It is one of the most famous stories in the book of Numbers, yet we often miss the story behind the story. For it turns out that the rebellion of Korah, which features prominently in this week's reading, is really just a frontispiece for a far more interesting drama playing out in the background.
This is the story as we usually hear it: A prominent Levite named Korah, together with an influential group of followers, accuses Moses of self-aggrandizement, and they attempt a revolt. God opens up the earth to swallow the rebels alive. Order is restored; end of story.
Or is it? Instead of bringing a restoration of Moses' authority, the crushing of Korah's rebellion pushes the Israelites deeper into the cycle of doubt that has gripped them ever since the Sin of the Spies, in last week's reading, sentenced them to spend the next forty years in the wilderness of Sinai. The destruction of Korah's camp, it turns out, marks not a new affirmation of Israelite fidelity, but an unprecedented low in Moses'—and God's—relationship with the Israelites.
When morning dawns, Israel discovers the devastation that God brought to the rebels. But the Israelites refuse to accept Moses' insistence that the seismic miracles are proof that God is on his side. "You have killed the people of the Lord," they accuse.
God proceeds to do just that, initiating a plague that would kill 14,700 people. But Moses and Aaron, using the same firepans and incense from the episode with Korah, now placate God into reconsidering the effectiveness of such overwhelming displays of force.
The political threat from Korah thus averted, there was a need to reclaim the Israelites' faith in their leadership through a peaceable image—one not of destruction, but of life and growth. God devises a more subtle miracle: Aaron and the leaders of the tribes all present their staves at the Tabernacle, and Aaron's staff suddenly brings forth the fruits and flowers of the almond tree. God instructs Moses to place Aaron's staff in the Holy of Holies, "that there may be an end of their murmurings against me." Now, surely, the debate over Moses' authority is settled.
But it doesn't work, and the Israelites move from murmuring to crying out: "Behold, we die! . . . Everyone that comes at all near the Tabernacle of the Lord dies. Shall we totally perish?"
Amid their horror we can glean a new detail about the source of their fear. The problem, it turns out, is not God or Moses per se, but the Tabernacle. This was the home of the Levites' rituals, but it's also the locale for Moses' miracles, the source of all his proofs.
Having just learned that they were to spend the rest of their lives wandering in the desert, miraculous displays of authority were no longer of terrible import to the Israelites. The redemption had been pushed off beyond their lifetimes; the desert had become their grave. Who wouldn't endure a period of blind panic?
God understands this impulse, and isn't angered by it. In response to the panic, He gives Moses another list of simple rules governing the Levites' service. Suddenly we're thrust back into the world of offerings and tithes and purity. This seeming non sequitur actually conveys a key concept: God now realizes that the only way to restore order is by reacquainting the people with the familiar. Order in life brings order in the soul.
Crucially, these orders focus on the ritual duties of Levites. The lynchpin for the crisis was the rebellion of Levites under Korah. As Moses and Aaron are also Levites, the Israelites would have experienced Korah's rebellion as a destabilization of the religious and political center of the Jewish people.
The rules restored a sense of order in a way that the miracles no longer could. The Levites would still be Levites. The worship of God would continue. Moses would continue to lead. The dream of a new life in Canaan was still real. Even if they would never see the Promised Land, one day their children would.
Onward into the silent, endless desert.
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