Bible study 133 – Numbers 16
Posted: February 13, 2017 Filed under: 4 - Numbers, Bible study, Short stories
(If you don’t want to read a 6000 word story, here’s the gist of it: Some Israelites rebel against God, who decides to kill everyone, but Moses and Aaron manage to limit the damage.)
Only after the last stone had been thrown, Moses looked away from the carnage. Aaron beside him had turned his back on it many stones past, his face contorted and tears running down his cheeks. “Moses, I… why… how could you make them do this?”
Moses sighed heavily and looked down at the enormous camp in the distance. On a small hill in the center, inside a walled area, was a large tent, completely covered by a snow-white cloud. “Because that’s the Rule, Aaron. You know that as well as do I. He told us already at Mount Sinai that working on the sabbath is a mortal sin.”
Aaron wiped his cheeks dry, and his expression hardened. He started walking towards the camp. “I know, but he was just an old, confused man! I thought if we presented the case directly to Him, He would show mercy…”
Moses set off after him. “Why would He show mercy? He is… He is a god! He is all-powerful! Why would a single human life matter to him? He sets the rules, and we must obey them.”
They had not walked for a minute before Moses heard a commotion behind them, and turned around. Only a hundred meters away, he could see two men carrying a bloody corpse away from a cluster of rocks. The crowd around the execution site was dispersing, except for a large group of men walking in concert towards Moses and Aaron. Moses knew the faces of most of the men in front, and many of those in the back as well.
“Cousin Korah! How are you this day?” Moses asked, but received no response. Korah in front maintained his cold expression, and lead the men behind him in a straight line towards the two prophets. “I would almost think this was a family gathering, considering all the familiar Levite faces I see in the crowd behind you; if not for the presence of Dathan, Abiram and On from the house of Reuben beside you. What is the meaning of this?”
Korah kept silent until he was standing only a few meters from Moses, and the crowd behind him had come to a halt. When he finally opened his mouth, his speech was eloquent and powerful. “Moses and Aaron, you have gone too far! Having that poor man executed was the last drop. You act as tyrants over your people, treating us as slaves and condemning us at your whim. Beside me I have Dathan, Abiram and On, and behind me I have gathered 250 other leaders of the Israelites, both of our own Levite house and of the other houses. They all agree with me: Things must change.”
Aaron looked frightened around at the hundreds of grown men in front of him, but Moses maintained his composure. “Korah, as you know, I only fulfill the will of the Lord.”
Korah smiled contemptuously. “So you say, but forgive us for being doubtful. We all see things in our dreams at night, and some of us even during the day. What makes your prophecies so special?”
“But it is different!” Moses was distraught, having to explain this point once again. “God does not only appear in my dreams; I speak to him directly! I have even seen His shape!”
But Korah was not convinced. “And why would God just happen to select you two, and no-one else, as His sole mouthpieces on Earth?”
Moses buried his face in his hands. “Believe me, I have absolutely no clue!” His thoughts went back to a faithful day a few years back, when he stumbled upon a burning bush at Mount Horeb.
But Korah continued unfazed. “It makes no sense; God Himself has said through you that we are all holy. Not only us Levites; all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”
Moses took a few seconds to digest the words. Many people had mouthed their complaints in the past, but this was different. This was a direct challenge to his and Aaron’s authority, and to their position as God’s prophets on Earth. The problem was that Moses didn’t have any real powers, apart from being able to talk with God; the actual miracles came from God Himself. He looked at the huge crowd of men – powerful both in physical strength and in political authority – that was standing before him, and who were getting restless. He then cast a glance at his fellow prophet beside him. Could Aaron use some of his magical powers to appease the disgruntled men in front of them? But Aaron stood as nailed to the ground, with fear written all over his face; he was in no state to show off his tricks. Besides, an army of magically summoned frogs would be of little help at the moment. Moses made his decision, and took a deep breath. He then threw himself to the ground. “You speak true, cousin Korah; perhaps we are not the only two prophets of God. We shall find out. In the morning the Lord will make known who is his, and who is holy, and who will be allowed to approach him; the one whom he will choose he will allow to approach him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all your company, and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before the Lord; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one.”
Korah smiled. “That’s more like it! Tomorrow we shall see if God truly intended for you to be our sole leader, and Aaron and his sons our sole priests; or if you are taking for yourselves more power than is yours by right. Whether God truly intended for us to only carry the tabernacle and its furnishings, and only for Aaron and his sons to perform its ceremonies. Then we will have some changes in leadership around here!”
Moses flew up in anger. “You Levites have gone too far!” He directed his words at the entire crowd. “Hear now, you Levites! Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? He has allowed you to approach him, and all your brother Levites with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well! Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against the Lord. What is Aaron that you rail against him?”
Korah closed the short distance between them, and looked straight into Moses’ eyes. “Careful, Cousin; you may have forgotten, but you are a Levite yourself.” The words hit Moses as strike of lightning, and he was unable to reply. After a few seconds, Korah broke the stare and walked straight past Moses towards the camp. His long retinue followed him without a word; only cold glances at Moses and Aaron.
The last to leave were Dathan and Abiram, two of those that had stood beside Korah. Dathan spoke in passing. “My Lord Moses, we don’t follow Korah; he just wants to take over the lead around here. But we are tired of random punishments and broken promises. Something must change.” Then they followed the others.
When they were all gone, Aaron started gasping for air, as if he had been holding his breath this whole time. “Moses! Why did you tell Korah to make an offering to God!? Have you forgotten what happened to my poor sons when they made an unsolicited offering? And they were priests! If Korah and his men make an offering, God will surely kill them all!”
“And perhaps us as well,” Moses answered gravely, still looking towards the departing group.
Aaron widened his eyes. “Do you think so? Would He do that? Then… why on earth did you ask Korah to do such a thing!?”
Moses turned towards Aaron and looked him straight in the eyes. “What would you have me do instead? Wait for them to kill me in my sleep? To burn down the tabernacle? To make unsolicited prayers without my knowledge? These men are doomed whatever I do. They think that His commands are bendable, subject to interpretation. They think that His teachings must conform to their own moral intuitions. They are mistaken. His commands are of huge variety, concerning the largest and the smallest things; sometimes inconsistent, sometimes contradictory; but never negotiable. His teachings are complex and deep, made to control an entire society, and perhaps they even are what is fundamentally Right; but they are completely foreign to the intuitions of a common man. Your two sons experienced this more than anyone, Aaron. They thought a surprise offering would make their god happy; and to a human ruler it would have been satisfying. But He had made clear the rules of offering, and their surprise offering broke them, and this is all that matters to Him. His anger was great that time, and only the innocent nature of the offering stopped it from devouring the rest of us as well. It is only a matter of time before Korah and his men also act on their mistaken assumptions, and it will not be innocent. And if I do not at least try to control the situation, that day will be the doom of us all.”
Aaron did not answer. His face was a contorted mix of fear and sadness, and he slowly started walking towards the camp with an unfocused gaze, his mind upon things of the past and the future. Moses beside him was looking down at the ground, his mind racing to solve the lethal trial of the present. They stayed silent during the walk back to the camp.
Moses had been waiting outside the Levite camp for almost an hour when a figure approached him from the direction of the Reubenite camp. Only one figure, not three as he had hoped for. “Joshua, where are the men I sent for?”
Joshua answered as he closed the distance between them. “Dathan and Abiram refused to come. The brothers are as obstinate as ever.”
Moses shook his head in resignation. “I had hoped to persuade the two to hear my point of view and give up this pointless rebellion. If I could get them to join my side, the leadership of the rebellion would be confined to the Levites, over which I and Aaron have some leverage already. But with the tribe of Reuben on their side…”
“I did what I could, my Lord. Besides, you have the house of Judah behind you, I guarantee it!” Joshua said fervently.
Moses smiled and nodded. “Don’t worry, Joshua, I do not doubt your loyalty. But tell me, how exactly did Dathan and Abiram respond?”
Joshua answered immediately. “They asked me to deliver the following message: ‘We will not come! Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us? It is clear you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey!’ At this point Dathan picked up a piece of manna beside him and threw it at me. ‘Or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. The Lord promised to bring us to Canaan; now he says we can never enter that land. When will your eyes see that He lies and deceives us at every turn?’’ Dathan then shouted at the sky: ‘Lord, would you put out the eyes of these men?’ He then looked back at me, raised the club he was holding, and shouted: ‘We will not come!’ I then proceeded to get out of their camp as quickly as possible.”
“They prayed to God to have me blinded?” Moses was shocked. “He shouldn’t… He can’t… But He’s done worse in the past…” He stood in deep thought for a second, and then started walking hurriedly back into the Levite camp. “Excuse me, Joshua, but I have to attend to this. Thank you very much for your work, you have done well.”
Moses raced up towards the court of the tabernacle. The tabernacle tent on the inside of the walls of the tabernacle court was still enveloped in the familiar cloud. Moses went through the opening in the walls, past the Levite guards posted there. They looked confused, but didn’t try to stop him. He continued past the altar in the middle of the court, smoke from an eternal flame rising up from it, and towards the tent. The Levite guard at the opening of the tabernacle tent stood up and at least tried to slow him down. “My Lord, where are you going? There are no offerings today, and Aaron is not inside at the moment.”
Moses brushed him off. “I need to speak with God. Now.” He entered brazenly into the tent.
There was no one inside; Aaron was probably together with his sons, and regular Levites usually didn’t enter unless they had some specific religious business in there. Moses would usually take his time traversing the outer chamber of the tent, building up confidence to speak with the Creator of the world (as He would sometimes claim to be), but today he was in a different mood. He rushed past the golden lampstand with its exquisite flowery design, and the golden table carrying several plates of bread; and straight through the veil into the inner chamber.
The smoke in the inner chamber was so thick it was hard to see anything. It all emanated from the Ark box that stood by the incense-altar; it was so thickly covered with white smoke that Moses could hardly make out its contours. He put his hands into the smoke, and felt his way to the Mercy Seat lid. As he slowly lifted it up, more white smoke flew out of it, until the room was completely filled. Moses could see nothing but a clear, white color. He started speaking. “My Lord, I must warn you. Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi plans on making an offering to you on the morrow.”
There was still nothing to see but white; but God’s voice filled the room. “Why does Korah son of Izhar want to break the rules you have explained to him? Why do you not stop him, Moses?”
“I would stop him if I could, but Korah son of Izhar, and many men with him including Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, descendants of Reuben, have stopped believing my words. They think that I mistreat them.”
God’s voice attained a tint of reproach. “Do you? Has Aaron taken more meat from the freewill offerings than he should?”
Moses was angry at the suggestion. “He has done no such thing! Pay no attention to their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed any one of them. Only the sinners whom you commanded me to harm.”
“Then why should they rebel against you, and against me? If the Israelites rebel against me, then it means that my people is completely rotten to the core. What will happen, will happen. Begone, now.” And the smoke entered the box again, and when the air was clear enough that Moses could see his surroundings again, the lid was already back on the box.
“That doesn’t bode well,” Moses mumbled as he hurried out of the tent, then out of the court.
He fetched Aaron from his tent, and the two went to the Kohathite camp south of the tabernacle. Korah’s men were all around the place, but Korah himself was nowhere to be seen. Moses spoke: “Korah son of Izhar, come out of there!”
Out of one of the tents appeared Korah, smiling. “Good to see you, cousins. Have you made arrangements for tomorrow?”
Moses answered. “Yes, we have. I have spoken to the Lord, and His glory shall appear at the entrance of the tent of meeting tomorrow. As for you and all your company, be present tomorrow before the Lord, you and they and Aaron,” he nodded at respectively Korah, some of his nearby followers, and at Aaron. “…and let each one of you take his censer, and put incense on it, and each one of you present his censer before the Lord, two hundred fifty censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.”
“Don’t worry, we will be there,” Korah answered with a confident smile.
The next morning, Moses was waiting in front of the entrance of the tabernacle tent with Aaron. Aaron was usually carefree and relaxed when things went their way; but in situations like this, he was hopelessly upset. “I can’t believe I didn’t stop you! What is He going to do when he sees this!? He will strike down us all!”
Moses sighed. “Calm down, Aaron. We’ve been through worse before. Remember Egypt?” The two brothers looked at each other. “The whole country, straight to Sheol. The economy crashed, famines ravaged the country, millions died of plague, burning stones falling from the sky, and country-wide water-poisoning. And we were forced to assist in this slaughter; the water turning into blood was largely your doing, brother.” Aaron swallowed, while Moses moved his gaze up at the sky. “And yet here we still are, with most of our family and countrymen, alive and well in this hostile environment. I don’t know what our final destiny is, but I doubt it ends today. There may be some bloodshed; we just need to contain it.”
As he said this, Korah entered the court, a smoking censer hanging from his hand by a thin metal chain. After him followed 250 men, all with censers; but some faces from the previous day were missing. “Did Dathan, Abiram and On give up on your cause?” Moses asked Korah.
Korah looked uncomfortable. “They would not join me in this ceremony, no. But I have compensated for that.” He regained his usual confident smile, and gestured towards the exit of the court. “Apart from the 250 men I have with me inside the court, I have gathered thousands of representatives from all the tribes, outside the court walls.” Moses could now hear the loud voices from the outside. “You are highly unpopular, dear cousin. The people are waiting to see God’s glory, and His judgement over you.”
As Korah said this, the last of his followers got into position inside the court. At that moment, the cloud covering the tabernacle tent suddenly dispersed, rose, and took the shape of a pillar hanging over the tent. This happened whenever the camp needed to start moving, but now the pillar was burning, something it usually only did by night. Awed voices could be heard from all around. Then Moses heard God’s voice: “Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.”
From the sobbing sounds next to him, Moses knew that Aaron must also have heard the voice. Although he should have been used to it by now, Moses was also taken aback by the bluntness of God’s words. He pulled Aaron down to bow on the ground with him, and pleaded: “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?”
A moment passed before God answered. “Well, that actually does seem unreasonable.” The flame of the pillar weakened somewhat in intensity. “Who were the leaders of this rebellion again? Korah, Dathan and Abiram, was it?” ‘And On,’ Moses was about to say, but he kept it to himself. “Say to the congregation: Get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.”
The voice disappeared, and Moses looked up. Every one were looking up at the burning pillar and talking to each other. They obviously had not heard God’s voice. Moses sprang up, and ran out of the court. Korah and his followers stayed behind with their censers, but Aaron followed him. Outside the tabernacle court walls were important elders from all the tribes, together with thousands of other unhappy Israelites. Many of them started shouting when they saw Moses, but he raced past them down the hill. “We have to get everyone away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram!” Moses shouted as he ran.
“What about On?” Aaron asked while running beside him.
“God doesn’t know he’s one of the leaders; and for Moloch’s sake, don’t tell Him!”
Just south of the tabernacle was the Levite camp, and Moses ran straight for Korah’s tent. A stone’s throw away from it he stopped and turned around. Many of the discontents who had stood outside the tabernacle walls had followed him, and more had joined on the way. “No one must come near Korah’s tent, or near that of any of his family! Aaron, stay here and take charge.” Leaving his brother perplexed and confused, Moses continued southwards, towards the camp of the tribe of Reuben.
After running for a while, he was finally outside the dwellings of Dathan and Abiram. Their tents stood next to those of their relatives, their workers and their slaves. “There must be dozens of people living here!” Moses mumbled to himself in despair. He turned around to the crowd of elders, leaders, and other Israelites who had gathered behind him. Moses closed his eyes. He knew there was nothing he could do for the people in the tents behind him. They were doomed; and it was perhaps he himself who had doomed them. But if his nation was to survive, he needed to appear as a prophet, as a leader, in times of crisis. Today was such a time. He opened his eyes, and started to speak with a loud voice. “Turn away from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, or you will be swept away for all their sins.”
The people in the area first looked at each other, uncertain what to do. But however unpopular he was, Moses was still recognized as a powerful prophet, and soon people were running like madmen from Dathan and Abiram’s tents. Some of those who fled were clearly workers and slaves of the rebel men, who betrayed their masters. Moses wasn’t sure if he should stop them, but he didn’t; they had done nothing wrong, and hopefully God wouldn’t notice.
Alarmed by the commotion outside, Dathan and Abiram came out from their tents and stood at the entrance. Dathan raised his voice. “What in the world is this?” When he saw Moses in front of the crowd, he continued: “Moses, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be stopping Korah and whatever blasphemy he is up to? You are waking up our women and children!”
At the entrance of his tent, Dathan’s wife appeared. Two small boys followed her, and she had an infant in her arms. Abiram’s family was also slowly exiting their tent. Moses felt as if his heart was pierced by a needle. He was about to respond, when tears starting welling from his eyes, and he knew he could not get out a word without crying like a woman. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and turned his back on the rebels and their families. When he opened his eyes, he was looking at the crowd who had followed him here: his own people. The people that would survive, that he would need to help through the wilderness, so that their children could populate Canaan. To do that, he must be a strong leader. Moses started speaking again; his voice steady and certain, with no trace of the pain he felt over uttering the words. “This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”
Moses wanted to keep his back turned on the men he was talking about; to be freed from the pain of watching them die by his own horrific words. But he knew he must look at the spectacle, observe the consequences of his own actions. Turning around, he saw Abiram’s confused face. The earth was already shaking around him, and his family was huddling together in fear. “Moses? What… What is this? What are you doing? Why us?”
But Dathan already understood what was happening. “Moses! Damn you, and damn your god! He has lied to us from the start and only brought misery to us and everyone we touch, and you have been nothing but His tool! Go ahead, send us all to Sheol! Surely it is better than scouring for mana in the desert for the rest of my life, or forcing my children to live under the inane rules laid out by your deity!”
As he said these words, the earth shook more and more violently, and cracks opened in the ground, until it finally split right under the tents of the rebels. The noise was overwhelming, and Moses could only barely make out Dathan’s last words as he, his family and his tents fell into the hole: “May Moloch take your children!”
Moments later, the hole closed, and the rumbling stopped. Nothing was left of the rebels or their dwellings. The noise from the earthquake, however, was replaced by the clamor of terrified people. They were running in all directions; to get their families, to save their belongings, to get away from the mayhem they had witnessed. The group of leaders Moses had led here was already dispersed. Moses wiped his tears, and clenched his fist. He turned back north, and started running in the direction of the tabernacle.
As he neared Korah’s camp, more frightened people were running around in terror. “The earth will swallow us too!” he heard someone shout. At some point he got lost, and couldn’t find the camp, but then he caught eye of his brother. “Aaron! I can’t find Korah’s camp! Where… Oh…” When he saw Aaron’s terrified expression, he understood what had happened. He looked around, and noticed a large, blank spot on the ground with no tents on it. He grabbed Aaron’s arm and said: “There is no time! There is nothing we can do for these people. We must go back to Korah and his rebel group outside the tabernacle tent!”
They ran up the hill towards the tabernacle, but they soon understood that things had turned awry here as well. The tabernacle was normally covered by a powdery cloud-like smoke as white as snow; now, black smoke rose from the court to the skies. More people were running terrified around, while some were on their knees around the tabernacle court, wailing away. As they got closer to the tabernacle court, a stench of burnt flesh permeated the air. Aaron finally gave up, and fell to his knees in exhaustion. Moses pressed on to the opening in the walls. Yet again, he knew what had happened, but he forced himself to look inside.
Inside the tabernacle court was the most terrible sight Moses had ever seen. The men with censers that Moses had left there less than an hour earlier, were still here. But now they were lying on the ground, slowly burning to ashes. The 250 men in the small space made for one large fire made up of burning human bodies. The flesh was still burning; in a few hours, there would only be bones and ashes left.
Moses pulled back his head outside the walls, and fell to the ground. He barely avoided emptying his stomach in front of God’s temple court. Over the noise of the fire, and the cries and screams of the Israelites around him, Moses once more heard God’s voice. “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to take the censers out of the blaze; then scatter the fire far and wide. For the censer of these sinners have become holy at the cost of their lives. Make them into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they presented them before the Lord and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the Israelites.”
Moses slowly got to his feet, and started walking away from the tabernacle. He looked straight ahead, his face a contorted mix of revulsion and resolve. “Yes, my Lord. Whatever you say.”
When Moses entered the tabernacle court the next day, there was almost no trace of the carnage. He walked up to Eleazar, who was polishing the covering on the altar in the middle of the court. “Good morning, nephew!” He tried to sound upbeat, but Eleazar’s grave expression made him change his tone. “You have done a very good job cleaning up around here.”
“Most of the Gershonites are still loyal to us,” Eleazar answered. “They gathered the charred remains of the bodies, and scattered them outside the camp. They left me with the 250 censers, and some Merorite metalworkers helped me all night to make this.” He motioned to the altar covering.
“Hopefully, this will serve as a reminder not to offer incense to God unless ordered to,” Moses said.
Eleazar did not answer. Right then, Aaron suddenly came running into the court of the tabernacle. “Moses! The people are revolting against your rule!”
Moses rolled his eyes. “I know that. God’s ‘miracles’ yesterday didn’t exactly make me popular…”
Aaron looked exasperated. “No, they’re really revolting! Rebelling! All the elders of all the tribes have gathered around On, son of Peleth, and are now assembling around the tabernacle court!”
Moses walked hurriedly towards the opening in the wall, and went outside. The sight was breathtaking. A sea of human masses were ascending the small hill that the tabernacle stood on. They were divided into huge groups, each led by a high-standing elder. The closest groups had already stationed themselves near the entrance to the tabernacle court; but more and more groups were closing in from the distance. “Tens of thousands… No, hundreds of thousands… The whole congregation!” Moses mumbled to himself in awe.
In the front, standing before Moses, was On, son of Peleth. Moses had not seen him since the public execution two days earlier. On started speaking. “Moses, the people has had enough. I have gathered every single elder among the Israelites, and they each have their people’s support. Your mistreatment of us has gone on for too long – yesterday was the last straw. You have killed the people of the Lord!” Cheers could be heard from all sides.
Moses was distraught. “I have not! They were sinners, and God punished them Himself!”
On smiled triumphantly. “Are you saying that the Lord executed hundreds of His own people for opposing your unjust rule?”
“Yes! I mean, no, but…”
“And unleashed a plague on us just for complaining among ourselves about the lack of meat in our diet?” On interrupted him.
“And doomed us all to forty years in the wilderness, only because some people said they preferred Egypt to this miserable nomad life?”
On snorted and spat. “It seems clear to me that you are lying to the Lord about your people, and manipulating Him for your own gain!”
Moses put his face in his hands. The worst thing was that On’s conclusion was entirely reasonable.
On continued. “But I am not a Levite, and I cannot speak directly to the Lord. So go, Moses, back to the tent of meeting, and tell the Lord the truth. And have Him appoint another prophet than you, and another priest than Aaron. We will not leave until you two are gone, one way or another!”
Moses didn’t like the way On emphasized the last part on his speech, and hurried back into the court of the tabernacle. Aaron was waiting inside with a terrified look on his face. Moses grabbed his arm, and went to the entrance of the tabernacle tent. He looked up at the white cloud, and started speaking. “Lord, we are assailed from all sides! The Israelites think that I and Aaron manipulate you, and the whole congregation has turned against us! What are we to do?”
After a few moments, God answered, succinctly: “Get away from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.”
Moses wanted to cry. He dragged Aaron down to the ground with him, and kneeled. “Is this your answer to everything, my Lord? Every time someone does something unbecoming, everyone must die a gruesome death?”
“‘Someone’, Moses?” God responded. “I thought you said that the whole congregation was rebelling this time?”
Moses found no words. God was right; for the first time, the entire congregation was revolting against him, thus breaking their oath with God. They had sinned, and by the Rules, they must be punished.
Moses heard a wave of screams spreading outside the court walls. Something bad had clearly started. People were dying. His own people. People he had led for years, from slavery, through the desert, through countless tribulations. People who had trusted him and put their lives in his hands. He had never asked for the responsibility, and had begged God countless times to be away with it; but his people had also never chosen him as their leader, and yet they had accepted him, and followed his every command until now; commands that would have made any other people on Earth revolt much sooner. They were going to die; every single man, woman and child.
They were sinners, and must be punished. But he must somehow stop it. How? His mind raced.
Suddenly he grabbed Aaron’s shoulders, and pulled him up. “Aaron, my brother. Take your censer, put fire on it from the altar and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them. For wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.”
Aaron just stood there with his mouth open. “Me? Why me? Moses, you’re the leader, you’re the one who always acts…”
“But I am not a high priest, Aaron,” Moses interrupted him. “Only you can offer incense to the Lord, and make atonement for sinners.”
“But… but I have only ever made atonement for individuals! Can I really make atonement for the whole congregation?”
“I don’t know, Aaron. But you must try. You are our only hope now.”
Aaron stood with open eyes for a few seconds, until Moses physically turned him around and pushed him towards the altar. “Hurry up, Aaron! There is no time!”
Finally, Aaron got to his senses, and starting moving. He first walked quickly, then jogged, and finally ran towards the altar in the middle of the court. He picked up a censer next to the altar, laid some burning coal in it, and without waiting for the coal to cool he stuffed the censer with as much incense as it could hold. Then he ran for the opening in the walls, and outside. Moses ran to the entrance and looked outside.
The scene was gruesome. Dead and dying people were strewn around the tabernacle court, their skin filled with huge blisters. The wailing people around the dead developed new blisters as Moses was watching, a wave of death that was expanding outwards from the tabernacle. At this rate, soon the entire congregation would be consumed.
But then he saw Aaron jumping into the middle of the carnage, waving his censer around. He had lost all fear. Aaron ran past On’s dead body, jumped effortlessly over the bloody cadavers towards the areas of living people, only barely keeping pace with the spread of the disease. When he finally reached a group of healthy people, he stopped and turned around. It was too far away for Moses to make out what he was saying, but he saw Aaron waving his censer around in patterns and shouting prayers. The people around were clearly in awe of the high priest doing his sacred ceremony in front of their eyes. Smoke welled out of Aaron’s censer, but new blisters continued to appear on the people between him and the tabernacle; the wave of death was washing towards Aaron. Moses had more or less given up. Then, when the person in front of Aaron had gotten the disease — the wave stopped. In front of Aaron was a huge lake of dead bodies; behind him was an ocean of healthy human beings.
All was silent for a few moments. Then, the masses broke out in emotion. Not in joy over having survived, but in grief over the countless friends and family that were lying dead before them. As the people gathered among their dead, Aaron came walking back towards the court, his head hanging. Moses retreated back to the entrance of the tabernacle tent.
“Fourteen thousand seven hundred, my Lord!”
Moses looked up at Joshua, who was standing in front of him. “Fourteen thousand?”
Joshua nodded confidently. “And seven hundred!”
Moses looked back down, and shook his head. “Too many have died. Something like this must never happen again. But how can I avoid it? How will the people ever trust me, if the only answer I can give to their complaints is more death and suffering?”
Joshua answered confidently. “By making them understand that you are their leader, who speaks the words of the Lord our God! That defying you is the same as defying the Lord, and brings certain death!”
Moses sighed, and looked into the distance. “Yes, that appears to be the Lord’s plan as well. Making the people choose between absolute loyalty to Him, and immediate death. Between a fearful life of complete obedience, and Sheol.” He looked up at his assistant, and made a grim smile. “You would make a good leader, Joshua. God would like your style.”
Ever since I developed the Moses character in my last story, I’ve wanted to write another one about him. He’s a good and decent guy, who never asked for power but had it forced on him; and then does the best he can in his new position as prophet. Moses is very often in a precarious position between the bark and the tree, having to calm down both his rebellious people and his violent god. This chapter was more like that than any other, with some of the most intense and violent scenes so far in the Bible.
But despite all the action that is going on, it’s all very sparsely described in the original text; and some of it is contradictory. Quite probability, the chapter consists of two independent rebellion stories (one about Korah, and the other about Dathan and Abiram) that were woven more or less skillfully together into one. Either way, making all the information into a believable story required me to take quite a lot of creative license. For instance, making Korah into a power-hungry mutineer and Dathan into a freedom-loving martyr, is almost completely arbitrary; the text is rather opaque when it comes to exactly what the rebels are rebelling against. A more concrete example is that Joshua does not even appear in the original text at all; but someone had to be sent for Dathan, and it might as well be one of Moses’ most trusted assistants. On of Peleth only appears during the first meeting between Korah and Moses; but I needed someone to lead the final rebellion, since it seemed implausible that the entire Israelite congregation would just spontaneously gather around the tabernacle.
Speaking of the entire congregation, the original text states that also the day before this,“Korah assembled the whole congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting” before he was fried to ashes. This makes no sense, since (among other things) Dathan and Abiram were clearly inside their tents at this point; so I took the liberty of interpreting it as “representatives of the whole congregation”. Apart from this one point, I don’t think I am directly contradicting the original text in any place. I am being a little nicer to Moses, and a little meaner to God, than I strictly need have been; and I try to make some of the conversation a little humorous. But apart from that, I have strived to make this interpretation as realistic as possible. And as always, all spoken quotes from the original text also appears in my story (figuring out what quotes are Biblical and what are mine, might be a fun game!).