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?