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Grown-Up Bible Stories

Buried Alive

The histories of many nations include periods of anger. Whether the result of oppression, international events, or charismatic but angry leaders, whole societies sometimes become enraged. Sometimes such anger rights wrongs. Other times, it only maims, bereaves, and oppresses. An angry public, like an angry person, often proves dangerous.

Such nationwide anger during the famed Exodus led to one of history’s more remarkable incidents. Israel had only themselves to blame for the situation that angered them, but they were angry nonetheless. After traveling through the wilderness for several years, they neared the Promise Land. The people became discouraged at the early intelligence coming back from their destination. Discouragement turned to rebellion. By the time they were done, God had sent them back into the wilderness. He would keep His promise to give Israel a homeland, but He would fulfill that promise in the younger generation. The adults must stay in their tent city in the desert for 40 years. When they had finally died, their children would enter the Promise Land. The adults were naturally upset. In the pain of the moment, they forgot that continued rebellion could only make things worse.

Three men poured their own ambitions into this simmering kettle. Korah was one of the Levites, the lay ministers whose job it was to assist the priests in the tabernacle (the tent that served as the temple). Dathan and Abiram belonged to one of the other tribes that formed the primary political subdivisions of Israel. While these men knew that God Himself had made the decision to sentence their generation to nomadic life, they chose to attack His messengers. They started what we might call a whisper campaign against Moses and Aaron. They soon could claim a following of 250 men. While this group represented a tiny percentage of the nation, they happened to be 250 VIP’s. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram managed to draw well-known leaders into their coup attempt.

They approached God’s chosen leaders in mass. “You take too much on you, Moses and Aaron,” they said. [Quotations are not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a reference.] “God is with all of us. Why are you making yourselves out to be so important?”

Had Moses led merely by forceful personality, he might have met his Waterloo there in the desert. But Moses didn’t even possess a particularly forceful personality. He held his position because God had called and appointed him. That he appealed directly to God rather than arguing his case reveals much of Moses’ character. Of course, once he’d prayed, Moses told the rebels to put up or shut up.

Well, actually, “put up or shut up” sounded more like: “Come back tomorrow. God will show us who belongs to Him and who is holy. God will allow those who are holy enough to come near Him to do so. Bring censors with incense.” (Censors were metal plate-like devices used by priests to burn incense as an act of worship.) “Burn your incense before God. God will choose who He wants to be holy. You take too much on yourselves, you sons of Levi.”

Moses reminded the Levites in the group that God had chosen their extended family as ministers. They were going a bit far in demanding that they should also be priests who approached the presence of God in the temple. They weren’t rebelling against Moses and Aaron, but against God. They’d have to prove their ability to deal directly with God or quit fighting those with whom God did deal directly.

Dathan and Abiram weren’t present when Moses rebuked the Levites. They stayed by their tents. When Moses sent messengers to call them, they stood firm. Inflamed with their rebellion, they renewed their personal attacks. “Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land of plenty to this desert? You just want to rule over us. You haven’t delivered on your promise to take us to a land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us our new homes. Are you going to put out the eyes of these men? We aren’t coming!”

Moses got angry. He would have been more than human if he hadn’t. He asked God to ignore the rebel leaders’ sacrifice and reminded Him that he had never exploited or harmed his critics.

The next day the rebellious group brought their censors, ready to prove their point. History doesn’t record their individual thoughts. We don’t know if they really thought God would promote them to leadership. We don’t know if they thought it was all a scam anyway and that once they’d called Moses’ bluff they could share his prestige. We don’t know if some of them feared God’s wrath but were too angry and stubborn to back down. We just know that the rebels showed up at the temple ready to put their professed holiness to the test.

The showdown almost went to an extreme. The 250 men stood before the tabernacle with censors in hand. The light of God’s glory shone above the holy tent. Then, God told Moses and Aaron to get away from the assembled nation. He was ready to destroy them all. He could take these two aging men and make a great nation from their descendants yet.

In one of those remarkable instances in which Moses looked ahead toward the coming Christ and followed what would become His example, he and Aaron fell on their faces and begged God to spare the people. “Don’t punish a whole nation for one man’s sin,” they pleaded.

God listened. He told Moses to warn the people to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The rebels were going to get their just rewards, but anybody breaking with them would have another chance. Dathan and Abiram had already insisted they wouldn’t budge. They stood in the doors of their tents with their wives and children. We have to wonder if any of their family members considered clearing out with the rest of the neighborhood. Wise or otherwise, they stood with their husbands and fathers.

Then, in the presence of the whole community, Moses gave the ultimatum. “If these men die ordinary deaths, God didn’t send me to be your leader. But if the earth opens its mouth and they fall into the grave alive you will know they’ve provoked the Lord.”

The earth opening up and swallowing humans isn’t something we’d expect in our scientific age. Sure, in an earthquake, someone might conceivably fall into a fissure and be buried, but for the earth to just open its mouth, as it were, and gulp down people at a prophet’s prediction—we wouldn’t believe it possible. While the ancients didn’t have the science we do, they weren’t stupid. They knew the earth doesn’t have a mouth. It can’t just open up and swallow people. Moses had just put out an intensely brave ultimatum. The odds lay with his enemies.

They did that is until the earth split open under the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The Biblical record is that the rebel leaders, their families, their tents, their personal property—every trace of their lives--fell into the suddenly opened holes in the earth. They fell with screams of terror. The earth closed. They were gone forever. People who fight against God really need to consider the power of the One they choose for an enemy.

Everyone in the area fled. They heard the screams. They knew God had just displayed His power again. Most of them had probably at least sympathized with the rebels. They weren’t taking chances. They ran for their lives.

As we noted earlier, it was a time of social unrest. Normal, reasonable people would have seen the empty tent sites, remembered the screams, and dropped the rebellion thing. But those 250 community leaders remained rebellious. They stood their ground in front of the tabernacle. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t--give up the idea that God was with them. The fact that God’s presence can be deadly for those who don’t take it seriously doesn’t seem to have entered their minds. They went ahead with the great test and set their incense afire.

As the smoke from the burning spices rose toward Heaven, God reciprocated. He rained fire down on the 250 rebels. Their burning carcasses lay where they’d fallen, their hot censors scattered among them. Moses sent one of the legitimate priests into the carnage to retrieve the censors. The censors had been dedicated to the Lord. They must be kept for holy purposes.

The rebellious faction lay dead. They weren’t just dead. They were spectacularly dead. God had obviously made a statement. People couldn’t appoint themselves to carry God’s authority. God must appoint those who would lead His people. It was time to cut the rebellion. People needed to do their best to salvage their relationship with God and seek His blessing in the desert.

Our story should end here, but it doesn’t. The majority of the nation was still miffed. They hadn’t gotten their Promise Land. The promise had been postponed for their children. Their angry champions were dead. By the next day, the opening earth and heavenly fire seemed more like grievances than warnings. The people complained. “You have killed God’s people,” they told Moses and Aaron.

The crowd was huge. It seems the whole encamped nation surrounded their leaders in front of the tabernacle. The cloud that had indicated God’s presence on their journey settled on the sacred tent, and the site blazed with God’s glory. Again, it was time for a thinking person to clear out and try to make peace with a wronged God. But mob mentality prevailed. They stood in front of this display of divine power and glory and glowered at the men who stood between them and God. They were still upset. They wouldn’t back down.

Again, God told Moses and Aaron to get away from the crowd so He could destroy them. Again, they pleaded for mercy, but God’s wrath had already started. A sudden severe illness swept the angry crowd. People began dying where they stood. Moses ordered Aaron to take a censor with incense and hurry among the people to atone for their sins.

Aaron lit the incense spices on a censor and hurried into the crowd. People fell dead even as he went to save them. Holding his censor, its smoke rising to remind God of His mercy, he walked down the ragged line between the dead and those still alive, every step a prayer as it were.

The dying stopped. True, 14,000 rebellious people paid for their sin with their lives that day, but hundreds of thousands found mercy. It was mercy they didn’t deserve. It was mercy given on behalf of God’s representatives whom they had attacked, but it was mercy none the less.

There would be more troubles over the next forty years. There would be more rebellion, anger, and tragedy. But God’s mercy would remain. And God’s promise would still come true. The children of the original set of rebels entered the Promise Land and received their individual homes.

But they did so following the leader God appointed. Joshua, Moses’ loyal assistant, would be ordained by God to take Moses’ place at his death. Likewise Phinehas would submit to God’s will in taking his father Aaron’s place. The people did experience God’s mercy and blessing, but they did so following the leaders He had chosen.

God reserves for Himself the right to rule the universe. He also reserves for Himself the right to appoint authorities to see that His will is carried out.  When we rebel against those authorities we’d better hope there’s someone somewhere to plead for our mercy, because we’re treading on very dangerous ground.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. (Romans 13:1-2)

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


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