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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Choosing Sides

Ah, Numbers 16, the famous Korah chapter.

I cringe when I read it, I cringe when I read other people writing about it, and I’ll almost surely be cringing as I write about it myself.

And yet it’s there, and New Testament writers have no problem drawing on it for the purpose of instructing Christians, despite the fact that many of us feel it would be awfully convenient if the chapter would simply go away.

Since it won’t, let’s look at it carefully.

My Obligatory Colloquial Summary

Short version: In the wilderness, a man named Korah and two Reubenite brothers, Dathan and Abiram (and a fourth person named On, whose fate we do not know), end up leading a rebellion against Moses and Aaron over their exclusion from the service of the priesthood, which God had restricted to members of Aaron’s immediate family. Korah accepts Moses’ invitation for 250 of his followers to make an incense offering to God to see if God will look favourably on them and perhaps allow them their desire. Dathan and Abiram do not, perhaps recognizing that confronting Moses may be dangerous.

God does not accept the priestly service of Korah’s followers, incinerating all 250. Further, he does not accept Dathan and Abiram’s attempt at retreating while hurling insults, since they had already incited rebellion among God’s people. He tells Moses to have everyone clear the area around their tents, after which he sends an earthquake that swallows up Dathan and Abiram alive ... along with their families, much of Korah’s family and possibly Korah himself (it is unclear in which catastrophe Korah met his end).

The dead included “their wives, their sons, and their little ones”.

[insert cringe here]

Wives, Sons and Little Ones

Now, contrary to what you might think, an episode like this does not make me worry (i) that the Bible might not be true because something in it strikes me as horrible; (ii) that God might be the sort of God I wouldn’t want to worship because he kills people in ways I think are nasty; or (iii) that there is any difference in character between God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and God revealed in the Old Testament. None of those things bothered me as a child either. I simply accepted that God is God. It makes sense to me that Divine Omniscience has a considerably better idea of what is right, what is fair, what is a just punishment for sin, and what will ultimately produce the best possible outcome for all than a midwit critic of exceedingly limited understanding who is a mere created being. The Judge of All the Earth does right. Period. Full stop.

So none of that bothers me. Trying to explain it to other people bothers me though. It bothers me because I always err in one way or another: on one side, I tend to become defensive and act as if God owes us an explanation; on the other side, I may say something overly combative like, “That’s how God is, like it or lump it”.

Not helping, either way.

Korah’s 250 Rebels

Well, since I’ve undertaken this, I’ll do my best to avoid either extreme. Let’s get Korah and his gang of adults out of the way first.

Every one of Korah’s 250 followers knew exactly what they were getting into. They had seen God act in defense of Moses’ leadership already, even when it was his own brother and sister doing the rebelling. They had seen the Passover judgment in Egypt, and all the plagues that led up to it. They’d see the Red Sea judgment of Pharoah’s army. They’d seen fatal sicknesses and fire from heaven. They’d even seen priests incinerated for doing their job flippantly. Furthermore, as leading men of the people they’d probably participated personally in stoning to death the last rebel who had defiantly broken God’s law.

They were far from ignorant of the possible consequences of their actions. The only thing I can conclude from their rebellion is that they genuinely believed they had a legitimate, democratic concern, and that God would rule in their favour.

He didn’t.

Failing Logic 101

There’s a lesson there, I think, about our ability to delude ourselves. God was not unclear in his commands. Korah and his gang simply didn’t pay attention, didn’t take him seriously, didn’t draw any of the expected logical conclusions about God’s character from his previous responses to sin. They failed Logic 101. The result of their failure to employ their God-given intelligence and apply these lessons to their own situation was both predictable and horrible.

I don’t think too many Christians find these 250 deaths all that troubling. Some of us don’t like capital punishment much, but we also recognize that the alternative would have been letting the rebels run the show, which would almost surely have resulted in the execution of Moses and Aaron, the leading astray of all God’s people, the end of God’s tabernacling with the nation of Israel, and the annihilation of God’s testimony to the world through that nation.

Every Israelite would have been worse off, and no Amalekite, Midianite or Moabite would think much of a God that allowed those who flagrantly defied him to flex their muscles.

The 250 men who followed Korah and perished became a warning, and many of us can understand why it had to be that way. Worse things would have happened otherwise.

Dathan, Abiram and Sons

As mentioned, Dathan and Abiram met a different fate. But I notice God gave plenty of opportunity for people to choose sides:
“And he spoke to the congregation, saying, ‘Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.’ So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”
That’s a pretty clear warning of intent. And it gave everyone related to Korah, Dathan and Abiram a chance to decide if they preferred to identify with the rebellious head of their family or with Moses (and therefore with God). Any wife, son, intelligent child or servant living in those tents had a personal decision to make. Anyone who wanted to cut their losses and run for it did so, as we will find out later. Every one that elected to stay instead of leaving with the neighbours did so consciously and intelligently. Those who remained behind were declaring, “I’m with him”.

We know this because they brazenly took their stand alongside their husbands and fathers:
“Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones.”
That’s pretty defiant.

Making the Tough Choices

Where do you stand when a family member lines himself or herself up against God? It’s a tough choice, but it’s a choice that’s as old as humanity. Adam had to make it when Eve first took the forbidden fruit and then offered him some. He made the wrong call.

Loyalty is a fine quality in the right situation, but the sort of loyalty that takes a stand against one’s Creator is not worthy of the name. It’s a kind of category error: it seeks to display a character quality that is otherwise good outside that behaviour’s legitimate range of application.

Adam should have appealed to God for help with his rebellious wife. The families of the Israelite rebels should have fallen on their faces in front of Moses and Aaron.

As with the followers of Korah, everyone over the age of accountability who stood in front of the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram made a choice to be there. We can hardly feel sorry for those who make a conscious decision in the face of a clear warning of what was about to happen.

The “Little Ones”

Here’s the hard part. How “little” were those “little ones”? Did they have any choice in the matter? It’s possible.

“Little ones” in Hebrew is taph, which according to Gesenius refers to those who are not “above twenty years of age”; those who were presumably unmarried and still dependent on their fathers. I don’t know about you, but I count quite a few teenage years in that range. Teenagers are notoriously defined about what they think (even when it’s completely wrong), and often disposed to take a very different position on the issues from their parents. It’s possible every one of these “little ones” was old enough to be responsible for their own choice to stay or to go.

And they stayed.

But let’s not take the easy way out. Suppose some were genuinely incapable of acting independently of their rebellious fathers. Is God unfair? I would argue that when God seems unfair to us, it’s our concept of fairness that needs revision.

Where Does Responsibility for Children Really Lie?

Children throughout all of human history have depended on their parents to make good decisions for them. They do so today. And yet many of us seem to do a fine job of hurting them rather badly. Parents in Moses’ day burned their children alive to Moloch and other false gods, and today some mothers (and occasionally fathers) don’t even let their offspring out of the womb alive. The children of drunks, drug abusers and violent parents live with the consequences of these adult decisions daily, as does every child of divorce.

Then there are things that are simply outside parental control. No parent plans for their children to be buried with them in a mudslide or swept away with them by a tidal wave because they built their shack on the wrong part of a hill or too close to the Pacific. No parent plans for their daughter to be kidnapped by Boko Haram because they sent her to the one school targeted by terrorists. No mother plans for her child to be carried away by a stranger in a supermarket because she was checking for the best deal on bananas, or to die of malnutrition or pick up a fatal bug from another child in the village school because of the part of the world in which they live. And yet all these things happen every day.

It is impossible to consider the fate of a small child apart from the choices of the parents responsible for it. For God to specifically intervene in the case of the children of Korah, Dathan and Abiram would be to send the message to Israel that parental choices have no consequences: Never mind what you do with the trust God has assigned to you, God can be counted on to step in and to undo all your mistakes for you and make everything right.

The Way the World Works

That’s just not how the world works, is it? I think of the words of the Lord Jesus about children:
“Woe to the one through whom [temptations] come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
Though he loves children and hold them up as examples to us, Jesus does not suggest that in the order of this fallen world, God can be expected to miraculously intervene to prevent harm from befalling a child. Rather, he makes it clear that those responsible will, in the end, be severely punished. Justice will certainly be served, but not now.

Dathan and Abiram made a choice on behalf of their children. God respected that choice. To blame God for the action of the parents seems to me quite unreasonable.

The lesson to be learned, perhaps, is not that God is unfair, but that parents have an awesome responsibility for which there may be very real consequences.

A Happy Ending to a Sad Story

Am I realistic in suggesting that apart from infants (if there were any), nobody who lined up alongside Dathan and Abiram didn’t know what they were getting into? I think so, because ten chapters later when Moses takes another census, we find out that some of Korah’s family lived on:
“But the sons of Korah did not die.”
Not only did they not die with the rest of their family, the sons of Korah who served in the priesthood continued to do their jobs. Whether they had made a last minute run for it when Moses gave his warning to Dathan and Abiram, or whether they were dutifully pursuing their work as keepers of the thresholds of the Lord’s tent of meeting rather than engaging in rebellion with their father, the fact is they were not in the family encampment when their relatives were swallowed up by the earth.

In David’s time, the descendants of Korah were gatekeepers of the camps of the Levites just as their forefathers had been, not to mention that they penned many of the Psalms. These children of rebels embraced the servant role God had given them; the role that Korah rejected in favour of contesting the more visible and prestigious priesthood. They prospered because of their choice, and Christians and Jews have benefited from their spiritual insight.

Those of us who react negatively to the judgments of Numbers 16 would do well to learn from their example.

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