This is a classic case of “right principle, wrong application”:
They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 ESV)
Korah and the other men with him were correct in asserting that the whole nation of Israel was holy to the Lord. They were a kingdom of priests!! They were a holy nation!!
However, they wrongly inferred from that an entirely egalitarian approach to ministry and leadership. But equal in holiness does not imply sameness of role.
A Levite is not a priest.
A priest is not a chief.
A chief is not Moses.
There were still structures and callings set in place by God for the well-functioning of the nation. The principle of equality did not abolish all hierarchy of function within the covenant community.
Korah had this lesson pressed home on him in spectacular fashion. He was invited to act as a priest before the Lord. If the Lord accepted him, then so be it. But that’s not what happened:
And Moses said to Korah, “Be present, you and all your company, before the LORD, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow. 17 And let every one of you take his censer and put incense on it, and every one of you bring before the LORD his censer, 250 censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.” (Numbers 16:16–17 ESV)
So Korah and his associates prepared their censers and stood before the Lord ready to offer sacrifice.
And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35 ESV)
As an additional statement of disapproval, the ground opened beneath the tents of everyone associated with the rebellion:
And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (Numbers 16:32–33 ESV)
The verdict on this matter seems abundantly clear: Equality before God does not imply uniformity of call or office. Acting as if it does invites wrath and judgment.
This is the second such narrative in the Book of Numbers.
In Numbers 12 there is a largely parallel incident, albeit on a much smaller scale. Aaron and Miriam, both prophets in their own right, began to chafe at the singularity of Moses’ role within the covenant community. His disproportionate authority, exacerbated by the fact that he had a wife from outside the ethnic boundaries of the people of Israel, incited them to speak against Moses in the hearing of the Lord.
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. 2 And they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. (Numbers 12:1–2 ESV)
God’s response to this rather quiet insurrection was quite remarkable.
And suddenly the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. 5 And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. 6 And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. 7 Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” 9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed.
10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. (Numbers 12:4–10 ESV)
Leprosy was a death sentence to people in that culture, so Aaron repented of his arrogance and begged Moses to intercede with the Lord on Miriam’s behalf. He did and the punishment was downgraded. She was healed, but still required to spend seven days in isolation outside the camp.
Once again, the verdict of God on these matters is presented in unambiguous terms.
The covenant community is holy before the Lord. They are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Equal in dignity and worth does not imply sameness of role and authority.
It does not.
The text goes to great lengths to communicate that and God goes to great lengths to communicate that. In the Korah story, he actually commands that the censers used by the seditious men be hammered out and turned into a permanent memorial:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 37 “Tell Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest to take up the censers out of the blaze. Then scatter the fire far and wide, for they have become holy. 38 As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before the LORD, and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.” (Numbers 16:36–38 ESV)
Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.
It would seem that God is eager for us to remember this highly nuanced principle. It would seem that people are predisposed to miss this admittedly subtle distinction:
Equality does not demand sameness.
Redemption from slavery provides tremendous dignity, but it does not obliterate role and structure within the community. Roles, structures, responsibilities and accompanying authorities have been given and will continue to exist within the covenant community while we await the coming of our Lord and King – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
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