Friday, April 11, 2008

God Kills the Protestants: Numbers 16

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I skipped chapter 15 because there was basically nothing there. God gives some more rules, which are basically a rehash of Leviticus; and the community stones someone who was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. Aside from the fact that it's a different sin being punished, there are marked similarities between this story and the one back in Leviticus 24, where a young man has clearly sinned but is held in custody while the confused Israelites wait for God to tell them how to punish him.

Things get more interesting later on, when one of the Kohathites, named Korah, makes a claim you'd think was quite reasonable. Along with 250 fellow dissentors, Korah comes before Moses and Aaron and declares that the whole community is God's holy people and it is wrong for the holy brothers to "set themselves above the Lord's assembly."

The Kohathites were Levites, so technically this squabble might only be an intra-priesthood thing, although the way Korah phrases the protest makes it seem considerably more egalitarian than that. Korah is essentially proposing that people ought to have the right to know God directly rather than through the separate mediation of the priests. Surprisingly, I heard a sermon which touched on this once in a Baptist church and the pastor actually managed to side with Moses on this one. You have to, of course, because God does too - but any sort of Protestant denomination ought to be able to identify with Korah, because that's essentially the position he's taking.

Moses and Aaron aren't impressed. Moses reminds Korah that they'd reached a compromise earlier in Numbers, when God made the Levites holy but still placed them under Aaron's authority? Isn't this enough, Moses asks? He tries to appeal to a couple of Korah's henchmen from the Reubenites, but they rebuff him as well. The fact that the Reubenites and the lower Levites have banded together on this one is interesting: the junior clergy and the parishioners are rebelling against the patriarchs. The Canadian Anglicans rehearsed just this very battle a year ago when the bishops overruled the clergy and the parishioners to prevent the church from blessing gay and lesbian couples.

Ominously, Moses orders Korah's little sect to "appear before the Lord" with him the next day. The rebels and Aaron are all going to burn incense and God will decide whose fire is authorized. (Last time someone burned "unauthorized fire before the Lord, God killed them immediately, so it's to Korah's credit that he was courageous enough to show up.)

Right on schedule, God shows up, looks at the incense, then tells Moses and Aaron to "stand back" so that he can blow up the entire assembly of Israel. Moses and Aaron urge God to keep his cool, so God compromises: he will annihilate only the actual dissentors. What fairness! Moses pronounces doom upon the rebels, and then the earth opens up beneath their feet and swallows them whole - along with their wives and their children, which, if you ask me, is a little excessive. Once again the pro-lifers probably have some way to rationalize this, but still. What was their sin? Being born to a rebel?

After he's killed the Protestants, God sends holy fire to destroy their incense too, and then Aaron's son is sent forward to beat the smoldering censers into flat sheets which will be made holy and kept as "a sign to the Israelites" - a sign that to challenge the priesthood's status as sole link to God is worthy of swift and horrifying death for oneself and one's family.

The next day, the Israelites show an impressive degree of courage: they organize a protest demonstration against Moses and Aaron for killing Korah. Once again God is infuriated and proclaims his intention to annihilate his people. To kick off the new apocalypse, God begins spreading an extremely lethal plague among the people. Thinking quickly, Moses tells Aaron to burn some authorized incense. The trick works: God stops the plague, though not before he's already killed 14 700 people. The writer of Numbers thinks this is a heroic action by Aaron: in a very cool phrase, he declares that Aaron "stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped."

It's a cool phrase, used to describe a very uncool incident. Aaron and his magic incense are the latest of the lion-tamer chronicles, in which Moses and Aaron stand before an irrationally angry God and save the Israelites from sudden death. This maniacal God hardly seems fit to lead a nation. If not for the courage of his priests, it seems he'd rather kill them than lead them.

The Korah story, and particularly the protest, puts a new complexion on the continuing faithlessness of the Israelites. Are they continually dissatisfied with God, or is it that they just don't like the new priesthood? They're escaped slaves - maybe they're reluctant to take on a new set of masters so quickly. Usually the Numbers author describes them rebelling against God, but this story suggests otherwise - Korah has popular support, but not for rejecting God: he's not rejecting God, only rejecting the priesthood as the sole means of relating to the divine. On this occasion, God sides with the priesthood against the people. That's what you'd expect from the pro-priesthood position he's taken in the latter part of the Torah, but in my mind this is one of the most disturbing cases yet.

Notice the steadily increasing role of Aaron. You'd think Aaron would be sympathetic, since just a few chapters ago, he and Miriam were protesting Moses's monopolization of divine power. Aaron escaped unscathed; Korah isn't so lucky. Exodus stooped to some pretty blatant criticism of the priesthood when it described Aaron readily agreeing to make an idol for his wayward congregation. Now, though, Aaron is the hero, using his magic incense to stop God's wrath.