Moses said to Korah, ‘You and all your company be present before the LORD tomorrow, both you and they along with Aaron. Each of you take his firepan and put incense on it, and each of you bring his censer before the LORD, two hundred and fifty firepans; also you and Aaron shall each bring his firepan.’ So they each took his own censer and put fire on it, and laid incense on it; and they stood at the doorway of the tent of meeting, with Moses and Aaron. Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the LORD appeared to all the congregation. Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.’ But they fell on their faces and said, ‘O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?’” (Numbers 16:12-22).

In His mercy, the Lord instructed Moses to tell the rest of the people of Israel to separate themselves from the rebels and their dwellings, in order to avoid the judgment that was imminent. In a remarkable revelation from the Lord, Moses warned the population that a miraculous opening of the ground would literally swallow up his challengers, and prove once and for all, not only one way that the Lord dealt with malcontents, but that He was absolutely with him and his brother Aaron:

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the congregation, saying, “Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.”’ Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, and he spoke to the congregation, saying, ‘Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin.’ So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones. Moses said, ‘By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.’ As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Numbers 16:23-33).

In perhaps one of the most dramatic scenes since the parting of the Red Sea, the ground opened up and consumed Korah, his misguided associates, their households, and all of their possessions. But the Holy One was not finished with His judgment on those who were cleverly persuaded by Korah and his ilk. As the Israelites were witnessing and fearing that they might also be swallowed up, a devastating fire was released to consume the two hundred and fifty who had taken up the challenge to Aaron’s offering, by offering incense on improperly made bronze censors. The Lord instructed Moses to tell Aaron to have his son Eleazar take the bronze censors, and hammer them into a plating for the altar, as a reminder that no one, who was not a descendant of Aaron, should inappropriately offer incense or suffer some of the same consequences as Korah and his company:

“All Israel who were around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth may swallow us up!’ Fire also came forth from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad. As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did present them before the LORD and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel.’ So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered, and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD; so that he will not become like Korah and his company—just as the LORD had spoken to him through Moses” (Numbers 16:34-40).

Even after this horrific set of events, within a day, the Israelites were widely right back to complaining about Moses and Aaron, and blaming them for the death of the Lord’s people despite the presence of His glory hovering over the Tent of Meeting. The Holy One was still angry with the impertinence of people, and He threatened to instantly consume them—but, in what had to become a familiar protraction, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, and pleaded with the Lord for His mercy, and certainly His guidance:

“But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’s people.’ It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.’ Then they fell on their faces. Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!’ Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked” (Numbers 16:41-50).

The Lord’s merciful response to Moses and Aaron’s humbling pleas resulted in proper use of the approved censor, fired from the altar and filled with incense. This was to be taken throughout the encampment, in order to mitigate and eventually abort the plague that would kill a wide number of Israelites on account of Korah. In no uncertain terms, Moses and Aaron had displayed extraordinary heroic leadership, appealing to the Holy One in what is described as literally standing between the dead and living, without any apparent concern for their own lives and the possibility that the plague would affect them as well.

Then, in order to once again show a tangible sign that Aaron and his progeny were indeed called and selected by the Lord to handle their priestly functions, representatives from each of the twelve tribes were to bring a rod from their father’s households to the Tent of Meeting. The Lord would then allow one of the rods to sprout with buds and blossoms bearing ripe almonds, to absolutely indicate just which family line had His utmost blessing. Clearly, the Holy One remained angry with grumblers and complainers. In this miraculous sign, not only did Aaron’s rod bud, but it was also set in the Holy Place before the Ark of the Covenant, as a perpetual sign against the rebels and as a warning that those who grumble will be judged:

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and get from them a rod for each father’s household: twelve rods, from all their leaders according to their fathers’ households. You shall write each name on his rod, and write Aaron’s name on the rod of Levi; for there is one rod for the head of each of their fathers’ households. You shall then deposit them in the tent of meeting in front of the testimony, where I meet with you. It will come about that the rod of the man whom I choose will sprout. Thus I will lessen from upon Myself the grumblings of the sons of Israel, who are grumbling against you.’ Moses therefore spoke to the sons of Israel, and all their leaders gave him a rod apiece, for each leader according to their fathers’ households, twelve rods, with the rod of Aaron among their rods. So Moses deposited the rods before the LORD in the tent of the testimony. Now on the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Moses then brought out all the rods from the presence of the LORD to all the sons of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod. But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put an end to their grumblings against Me, so that they will not die.’ Thus Moses did; just as the LORD had commanded him, so he did. Then the sons of Israel spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Behold, we perish, we are dying, we are all dying! Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, must die. Are we to perish completely?’” (Numbers 17:1-13).

Obviously, the righteously jealous Holy One was very concerned about just who specifically represented Him to the community of Ancient Israel. None of us as Torah readers can deny the unique and honored role of the Levitical priesthood. The final chapter of Korach is necessarily dedicated to further elaborating the relationship between God’s choice of Aaron and his family for the priesthood, and some of their specific duties and responsibilities. In order to fully appreciate the role of the separated and dedicated Levitical priesthood, I have gone ahead and reproduced all of Numbers ch. 18, so that everyone can appreciate the gravity of being called into the Lord’s fulltime service:

“So the LORD said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons and your father’s household with you shall bear the guilt in connection with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear the guilt in connection with your priesthood. But bring with you also your brothers, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may be joined with you and serve you, while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. And they shall thus attend to your obligation and the obligation of all the tent, but they shall not come near to the furnishings of the sanctuary and the altar, or both they and you will die. They shall be joined with you and attend to the obligations of the tent of meeting, for all the service of the tent; but an outsider may not come near you. So you shall attend to the obligations of the sanctuary and the obligations of the altar, so that there will no longer be wrath on the sons of Israel. Behold, I Myself have taken your fellow Levites from among the sons of Israel; they are a gift to you, dedicated to the LORD, to perform the service for the tent of meeting. But you and your sons with you shall attend to your priesthood for everything concerning the altar and inside the veil, and you are to perform service. I am giving you the priesthood as a bestowed service, but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death.’ Then the LORD spoke to Aaron, ‘Now behold, I Myself have given you charge of My offerings, even all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual allotment. This shall be yours from the most holy gifts reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, even every grain offering and every sin offering and every guilt offering, which they shall render to Me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons. As the most holy gifts you shall eat it; every male shall eat it. It shall be holy to you. This also is yours, the offering of their gift, even all the wave offerings of the sons of Israel; I have given them to you and to your sons and daughters with you as a perpetual allotment. Everyone of your household who is clean may eat it. All the best of the fresh oil and all the best of the fresh wine and of the grain, the first fruits of those which they give to the LORD, I give them to you. The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone of your household who is clean may eat it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours. Every first issue of the womb of all flesh, whether man or animal, which they offer to the LORD, shall be yours; nevertheless the firstborn of man you shall surely redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. As to their redemption price, from a month old you shall redeem them, by your valuation, five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. But the firstborn of an ox or the firstborn of a sheep or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall offer up their fat in smoke as an offering by fire, for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Their meat shall be yours; it shall be yours like the breast of a wave offering and like the right thigh. All the offerings of the holy gifts, which the sons of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord to you and your descendants with you.’ Then the LORD said to Aaron, ‘You shall have no inheritance in their land nor own any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel. To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting. The sons of Israel shall not come near the tent of meeting again, or they will bear sin and die. Only the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the sons of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance; therefore I have said concerning them, ‘They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel.’” Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, “When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe. Your offering shall be reckoned to you as the grain from the threshing floor or the full produce from the wine vat. So you shall also present an offering to the Lord from your tithes, which you receive from the sons of Israel; and from it you shall give the LORD’s offering to Aaron the priest. Out of all your gifts you shall present every offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the sacred part from them.” You shall say to them, “When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor, and as the product of the wine vat. You may eat it anywhere, you and your households, for it is your compensation in return for your service in the tent of meeting. You will bear no sin by reason of it when you have offered the best of it. But you shall not profane the sacred gifts of the sons of Israel, or you will die”’” (Numbers 18:1-32).

As one can read in this lengthy chapter, being called into the Levitical priesthood—or for that same matter being born into the tribe of Levi—was not without a considerable amount of care and concern to do things according to His Holy Word. Since the Levites and their descendants were called into a very unique and valued role in the community of Ancient Israel, they were denied any inheritance in the Promised Land and were to be totally dedicated to the Lord’s work, looking to Him for sustenance and provision. Through the very offerings of the balance of the rest of the population of Israel, their needs were to be met as they performed their ministerial duties. Among many duties they would perform, they were to model the responsibility of tithing by tithing a tenth of whatever they received unto the Lord.

So what can be taken away from this annual trek through the tragic episodes of leadership challenges, and how God wanted those in responsible positions within the assembly to react to those inevitable confrontations? We need to first recognize that whether it is from the disappointed and impatient assembly at large; or misguided, envious, and charismatic individuals; or small cadres dissatisfied with a leadership style or approach—that today eventually everyone in ministry leadership is going to be subject to challenges. When the confrontations come—and they will—it is critical to follow the example of Moses and Aaron, and humbly fall on your face in prayer and supplication for guidance, accompanied with intercession for those who come in opposition to the decisions that are being made. Since the accountability of leadership is so critical for the well being of the congregation, if you are in a position of leadership, then the principles expounded upon in Numbers ch. 18 as originally given to the Levites, might be useful to consider. Remember that Moses and Aaron were honored and protected when challenged, but only because they were obviously fulfilling their respective calls appropriately—depending on the Lord for His guidance on how to handle complaining miscreants. As will later be discovered, when a leader deviates from the Word, there are serious consequences, such as when Moses struck the rock twice rather than simply speaking to it as the Lord commanded (Numbers 20:6-12).

May the Lord give each of us the heart and willingness to fall on our faces for guidance from Him, no matter if our leadership roles range from family to congregation, or if we are simply trying to best manage our own individual lives. After all, the challenges are inevitable. How we handle them should be from the Lord!

This teaching has been excerpted from Torahscope, Volume III by William Mark Huey.