NUMBERS CHAPTERS 11-19
The Israelites were complaining about the current hardship they were experiencing. How soon they have forgotten the hardship of slavery back in Egypt (Ex 1:13-14). However, we must remind ourselves that freedom from slavery does not necessarily mean freedom from toil and hardship. Even Paul reminds us that “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Salvation is not a road to material prosperity. Too often Christianity is seen as a way out of poverty and hardship (a view no doubt encouraged by tv-evangelists and those spouting the so-called prosperity gospel). Our God will supply all our needs (Phil 4:19), but He did not say that He will supply all our wants. How often do we complain when we do not get what we want, even if all our needs have been met? We do not even give thanks to God for His daily provision (Matt 6:11), and yet we complain, like spoilt brats.
Note that it was the rabble within that began to incite the Israelites to covet other food. Who were these rabble? They were the non-Israelites who had taken the opportunity to escape from Egypt along with the exodus of the Israelites (Ex 12:38). They probably did not acknowledge the God of the Israelites, but were opportunists who flowed with whomever had the upper hand at the time. When hardship came, they were the first to look backward. However, the Israelites were also responsible in that they were prepared to listen to those outside their community rather than their own elders who were appointed by their God. The lesson here is that too often we in the Church have allowed non-Christian standards and morals to be imposed on us, and we covert what the world deems as “necessary” or “important”. Once we get on that worldly treadmill, nothing will be enough, and we forget the God that has and will supply all our needs. By coveting something, we stop relying on God, and instead rely on our own efforts to obtain it. Coveting what others have, or even what we previously had, takes us away from the provision and acknowledgement of grace from God. That is why the tenth commandment says that we should not covet (Ex 20:17). Covetousness is not the physical obtaining of a neighbour’s possession, but the desire to possess something which is not ours. Coveting makes us forget the grace of God, and makes us return to our old ways. Jesus reminds us that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). Evidently the Israelites had forgotten about God when they began to look back to Egypt.
When we let covetousness control us, the obsession turns into craving. It takes over our thoughts and lives. Our sinful nature males us crave for “other food”. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians: "Do not satisfy the cravings of the sinful nature” (Eph 2:3)
Both Aaron and Miriam (12:1-2) and some of the tribal leaders like Korah, Dathan and Abiram (16:1-3) began to have self-righteous thoughts and deemed themselves equal if not greater than God’s appointed leadership. The Bible describes such actions as “insolence” (16:1). The source of such thoughts more often than not have their root in pride. With pride comes the need to covet the position of leadership. We see here that it is not the rank and file that are mentioned, but the very leaders who were appointed members of the Israelite council. Oftentimes experience of leadership and power leads one to be prideful, forgetting who it was that put them there in the first place, and who it is that they are serving. It is a reversal of position. We see Moses, who while the leader, was the servant of the community (12:3); contrasted with the others, like Aaron, Miriam, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who while supposed to serve the tabernacle and the community, wanting to become the leader. Jesus lived out the principle typified by Moses, that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:26-28). The “antidote” to self-righteousness is to be like Jesus (Phil 2:3-11), like Moses (Num 12:3). The keyword is humility, which is the opposite of pride.
Are we satisfied / contented with our present position? The Bible says that godliness with contentment is great gain (1Tit 6:6 ). However, if we have pride and cravings, we will never be satisfied, even if we have reached the pinnacle of our abilities. In the case of Aaron, he was No.2 to Moses, the high priest of Israel. In the case of Korah’s group, they were already the leaders of the people, serving in the council of elders. Yet, they still craved for more, to the extent of wanting to claim and covet what is not theirs. When covetousness results in the replacing of a properly appointed person with another, the position is usurped. We often forget the Bible’s reminder that “all authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Rom 13:1-2). As such, usurpation is a direct challenge to God’s authority.
The next question would be, are we willing to submit to the authority? To what extent should we submit to authority? If all authority is placed there by God, should we simply be a doormat and let them walk all over us? Again, Romans chapter 13 gives us the answer, that if one does no wrong, he should not fear the authorities, “for he is God’s servant to do you good” (Rom 13:4). If for whatever reasons we do not like our bosses, or whoever is placed in a position of authority over us, we should submit because of conscience (Rom 13:5). A direct challenge, or to undermine the authority of the appointed leader (eg. by gossip, slander, etc) is to challenge the authority of God. Why then are we unwilling to submit? Again, it boils down to pride (see above).
When we do not let God lead, but instead trust in our own abilities (and limitations), we will very soon reject God and His ways, despite the signs and miracles that He may have wrought in our presence. This was the case with the twelve men that went to explore Canaan. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, all the rest saw the promise of God through their own eyes. They have forgotten that it was God that led them to Canaan, and that it would be He that would take Israel in. This incident also shows how a few yeast of dissent can work through the entire assembly, and is a timely lesson for all of us when dissent begins to spread within our congregations. How did the dissent spread?
First the spies distort reality. They misrepresent the facts by mixing the truth with exaggerations. By stating the fact that there were inhabitants in the land and embellishing it with their twisted reality (“we seemed like grasshoppers in their eyes”), the truth is concealed.
Then they disillusion the people about ever getting the land. First the “facts” were stated, then the hope is crushed. When one’s hope is based on anything other than God, then it will be subject to failure.
There is strength in numbers. Together, they incite disobedience and rebellion in the assembly. As a whole, they have forgotten God, and all the signs and wonders that He had done for them in their journey out of Egypt. When one is caught up by this herd mentality, and do not think for ourselves and remember to give thanks to God, we will fall prey to dissent.
Disobedience results in rebellion. Why do people rebel? What do they hope to achieve in rebellion?
There is authority in leadership. To some, this is equated to power and control. This is one of the main reason why people rebel against the established leadership - they want the power and authority not rightfully theirs, therefore they take it by force.
There is also perceived prestige in leadership. Some aspire to positions of power for the prestige it will bring. The root of this is pride.
Whoever has money never has money enough (Ecc 5:10). Even though Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their associates were already leaders and elders of Israel, they were not satisfied and coveted the position and authority of Moses.
Authority from the people
The rebels used the pretext of the "democratic" process to justify their actions. They presume that the authority given from the people was sufficient to justify their claim to power, while at the same time forgetting that it was God that gave them their eldership in the first place. We also forget that man is sinful by nature (Rom 7:5), and are therefore fallible. The people’s decision may not be the correct decision.
Authority from Moses
Because the rebels say everything from man’s perspective, they presume that the authority from Moses is fallible because he was a man, just as their own authority was. As such, they attack Moses' very integrity.
Authority from God
Finally, they presumed that God will sanction their actions (Num 16:3), just because the majority “voted” so.
When punishment for rebellion came, we wonder why the families of the rebels were also killed (Num 16:31-33). Why should the “innocent” also suffer? We forget the principle of responsibility. As head of their households, Korah, Dathan & Abiram were wholly to blame for their families' deaths. It is the same thing when a drunk driver crashes his car into a river and kills all his “innocent” passengers, or a foolish government embarks on a war and in the process cause untold misery on the “innocent” civilians. Or, to quote another Biblical case, King David was responsible for the death of his first son by Bathsheba (2Sam 12:13-14) The incident in Numbers shows that our actions will carry over to all that we are responsible for. It reminds us of the responsibilities that we carry, and to consider every action in the light of it.
We are accountable for our actions. It resulted in the entire generation that rebelled dying in the desert (Num 13:29-33). We can’t hope to sin and get away scott free. Every action has its consequences.
Only through the intercessory action of the high priest Aaron was Israel saved from total punishment for their foolish actions (Num 16:46-48). So also are we saved through Christ, our great high priest.
The opposite of disobedience and rebellion against God is to have faith in Him. However, how do we have faith in God in the midst of adversity? Faith begins when we acknowledge God’s provisions, submit to His authority, and finally, obey Him totally.
Will God provide?
If God led the Israelites through the Red Sea and into the desert, wouldn't He provide? If God has taken us on our walk with Him thus far, wouldn’t He provide for the journey ahead?
Will God sustain?
Often we equate God with man, and think that His provision is limited and will run out, just like the Israelites did. However, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psa 24), and “Our God shall supply all our needs, according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). We must remember that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6).
Will God lead?
Will God lead the Israelites into battle, and will He be present? If we rebel and are disobedient, then God’s presence will not go with us, as the Israelites tested Him in Numbers 14:44-45. In their presumption, the Israelites went to battle the Amalekites and Canaanites, even though God said that He would not be with them. The result was a resounding defeat for the Israelites. However, if we continue to have faith in Him, and obey His commands, He will be with us always, even till the end of the age (Matt 28:20).
What, then, is the lesson to be learnt? For Christians, the ultimate victory is total submission to God. This paradox, where those who aspire to greatness must first be the servant of all (Matt 20:26), has as its basis the principle of submission. Who, then, should we submit to? Do we obey every whim and fancy of the government, even if it is morally wrong; or to peer pressure from our colleagues and friends? The order is submit first to God (Ex 20:2-5, Matt 22:37, Jas 4:7), then to the authorities (Rom 13:5; Heb 13:17), and finally to one another (Eph 5:21). Even when the Israelites had been given these principles (in Ex 20, etc.), they still disobeyed God’s instructions (Num 14:11), rebelled against the appointed authority (Num 12:1-2; 16:1-2), and did not listen to good advice from Joshua and Caleb but yielded to peer pressure and dissent from the other 10 spies (Num 13:30-14:10). Therefore we see that the principle of submission is easier heard than practiced. It takes faith and obedience to God in order to submit.
When we finally take the step of faith to submit and obey God, what should our attitudes be? We see contrasting responses in the person of Moses, Joshua and Caleb, and the Israelites.
We are to obey God in humility (Num 12:3), not because we have to, but because we want to.
When you obey, who or what is it that you trust? Our trust should be in the Lord and His promise (Num 14:8-9).
Obedience has to have action. Faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17,26). When the people were finally tested by whether they would go in to take the land, they balked. Only Joshua and Caleb were willing to put their faith in God into action (Num 14:6-9). We can liken this to our willingness to confess our faith before the world, or to undergo water baptism, etc. Are we willing to obey God by putting our faith into action?
1) What should we do if we "feel" that the leadership is wrong?
2) Why is rebellion always wrong and never justifiable?
3) To what extent should we submit and obey? Why or why not?
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© Nicholas Tay 1996, 1998