Friday, May 2, 2008

Church Politics - Israel Style

Wherever there are people, there’ll be politics, and Israel was no exception.

After God had used Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, there was a rebellion against Moses’s leadership by a man named Korah. As Numbers 16 reports:
Now Korah ... , and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. 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?”
Anyone who has been in a church with strife between the congregation's "leadership" and it's pastor probably recognizes what this looks like - namely the gathering of numbers against the man God has placed in their midst as His Ambassador, and asserting that since "all" are equal in the church - why does this person have any greater authority than anyone else?

Moses's first response is a bit atypical of what one generally sees in a congregational dispute:
When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one hom he chooses he will bring near to him.
In Israel's time God manifested Himself to Israel in a more directly apparent manner than He does in current days, so Moses could call on God to decide between people and get a decisive response in short order. In current "church politics" God shows a lot more patience and allows His servants to suffer, like the prophets in Israel's later years that He sent to call Israel back to Him when they strayed.

In the following passages, Moses has a few things to say to Korah and the Sons of Levi who aspire to a position of power and authority beyond where God placed them. His concluding remark is the most telling:
Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together.
So, the issue wasn't Korah et al's rebellion against Moses and Aaron per se, but that they were rebelling against God Himself.

Where did this rebellion come from? When Moses called to Datahn and Abiram, and they refused to respond and come talk to Moses, we see what the complaint is:
“We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.”
In other words, they had a "cushy" life in Egypt, Moses hadn't delivered a "cushy" life yet, they're accusing Moses of trying to kill the people of Israel and setting himself as a prince over the people.

What's strange about this statement is that it shows a complete lack of appreciation for how it was God that brought all the plagues on Egypt, and it was God that brought them out of Egypt with His own right hand. Maybe they were asleep when God parted the Red Sea and Israel crossed on dry land. But here they are, instead of giving God the glory for what He'd already done, and trusting Him to continue to care and provide for them as His people, they're putting all their complaints about their current troubles and lack of a cushy life on Moses and Aaron!

It's amazing when you think about it, and shows how God can work all kinds of wonders and miracle, and people still will not believe.

The question then is - how to decide whom God had chosen to lead Israel. Numbers 16:16 details the test. Moses, Aaron, Korah, and the 250 leaders in Israel would all bring censors and stand before the Tent of Meeting to see who God would choose. Korah, however, brings some more support besides the 250...
Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
If this was a democratic gathering, then Korah and the 250 would certainly've come out on top. But Israel wasn't a democratically ruled body, any more than today's churches should be. The doctrine and rule of God in the church - both in Israel's and today's time - is based on what God wills, not what man wills. People who want something that's at variance with what God wants will find themselves in opposition to God Himself, as Korah and his friends soon discovered.

The stage is set. What happens next doesn't take very long.
Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them hin a moment.”
Uh-oh. Since Israel has rebelled as a body by backing Korah against Moses, God is about to wipe all of them off the face of the Earth. Despite the actions of the Israelites, Moses and Aaron, however, stand in for them and ask God to spare Israel for their foolishness.
And they fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Say to the congregation, Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”
So while Israel is spared, this can't be good for Korah and his friends. Moses goes out to the people of Israel and tells them to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. So the people withdraw, while Korah and his allies, together with their wives and children stand at the door of their tents. Here are Moses's words to Israel about Korah et al.
And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”
Moses states that it was God that sent Moses to do all the works that he did, he didn't send himself to get Israel out of Egypt and lead them. And if God was really the one who sent Moses, then He would confirm it by creating something new that the people of Israel had never seen before - Korah and all his allies would go down alive to Sheol.

But more than that - Korah and his allies - by their action - had shown that they despised God, and God would confirm that by His action.

What happens next is immediate and certain:
And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. 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. 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.
So complete was the fate of Korah and his allies that it was as if they never existed. None of their descendants would live on, nor would their names continue, which was a huge deal in Israel's time.

But this isn't the end of the matter:
And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.
These men who joined Korah in his rebellion paid for their sin with their lives, but their families were spared. Beyond that, there's not much to say other than with what God follows this up with:
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.”
So while thes 250 men sinned, and it cost them their lives, their action was still counted as having been offered to the Lord, and thus the censors became holy. The metal was then hammered and used as a covering on the altar, to remind Israel of what had happened for as long as the altar existed - that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become like Korah and his company—as the Lord said to him through Moses.
The main lesson I would have people take from this is that today - just like in Israel's time - it's God who wills and does things, and it is God who enables us to do His will.

Any pastors that read this may want to consider how Moses and Aaron acted towards their opponents - as in this case it was God who acted on His own behalf for the people He placed in charge of Israel.

The story, however, doesn't stop there. You'd think the people of Israel would learn something from God's display of His power and authority, but such was not the case. Israel has this problem with "getting it", which they would repeat over and over again throughout history.But that's a topic for another blog entry, so stay tuned - or read Numbers 16:41ff for yourself. :)

All quotes from The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


Naomi said...

I read through this passage recently as part of my daily readings. Thanks for having posted on this, as it made me read it again with a keener eye.

steve martin said...

As Israel 'had trouble gettig it" we too have that same "trouble getting it".

I guess we are all like sheep that wander off. He just keeps bring us back home.


- Steve M.