TWO MORE WRETCHED EPISODES of rebellion now blemish the history of the Israelites in the wilderness (Num. 16).
The first is the plot engineered by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. They stir up trouble not among the riffraff, but among a sizable number of community leaders, about 250 of them. The heart of their criticism against Moses is twofold: (a) They think he has taken too much on himself. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them” (16:3). Moses has no right to set himself above “the LORD’s assembly” (16:3). (b) The track record of Moses’ ministry is so sullied by failure that he cannot be trusted. He brought them out of “a land flowing with milk and honey” (16:13), promising them much, but in reality leading them into the desert. So why on earth should he “lord it over” the people? (16:13)
Their reasoning would have a certain believability among those who focused on their hardships, who resented all authority, who had short memories of how they had been rescued from Egypt, who did not value all that God had carefully revealed, and who were swayed by the instant appeal of rhetoric but who did not value their own solemn covenantal vows. Their descendants are numerous today. In the name of the priesthood of all believers and of the truth that the whole Christian community is holy, other things that God has said about Christian leaders are rapidly skirted. Behind these pretensions of fairness lies, very often, naked lust for power, nurtured by resentments.
Of course, not every leader in the Christian church is to be treated with equal deference: some are self-promoted upstarts that the church is to get rid of (e.g., 2 Cor. 10-13). Nor are all who protest cursed with the judgment that fell on Korah and his friends: some, like Luther and Calvin, like Whitefield and Wesley, and like Paul and Amos before them, are genuine reformers. But in an anti-authoritarian age like ours, one should always check to see if the would-be reformers are shaped by passionate devotion to the words of God, or simply manipulate those words for their own selfish ends.
In the second rebellion, the “whole Israelite community” (16:41), fed by pathetic resentments, mutters against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of having killed the rebels the day before — as if they could have opened the ground to swallow them up. Thousands perish because the community as a whole still has not come to grips with God’s holiness, the exclusiveness of his claims, the inevitability of his wrath against rebels, his just refusal to be treated with contempt.
And why should our generation be spared?