The high priest runs ahead of the wave of death, stands there with fire, and the wave stops with him. He stands in between the dead and the living—that’s the image. This narrative is part of a huge mosaic pointing to Israel’s need and humanity’s need for the ultimate mediator to mediate between Heaven and Earth.
In part one (00:00-7:24), Tim and Jon review our previous episode, where we started exploring the second movement of Numbers and the theme of the test. In this movement, Israel faces seven tests, during which they rebel against Yahweh instead of trusting him. In the last episode, we looked at the first of these tests: God commands Israel to enter the promised land, but they choose to trust their fear of the giant inhabitants of the land instead of Yahweh’s ability to save them. As a result, Yahweh forbids the entire generation from entering the promised land—only their children will be able to go in.
As the children of Israel move through the wilderness, Yahweh instructs them to arrange themselves in concentric circles. Yahweh’s presence is at the center in the tabernacle, along with the high priest and Moses. Beyond them are the Levites, and beyond the Levites are the rest of the tribes. Tim notes that the Israelites’ rebellion occurs according to these circles, starting with the outer circle of the twelve tribes. That means the Levites are up next.
In part two (7:24-27:40), Tim and Jon discuss Numbers 16. Yahweh had selected the tribe of Levi to serve him in the tabernacle, but he chose the family of Aaron specifically to be the only ones who would offer sacrifices in the inner section of the tent. In Numbers 16, a large number of the Levites, led by a man named Korah, revolt against the family of Aaron.
Numbers 16:3 (NIV)
They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “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?”
While their claim is true on some level—all of Israel was called by Yahweh to be a holy nation—Yahweh selected Moses and Aaron to hold special roles of leadership within Israel. Like Cain and Abel, these brothers are divided against one another even in the act of offering sacrifices to Yahweh, and they object to God’s choice of Aaron’s family. In response, Moses sets up a test of his own: Aaron, Korah, and the other men would all burn incense before the Lord, and Yahweh himself would make it clear who he had chosen to serve him.
Like he did before, Yahweh selects the family of Aaron and then tells Moses and Aaron to back up so he can wipe out the Israelites. Moses and Aaron do what they have done repeatedly in the face of Israel’s sin, interceding on behalf of Israel and imploring Yahweh to spare the people. What’s happening here is an inversion of a familiar pattern in the Hebrew Bible, in which God pardons many on behalf of one righteous person. Here, Yahweh is threatening to annihilate all of the Israelites because of the sin of just a few people.
However, because of Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession, Yahweh spares the nation but takes the life of Korah and his accomplices. The ground opens up beneath them and swallows them. This is another link to the Cain and Abel narrative, when Abel’s innocent blood “cries out” from the ground to Yahweh. Moses’ language also echoes Genesis 6-7, when Yahweh brings a flood of justice upon violent humanity.
In part three (27:40-42:47), the guys talk about the judgment of Korah and the rebellious Levites. Even as judgment for sin, the punishment can feel harsh as we read this story. God’s standards are higher for his chosen ones. They receive greater blessing and opportunity when they are faithful to their covenant, and they face greater consequences when they rebel.
We see this same dynamic with Jesus. He is far harder on the teachers of Israel than he is on other sinful humans because Israel’s religious leaders had been entrusted to guide the nation to covenant faithfulness.
From here, the story gets more intense. After Korah and the leaders’ deaths, fire from Yahweh consumed 250 men who were sympathetic to their cause and had joined in offering incense before Yahweh. After this, Yahweh instructs the family of Aaron to collect the 250 censers used to burn incense, melt them down, and overlay the altar with the resulting metal. Just like God placed the rainbow in the sky after the flood as a sign of both his judgment and mercy, the overlay on the altar became a sign of judgment and mercy as well.
From here, things continue to escalate as the people accuse Moses and Aaron of being responsible for the death of Korah and the 250 men. Yahweh is so angry he sends a plague against the nation of Israel, and Moses tells Aaron to run among the people with incense to atone for their sins.
Numbers 16:47-49 (NIV)
So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah.
As a story, Numbers 16 is strange and probably makes many of us uncomfortable. However, when viewed through the lens of the narrative pattern we’ve been observing throughout the Hebrew Bible, it fits right in. Even after Yahweh is merciful to his people, they rebel and face his judgment. But a righteous, priestly mediator stands (literally) between them and death, stopping the wave of judgment and bringing life instead. This story points us yet again to the need for a mediator who will crush the rebellious snake once and for all.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by MacKenzie Buxman.
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