8. Rebellion against Moses' Leadership (Numbers 11-17)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (43:13)

James J. Tissot, "The Grapes of Canaan" (1896-1900)
James J. Tissot, "The Grapes of Canaan" (1896-1900), watercolor, Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

The Israelite camp is on the move again, and with this new challenges emerge.

Moses had met challenges before, but it seems like later in his ministry he meets rebellion in several forms: from his kinsmen, from his sister, and from the people as a whole. Let's see what we can learn.

A. Demand for Other Food (Numbers 11)

Complaints and Fire at Taberah (Numbers 11)

Before long, people started complaining again.

"Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused." (Numbers 11:1)

God punished their complaining with fire at Taberah, but that didn't seem to stop them.

The next complaints were about manna and began with some of the non-Israelites who had left Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38; Leviticus 24:10-11), referred to here as "rabble."1

"4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, 'If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost -- also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!'" (Numbers 11:4-6)

They start salivating when they remember all the tasty variety of foods they had in Egypt. It's interesting that even a few complainers in a group can spread the complaining spirit to others. It is a general dissatisfaction with one's condition, but often the general dissatisfaction latches onto some specific issue -- in this case, manna, boring manna. The complaints of a few had infected the camp.

"Moses heard the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled." (Numbers 11:10)

Moses' Complaint to the Lord (Numbers 11:11-15)

Now Moses brings the problems to the Lord in a kind of petulant way.

"11 He asked the LORD, 'Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, 'Give us meat to eat!'14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now -- if I have found favor in your eyes -- and do not let me face my own ruin.'" (Numbers 11:11-15)

This is not one of Moses' greatest leadership moments. He blames God for the problems. They're your problem, he tells God. Why do I have to deal with your problem people? At the root of Moses' misery, however, are two elements:

  1. The burden of leadership is too heavy for him.
  2. He knows he is inadequate to supply what the people are demanding.

Moses is at his wits end. Unless God backs him up, he can't "face [his] own ruin." God answers Moses in two ways:

  1. God puts some of his Spirit on 70 of Israel's elders (which we examined in Lesson 4, Numbers 11:24-30)
  2. God promises abundant meat (Numbers 11:31-34)

God's promise of a month's supply of meat is so huge even Moses can't believe it. (Numbers 11:21-22). Moses' vision of God is too small! Then God rebukes Moses and tells him to tell the people what he said, even if he can't envision it!

"The LORD answered Moses, 'Is the LORD's arm too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you.' So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said." (Numbers 11:23-24a)

Q1. (Numbers 11:11-15) Why do you think Moses is so frustrated in his prayer? What do you think is going on in him emotionally and physically at this point? Does he have any grounds for his complaints? Do you think this is designed to be a model prayer? Why are we shown this prayer? How did God answer him?



The Quail and Plague at Kibroth Hattaavah (Numbers 11:31-34)

For God, providing meat wasn't a problem.

"Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day's walk in any direction." (Numbers 11:31)

These people who had demanded "other food" in their unbelief, now have much more than they can even eat. It begins to spoil, and many of them die from food poisoning, a "severe plague" from the Lord.2

B. Handling Criticism (Numbers 12)

Miriam's and Aaron's Criticism and Punishment (Numbers 12:1-15)

Now his own brother and sister begin to criticize Moses.

"1 Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.

2 'Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?' they asked. 'Hasn't he also spoken through us?' And the LORD heard this. 3 (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)" (Numbers 12:1-3)

Who is this Cushite wife? Zipporah or some new wife? We're not sure. Cush (kûsh) can refer to (1) Nubia, the area along the Nile south of Egypt,3 (2) a people in Mesopotamia,4 or (3) just possibly, Midian.5

If Cush here refers to an area near Midian, then perhaps the wife Miriam is criticizing is Zipporah herself, who wasn't an Israelite. But why would Miriam wait so long to bring this up? If this wife is Nubian, then she wouldn't be Zipporah, but a second wife, perhaps one of the "mixed multitude" or "rabble" that left Egypt with the Israelites. If she were Nubian, some have speculated that she was discriminated against because of her race. She would have had a very dark complexion, but "the people living along the southern border of Egypt were not distinctively Negroid" in their features.6

Power Struggles and Pride

However, Moses' wife only seems to be a smokescreen for the real issue: a challenge by Miriam and Aaron to Moses' role as God's authoritative spokesman.

''Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?' they asked. 'Hasn't he also spoken through us?''(Numbers 12:2)

We see power struggles throughout the Bible: Saul's paranoid fear of David, the disciples' argument about which of them was the greatest, and Simon Magnus who wants to merchandise the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-25).

It's not uncommon in churches for people to challenge the authority of the senior pastor. Sometimes the challenge is from an associate pastor, sometimes from a long-time member of the church who struggles to retain power in the church and can't submit to the pastor's authority. Richard Foster observes:

"Power can destroy or create. The power that destroys demands ascendancy; it demands total control. It destroys relationships; it destroys trust; it destroys dialogue; it destroys integrity."7

Pride is at the root of many struggles for power. "I'm better than you." "I deserve this." "I want to be perceived as Number One." The lust for power can become all-consuming.

Moses, the Humble (Numbers 12:3)

The narrator tells us parenthetically,

"Now Moses was a very humble8 man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." (Numbers 12:3)

Moses is the meekest man in all the earth because he does not seek power -- or even want it! God has afflicted him with leadership of a disobedient people, and he seeks to be relieved from it (Numbers 11:11-15). He remains in leadership out of obedience, not because of his need for self-aggrandizement.

Jesus taught us to be meek.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5)

"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle (KJV 'meek') and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:29)

The Greek word used is praus, "pertaining to not being overly impressed by a sense of one's self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate, meek," in the older favorable sense.9

The disciples were incensed at James and John seeking to be seated at Jesus' right and left hand in his Kingdom. Jesus used this as a teaching moment to instruct his disciples on leadership conducted with true humility.

"Jesus called them together and said, 'You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'" (Mark 10:42-45)

It is healthy to have a good sense and acceptance of who you are, what psychologists call "ego strength." But when we are compelled to continually assert our self-importance, it is usually a sign of weakness and neediness, rather than of strength. Could it be said of you that you are the humblest leader in your city or region? If not, why not?

Aaron and Miriam Rebuked for Speaking Against Moses (Numbers 12:4-9)

The Lord called for Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to come to the Tent of Meeting and met them in a pillar of cloud. He contrasts a prophet's revelation in visions and dreams with Moses' experience of God:

"7b [Moses] is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form10 of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" (Numbers 12:7-8)

"Faithful" is ʾāman. The root idea is firmness or certainty, as we might describe a person as a "solid" leader. The Niphal participle here means "to be faithful, sure, dependable."11 God can count on Moses -- unlike Aaron who vacillated when Moses was on the mountain and caused great harm to the nation. Aaron and Miriam knew about God; Moses knew God personally!

Now the Lord asks why Aaron and Miriam weren't afraid to speak against Moses, since he is the Lord's personal servant. Earlier Aaron had seen God's glory on Moses' face.

"When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him." (Exodus 34:30)

God watches out for his servants. Of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God says through the psalmist:

"Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm." (Psalm 105:15; 2 Chronicles 16:22)

David feared God so much that he would not raise his hand against the Lord's anointed -- king Saul -- even though Saul was evil and corrupt.12

Miriam's Punishment (Numbers 12:10-15)

When the cloud lifts, Miriam has leprosy. Aaron pleads for mercy from Moses, confessing his and Miriam's sins.

 "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. 12 Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away." (Numbers 12:11b-12)

Moses asks God to heal her, but God says:

"If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back." (Numbers 12:14)

If a daughter had been disciplined by her father (Deuteronomy 25:9; Isaiah 50:6), the Lord says, she would have been held in a state of public humiliation for seven days. So then Miriam will spend seven days13 outside the camp, which is to be holy. Only then can she be restored to her status as a leader.

When leaders commit serious sin in our congregations, after they repent we are sometimes too quick to restore them to leadership. It is appropriate sometimes for leaders to be rebuked publically and be removed from their leadership roles for a period "so that the rest also may stand in fear" (1 Timothy 5:20). Good order requires a consequence for rebellion.

Q2. (Numbers 12) What was Miriam's and Aaron's motivation for speaking against Moses? Why do people seeking power feel a need to discredit the existing leader? How did Moses handle this provocation? How might he have handled it if he were a proud man? How did the Lord handle it?




C. Faltering at the Edge of Canaan (Numbers 13-14)

Miriam's and Aaron's rebellion was minor compared to what happened next. Their rebellion only affected them and their followers. But the rebellion that occurred on the border of Canaan altered the history of the nation.

Spying Out the Land (Numbers 13:1-25)

The Israelites are encamped at Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 13:26), a desert town to the south of Canaan. From there Moses commissions an expedition.

"1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 'Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.'3 So at the LORD's command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites." (Numbers 13:1-3)

Of the twelve, only the names of Caleb (tribe of Judah) and Joshua (tribe of Benjamin) are familiar to us today. Their instructions are to conduct surveillance to determine:

  1. Character of the land and its fruitfulness
  2. Strength and numbers of the populations
  3. Fortification of towns and cities
  4. Forestation

So they travelled the land from south to north,14 a distance of about 250 miles each way and were gone 40 days. On the way back they harvested a massive cluster of grapes in the Valley of Eschol and carried it home on a pole between two people.15

Here was their report:

"27 We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan." (Numbers 13:27-29)

 They all agreed on the facts of the report. It was at the point of interpretation that they differed. Caleb (with Joshua) looked with eyes of faith:

"We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it." (Numbers 13:31)

But the ten other spies looked with eyes of unbelief and "spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored."

"31 We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are.... 32 The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them." (Numbers 13:31-33)

Fear and Unbelief Spread (Numbers 14:1-9)

The report of the unbelieving spies spread throughout the camp sparking fear, angry grumbling, and weeping. Again they blamed Moses and Aaron -- and the Lord -- for bringing them out of Egypt. Their only prospect was fed by their fears:

  • Men would "fall by the sword"
  • Women and children would be "taken as plunder"

Their conclusion was all-out rebellion:

"We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt." (Numbers 14:4b)

Not only were the people prepared to select another leader. They talked of stoning Moses and Aaron (14:10), that is, killing them! They were serious!

Joshua and Caleb, the believing spies, pleaded with the people, seeking to build their faith:

"The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 9 Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them." (Numbers 14:7b-9)

Observe their positive faith:

  1. The Lord will lead us into the land. This is Yahweh's promise and he will fulfill it.16
  2. We will consume the people. "We will swallow them up" (NIV), "they are no more than bread for us" (NRSV, cf. KJV)
  3. Their protection has been removed.17 Their fortifications and weaponry are not sufficient.
  4. The Lord is with us. This theme ricochets throughout the Old and New Testaments.18

Observe also their warnings:

  1. Do not rebel.19
  2. Do not be afraid of the people of the land.

It is important to see the close relationship between unbelief, fear, and rebellion. When we believe our circumstances more than we believe God's promises, then we are afraid to follow God, and, indeed, rebel against him and go our own way.

Christian leaders will do well to minister to people's fears with faith, if they desire to lead them forward to God's plan for them and for a local congregation. In this case, however, Joshua and Caleb were not able to stem the tide of fear, and it swept across the people.

The Glory and Wrath of Yahweh (Numbers 14:10-12)

Though the people were preparing to stone Moses and Aaron, God's servants were protected by a show of force by Yahweh that paralyzed them:

"Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites." (Numbers 14:10b)

As we saw in Exodus 16: 7, 10 in Lesson 4, an appearance of the glory of the Lord was often accompanied by God's judgment. Yahweh says to Moses:

"11 How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they." (Numbers 14:11-12)

God is disgusted with the people's contempt,20 And not only their fear, but their steadfast unbelief in the face of many miracles God had performed for them. God says to Moses that he will destroy the Israelites, and from Moses' descendants raise up an even greater nation. This solution would keep Yahweh's covenant with Abraham to raise up descendants and give them the land.

Moses Intercedes Again (Numbers 14:13-20)

Moses had interceded for the people with God three times after the golden calf incident at Sinai.21 Now he intercedes once again. Moses appeals to the Lord on several grounds:

  1. God's glory. The Egyptians and Canaanites will hear about it, and God's previous reputation will be hurt. It would be claimed that since he couldn't bring the people into the land, he killed them (14:13-16).
  2. God's character. God's character had been spoken to Moses when the glory of God came before him in the cleft of the rock: He both loves and forgives sin and rebellion (Exodus 34:5-7). Moses recites God's words back to him.

God answered Moses according to the statement of character Moses had claimed before him.

  1. Forgiveness. God forgives the people, that is, he will allow the people of Israel, not just the descendants of Moses, to be the heirs of the promise. He will not hold the sin against the people as a whole.
  2. Punishment. The 10 leaders who brought the bad report that precipitated the general unbelief were punished with sudden death.

"These men responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the LORD." (Numbers 14:37)

The whole generation of unbelievers, the parents, are punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.

"In this desert your bodies will fall -- every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home... For forty years -- one year for each of the forty days you explored the land -- you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you." (Numbers 14:29-30)

  1. Visiting the sins of fathers on the children. Though their children will ultimately enter the Promised Land, they must suffer for their parents' sins. "Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert." (Numbers 14:33-34)

Israel's sins keep them from entering the Promised Land (14:22-23):

  1. Disobedience
  2. Testing God
  3. Treating God with contempt

Caleb's Faith (Numbers 14:24)

The exceptions are Caleb and Joshua:

"But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it." (Numbers 14:24)

"Wholeheartedly" (NIV, NRSV) is the Piel stem of mālēʾ, "be full, to fill, literally "to be after fully" (KJV). This phrase "to follow wholeheartedly" is mentioned alongside Caleb thereafter. He becomes known as the man who followed the Lord fully.22 What a wonderful legacy!

The Command to Leave Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 14:25)

Now the people are commanded:

"Since the Amalekites and Canaanites are living in the valleys, turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea." (Numbers 14:25)

They were to leave Kadesh-Barnea. Wenham makes a striking observation.

"Geographically, this probably means they were to head southeast from Kadesh towards the Gulf of Aqabah, one of the recognized north-south routes across the Sinai Peninsula.

But theologically, 'the way to the Red Sea' suggests they are returning to Egypt. Typical of the irony of this story, their punishment is made to fit the crime. They wanted to die in the wilderness and return to Egypt [Numbers 14:2-4]: in a way rather different from the one they intended, God grants their request."23

The Israelites Presume to Enter the Land Anyway (Numbers 14:39-45)

The people receive the news that they will never enter Canaan with anguish: "they mourned bitterly" (14:39). Then in unbelief of God's word of judgment, they disobey yet again and compound the tragedy.

"Early the next morning they went up toward the high hill country. 'We have sinned,' they said. 'We will go up to the place the LORD promised'... In their presumption24 they went up toward the high hill country.... Then the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked25 them and beat them down26 all the way to Hormah." (Numbers 14:40, 44-45)

Discipleship and Leadership Lessons

As I ponder this refusal of the people to enter Canaan, one of the turning points of the Exodus, I see a number of lessons for us, both as followers of God and as leaders of his people.

  1. Godly leaders must possess faith, not just influence. Each of the 12 spies was a recognized leader in his tribe. Each saw the same surveillance data, but they came to different conclusions as they analyzed the data. Joshua and Caleb saw the data through the faith-lens of God's promises. The remaining 10 saw the data through the unbelief-blinders that inspired fear.
    Perhaps you've been in congregations that select their leaders by whatever warm bodies can be found to fill the positions required by the bylaws. What a huge mistake! The leaders must be people of faith or the result may be tragic for the congregation! Leaders need to be "full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom" (Acts 6:3) and, like Barnabas, "full of the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24).
  2. The majority doesn't necessarily discern God's will. Though the surveillance team's "vote" was 10-2 in favor of abandoning the conquest, the majority was wrong. We must seek God for his will, not just count heads!
  3. Leaders have a strong influence on the people who respect them. Here, the influence of the ten prevailed not only on their tribes, but on an entire nation to its detriment. Influence doesn't always work positively.
  4. Fear opposes faith. The fear propagated by the ten spread like wildfire throughout the camp and panicked the people. Fear is the opposite of faith. When we allow ourselves -- either personally or as a body -- to be led by fear rather than faith, we'll go wrong every time. Fear is one of the most powerful tools Satan uses against God's people, since it negates faith and renders people weak (2 Timothy 1:7).
  5. Leaders calm fearful people with faith statements. Though it was not effective on this occasion, both Caleb and Joshua combated fear through words of faith.
  6. Rebellion against authority can be spawned by fear. Sometimes rebellion is caused by envy or by a lust for power. But it can also be caused by fear -- an extremely powerful emotion.
  7. Leaders must intercede on behalf of their people's sins. Here again, Moses intercedes fervently for the people of Israel, based on God's word -- his glory and his character. Too seldom do pastors actually intercede for their congregations before God. They take corporate sin and unbelief too lightly. They usually approach God in complaint instead of in intercessory prayer.
  8. God can forgive the congregation while punishing the offenders. While the sin of leaders can cripple a congregation's future, God can still bless the congregation, though it takes time. But God will hold leaders accountable for how they "build on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw" (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
  9. The sins of the congregation's fathers are visited upon future generations. How we build is crucial, since it will affect the whole shape of the church, even years after we are gone. What we sow, our "children" will reap -- unless God is gracious to bring a revival to transform a crippled congregation.
  10. Some decisions cannot be undone. When the people heard of their punishment to die in the wilderness for their unbelief, they tried to undo their former decision and enter the land -- but without God's blessing and presence. One of the sad lessons of the Bible is that we must obey God when he speaks to us. It is sometimes too late to obey later. The writer of Hebrews reminds us:
    "See that no one ... is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears." (Hebrews 12:16-17)
  11. We must follow the Lord wholeheartedly. Caleb is held up for us as one who followed the Lord fully. And he was eventually rewarded by not only entering the Promised Land, but also possessing the city of Hebron, the home of the giants who had inspired so much fear in the camp of Israel (Joshua 14:6-15).

Q3. (Numbers 14) Why is this failure to enter the Promised Land so serious? What did it represent on the people's part? What did it represent on the Lord's part? In your opinion, was the punishment too severe? Why or why not? If the people had moved in faith, how long would their trip from Egypt to Canaan have taken?




D. Authority Challenged (Numbers 16)

The final leadership challenge of this troubled period in Moses' ministry came from members of his own tribe and from a coalition of leaders from many tribes.

Korah's Rebellion (Numbers 16)

"1 Korah ... the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites ... became insolent 2 and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council.

3 They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?'" (Numbers 16:1-3)

The issue was who could serve as priests. Korah and his clan members were Levites, but not priests. The Levites had various duties that they fulfilled regarding the tabernacle. For example, as a Kohathite, descendents of Levi's son Kohath, Korah's clan was

"... Responsible for the care of the sanctuary.... for the care of the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the articles of the sanctuary used in ministering, the curtain, and everything related to their use." (Numbers 3:28, 31)

When it came time for the camp to move, this clan packed and carried the most holy things.

But now the Levites, whom Korah represented, wanted to have the status of priests, to offer sacrifices as was only permitted to the priests, the sons of Aaron (who himself was a descendant of Levi). Moses says,

"Now listen, you Levites! 9 Isn't it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD's tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? 10 He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too." (Numbers 16:8b-10)

Korah and his coalition

"... came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?'" (Numbers 16:3)

Moses and Aaron are being accused of pride, of setting themselves above27 the people. Furthermore, Korah and his followers are questioning Moses' statements that only the priests are permitted to minister with regard to the most holy things -- offering sacrifices and burning incense before the Lord. Korah argued.

"The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them." (Numbers 16:3)

What Korah asserted was true, so far as it went. Indeed, the Lord had declared the whole people set apart to him.

"You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6a)

And the promise of the Lord's presence was made for the entire people as well (Exodus 33:14).

The problem was that Korah was quoting the selected passages that made his point, but was ignoring the detailed instructions that the Lord had spoken through Moses regarding the distinctions between the priests and Levites (Exodus 29:8-9, 41, 44; Leviticus 8). He was questioning that Moses had actually spoken God's words accurately. But, since Moses had written God's words accurately, Korah and his coalition were questioning God himself. This was rebellion against God!

Moses realizes that Korah's company is speaking blasphemy against God -- and would bring a terrible judgment on many. Moses fell facedown to humble himself before the Lord in the face of judgment. Then he said to Korah:

"It is against the LORD that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?" (Numbers 16:11)

When Moses summons the Reubenite leaders of the coalition, Dathan and Abiram, they refuse to come. Perhaps their motive was that they felt slighted in leadership, even though Reuben had been Jacob's firstborn (Genesis 49:3-4). They may have wanted a greater role in leadership, we're just not sure. Nevertheless, they accuse Moses of:

  1. Seeking to kill the people in the desert.
  2. Lording it over the people.28
  3. Failing to lead the people into the abundance of Canaan.
  4. Punishing rebellion with torture (Numbers 16:13-14).

Moses commands each of 250 rebels in the coalition to bring a censer with fire and incense to present before the Lord in the morning.

"When Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the glory of the LORD appeared to the entire assembly." (Numbers 16:20)

Moses and Aaron immediately prostrate themselves before the Lord and intercede loudly for the people of Israel to avert judgment upon all:

 "O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?" (Numbers 16:22)

 The earth then splits apart and swallows Korah and all his men -- with their households -- and then closes over them. The 250 leaders who are offering incense before the Lord are struck with "fire from the Lord" and consumed.

The Israelites flee in terror, but the next day the whole Israelite community grumbles against Moses and Aaron and accuses them: "You have killed the LORD's people" (Numbers 16:41). The rebellion that had begun with Korah and 250 leaders had now infected the entire people. The glory of the Lord appears again, and with it, impending judgment.

Moses Intercedes Once More (Numbers 16:42-50)

God threatens to kill the entire assembly of rebels. Again, Moses and Aaron fall prostrate to seek God's mercy. Moses tells Aaron to take fire from the altar with his censer and make atonement for the people's sins. "Wrath has come out from the LORD," he tells Aaron. "The plague has started" (16:46).

"47 So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement29 for them. 48 He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped." (Numbers 16:47-48)

Even so, 14,700 people died before the plague had ceased. The people as a whole had begun to rebel against Moses and Aaron, and the people suffered a great punishment!

Aaron's Rod that Budded (Numbers 17)

Because the whole assembly had become involved in this rebellion -- and Moses was accused of killing the people previously when the Lord had brought judgment, one final miracle is necessary to settle the matter. The Lord said, "I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites" (Numbers 17:5).

The leader of each of the 12 tribes is asked to bring the leader's staff and inscribe his name on it. These are placed before the Tent of Meeting in front of the ark of the covenant. The next day, the rods were the same as before except for Aaron's, which "had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds" (Numbers 17:8). Aaron's rod was kept in front of the ark "as a sign to the rebellious." The Lord said:

"This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die." (Numbers 17:10)

God has made his point: Aaron and his sons are his choice to be the ones to represent the people before the Lord -- and no others! Others who attempt to approach God in the tabernacle will die. At long last, the Israelites come to possess appropriate fear of usurping the authority of Moses and the priests and thus offending God; but the cost in lives has been great (Numbers 17:12-13).

Q4. (Numbers 17) What was the root cause of Korah's rebellion? Which of their accusations were true or partially true? Why is challenging the authority of a spiritual leader so dangerous to the challengers? How is intercession for a sinful people such an important part of a leader's job?



This has been a discouraging chapter -- as it was a discouraging chapter in Moses' life. But some periods of our lives are like that. It seems like one thing after another, one setback after another. Sometimes we can't look far ahead, but must take it day by day. Nevertheless, through it all, God is present in our lives. And though our route to the Promised Land may seem long and sometimes delayed, God will keep his promises to us and to his people, of that we can be sure!

Moses the Reluctant Leader, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as an e-book and paperback

This lesson reminds me of AndraÉ Crouch's song, "Through It All":

I've had many tears and sorrows,
I've had questions for tomorrow,
There've been times I didn't know right from wrong.
But in every situation, God gave me blessed consolation,
That my trials come to only make me strong.

   Through it all, through it all,
   I've learned to trust in Jesus,
   I've learned to trust in God.
   Through it all, through it all,
   I've learned to depend upon His Word.30


Thank you, Lord, for your presence with us in our trials and times of high stress and difficulty. Teach us to lead your people through those periods as well as through the easy days. And help us to know you better as we walk with you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.



1. "Rabble" (NIV, NRSV), "mixt multitude" (KJV) is ʾasapsup, "collection, rabble," the motley collection of people who followed Israel from Egypt, from ʾāsap, "gather." (Charles L. Feinberg, TWOT #140f).

2. In Lesson 4 above we consider the double stories of the quail and note the distinct differences between these two incidents.

3. E.g., Ezekiel 29:10; 2 Kings 19:9; Esther 1:1; Isaiah 18:1. This was Nubia, not Abyssinia (William Sanford LaSor, "Cush," ISBE 1:839.

4. A Kassite, LaSor, ISBE 1:838-839. E.g., Genesis 2:13; 10:8,

5. An inhabitant of Cushan (kûshān), which is used in parallel with Midian in Habakkuk 3:7 (Ashley, Numbers, pp. 223-224). David W. Baker ("Cushan," ABD 1:1219-1220) says, "Cushan could be either an alternative name for the Midianites, or a subgroup of them."

6. Harrison, Numbers, p. 194. LaSor (ISBE 1:838-839) notes that nowhere in the Bible is there any evidence that Ham's descendants are negroid. "Both the Ethiopians and Nubians lack the physical characteristics, other than skin pigmentation, that are used anthropologically to define the negroid peoples."

7. Richard J. Foster, Money, Sex, and Power (Harper Row, 1985; republished under the name, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, 1989), p. 175.

8. "Humble" (NIV, NRSV), "meek" (KJV) is the adjective ʿânâv, which "stresses the moral and spiritual condition of the godly as the goal of affliction implying that this state is joined with a suffering life rather than with one of worldly happiness and abundance" from ʿānâ, "afflict, oppress, humble" (Leonard J. Coppes, ʿānâ, TWOT #1652a).

9. Praus, BDAG 863.

10. "Form" (NIV, NRSV), "similitude" (KJV) is temûnâ, "likeness, form" (Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #1191b).

11. Jack B. Scott, ʾāman, TWOT #116. We get the word "Amen" from this verb.

12. 1 Samuel 24:10; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Samuel 1:14.

13. Leviticus 13 and 14 prescribe 7-day periods for the detection of and the cleansing from leprosy.

14. "Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath" (Numbers 13:21) is at the northern border of the Promised Land (Numbers 34:8), near Mount Hor.

15. "Eschol" means "cluster." Though the location is unknown, it is presumably near Hebron, which is still a grape-growing region (Wenham, Numbers, p. 118).

16. "Lead" (NIV) "bring" (NRSV, KJV) is bôʾ, the fourth most common verb in the Old Testament. Here in the Hiphil stem it means "to bring" (Elmer A. Martens, bôʾ, TWOT #212).

17. "Protection" (NIV, NRSV), "defense" (KJV) is ṣēl (from ṣālal, "to grow dark" ), literally "shadow," conveying the ideas of "shade, shelter, protection, defense" (Genesis 19:8; Isaiah 30:2-3; Ezekiel 17:23) (John E. Hartley, ṣālal, TWOT #1921a).

18. Genesis 39:2, 21; Exodus 3:12; 33:14; Joshua 1:5; Deuteronomy 31:23; Psalms 46:7, 11; Matthew 1:23; 18:20; 28:20; 2 Timothy 4:17; Hebrews 13:5b.

19. "Rebel" is mārad, "be rebellious, rebel, revolt." Hamilton says, "If mārad in an international political context refers to disloyalty and disunity among nations in covenant, then it is only natural to assume that it is in this context, i.e., the context of a broken covenant, that the term refers to man's rebellion against God (the five passages in Joshua 22 for example)" (Victor P. Hamilton, mārad, TWOT #1240).

20. "Treat with contempt" (NIV), "despise" (NRSV), "provoke" (KJV) is nāʾaṣ, "despise, abhor.... The action or attitude whereby the former recipient of favorable disposition and/or service is consciously viewed and/or treated with disdain" (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #1274).

21. Exodus 32:11-13; 30-35; 33:12-17; Lesson 6.

22. Numbers 26:65; 32:12; Deuteronomy 1:36; Joshua 14:6-15.

23. Wenham, Numbers, p. 123.

24. "Presumption" (NIV), "presumed" (NRSV, KJV) is ʿāpal, related to an Arabic word, ǵafala, "to be heedless, neglectful, inadvertent." It is used only once in the OT, except perhaps in Habakkuk 2:4 (TWOT #1663). "Have the audacity to" (Holladay, p. 279).

25. "Attacked" (NIV), "defeated" (NRSV), "smote" (KJV) is nākâ, "smite, strike, hit, beat, slay, kill" (TWOT #1364), which we saw previously in Exodus 2:12 in Lesson 1.

26. "Beat down" (NIV), "pursuing" (NRSV), "discomfited" (KJV) is the Hiphil stem of kātat, "crush to pieces, crush fine" (TWOT #1062). "Beat, crush by beating" (BDB 510).

27. The verb is the Hithpael stem of nāśāʾ, "lift up," here, "be ambitious" as in 1 Kings 1:5 (Holladay, p. 247).

28. "Lord it over" (NIV, NRSV), "make yourself a prince over" (KJV) is śārar, "rule, reign, act as a prince, govern" (Gary G. Cohen, TWOT #2295). In the Hitpael stem it means, "lord it over someone" (Holladay 355). This echoes the charge made of Moses at age 40 using the related noun: "Who made you ruler and judge over us?" (Exodus 2:14).

29. "Make atonement" is kāpar, "to ransom, to atone by offering a substitute." Apparently it does not mean "to cover" as was once thought, based on an Arabic cognate (R. Laird Harris, TWOT #1023).

30. By AndraÉ Crouch, "Through It All" (© 1971, Manna Music, Inc.).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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