THE PENTATEUCH PART IV: NUMBERS
Lesson 8: Chapters 16-18
The Kohathite Rebellion
Merciful and Just Father,
Your temporal judgments of our sins are meant to bring us to repentance-to turn away from sin and to turn back to the unity of our relationship with You. We acknowledge that it is Mother Church to whom You have given the responsibility of defining what is venial or mortal sin. We also acknowledge that her priests are the vehicle by which we are able to confess our sins, receive a just penance and be forgiven our sin by You through Your priestly representative in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Help us to have a repentant and humble heart to submit to the judgments of Mother Church and to conquer the sins of a selfish ego, obstinacy and false pride that leads to rebellion and disaster. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
+ + +
Then there were
the miracles of the seditious among the people of God. They separated
themselves from the divinely ordered community. They were swallowed alive by
the earth, as a visible token of an invisible punishment.
St. Augustine, City of God 10.8
God's judgment against the children of Israel in their rebellion to refuse to trust God to fulfill His promise to give the Israelites the land of Canaan resulted in an exile that was to last until the Exodus generation of adults died in the desert. It is ironic that those who saw such great works of Yahweh in the liberation from Egypt and the manifestation of God's glory at Mt. Sinai but failed to trust Him to fulfill His promises would never live to see the Promised Land (notice the word play on the word "see" in Numbers 14:22-23). Only Caleb and Joshua were exempted from the judgment. Those two men, one an Israelite from the tribe of Ephraim and the other a Gentile convert from the tribe of Judah, were destined as covenant brothers to lead the new generation of holy warriors on the conquest of Canaan.
During the next thirty-eight years the Israelites lived a nomadic existence as the Exodus generation died out. The Bible provides very little information about those years. One incident that is recorded is the rebellion instigated by a Kohathite chieftain of Levi. This time the challenge isn't to God's ability to fulfill His promises to Israel; this time the focus of the rebellion is Moses' leadership and to Aaron's priestly authority.
The Challenge to Moses' Leadership and Aaron's Priestly Authority
Chapters 16-17 contain a single narrative that recounts another Israelite rebellion and its disastrous conclusion. The narrative is divided into seven parts:
Part I: The announcement of the revolt (16:1-3)
Part II: Moses' response to the rebels (16:4-15)
Part III: The test of divinely appointed leadership (16:16-19)
Part IV: Yahweh's judgment (16:20-35)
Part V: The sign of the bronze censers/firepans (17:1-5/16:36-40)
Part VI: The plague judgment and Aaron's intercession (17:6/16:41-15/16:50)
Part VII: The miracle of Aaron's living branch (17:16-26)
Numbers 16:1-3 Korah the Kohathite and three Reubenite
Chieftains Confront Moses and Aaron
1 Now Korah son of Izhar, son of Kohath the Levite, and the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth were proud 2 and rebelled against Moses with two hundred and fifty Israelites who were leaders of the community, prominent at the solemn feasts, men of repute [men of a name]. 3 These banded together against Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You take too much on yourselves! The whole community, all its members, are consecrated, and Yahweh lives among them. Why set yourselves higher than Yahweh's community?'
Korah, a first cousin of Moses and Aaron, is the first rebel named in the narrative and the instigator of the revolt (16:22). Korah was a member of Moses and Aaron's clan, the Kohathites. He enlisted some prominent Reubenites in his plan to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron over the Israelites. Dathan and Abiram were brothers who were the second and third born sons of Eliab, a grandson of Reuben (Num 26:8), and On was the son of another Reubenite named Peleth.(1) Perhaps On was not as committed as the other Reubenite chieftains and perhaps withdrew from the revolt. He is not mentioned again in the narrative. These two groups of dissident Kohathites and Reubenites in turn enlisted two hundred and fifty other chieftains from the tribes of Israel to join a rebellion that challenged the leadership of the Old Covenant Church. The two groups had different agendas but they joined forces, hoping to overpower the Israelites who supported the hierarchy ordained by God to lead His covenant people.
Question: In what three ways are the two hundred and
fifty men who joined them in the revolt described to emphasize their status
within the community?
Answer: (1) they were leaders of the community, (2) prominent at the solemn feasts, and (3) men of repute.
Question: On which side of the Tabernacle did the
Kohathites and Reubenites encamp? See Num 2:10; 3:29 and the handout on the
order of the encampment. Why might the placement of their camps have some
bearing on their alliance?
Answer: They both encamped on the south side of the Tabernacle where the Reubenite leaders were in charge of that quadrant. The close proximity of the Kohathites and Reubenites may have led to opportunities to share their grievances, to commiserate on their mutual loss of power and prestige, and eventually to plan a revolt against the order and hierarchy of the sacred assembly as God had ordained it.
Kohath and his Reubenite allies are described as "proud/arrogant" men who challenged Moses (16:1).
Question: Who was named the leader of the Kohath clan
in Numbers 3:30? Why might the naming of this man as leader of the Kohathites
have offended Korah's pride? See the genealogy in Exodus 6:16-24 and the clan
hierarchy in Num 3:27-31.
Answer: Moses and Aaron were the sons of Amram, the firstborn son of Kohath. Korah was the firstborn son of Kohath's second son, Izhar. However, in the order of hierarchy within the Levites, it was Elizaphan/Elzaphan, son of Uzziel, Kohath's youngest son, who was named the leader of the clan of Kohath (Num 3:30). That Kohath was passed over for a leadership position that he felt was rightfully his may have hurt his pride and fermented his discontent.
Question: What possible grievance might some of the
Reubenite chieftains have had against Moses' leadership? See Gen 29:32;
Answer: Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob/Israel and yet Moses put the tribe of Judah and their leaders, men descended from Jacob/Israel's fourth son, in the position of prominence above the Reubenites. The Judahites were encamped in the prominent position on the east and their lead the march.
Notice that the leader of the Reubenites, Elizur son of Shedeur, was not named among the rebel leaders.
Korah supports his charge against the leadership of Moses and Aaron with two specifics points.
Question: What are those points? Is there any truth
to the argument he makes? What is false about the argument? See Ex 19:5;
Answer: Moses and Aaron are accused of unlawfully exercising authority over the community. While it is true that the whole community of the Israelites were called to be a holy people and that Yahweh lived among them that did not mean all the people individually were equal in status to Moses and Aaron.
Question: The Reubenites could not serve in the
Sanctuary because they were not hereditary descendants of Levi, but if these
men felt a special calling to serve God was there another way they could
dedicate their lives to His service? What didn't they adopt the other option
that was opened to them? See Num chapter 6.
Answer: They could have offered themselves to Yahweh as lifetime Nazirites (consecrated men) or temporary Nazirites. Like Korah and his followers, they weren't interested in service; they were interested in power.
Numbers 16:4-7 Moses Proposes Leaving the Decision to
4 On hearing this, Moses threw himself on his face. 5 Then he said to Korah and all in his party, 'Tomorrow morning Yahweh will reveal who is his, who the consecrated man whom he will allow to approach him. The one he allows to approach is the one whom he has chosen. 6 This is what you must do: take the censers [mahtot = firepans] of Korah and all in his party, 7 put fire in them and put incense in them before Yahweh tomorrow, and the one whom Yahweh chooses will be the consecrated man. Levites, you take too much on yourselves!'
[..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 393; The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 131).
Moses either threw himself to the ground in shock that the Israelites would dare to incite another revolt after Yahweh's previous judgments or he was imploring God to give him wisdom in dealing with the situation. It is interesting that Moses' response to the crisis was far more decisive than in past revolts.
Question: What did Moses propose? See Ex 29:38-42;
Answer: Moses proposed a test during the burning of incense in the daily liturgical worship service of the morning Tamid to determine the will of God.
Question: What was Yahweh's command concerning the
burning of the sacred incense on the Altar of Incense in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle? See Ex 30:1-10.
Answer: Only Aaron was to burn the incense on the incense altar twice a day.
The Hebrew word for "censers" is mahtot, a flat pan used for removing ashes or live coals from a fire. The same word in found in the description for removing embers from the altar of sacrifice in Numbers 17:11.(2) The fire pans the rebels were told to use in the test of leadership were probably the fire pans that every family in their camp fires and in transported live embers on the march in order to be able to start their hearth fires again as soon as the order was given to make camp.
Question: The rebels should have realized that the
suggestion to determining the will of God by burning incense in the liturgical
service was an ominous sign in itself; why? See Lev 10:12; Num 3:4.
Answer: It was for the unauthorized use of incense in the afternoon Tamid worship service that Aaron's two elder sons were struck dead by God.
Question: What ominous statement did Moses make,
addressing all the Levites (verse 3), which suggests he completely understood
the motivation for Korah's complaint?
Answer: He threw Korah's accusations against him back on the Levites, telling them that they were taking too much on themselves-meaning they desired power and authority in the cult that was not part of the prerogatives of the lesser ministers. He understood that their desire was to have equal status with the chief priests.
Numbers 16:8-11 Moses' Warning to the Rebellious Levites
8 Moses then said to Korah, 'Now listen, you Levites! 9 Is it now enough for you that the God of Israel has singled you out of the community of Israel, and called you to be near him, to serve in Yahweh's Dwelling and to represent the community by officiating on its behalf? 10 He has called you to be near him, you and all your brother Levites with you, and now you want to be priests as well! 11 For which reason, you and all in your party have banded together against Yahweh himself: for what is Aaron, that you should mutter against him?'
Moses confronted Korah and his followers: first by addressing the specific charge made by Korah and second the motive behind Korah's challenge.
Question: What two accusations two did Moses make
against Korah and his dissident Levites?
Answer: Moses accused them of being ungrateful for and dissatisfied with the liturgical duties God had granted to them above their brother Israelites. Moses discerned that Korah did not want to abolish the priesthood; instead, Moses accused Korah and those allied with him of wanting the privileges of the priesthood for themselves.
Numbers 16:11 For which reason, you and all in your party have banded together against Yahweh himself: for what is Aaron, that you should mutter against him?'
Question: In this statement how does Moses cut to the
heart of the reason for the revolt?
Answer: The revolt really isn't about Aaron's priestly prerogatives. Aaron didn't appoint himself as high priest; the revolt is a rejection of Yahweh's divine will for Israel since it was Yahweh who appointed Aaron and his sons to the priesthood.
Numbers 16:12-15 The Reubenite Rebels Refuse Moses'
12 Moses then summoned Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab. They replied, 'We will not come. 13 Is it not enough for you to have brought us away from a country flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, without your making yourself our absolute ruler? 14 What is more, you have not brought us to a country flowing with milk and honey and you have not given us fields and vineyards for our heritage. Do you think you can hoodwink these people? We will not come.' 15 Moses flew into a rage and said to Yahweh, 'Disregard their cereal offering! I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them.'
Next, Moses addressed the leaders of the second group of dissidents-the Reubenite chieftains.
Question: What happened when Moses summoned them to a
meeting and what was the implication of their response?
Answer: They refused to answer Moses' summons, signifying a rejection of Moses as God's appointed covenant mediator and representative of the people.
Question: What accusations did they make against
Moses and what conclusion can be drawn from the accusations?
Once again these men and their followers are rejecting God's plan that it is Israel's destiny to possess the Promised Land of Canaan.
Numbers 16:15 Moses flew into a rage and said to Yahweh, 'Disregard their cereal offering! I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them.'
For the first time, after all the other rebellions, Scripture records that Moses became enraged by their accusations. He asked the Lord not to accept their grain tribute offerings (minhah) that were probably going to be offered by each chieftain to Yahweh as a voluntary loyalty tribute at the morning Tamid service prior to the incense test offering (see Lev Chapter 2 and the Leviticus study, Lesson #1).(3) The minhah for Yahweh was designated in Leviticus 2:1-16 as a voluntary offering that fulfilled three purposes:
It makes perfect sense that these men who expected to be elevated to the status of priestly rulers within the community would offer Yahweh minhah in the liturgical service. Remember their desire wasn't to serve; their desire was to rule-the same accusation that was made against Moses.
Question: How did Moses defend himself against their
accusations that he made himself the ruler over them?
Answer: He defended himself by declaring that he had never taken advantage of the people by demanding a personal tribute from them as ruler, nor had he exalted himself over them.
Numbers 16:16-24 The Test and Yahweh's Warning
16 Moses said to Korah, 'You and all your party, come before Yahweh tomorrow, you and they, and Aaron too. 17 Each will take his censer, put incense in it, and bring his censer before Yahweh-two hundred and fifty censers. You and Aaron too will each bring his censer.' 18 Each of them took his censer, put fire in it and placed incense on it, and stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron. 19 Then, Korah having assembled the whole community to confront them at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the glory of Yahweh appeared to the whole community. 20 Yahweh then spoke to Moses and Aaron. He said, 21 'Get away from this community; I am going to destroy them here and now.' 22 They threw themselves on their faces and cried out, 'O God, God of the spirits that gave life to every living thing, will you be angry with the whole community because one man has sinned?' 23 Yahweh then said to Moses, 24 'Speak to the community and say, "Stand well clear of Korah's tent [You get away from around the tent of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram]."' [..]. = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 394).
That morning Korah was joined by two hundred of fifty of his followers at the entrance to the Sanctuary, all expecting to take their place as priests of the covenant. Anticipating being vindicated, an optimistic Korah called an assembly of the entire congregation to witness the test. Considering the fact that the entire Exodus generation over twenty years of age was already under a death sentence for the rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea, it is shocking that the people responded to Korah's invitation to gather to confront Moses and Aaron.
As in Numbers 14:10, the glory of Yahweh appeared and warned Moses and Aaron to get out of the way so He could destroy the rebellious people. This time Moses and Aaron fell on their faces not only to get out of the way, but to petition Yahweh not to destroy the entire community.
In their petition, Moses and Aaron offer the plea: 'O God, God of the spirits that gave life to every living thing, will you be angry with the whole community because one man has sinned?' ... This title for God is only found in this passage and in Numbers 27:16.(4)
Question: How does this phrase identify Yahweh? The
plural "spirits" refers to the spirits of every living thing-human beings,
plants and animals.
Answer: The phrase recognizes God as the Creator of all life and also as having sovereignty over the life and death of every living thing in creation.
Question: Who is the "one man" who sinned?
As in Numbers 14:17-20, this was an appeal to God's grace and mercy.
Numbers 16:23-24 Yahweh then said to Moses, 24 'Speak to the community and say, "Stand well clear of Korah's tent."'
The Hebrew text reads "the tent of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram", while the Greek Septuagint drops the names of Dathan and Abiram, perhaps to solve the problem that Yahweh tells the people to move away from the "tent" in the singular. There are several possible explanations for this difficult passage:
Numbers 16:25-35 God's Divine Judgment on the Rebels
25 Moses stood up and went to Dathan and Abiram; the elders of Israel followed him. 26 He spoke to the community and said, 'Stand away, I tell you, from the tents of these sinners and touch nothing that belongs to them, for fear that with all their sins you too will be swept away.' 27 So they moved away from Korah's tent. Dathan and Abiram had come out and were standing at their tent doors, with their wives, their sons and their little ones. 28 Moses said, 'This is how you will know that Yahweh himself has sent me to perform all these tasks and that I am not doing them of my own accord. 29 If these people die a natural death such as men commonly die, then Yahweh has not sent me. 30 But if Yahweh does something utterly new, if the earth should open its mouth and swallow them and all their belongings, so that they go down alive to Sheol, then you will know that these men held Yahweh's contempt.' 31 The moment he finished saying all this, the ground split apart under their feet, 32 the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, their families, all Korah's people and all their property. 33 They went down alive to Sheol with all their belongings. The earth closed over them and they disappeared in the middle of the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites round them took to their heels, saying, 'We do not want the earth to swallow us too!' 35 Fire then shot out from Yahweh and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering incense.
The leaders of the Reubenite side of the revolt would not come to Moses so Moses, accompanied by the elders (most likely the seventy elders ordained in Chapter 11:16-30), went to them. Moses spoke prophetically of their destruction-almost immediately the words he spoke were fulfilled when Korah's supporters and the Reubenite rebels in camp were swallowed up by the earth and "went down alive to Sheol". At about the same time, the two hundred and fifty men attempting to offer incense in the liturgical service at the Sanctuary were consumed by fire, just as Aaron's two priestly sons had been consumed by fire for improperly offering the incense. The holy fire probably came from Yahweh's presence in the Holy of Holies.
Question: What issue did the incense test settle?
Answer: Anyone who attempts to undermine or usurp God's divinely appointed leaders will suffer divine judgment.
Bible scholars have speculated on how the people within the camp were destroyed-if it was an earthquake or some other phenomenon. Author Burce Feiler, in his book Walking the Bible, reported hearing about the strange phenomenon of the earth suddenly collapsing along geologic faults in the desert south of the Negeb (Walking the Bible, page 321), a natural phenomenon God could have used at this precise time in judgment on the rebels.
Question: What happened to Korah's children of the
new generation? See Num 26:10; 1 Chr 6:16/6:31; 6:19/34-23/38; 2 Chr 20:19;
Ps 42 title (in
the New American verse 1; in King James and New Jerusalem before verse 1, i.e.
'Of the sons of Korah'); 44 title; 45 title; 46-49 title; 84-85 title; 87 and 88 title,
also see 1 Chr 26:1-3;
Answer: Korah's children were judged innocent of their father's sin and did not perish (Num 26:10). Their descendants became cantors of the Levitical Temple choir and others became trusted Temple gatekeepers.
The descendants of Korah formed the sub-clan of Korahites within the Kohathites. Some scholars believe the descendants of Korah wrote the liturgical songs in the psalms that are entitled "sons of Korah." God does not hold future generations accountable for the sins of their fathers.
Chapter 17: Aaron's Priestly Authority Confirmed
He raised up
Aaron, a holy man like Moses [...]. His sacrifices were to be burnt entirely
twice each day and for ever. Moses consecrated him and anointed him with holy
oil; and this was an everlasting covenant for him, and for his descendants as
long as the heavens endure, That he should preside over worship, act as priest,
and bless the people in the name of the Lord. He chose him out of all the
living to offer sacrifices to the Lord, incense and perfume as a memorial to
make expiation for the people. He entrusted him with his commandments,
committed to him the statutes f the Law for him to teach Jacob his decrees and
enlighten Israel on his Law. Others plotted against him, they were jealous of
him in the desert, Dathan and Abiram and their men, Korah and his crew in fury
and rage. The Lord saw it and was displeased, his raging fury made an end of
them; he worked miracles on the, consuming them by his flaming fire.
Sirach 45:7, 14/17-19/24
Numbers 17:1-5/16:36-40 The Firepans of the Dead Rebels
1 Yahweh then spoke to Moses and said, 2 'Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pick the censers out of the smoldering remains and scatter the fire from them away from here, 3 for these sinful censers have become sanctified at the price of human lives. Since they were brought before Yahweh and thus became consecrated, they must be hammered into sheets to cover the altar. They will be an object lesson [become a sign] to the Israelites.' 4The priest Eleazar took the bronze censers which had been carried by the men destroyed by the fire. They were hammered into sheets to cover the altar. 5They are a reminder to the Israelites that no unauthorized person, no one not of Aaron's line, may approach and offer incense before Yahweh, on pain of suffering the fate of Korah and his party, as Yahweh had said through Moses.
[..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 396).
Question: Why was Eleazar commanded to scatter the
fire that remained from the destruction of the rebels and to collect the bronze
Answer: The fire was holy because it came from Yahweh. It must be scattered for the flames to die out so that no one will try to collect it and put it to profane use. Consumed by holy fire, the metal of the firepans have now become consecrated and must be used as holy objects. To keep the metal from being used in a profane way, the bronze will be applied to a sacred object.
Question: Where was the bronze metal of the rebel's
firepans used as a "sign" to the Israelites that only the ordained priesthood
of Aaron were permitted to touch holy things? See Ex 27:1-8; 30:1-5.
Answer: There were two altars that were used daily in the Sanctuary: the large bronze sacrificial altar in the courtyard and the small golden incense altar in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. The rebels never got farther than the courtyard. The bronze metal of the two hundred and fifty censers/firepans must have been hammered out and applied as an addition covering for the courtyard's large bronze altar of sacrifice. It is highly unlikely that the bronze would have been used to cover the small gold-covered incense altar in the Holy Place.
Numbers 17:6-15/16:41-50 Aaron Offers Expiation for the
6 On the following day, the whole community of Israelites were muttering against Moses and Aaron and saying, 'You are responsible for killing Yahweh's people!' 7 Now, as the community was banding together against Moses and Aaron, they turned towards the Tent of Meeting, and there was the cloud covering it, and the glory of Yahweh appeared. 8 Moses and Aaron then went to the front of the Tent of Meeting. 9 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 9 'Get away from this community; I am going to destroy them here and now.' They threw themselves on their faces. 11 Moses then said to Aaron, 'Take a censer, put fire in it from the altar, place incense on it and hurry to the community to perform the rite of expiation for them: for retribution has come from Yahweh, plague has broken out.' 12 Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the middle of the community, but plague had already broken out among the people. He put in the incense and performed the rite of expiation for the people. 13 Then he stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. 14 There were fourteen thousand seven hundred victims of the plague, apart from those who died because of Korah. 15 Aaron then went back to Moses at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting; the plague had been halted.
We cannot loose sight of the fact that sin within the covenant community can be judged both individually and collectively. The entire community, bound to Yahweh as one person, had the obligation to suppress opposition to the Law and to punish those whose intent was to damage Israel's covenant bond with Yahweh. If the community fails in its covenant obligations, the whole community is at risk in facing divine judgment. The community of Israel refused to accept God's divine judgment concerning the rebellion of Korah and company. Instead of blaming Korah, they blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of their brother Israelites.
Question: How is it that this defiance in blaming
Moses and Aaron was another aspect of their rebellious state?
Answer: Blaming God's ordained leaders of the covenant community for just actions in accord with their covenant obligations is the same as blaming God.
Numbers 17:7 Now, as the community was banding together against Moses and Aaron, they turned towards the Tent of Meeting, and there was the cloud covering it, and the glory of Yahweh appeared.
The pillar of cloud that was over the Tabernacle moved to the center of the Sanctuary courtyard, and it probably changed from a white pillar to a fiery red pillar.
At God's warning, Moses and Aaron obediently got out of the line of holy wrath, but then Moses again took charge and sent Aaron into the breach between the sinful people and God's righteous wrath. What is interesting is that the expiation through incense is not part of prescribed ritual of expiation-this was an extraordinary situation requiring an extraordinary measure, which Yahweh permitted. The leader of Yahweh's people has the authority to govern and make decisions for the good of the covenant people. It is what Jesus told St. Peter in Matthew 16:18-19, the twelve Apostles in 18:18, and the ten Apostles in the Upper Room on Resurrection Sunday in John 20:22.
Question: What is ironic about Aaron's use of incense
to stop the plague?
Answer: The same incense that caused the destruction when used by unauthorized persons now averts destruction when it is used by the divinely authorized person.
Question: How does the death judgment in this
rebellion compare to the deaths in the rebellion of the Golden Calf? See Ex 32:25-28.
Answer: In this rebellion, including those who died in the plague, the two hundred and fifty who died offering incense and those on the south side of the camp of Korah and the Reubenites who were swallowed by the earth, five times more people died than those that died in the revolt of the Golden Calf.
Notice that it was Aaron who stood in the breech between life and death.
Question: What "sign" was Aaron's action to the
Answer: Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood stands before the people as a bridge between the people and God and between life and death, offering expiation for sin and teaching the Law that leads to life.
In the fortieth year after leaving Egypt, when the tribes of Israel are assembled on the Plains of Moab in preparation for the conquest of Canaan, the five daughters of Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh will petition Moses, Eleazar (then the high priest) and the leaders of the tribes to inherit their father's portion of the Promised Land since they have no brothers. They will frame their petition by including that their father had no part in what they call "Korah's revolt".
Numbers 17:16-26/ 17:1-13 The Sign of Aaron's Branch
16 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 17 'Tell the Israelites to give you a branch for each of their families, one for each leader of each family: twelve branches. Write the name of each on his branch; 18 and on the branch of Levi write Aaron's name, since the head of the Levite families must have a branch too. 19 You will then put them inside the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony, where I make myself known to you. 20 The man whose branch sprouts will be the one I have chosen; this is how I shall put an end to the mutterings of the Israelites about you.' 21 Moses spoke to the Israelites and all their leaders gave him one branch each, twelve branches in all for their families; Aaron's branch was among them. 22 Moses placed them before Yahweh in the Tent of the Testimony. 23 On the following day Moses went to the Tent of the Testimony and there, already sprouting, was Aaron's branch, representing the House of Levi; buds had formed, flowers had bloomed and almonds had already ripened. 24 Moses then brought out all the branches from before Yahweh to all the Israelites; they examined them and each one took back his own branch. 25 Yahweh then said to Moses, 'Put Aaron's branch back in front of the Testimony, where it will have its ritual place as a warning to the rebellious; thus you will rid me of their muttering for good, without their incurring death.' 26 Moses did as Yahweh had ordered. That is what he did.
To end the question of who has authority over the community among the tribal chieftains, Yahweh provided a final, definitive sign. The test of the chieftain's staffs is intended to settle the issue once and for all. In this part of the narrative there is a significant word play on the double meaning of the Hebrew word matteh, which can mean either staff or tribe. Hebrew scholar Jacob Milgrom writes: The dead matteh (staff) springs to life and represents the living matteh (tribe) that God blesses. Furthermore, only the matteh (staff/tribe) of Levi is qualified to be in the Presence of God (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 142).
Question: Where is Moses commanded to place the
twelve staffs of the tribes with Aaron's staff?
Answer: According to verse 25, all the tribal leader's staffs were placed in the Holy of Holies front of the Ark of the Testimony, also called the Ark of the Covenant.(5) After the miracle, Aaron's staff was to remain in the Holy of Holies with the Ark.
Numbers 17:23 On the following day Moses went to the Tent of the Testimony and there, already sprouting, was Aaron's branch, representing the House of Levi; buds had formed, flowers had bloomed and almonds had already ripened.
The flower of the almond tree is pure white and its fruit comes to maturity early. Perhaps because of this, the tree is called in Hebrew "the watcher" (see Jer 1:11-12). Its fruit was valuable and was often given as a tribute gift (Gen 43:11). Perhaps the connection is that the Levites are to be pure and holy, symbolized by the whiteness of the almond flower; they are to be watchful over the Sanctuary and God's Law; and in their service and ministry they are valuable to Israel (Ashley, Numbers, page 335).
Question: The inspired writer of the New Testament
Letter to the Hebrews records that later three sacred objects were kept inside
the Ark of the Covenant. What were those three objects? See Heb 9:4.
Answer: A golden jar filled with manna (the bread that came from heaven), Aaron's staff /branch that budded, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Question: How do those three objects prefigure Christ
and the Virgin Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant? Hint: "branch" is one of
the Messiah's messianic titles in the books of the prophets.
Answer: Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven; He is the dead branch that came back to life; and He is the living Word of God. Jesus was all three of these signs present in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Defining the Roles of the Priests and Levites
Numbers 17:27-18:32 is divided into four parts:
Numbers 17:27/12-18:7 Expiation-the Function of the
17:27 The Israelites then said to Moses, 'We are lost [Behold, we shall die]! We are dead men! We are all dead men! 28 Anyone who approaches Yahweh's Dwelling [an encroacher, an encroacher* upon the Tabernacle of Yahweh] with an offering will die. Are we to be doomed [will die] to the last man?' 18:1 Yahweh then said to Aaron: 'You, your sons and your ancestor's line with you will be answerable for offences against the sanctuary. You and your sons with you will be answerable for the offences of your priesthood. 2 You will admit your brothers of the branch of Levi, your ancestor's tribe, to join you and serve you, yourself and your sons, before the Tent of the Testimony. 3 They must be at your service [samar = keep/guard] and the service [aboda] of the whole Tent. Provided they do not come near the sacred vessels or the altar, they will be in no more danger of death than you. 4 They must join you, they must take charge [samar]of the Tent of Meeting for the entire ministry of the Tent, and no unauthorized person will come near you. 5 You will take charge of the sanctuary and charge of [samar = keep/guard ] the altar, and retribution will never again befall the Israelites. 6 Of men dedicated, they will belong to Yahweh, to serve [aboda = the service] [abad= to serve] at the Tent of Meeting. 7 You and your sons will undertake the priestly duties [samar]in all that concerns the altar and all that lie behind the curtain. You will perform [abad] the liturgy, the duties [aboda] of which I entrust to your priesthood. But an unauthorized person approaching will incur death.' [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 399). It is not always easy to reflect the Hebrew wording in the English translation, but in this passage samar [keep, guard] is found four times and abad/abodah [serve, work, minister] is found five times. The verb abad appears over 180 times in the Old Testament (Ashley citing B. Otzen. Page 336, note 36).
Notice the five times repetition of "die/dead" in verses 17:27/12-28/13 and the use of the word karev, one of the key words found in the book of Numbers in 28/13. Verse 28 uses hakkarev, hakkarev (also spelled haqqareb) in a double noun (see * in text) that the Israelites cry out in the present tense that is a form of the Hebrew noun karev/qareb, meaning in this context "an encroacher", translated elsewhere in the NJB as "unauthorized person" (Ashley, Numbers, page 336). It is the same Hebrew word that is found in Numbers 1:51; 3:10 and 38. The word refers to someone who has no right to come within the boundaries of the sacred space:
Question: What has happened to cause the Israelites
to be so fearful of Yahweh?
Answer: The Israelites have been traumatized by the events of the rebellion and God's divine judgment of death to the rebels. With the deaths of about five thousand Israelites, including the deaths by holy fire of the two hundred and fifty tribal leaders who brought their minhah and incense offerings within the Sanctuary, the Israelites are now fearful of coming to the Sanctuary to worship Yahweh.
It is not the just the "encroacher" that the Israelites have in mind in Numbers 17:27-28. It is their fear that anyone who draws near Yahweh in His Sanctuary will die. It is a fear that could lead to the separation between Israel and Yahweh. Their fear is that God will not limit His punishment to an unauthorized person and all of them are in danger of dying by His divine agency. In His mercy, God addresses the people's fear in chapter 18 by graciously reminding the Israelites of the hierarchy of responsibility for encroachment on the Sanctuary. He also modifies the roles of the priests and Levites so that only they and not the entire community will suffer death for encroachment (Num 18:1, 3, 7, 22-23).
Yahweh instructs Aaron in Numbers 18:1-7 that it is the Levites' duty to guard (samar) the sanctity of the Sanctuary, to serve (abad) the priests who minister/give service (abodah) in the Sanctuary, and to stand as a buffer between the people and the possible violation of the Sanctuary's holiness. This is instruction built on the earlier commands in Numbers chapters 1 and 3-4 and is given in response to the Israelite's fears. The new legislation defines the responsibilities of the chief priests, the clan of Kohath and the other Levite clans. The Levites and chief priests become the "lightening rod" for encroachments against the Sanctuary. The Levites are associated with the chief priests in their ministry of expiation for the covenant people, but the Levites still only function only as servants who assist the chief priests (Num 3:5-10).
Notice that in this chapter it is only Aaron who receives the divine instructions for the priests and Levites (verses 1-24). God will give Aaron instructions three times:
However, in the final instructions for Levites' tithe to the chief priests, it is Moses who receives those commands (verses 25-32).
Numbers 18:1 Yahweh then said to Aaron: 'You, your sons and your ancestor's line with you will be answerable for offences against the sanctuary. You and your sons with you will be answerable for the offences of your priesthood. "Ancestor's line" refers to Aaron's clan of the Kohathites which bore the responsibility for transporting the sacred objects of the Sanctuary on the march (Num 4:1-20; 7:9). Only the priests could be held responsible for encroachment committed by fellow priests who were disqualified from serving in the Sanctuary.
Question: What duties are specifically assigned to
the chief priests in verses 5-7?
Question: What are the details of Yahweh's instructions
to Aaron in verses 1-7 concerning the hierarchy of responsibility for the
Question: What prohibition for the Levites and lay
Israelites is repeated from the instructions in Numbers 1:51 and 2:10?
Answer: The Levites must not come near the altar of sacrifice or the other sacred objects (verse 3). Any unauthorized person who violates the command will die (verse 7).
Numbers 18:8-19 The Portion Allotted to Aaron and the
8 Yahweh said to Aaron: 'I myself have put you in charge of everything set aside for me. Everything consecrated by the Israelites I give to you and your sons as your portion by perpetual decree. 9 Of the things especially holy, of the food offered, this is what will revert to you: every offering that the Israelites give back to me, whether it be a cereal offering, a sacrifice for sin or a sacrifice of reparation, is a thing especially holy and will revert to you and your sons. 10 You will eat the things especially holy. Every male may eat them. You will regard them as sacred. 11 To you will revert also whatever is set aside from the offerings of the Israelites, whatever is held out with the gesture of offering; this I give to you and your sons and daughters, by perpetual decree. All members of your household may eat it unless they are unclean. 12 All the best of the oil, all the best of the new wine and wheat, these first-fruits offered by them to Yahweh I give to you. 13 All the first produce of the country brought by them to Yahweh will revert to you. All members of your household may eat it unless they are unclean. 14 Everything in Israel put under the curse of destruction will revert to you. 15 Every first-born of all creatures brought to Yahweh, be it man or beast, will revert to you, but you will have to redeem the first-born of man; you will also redeem the first-born of an unclean animal. 16 You will redeem it in the month in which it is born, valuing it at five shekels, at the sanctuary shekel, which is twenty gerah. 17 But you will not redeem the first-born of cow, sheep and goat. They are holy: you will sprinkle their blood on the altar and burn the fat as food burnt to be a smell pleasing to Yahweh; 18 the meat will revert to you, as will the forequarter that has been presented with the gesture of offering, and the right thigh. 19 Everything the Israelites set aside by perpetual decree. This is a covenant of salt for ever before Yahweh, for you and your descendants too.'
Question: Verse 8 is the general introduction to the
list of the priestly portions provided by Yahweh to His priests. Yahweh makes
what two points in this general introduction?
The priests receive a portion of all sacrifices and offerings with the exception of an altar gift of flesh from the whole burnt offerings ('olah) that were entirely consumed on the altar fire. However, for the whole burnt offerings, as for the other animal sacrifices, the officiating priest did receive the hide of the animal (Lev 7:8).
Males of the priestly households may eat (verses 9-10):
Numbers 18:11 To you will revert also whatever is set aside from the offerings of the Israelites, whatever is held out with the gesture of offering; this I give to you and your sons and daughters, by perpetual decree. All members of your household may eat it unless they are unclean.
This verse probably refers to what is the priest's portion from the voluntary communion offerings, also called "peace" offerings (see Ex 29:28; Lev 7:34; 10:14-15). These gifts that God gives His priests through the wave offering can also be shared will female members of the priests' families, but everyone must be in a state of ritual cleanness to eat these holy foods. The peace offering is eaten by the worshiper, his family, and other covenant members, but the officiating priest receives the breast forequarter and right thigh that revert to him in the wave offering (Lev 3:1-17; 7:11-36; Num 18:18).
Numbers 18:12-13 All the best of the oil, all the best of the new wine and wheat, these first-fruits offered by them to Yahweh I give to you. 13 All the first produce of the country brought by them to Yahweh will revert to you. All members of your household may eat it unless they are unclean.
These verses refer to the first fruits of all produce due to God, which He now assigns to the priests.
Numbers 18:14 Everything in Israel put under the curse of destruction will revert to you.
The "curse of destruction" or "devoted things" are herem. In war God or Israel might put a ban of herem on nation, cities, or even people and animals. Whatever was put under herem was destroyed (Lev 27:29; Num 21:1-3; Dt 7:1-2; Josh 6:17, 21; 1 Sam 15:3), except this verse suggests that some things designated herem went to the priests.
Numbers 18:15 Every first-born of all creatures brought to Yahweh, be it man or beast, will revert to you, but you will have to redeem the first-born of man; you will also redeem the first-born of an unclean animal.
Verses 15-19 deal with the first born of all human and animal life that become holy contributions to God. All these belong to God but He now shares His gift with the priests. Firstborn sons and unclean animals are to be redeemed by a redemption tax in the month they are born, while the first born of all cattle, sheep, and goats will become altar sacrifices.
Numbers 18:19 Everything the Israelites set aside by perpetual decree. This is a covenant of salt for ever before Yahweh, for you and your descendants too.'
This verse summarizes verses 12-18 by designating them holy contributions set aside for the priests by a perpetual decree that is in effect so long as the Sinai Covenant endures. Within the Sinai Covenant God forms a separate, "everlasting covenant" with Aaron and his descendants with salt as the covenant sign. Salt was used as a preservative and was to be added to every sacrifice and grain offering (Ex 30:35; Lev 2:13; Ez 43:24). God will also make a covenant with David and his descendants that is described as a covenant of salt (2 Chr 13:5). Salt is a sign of the unbreakable permanence of the covenant pledge.(6) Sirach writes: He raised up Aaron, a holy man like Moses, his brother, of the tribe of Levi. He made an everlasting covenant with him, and gave him the priesthood of the people (Sir 45:7/6).
Numbers 18:20-24 The Portion Allotted to the Levites
20Yahweh said to Aaron: 'You will have no heritage in their country, you will not have a portion like them; I shall be your portion and your heritage among the Israelites. 21Look, as heritage I give the Levites all the tithes collected in Israel, in return for their services, for the ministry they render in the Tent of Meeting. 22The Israelites will no longer approach the Tent of Meeting, on pain of committing a deadly sin. 23Levi will discharge the duties of the Tent of Meeting, and the Levites will bear the consequences of their own guilt. This is a perpetual decree binding all your descendants: the Levites will have no heritage among the Israelites, 24for the tithe which the Israelites set aside for Yahweh is the heritage I have given the Levites. This is why I have told them that they will have no heritage among the Israelites.'
Question: In addition to the instruction to Aaron in
verses 1-7, what fourth responsibility for encroachment upon the Sanctuary is
included in verses 22-23?
Answer: The Levites are responsibly for encroachment by lay Israelites for the Sanctuary as a whole.
|The Hierarchy of Responsibilities for Priests and Levites in Numbers 18|
|Priests and Kohathite clan||Most sacred objects in transit||Lay Israelites||Num 18:1a|
|Priests||Most sacred objects of the Sanctuary||Disqualified priests||Num 18:1b, 7a|
|Priests and Levites||Most sacred objects at rest||Levites||Num 18:3|
|Levites||The Sanctuary as a whole||Lay Israelites||Num 18:22-23|
|Michal E. Hunt © 2010 inspired by a list in the JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 424|
Numbers 18:25-32 Distribution of the Tithe
25 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 26 'When from the Israelites you receive the tithe which I have given you from them as your heritage, you will set a portion of this aside for Yahweh: a tithe of the tithe. 27 It will take the place of the portion set aside that is due from you, like the wheat from the threshing-floor and new wine from the press. 28 Thus you too will set a portion aside for Yahweh out of all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. You will give what you have set aside for Yahweh to the priest Aaron. 29 Out of all the gifts you receive, you will set a portion aside for Yahweh. Out of all these things, you will set aside the best, the sacred portion. 30 You will say to them, "After you have set the best aside, the remainder will take the place, in the Levites' case, of the produce of the threshing-floor and wine-press. 31 You may consume this anywhere, you and the members of your households; this is your recompense for serving in the Tent of Meeting, 32 and you will not incur sin by doing so, once you have set aside the best; you will not be profaning the things consecrated by the Israelites and will not incur death."'
The laity will live on the produce of the land, but the Levites are to live on the one-tenth cultic tithe paid by their brother Israelites and the cultic offerings designated for Yahweh's Sanctuary. The chief priests (who are part of the tribe of Levi) are exempt from the tithe and are to receive the best tenth of the tithe that was given to the Levites and on those parts of the sacrificial offerings which were not consumed on the altar fire that were assigned to Yahweh's priests (i.e., Lev 23:20).
Question: Since these commands also concern the Levites
and Aaron and his sons, why didn't God give these instructions to Aaron as He
gave the other instructions?
Answer: Probably because these instructions are concerned with the best of the tithe that the Levites receive that will go to the priests. Aaron could be accused of a conflict of interest if he was commanded to collect the Levitical tithe.
A Summary of the Sanctuary
Responsibilities and God's Provisions for the Levites and the Chief priests in
Numbers chapter 18
(related Scripture passages are included)(7)
The reason the gifts and tithes to Yahweh are shared with His priests and Levites is summarized in verses 19-20: the grants to the priests and Levites are to compensate for their exclusion from inheriting the land and as a reward for their service to God and Israel.
Questions for group discussion:
Question: What made Korah's rebellion so tragic was the rebels' misunderstanding that the Levites' were called to ministry and service and not to power and prestige. At what times in the history of the New Covenant Church have Korah-type rebellions against the hierarchy of the Church threatened the stability and authority of the Church Jesus Christ established through His Apostles and their successors?
Question: What current issues championed by Catholic dissidents can you compare to Korah's rebellion? Include in your discussion those Catholics who feel women are being shut out from power and influence in the Church because women are not candidates for the priesthood and those Catholics who support a woman's right to chose abortion over life (see CCC 1577-78; 2270-71, 2272-74).
The one perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, fulfilled all the various kinds of altar sacrifices of the Old Covenant. The minhah for Yahweh that Moses mentions in Numbers 16:15 was designated in Leviticus 2:1-16 as a voluntary tribute offering of the covenant people to God their sovereign Lord that fulfilled three purposes:
How do our monetary contributions, which are used to purchase the communal voluntary gift of unleavened bread and wine that will be transformed by Jesus' words of consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ, fulfill what was the Old Covenant minhah offering?
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.
1. This is not the same Eliab who was the Zebulunite tribal leader named in Numbers 1:9; 2:7; 7:24, 29; and 7:16. Eliab, the father of the Reubenite rebels, is the firstborn son of Pallu who was the second son of Reuben son of Jacob/Israel. He is mentioned in Num 16:1, 12; 26:8-9 and Dt 11:6. Korah's genealogy is confirmed in Ex 6:16, 18, 21; 1 Chr 5:27-28; 6:7, 22-23/6:1-2, 22, 37-38.
2. Also see the use of the Hebrew word mahtot (plural) in Ex 25:38; 27:3; 37:25; 38:3; Num 4:9, 14; 16:6, 17, 37, 38, 39; 1 Kng 7:50; 2 Kng 25:15; 2 Chr 4:22; Jer 52:19; and mahtah (singular) in Lev 10:1; Num 16:6, 12, 17 (three times), 18, 46; and 17:2, 3, 4, 11.
3. Most commentators identify the minhah/minha as the cereal/grain offering because that is the way it is presented in Lev chapter 2. However, the Hebrew word minhah can also be translated as "gift" or "tribute" and can refer to both a "gift" in the secular sense or in the sacred. Jacob's gift of livestock to Esau is called a minhah (Gen 32:14/15, 18/19, 21/22) and in other places in Scripture it is the word used for a tribute to a king or leader (Judg 3:15; 1 Kng 5:1; Ps 72:10). In the sacred sense minhah is a "gift/tribute" offering to Yahweh the God who has sovereignty over His people. The word minhah is used exclusively in the sacred sense in Leviticus (i.e., in Lev chapter 2 fourteen times: 2:3, 4, 5, 7, 8 [twice], 9, 10, 11, 13 [twice], 14 [twice], and 15). In the sacred sense of minhah the Biblical text specifies that nefesh/ nepesh, the giver's entire person/ soul-the entire essence of person-is the agent of the offering (Lev 2:1) along with the concept of 'azkara, "to remember/remind"-a "memorial" (Lev 2:2, 9, 16). These concepts suggest that the purpose of the minhah confirms and renews the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the offerer who is commanded be respectful to God and to not to appear before Yahweh "empty-handed" (Ex 23:15; 34:20; Dt 16:16). It is for this reason that scholars like Dr. Kiuchi suggest the translation of minhah should be rendered "loyalty offering" as in the sense of a tribute to God the great King from His loyal vassals (Kiuchi, Leviticus, page 68). God in His mercy did not require costly signs of the people's loyalty to Him as their great Lord, but only the simple gift of grain in several forms that any covenant member, no matter what his status, was able to offer (see the Leviticus study Lesson #1).
4. However, it is a title for Yahweh that is common in post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch where it is used over one hundred times (Ashley, Numbers, page 313, note 52.
6. In Ezra 4:14 to "eat the palace salt" indicated loyalty claimed to the Persian king. A Neo-Babylonian letter refers to a covenant treaty with a tribe as "all who have tasted the salt of the Jakin tribe", and the Arabic word milhat is a derivative of the word malaha "to salt" and means "a treaty" (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 154).
7. See Ashley, Numbers page 435-36.
Catechism references for this lesson:
CCC 1539-41, 1544-49, 1551, 1577-78, 2030, 2032-34, 2026-37
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.