By Brad and Dorothee Cole
One of the most troubling stories in the Old Testament is Korah's rebellion where the earth opened up to swallow those who rebelled against God (Numbers 16:31, 32). The Bible says that after this a fire came out “from the Lord” (vs. 35) and destroyed 250 men.
There are many who can’t take the Old Testament seriously because of the vengeful picture of God that seems to come through. Some are driven to atheism – “if God is like that, he isn’t worthy of my worship and admiration.”
The single most liberating belief for us is the core conviction that God is exactly like Jesus. Or, said in another way, Jesus was God in human form. Jesus never killed anyone and repeatedly said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus died while forgiving his enemies and encouraged us to treat our enemies the same way. As we seek to understand stories like this, the character of God as revealed by Jesus must take supremacy; as soon as God begins to look like a flame-throwing, bone-crunching deity we should consider the possibility that we haven’t understood the story correctly.
First, it’s helpful to establish how serious this rebellion was. Moses asked Korah to bring only his 250 followers, yet “the entire community” (vs. 19) came to rebel against Moses and Aaron. Even after the earth opened up and others were destroyed by fire, the people were not intimidated away from their rebellion against God. The mutiny persisted since, “The next day the whole community complained against Moses and Aaron…” (vs. 41). This was a full-out revolt and it seemed that there was no one left who supported Moses. God was about to lose his people entirely.
Many times in the Old Testament God is described as actively doing what he instead allowed to occur. This is an important principle if we are to understand the Old Testament correctly. Please read this article if you need some evidence to support that position.
Is this story yet another example of this recurring theme? It is fascinating to read Paul describe in 1 Corinthians 10:10 that the people in Korah’s rebellion were “killed by the destroying angel.”
Who is the “destroying angel” that Paul is referring to?
An important principle of interpreting the Old Testament is to understand the relative absence of Satan. He is only named three times in comparison to abundant references in the New Testament including the final book of the Bible which is entirely about the “war in heaven” and Satan’s attempts to deceive those on earth.
We need to put Satan back into the Old Testament. God veiled Satan in the Old Testament partly because he didn’t want people to worship him as another god. But the first thing that Jesus did when he began his ministry was to expose Satan in the wilderness temptation. Jesus’ mission concluded with the complete defeat of the Serpent, “Now is the critical moment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be exposed” (John 12:31).
The New Testament understanding moves away from attributing violence to God and shifts the blame to Satan. Jesus never uses violence. The book of Revelation portrays God as the suffering victim of violence (the “violently slaughtered Lamb”) while Satan is labeled as the “Destroyer”. This is a message that had to be slowly unfolded to us. In Jesus, God was able to finally reveal, expose and defeat the one who uses the methods of coercion and violence.
Why would Satan do what Moses warned about?
One difficult question to consider, however, is why Satan would do what Moses warned about when he said that the earth would open up and swallow those who followed Korah. As a parallel story, Elijah commanded fire down to destroy his enemies. Following that lead, the disciples asked Jesus to do the same. Of course, Jesus strongly rebuked them and said that they did not know what spirit that sort of request came from. Could we say that it is not Christ-like to ask for our enemies to be swallowed up by the earth or destroyed by fire? We should only do what we see Jesus doing. We aren’t followers of Moses or Elijah. The Psalmist might bless the action of dashing babies against rocks and say, “I hate my enemies with a total hatred” (Psalm 139), but we don’t see Jesus doing that.
Did the story of Korah help or hurt God’s reputation? Are more people today drawn to God because of the traditional understanding of this story, or are more people pushed into atheism with the thought that God acts in that way? Perhaps it wasn’t entirely foolish for Satan to act in this way.
This is an abbreviated version of a blog entry by Brad and Dorothee on their website, godscharacter.com. You can read the original post here: http://godscharacter.com/index.php/bible-study/numbers/numbers-16
Drs. Brad and Dorothee Cole work as neurologists at the Loma Linda VA hospital and teach neuroscience and neurology education at Loma Linda University (LLU). Brad and Dorothee also edited Servant God, a multi-authored book about God’s character.