Korach was a Levite, a member of that family which was granted the responsibility to attend to the Sanctuary items. This was an honorable position. However, he wasn’t satisfied with that and wanted to possess the position that Aaron and his sons were given, that of the Cohen, the High Priest who was allowed to enter and service inside the Sanctuary. He organized men and formed a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, which was to be brought before God.
Korach was not alone in this rebellion. Dathan and Abiram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben, also convinced men, leaders within the entire community, to rebel against Moses’s authority.
Moses and Aaron faced these 250 men and had them bring their censors with incense before the Tent of Meeting. God would have destroyed the entire assembly (i.e., all the people) but Moses stood in the way of God’s anger (as he had done before) and convinced God to only punish the leaders and not everyone. Korach, Dathan, Abiram, with their entire families and possessions, were literally swallowed up by the ground under their feet in the full sight of the entire community. Then at the same time, fire broke out from the Tent of Meeting and engulfed the 250 rebels, fire pans and all, leaving only melted fire pans and ashes.
The people were absolutely terrified, but the next morning they got up, and continued to rebel, calling Moses and Aaron killers of Adonai’s people. In God’s righteous anger at this continual rebellious attitude, He sent a plague out that killed 14,700 people. Now the entire community was so terrified of the Tent of Meeting, which is where these events took place, that they cried anyone who even came near the Tent of Meeting would die.
God commanded that the tribal leader’s staffs, 12 in all (Aaron’s staff representing Levi) be gathered , identified and placed in the Tent of Meeting. He said that the staff of the one He chooses to be His priest would have buds the next morning, and that morning Aaron’s staff not only had buds, but blossomed and had grown ripe almonds.
Having established that God picks His priests, and that God decides who is in charge, He reaffirmed the position of the Cohen HaGadol (High Priest), the Cohanim and the Levites with regards to their positions, their payments from the tithes and offerings, and that they are not to possess lands as an inheritance because God is their inheritance.
As I often say, there is so much here to work with. What I feel led to discuss, which “popped” into my head as I was reviewing this parashah, is how God continually states that the people should do this or do that or not do these things in order that they don’t die. That sounds OK in and of itself- don’t do anything that will cause you to die. But then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! God is saying don’t do this so you don’t die, but He is the one killing them! What’s up with that?”
The punishment God sends among the people is certainly one that would put fear and terror in anyone’s heart, yet He says at the same time He is killing thousands of people that He doesn’t want them to die. Doesn’t this seem to be a contradiction? It seems to be, but it isn’t: God is holy, and just, and He keeps His word. He is also, during these 40 years in the desert, weeding out the tares.
This rebellion occurs after the defeat of the Israelites trying to enter Canaan after God told them they would remain in the desert for 40 years. They rebelled against God by not entering the land, then they rebelled against God by trying to enter when He said not to, and now they are rebelling against God and blaming Moses for not keeping God’s promise to bring them into the land. Uh, people- you were right there, Moses was all set to bring you in, and you refused to go. It wasn’t Moses’ fault you’re not in the land, it’s yours!
Rebellion after rebellion after rebellion, carping , crying, whining, complaining: that’s all these people did, all the time. No wonder Moses was so upset, and no wonder God was so fed up with them. God did what He needed to do, and not because He was pissed off (although He was) but because He is holy, righteous and fair, and their actions demanded that He do something about it.
OK, so what am I trying to say here? God is a loving, compassionate and forgiving God, but He is also God- holy, above everyone and everything, and He is our Judge. When He gives a command, He expects us to follow it, and as such when we refuse He is obligated by His own holiness to punish us. That is why, even as He is destroying the guilty, He is warning us not to continue to force Him to do this. It is almost like we actually have some power over God: even though His heart is full of compassion, love and forgiveness, when we rebel, reject, blaspheme and turn our backs on God, we force Him to take action for the sake of His name. That is why God seems to be a destructive, punitive God in the Old Covenant, whereas the New Covenant makes Him out to be all about love and forgiveness and nicey-nicey stuff. He is all nicey-nicey when we are obedient, and He is all about love and compassionate forgiveness when we are repentant and ask for forgiveness.
On the other hand, when we are obstinate, rebellious and blatantly reject God, then He is Judge, Jury and Executioner. And once He has made up His mind, there is no court of appeals because His decision is final.
This is one of those things that confuses people because they want to make God act the way they want Him to act, and don’t respect His authority or recognize that He is so far above us that whatever we think is right or good or fair, it has no hold on Him.
The point to take home today is this: God is loving, compassionate and just, but He is also holy, and for the sake of His name He will enforce His commandments when people are obstinately rebellious and flaunt His authority. So stay on His good side, OK?