Korah’s Rebellion: What the Bible Is (And Isn’t) — Part 3 of 3

This post will make a lot more sense if you read parts one and two first…

Speaking of all the dangers and ills that faced ancient people like this, what are we to make of the fact that God slaughtered nearly 15,000 people in retribution for challenging his authority? It’s one thing to say authority was vitally and deeply important. It’s another to say that 15,000 people will die horrendous deaths for challenging that notion. So what do we do with that part of the story?

Well, what I’m doing with it is simply remembering everything we just talked about. (This approach may or may not be good or right… I’m just throwing this out there because it’s the best way I can make sense of it.) Korah’s Rebellion began as an oral tradition and history about ancient people, and was most likely compiled and written by someone hundreds of years after the events took place. The thing about ancient people is that beyond struggling to survive, they also struggled to come to an understanding of the world around them: how things did or didn’t work, why things did or didn’t happen, those sort of things. And without any sort of understanding of medicine, hygiene, or anything like that, I have no doubt that “plagues” and sickness occurred in the Israelite camp.

Notice that is exactly how one of God’s punishments is described in this passage: as a plague that spreads throughout the people. The only way to get the plague to stop is by performing religious rituals. Sounds a lot like ancient superstition, doesn’t it? It’s certainly understandable. Picture yourself as one of the Israelites – a person chosen by God to have a special relationship with him, traveling to a land that God has promised you, when suddenly a ton of people start getting sick and dying. It would be terrifying, and the first question you’d be asking is: Why? Why is this happening? The most readily available answer, if you believe you are following a God who controls everything, is that God must be displeased with you.

That sort of experience must have been pretty commonplace, traveling out in the desert as they were. In fact, we see just a few chapters later in Numbers 25 that there is another “plague” spreading throughout the community. That plague, too, is blamed on religious disobedience (this time, marrying women of other religions and worshiping their gods). The solution? Kill all the women and destroy the idols and the plague stops. That plague killed 24,000 people before it ended.

In fact, there are at least six other times in the Pentateuch where plagues spread among the people. Every time, the sickness is blamed on divine punishment. There were probably even more occurrences of disease, too. I have no doubt that, possessing the knowledge they did, they tried to find reasons for those diseases that made sense to them. And so I have to wonder if ascribing those diseases to divine punishment couldn’t just be an ex post facto explanation of what happened. It’s a way for the Israelites to make sense of the world around them.

As the stories got handed down from generation to generation, what if the exact details got a little fuzzy? When someone goes to compile this history, it makes perfect sense for them to say, “There were rebellions against God’s leadership and so God sent a plague to punish the people.” There was a rebellion. There was a plague. They may or may not have been connected, but it makes sense to say they were because it plays into the ruling class’ purpose for the narrative… and it also helps make sense of a dangerous world. Think about it: would you rather live in fear that disease could randomly come and strike you and your family at any time, or live believing that if you were obedient to God and his leaders that you would be safe?

And so that’s how I’m dealing with and processing the story of Korah’s Rebellion. Like I said, it might not be right or good, but that’s what’s going on in my head as I, like the ancient Israelites, try to make sense of things. Now, what do you think?

Korah’s Rebellion: What the Bible Is (And Isn’t) — Part 2 of 3

Make sure you read part one of this series before forging onward and reading today’s post.

At some point, some Israelites rose up against Moses. Another time, some of them rose up to challenge the Levitical priesthood as well. And what we read in Numbers 16 is the combination of those stories to get at a point.

We can see that thematic point coming through loud and clear: don’t mess with God’s appointed leadership. God put Aaron and his family in charge of the priesthood, and you shouldn’t challenge that divine right. God anointed Moses to lead Israel, and while he may not be perfect, he is still God’s anointed. (Interestingly, Jewish tradition adds a lot of details to this story, including an argument where Korah actually outwits Moses in a debate about the Law. The moral of the story remains the same, however, even with that lost argument included: Moses is God’s man. Don’t mess with him.)

Israel was going to have both a King and a Priesthood ruling over them (and may, in fact, already have had them at the time the Pentateuch was compiled). It was important for the Israelites to stress the importance of authority, because in their perception authority was expressly granted by God. We see a great example of this when we fast forward to the stories of King Saul and David. David had several opportunities to kill Saul, who had more or less become an evil king, but every time he had the chance, he chose not to harm Saul – because Saul was “God’s anointed”. God had anointed Saul to be king, and until God took Saul away, David wasn’t going to challenge him or rise up against him. David, Israel’s greatest King, had an immense amount of respect for authority and stands in stark contrast to the rebels of Numbers 16.

(In fact, “God’s anointed” in Hebrew is “meshiach”, which is where we get our English word “Messiah”. If God anointed someone as the leader of the Israelites, they were a messiah, a kind of frontrunner or shadow of the Messiah to come.)

And so authority was a big deal in Israel. Especially to those who had such authority – and this is where the compilation of the Pentateuch gets interesting. Throughout history (until modern times, really), it was generally only the ruling class who were educated and had the ability to do things such as write. This was no different in Jewish culture, where the ha’aretz, or “people of the land” – the commoners – were more concerned with day-to-day survival than anything else. The scribes, those who could write, belonged to the priestly ruling class. And so we see how a passage such as “Korah’s Rebellion” begins to be formed…

The ruling class melds together several distinct rebellion narratives into one, writing it down with the distinct purpose of warning people what happens if they rise up to challenge God’s anointed leaders.

Oppressive? Perhaps, from our democracy-loving point of view. But in those days, strong leadership may have meant the difference between dying and survival. This was the primitive ancient world – full of disease, wild animals, warring tribes, bloody and remarkably lethal warfare… there were no grocery stores, no hospitals, no cartographers… the rule of the day was: survive. On top of all that, add the fact that the Israelites were trying to survive in the desert and you begin to see how important having a strong leader was. They needed someone who could organize them, who could lead them in battle when neighboring tribes rushed to fight them, who could take care of emergencies, and who could make wise and quick decisions. Protecting the leadership meant protecting the people. So while there certainly was (perhaps a large) element of self-preservation involved in weaving these stories together, there was also an element of protecting the Israelite people as well.

Coming tomorrow: part three of three… plagues.

Korah’s Rebellion: What the Bible Is (And Isn’t) — Part 1 of 3

I gave you the outline of one of the most bizarre and hardest stories to wrap your mind around last week: the narrative that I found out is usually referred to as Korah’s Rebellion. It’s a story where several different groups of people rise up and question Moses’ leadership, and God kills about 15,000 of them for it. It’s a story I don’t like, and one that I wish wasn’t included in the pages of Scripture. And it’s one I have forced myself to deal with, process, and chew on over the past week.

I asked you how you deal with tough passages like this one. The rest of this week, I’m going to share a little of what I am processing with regards to this story specifically – and the Bible in general. Because facing uncomfortable stories like this one forces you to ask questions about what exactly it is that you’re reading. Those kinds of questions can be even more unsettling, but also incredibly rewarding.

I’ve divided my thoughts into three blogs that are scheduled to post today, tomorrow, and Friday. Make sure to come back and catch it all.

So here we sit, holding in our hands a modern version of an ancient document, written thousands of years ago. The “book” of Numbers, where the story of Korah’s Rebellion is told, is one piece of a five-part history of the Jewish people. The Jews call that history the Torah; Christians call it the Pentateuch (Greek for “five scrolls”). Those five scrolls are the first five ‘books’ in our Old Testament, and they form the foundation for how the Jewish people view themselves and understand who they are.

Really conservative Jews believe that God dictated the Torah word-for-word to Moses, who wrote it down as he heard it from God. (Well, all of it except the part where Moses dies, anyway. That was added in there by someone else.) Really conservative Christians believe something similar – that Moses was the sole author of all five of those scrolls, having been divinely inspired to write each word they contain.

Outside of those circles, however, there is near unanimity that the Torah/Pentateuch is the end result of a collaborative effort to write down oral histories that had been passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years. So what we hold in our hands today may not be a book handed down from on high, directly from the lips of God; it may very well be a people group with a proud history writing down their heritage – which contains a special relationship to God.

And if it is that, you have to understand: that does not mean it is not inspired. God can still be in control and guide the process of gathering the stories together just as much as he can be if he is dictating the words to Moses. And personally, I find the first option more beautiful and freeing than the second option anyway.

What does this have to do with our story of Korah’s Rebellion? Well, there is a lot of literary evidence that this passage contains several different rebellion stories that were gathered together and melded into one narrative by whoever ended up writing them down. It seems that whoever ended up writing this passage combined a few different stories here for thematic effect – to get a point across. (That point, which we will look at tomorrow, becomes abundantly clear, too.)

To see how this is more than one story that has been woven together, just ask yourself some basic questions about the story as you read it: who was rebelling? Was it Korah? Dathan and Abiram? The Levites? The Reubenites? And who were they rebelling against – Moses? Moses and Aaron? Just Aaron? What were the rebels upset about – Moses’ leadership? The Levitical leadership? Aaron’s leadership?

It is pretty easy to see a situation where you can unravel this chapter into three distinct rebellions (or at least two): Dathan and Abiram against Moses, Korah and the Reubenites against Aaron, and the Levites against Aaron. This is especially easy to do when you consider that Dathan and Abiram’s rebellion is mentioned in the scroll of Deuteronomy with absolutely no mention of Korah, Levites, or any other groups from the passage in Numbers. Along those same lines, Korah’s rebellion is mentioned later in Numbers with no mention of Dathan or Abiram.

So more than likely, as we read Numbers 16, we are reading at least two and possibly three rebellion narratives that had been handed down from generation to generation among the Israelite people. That helps explain the choppiness of the passage – the apparent lack of focus, the jumping around from character to character, and the contradictions in just who the rebellion was against (and why it was against them) in the first place. At some point, some Israelites rose up against Moses. Another time, some of them rose up to challenge the Levitical priesthood as well. And what we read in Numbers 16 is the combination of those stories to get at a point.

Coming tomorrow: part two of three… God’s anointed.