The Thirty-Eight Years In The Wilderness - The Sabbath-Breaker - The Gainsaying Of Korah And Of His Associates - Murmuring Of The People; The Plague, & How It Was Stayed - Aakon's Rod Budding, Blossoming, And Bearing Fruit
Numbers F 33:19-37; 16, 17; Deuteronomy 1:46-11:15
MORE than thirty-seven years of "wanderings" were now to be passed in "the wilderness of Paran," until a new generation had risen to enter on possession of the Land of Promise. Of that long period scarcely more than one single record is left us in Scripture. As a German writer observes, The host of Israel, being doomed to judgment, ceased to be the subject of sacred history, while the rising generation, in whom the life and hope of Israel vow centered, had, as yet, no history of its own. And so we mark all this period rather by the death of the old than by the life of the new, and the wanderings of Israel by the graves which they left behind, as their carcasses fell in the wilderness.
Still, we may profitably gather together the various notices scattered in Scripture. First, then, we learn that Israel "abode in Kadesh many days," (Deuteronomy 1:46) and that thence their direction was "towards the Red Sea." (Deuteronomy 2:1) Their farthest halting-place from Kadesh seems to have been Ezion-gaber, which, as we know, lay on the so-called Elanitic Gulf of the Red Sea. Thence they returned, at the end of the forty years wanderings, once more to "the wilderness of Zin, which is Kadesh." (Numbers 33:36) The "stations" on their wanderings from Kadesh to Ezion-geber are marked in Numbers 33:18-35. There are just seventeen of them, after leaving Rithmah - a name derived from retem, a broom-bush, and which may therefore signify the valley of the broom-bushes. If we rightly understand it, this was the original place of the encampment of Israel near Kadesh. In point of fact, there is a plain close to 'Ain Gadis or Kadesh which to this day bears the name of Abu Retemet. As for Kadesh itself - or the Holy Place, the place of "sanctifying" - which originally bore the name En-Mishpat, "well of judgment," (Genesis 14:7) we imagine that it derived its peculiar name from the events that there took place, the additional designation of Barnea - Kadesh Barnea - either marking a former name of the place, or more probably meaning "the land of moving to and fro."*
* Or "wandering," or "being shaken." Bishop Harold Browne suggests the query whether there may be any allusion to this in Psalms 29:8 "The Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh."
We presume that the encampment in "the broom-valley" was in all probability determined by the existence and promise of vegetation there, which, no doubt, was due to the presence of watercourses. Indeed, an examination of the names of the seventeen stations occupied by Israel during their wanderings shows, that all the encampments were similarly selected in the neighborhood of water and vegetation. Thus we have Rimmon-parez, "the pomegranate breach" - perhaps the place where Korah's rebellion brought such terrible punishment; Libnah, "whiteness," probably from the white poplar trees growing there; Rissah, "dew;" Mount Shapher, "the mount of beauty," or "of goodliness;" Mithcah, "sweetness," in reference to the water; Hashmonah, "fatness," "fruitfulness," where to this day there is a pool full of sweet living water, with abundant vegetation around; Bene-jaakan, or, as in Deuteronomy 10:6, * Beeroth Bene-jaakan, "the wells of the children of Jaakan," probably the wells which the Jaakanites had dug on their expulsion by the Edomites from their original homes; (Genesis 36:27; 1 Chronicles 1:42) Jotbathah, "goodness;" and Ebronah, probably "fords." The other names are either derived from peculiarities of scenery, or else from special events, as Kehelathah, "assembling;" Makheloth, "assemblies;" Haradah, "place of terror," etc.**
* In Deuteronomy 10:6, 7, four of these stations are again mentioned, but in the inverse order from Numbers 33. Evidently in Numbers 33, we have the camps from Kadesh to Ezion-gaber during the thirty-seven years of wandering; while in Deuteronomy 10:6, 7 the reference is to the march from Kadesh to Mount Hor in the fortieth year (after the second stay at Kadesh) on the journey of Israel to take possession of the land. But the apparently strange insertion of verses 6 and 7 in Deuteronomy 10 interrupting a quite different narrative, requires explanation. In vers. l-5 Moses reminds the people how, in answer to his prayer, God had restored His covenant. Verses 6 and 7 are then inserted to show that not only the covenant, but also the mediatorial office of the high-priesthood had been similarly granted anew. God had not only continued it to Aaron, but, on his death at Mosera, Eleazar had been invested with the office, and under his ministry the tribes had continued their onward march. Instead of explaining all this in detail, Moses simply reminds the children of Israel (vers. 6, 7) of the historical facts of the case, which would speak for themselves.
** Many of these stations have been identified - at least, with a great degree of probability. But an account of the various suggestions of modern explorers would lead too much into details.
The first impression which we derive, alike from the fewness of these stations, and from their situation, is, that the encampments were successively occupied for lengthened periods. More than that, we infer from the peculiar wording of some expressions in the original, that, during these thirty-eight years, the people were scattered up and down, the Tabernacle with the Levites forming, as it were, a kind of central camp and rallying-place. It is also quite certain that, at that period, the district in which the wanderings of Israel lay was capable of supporting such a nomadic population with their flocks and herds. Indeed, the presence of water, if turned to account, would always transform any part of that wilderness into a fruitful garden. In this respect the knowledge of irrigation, which the Israelites had acquired in Egypt, must have been of special use. Lastly, the people were not quite isolated. Not only were they near what we might call the direct highway between the East and Egypt, but they were in contact with other tribes, such as the Bene-jaakan. Deuteronomy 2:26-29 seems to imply that at times it was possible to purchase provisions and water, while Deuteronomy 2:7 shows that Israel had not only "lacked nothing" during "these forty years," but that they had greatly increased in substance and wealth. Such passages as Deuteronomy 8:14, etc.; 29:5; and Nehemiah 9:21 prove in what remarkable manner God had cared for all the wants of His people during that period; and there can be no doubt that in the prophetic imagery of the future, especially by Isaiah, there is frequent retrospect to God's gracious dealings with Israel in the wilderness.*
* See Speaker's Commentary, vol. 2. p. 720, note. The clearest indication of this is found in Isaiah 43:16-21. But I think it a mistake to trace in Psalm 74:14 an allusion to a supply of fish from the Elanitic Gulf of the Red Sea, although it is true that several of the encampments of Israel were on, or quite close to, its shores.
Brief as is the record of these thirty-eight years, it contains a notice of two events, both in rebellion against the Lord. The first gives an account of a man who had openly violated the Divine law by gathering "sticks upon the Sabbath day." (Numbers 15:32-36) Although the punishment of death had been awarded to such a "presumptuous sin," (Exodus 31:14; 35:2) the offender was, in the first place, "put in ward," partly to own the Lord by specially asking His direction, since only the punishment itself but not its mode had been previously indicated, and partly perhaps to impress all Israel with the solemnity of the matter. Due observance of the Lord's day was, indeed, from every point of view, a question of deepest importance to Israel, and the offender was, by Divine direction, "brought without the camp, and stoned with stones, and he died." We are not told at what particular period of the wanderings of Israel this event had occurred. It is apparently inserted as an instance and illustration, immediately after the warning against" presumptuous sins" (literally, "sins with a hand uplifted," viz., against Jehovah). These sins in open contempt of God's word involved the punishment of being "cut off" from the people of the Lord.
Nor have we any precise date by which to fix the other and far more serious instance of rebellion on the part of Korah and of his associates, (Numbers 16) in which afterwards the people, as a whole, were implicated. (Numbers 16:41-50) There is, however, reason to suppose that it occurred at an early period of "the wanderings" - perhaps, as already suggested, at Rimmon-parez. The leaders of this rebellion were Korah, a Levite -descendant of Izhar, the brother of Amram, (Exodus 6:18) and therefore a near relative of Aaron - and three Reubenites, Dathan, Abiram, and On. But as the latter is not further mentioned, we may suppose that he early withdrew from the conspiracy. These men gained over to their side no fewer than two hundred and fifty princes from among the other tribes,* all of them members of the national representative council,** and "men of renown," or, as we should express ilk well-known leading men. Thus the movement assumed very large proportions, and evidenced wide-spread disaffection and dissatisfaction.
* The statement that Zelophehad, a Manassite, had not been "in the company of Korah" (Numbers 27:3), implies that his fellow-conspirators belonged to the various tribes.
** The Authorized Version (Numbers 16:2) translates "famous," but the literal rendering is "called to the meeting," evidently members of the national representative council. See Numbers 1:16.
The motives of this conspiracy seem plain enough. They were simply jealous and disappointed ambition, though the rebels assumed the language of a higher spirituality. As descended from a brother of Aaron, Korah disliked, and perhaps coveted, what seemed to him the supremacy of Aaron, for which he could see no valid reason. He had also a special grievance of his own. True, he was one of that family of the Kohathites to whom the chief Levitical charge in the sanctuary had been committed; but then the Kohathites numbered four families, (Numbers 3:27) and the leadership of the whole was entrusted not to any of the older branches, but to the youngest, the Uzzielites (Numbers 3:30). Was there not manifest wrong and injustice in this, probably affecting Korah personally? It speaks well for the Levites as a whole, that, notwithstanding all this, Korah was unable to inveigle any of them in his conspiracy. But close to the tents of the Kohathites and of Korah was the encampment of the tribe of Reuben, who held command of the division on the south side of the camp. Possibly - and indeed the narrative of their punishment seems to imply this - the tent of Korah and those of the Reubenitic princes, Dathan, Abiram, and On, were contiguous. And Reuben also had a grievance; for was not Reuben Jacob's first-born, who should therefore have held the leadership among the tribes? It was not difficult to kindle the flame of jealousy in an Eastern breast. What claim or right had Moses, or rather the tribe of Levi whom he represented, to supremacy in Israel? Assuredly this was a grievous wrong and an intolerable usurpation, primarily as it affected Reuben, and secondarily all the other tribes. This explains the ready participation of so many of the princes in the conspiracy, the expostulation of Moses with Korah (16:8-11), and his indignant appeal to God against the implied charges of the Reubenites (ver. 15). Indeed, the conspirators expressly stated these views as follows (ver. 3), "Sufficient for you!" - that is, You, Moses and Aaron, have long enough held the priesthood and the government; "for the whole congregation, all are holy, and in the midst of them Jehovah. And why exalt ye yourselves over the convocation * of Jehovah?" It will be observed that the pretense which they put forward to cover their selfish, ambitious motives was that of a higher spirituality, which recognized none other than the spiritual priesthood of all Israel. But, as we shall presently show, their claim to it was not founded on the typical mediatorship of the high-priest, but on their standing as Israel after the flesh.
* We have rendered the term literally by "convocation." Two different terms are used in this chapter. One of these - edah - means, literally, congregation, and may be said to designate Israel as the outward and visible Church. The other term is kahal, literally "the called," or convocation, and refers to the spiritual character of Israel as called of God. Thus the distinction of an outward and visible and a spiritual Church had its equivalent in the Old Testament. In this chapter the term kahal occurs only in ver. 3, and again in ver. 33.
The whole of this history is so sad, the judgment which followed it so terrible - finding no other parallel than that which in the New Testament Church overtook Ananias and Sapphira - and the rebellion itself is so frequently referred to in scripture, that it requires more special consideration. The rebellion of Korah, as it is generally called, from its prime mover, was, of course, an act of direct opposition to the appointment of God. But this was not all. The principle expressed in their gainsaying (ver. 3) ran directly counter to the whole design of the old covenant, and would, if carried out, have entirely subverted its typical character. It was, indeed, quite true that all Israel were holy and priests, yet not in virtue of their birth or national standing, but through the typical priesthood of Aaron, who "brought them nigh" and was their intermediary with God. Again, this priesthood of Aaron, as indeed all similar selections - such as those of the place where, and the seasons when God would be worshipped, of the composition of the incense, or of the sacrifices -although there may have been secondary and subordinate reasons for them, depended in the first place and mainly upon God's appointment.
"Him whom the Lord hath chosen will He cause to come near unto Him" (6:5); "whom the Lord doth choose, he shall be holy" (ver. 7).
Every other service, fire, or place than that which God had chosen, would, however well and earnestly intended, be "strange" service, "strange" fire, and a "strange" place. This was essential for the typical bearing of all these arrangements. It was God's appointment, and not the natural fitness of a person or thing which here came into consideration. If otherwise, they would have been natural sequences, not types - constituting a rational rather than a Divine service. It was of the nature of a type that God should appoint the earthly emblem with which He would connect the spiritual reality. The moment Israel deviated in any detail, however small, they not only rebelled against God's appointment, but destroyed the meaning of the whole by substituting the human and natural for the Divine. The types were, so to speak, mirrors of God's own fitting, which exhibited, as already present, future spiritual realities with all their blessings. In Christ all such types have ceased, because the reality to which they pointed has come.
This digression seemed necessary, alike for the proper understanding of the history of Korah and for that of the typical arrangements of the Old Testament. But to return. On the morning following the outbreak of the rebellion, Korah and his two hundred and fifty associates presented themselves, as Moses had proposed, at the door of the Tabernacle. Here "they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon." Indeed, Korah had gained such influence, that he was now able to gather there "all the congregation" as against Moses and Aaron. Almost had the wrath of God, whose glory visibly appeared before all, consumed "this congregation" in a moment, when the intercession of Moses and Aaron once more prevailed. In these words: "O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?" (as Calvin remarks) Moses made his appeal "to the general grace of creation," praying that, "as God was the Creator and Maker of the world, He would not destroy man whom He had created, but rather have pity on the work of His hands." And so there is a plea for mercy, and an unspeakable privilege even in the fact of being the creatures of such a God!
Leaving the rebels with their censers at the door of the Tabernacle -perhaps panic-struck - Moses next repaired to the tents of Dathan and Abiram, accompanied by the elders, and followed by the congregation. * On the previous day the two Reubenites had refused to meet Moses, and sent him a taunting reply, suggesting that he only intended to blind the people. **
* From Numbers 16, and the reference in Numbers 26:10, 11, I am led to infer that Korah followed also in the train, perhaps to see what would come of it, leaving the two hundred and fifty princes at the door of the Tabernacle. If Korah's tent was contiguous to those of Dathan and Abiram, we can form a clearer conception of the whole scene.
** Literally rendering 16:14: "Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?"
And now when Dathan and Abiram, with their wives and children, came out and stood at the door of their tents, as it were, to challenge what Moses could do, the people were first solemnly warned away from them. Then a judgment, new and unheard of, was announced, and immediately executed. The earth opened her mouth and swallowed up these rebels and their families, with all that appertained to them, that is, with such as had taken part in their crime. As for Korah, the same fate seems to have overtaken him. But it is an emphatic testimony alike to the truth of God's declaration, that He punisheth not men for the sins of their fathers, (Jeremiah 31:30; Ezekiel 18:19, 20) and to the piety of the Levites, that the sons of Korah did not share in the rebellion of their father, and consequently died not with him. (Numbers 26:11) More than this, not only were Samuel and afterwards Heman descendants of Korah, (1 Samuel 1:1; 1 Chronicles 6:33-38) but among them were some of those "sweet singers of Israel," whose hymns, Divinely inspired, were intended for the Church at all times. And all the Psalms "of the sons of Korah"* have this common characteristic, which sounds like an echo of the lesson learned from the solemn judgment upon their house, that their burden is praise of the King Who is enthroned at Jerusalem, and longing after the services of God's sanctuary.** But as for "the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense," "there came out a fire from the Lord and consumed" them, as, on a former occasion, it had destroyed Nadab and Abihu. (Leviticus 10:2) Their censers, which had been "hallowed," by being presented before the Lord, (Numbers 16:37) were converted into plates for covering the altar of burnt offering, that so they might be a continual "memorial unto the children of Israel" of the event and its teaching.
* Wrongly translated in the Authorized Version, "for the sons of Korah."
** The following are the eleven Psalms designated as those of the sons of Korah: Psalm 42., 44.-49., 84., 85., 87., and 88. The following are further references to the history of the sons of Korah: 1 Chronicles 9:19; 12:6; 26:1-19; 2 Chronicles 20:19; Nehemiah 11:19.
This signal judgment of God upon the rebels had indeed struck the people who witnessed it with sudden awe, but it led not to that repentance (Psalm 4:4) which results from a change of heart. The impression passed away, and "on the morrow" nothing remained but the thought that so many princes of tribes, who had sought to vindicate tribal independence, had been cut off for the sake of Moses! It was in their cause, the people would argue, that these men had died; and the mourning in the tents of the princes, the desolateness which marked what had but yesterday been the habitations of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, would only give poignancy to the feeling that with this event a yoke of bondage had been for ever riveted upon the nation. For they recognized not the purpose and meaning of God; this would have implied spiritual discernment; only that, if judgment had proceeded from Jehovah, it had come, if not at the instigation of, yet in order to vindicate Moses and Aaron. In their ingratitude they even forgot that, but for the intercession of these two, the whole congregation would have perished in the gainsaying of Korah. So truly did that generation prove the justice of the Divine sentence that none of their number should enter into the land of Canaan, and so entirely unfit did their conduct (as of old that of Esau) show them for inheriting the promises!
But as for Moses and Aaron, when the congregation was once more gathered against them with this cruel and unjust charge on their lips, "Ye have killed the people of Jehovah," they almost instinctively "faced towards the tent of meeting," * as the place whence their help came and to which their appeal was now made. Nor did they look in vain.
* This is the literal rendering.
Denser and more closely than before did the cloud cover the tabernacle, and from out of it burst visibly the luminous glory of Jehovah. And as Moses and Aaron entered the court of the tabernacle, "Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, and I will consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces." But what was Moses to plead? He knew that "already" was "wrath gone forth from Jehovah," and "the plague" had "begun." What could he now say? In the rebellion at Mount Horeb, (Exodus 32:31) again at Kadesh, (Numbers 14:13, etc.) and but the day before at the gainsaying of Korah, he had exhausted every argument. No similar plea, nor indeed any plea, remained. Then it was, in the hour of deepest need, when every argument that even faith could suggest had been taken away, and Israel was, so to speak, lost, that the all-sufficiency of the Divine provision in its vicarious and mediatorial character appeared. Although as yet only typical, it proved all sufficient.
The incense kindled on the coals taken from the altar of burnt-offering, where the sacrifices had been brought, typified the accepted mediatorial intercession of our great High Priest. And now, when there was absolutely no plea upon earth, this typical pleading of His perfect righteousness and intercession prevailed. Never before or after was the Gospel so preached under the Old Testament* as when Aaron, at Moses' direction, took the censer, and, having filled it from the altar, "ran into the midst of the congregation," "and put on incense, and made an atonement for the people" (16:47).
* The only similar instance was the lifting up of the brazen serpent, which typically represented another part of the work of our Redeemer. Even the prophecies of Isaiah were not clearer than these two sermons by outward deed, as we may call them, rather one declaring the typical meaning of the Aaronic priesthood, and the efficacy of that to which it pointed; the other, the character and the completeness of God's provision for the removal of guilt.
And as he stood with that censer "between the dead and the living," "the plague," which had already swept away not less than 14,700 men, "was stayed." Thus if Korah's assumption of the priestly functions had caused, the exercise of the typical priesthood now removed, the plague.
But the truth which God now taught the people was not to be exhibited only in judgment. After the storm and the earthquake came the "still, small voice," and the typical import of the Aaronic priesthood was presented under a beautiful symbol. By direction of God, "a rod" for each of the twelve tribes, bearing the respective names of their princes,* was laid up in the Most Holy Place, before the Ark of the Covenant.
* According to the more common view, twelve rods were presented, Ephraim and Manasseh being counted only one tribe, that of Joseph. According to others, there were twelve rods, exclusively of that of Levi, which bore the name of Aaron.
And on the morrow, when Moses entered the sanctuary, "behold the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds." The symbolical teaching of this was plain. Each of these "rods" was a ruler's staff, the emblem of a tribe and its government. This was the natural position of all these princes of Israel. But theirs as well as Aaron's were rods cut off from the parent-stem, and therefore incapable of putting forth verdure, bearing blossom, or yielding fruit in the sanctuary of God. By nature, then, there was absolutely no difference between Aaron and the other princes; all were equally incapable of the new life of fruitfulness. What distinguished Aaron's rod was the selection of God and the miraculous gift bestowed upon it. And then, typically in the old, but really in the new dispensation, that rod burst at the same time into branches, into blossom, and even into fruit - all these three combined, and all appearing at the same time. And so these princes "took every man his rod," but Aaron's rod was again brought before the Ark of the Covenant, and kept there "for a token."* Nor was even the choice of the almond, which blossoms first of trees, without its deep meaning. For the almond, which bursts earliest into flower and fruit, is called in Hebrew "the waker" (shaked, comp. Jeremiah 1:11,12). Thus, as the "early waker," the Aaronic priesthood, with its buds, blossoms, and fruit, was typical of the better priesthood, when the Sun of Righteousness would rise "with healing in His wings."**
* Apparently, both the pot of manna and Aaron's rod were lost when the ark returned from the Philistine cities (see 1 Kings 8:9). This loss also was deeply significant - as it were, God's unspoken comment on the state of Israel.
** The significance of the Levitical sections, as they follow upon Numbers 17., will be apparent to the attentive reader. But this is not the place to enter further on the subject.