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B'Midbar/Numbers 16:18 And each man took his firepan and they put fire on them and they placed incense on them, and they stood [at] the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and Moshe and Aharon.
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Following the assertion by Korah and his co-insurrectonists that "all the community [of Israel] is holy" (B'Midbar 16:3, NJPS) and should therefore be allowed to participate directly in the work of the cult in the worship of G-d, a ritual is devised to tell who has been given holy status and so can draw near to G-d. We should notice that the two hundred and fifty men standing with Korah were "chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute" (v. 2, NJPS); they were not Levites, they were Israelites drawn from the other tribes. Some scholars includingIbn Ezra have suggested that they might have been the firstborn in their families and displaced by the Levites from serving G-d for their tribes and families. Nechama Leibowitz reports that "Korah's followers were simply a band of malcontents, each harbouring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moshe and Aharon and hoping thereby to attain their individual desires." Be that as it may, given Moshe's words to all the Children of Israel on behalf of the L-rd at the start of the revelation at Sinai, "you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:6, NASB), where the pronoun 'you' is the Hebrew , plural, addressing all the people, their argument does appear to have some merit.
So what is going on in this passage and how does our text help us to understand what Korah's argument was all about? In the Mishnah, the ancient sages distinguish between arguments that are "for the sake of heaven" and those that are not. The former are defined as a dispute over a legal point where both parties are working to clarify the exact meaning of the Torah so that everyone knows what they have to do, whereas the latter are disputes driven by personal concerns with no real regard for the holiness of the Torah. The sages give their opinion that "Korah's dispute is one that is not being pursued in a heavenly cause" (m. Pirkei Avot 5:17). So this ritual, this trial by combat, as it were, provoked by Korah is rightly described as a rebellion; it is not a legal test case being brought to clarifyHaShem's choice of the sons of Aharon as priests and the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle. There is sin involved and Korah and his fellow rebels are being called to judgement. This is delivered at the end of the story - although the clearing up remains to be done - in the last verse of the chapter: "a fire went forth from the L-RD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense" (B'Midbar 16:35, NJPS).
Thomas Dozeman is one of a number of commentators to point out that "the ritual with 'censers' and 'incense' provides many parallels to Vayikra 10:1-3, where Aharon's sons, Nadab and Abihu, also take censers, put fire on them, burn incense before G-d and die."1 Let's explore this a little further to see what might emerge. It seems that two principle offences precipitated the outburst of fire: the first is procedural, the second is a matter of status. The earlier passage tells us that "Aharon's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the L-RD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them" (Vayikra 10:1, NJPS). The similarity here hinges around the phrase , variously translated as alien, strange or unauthorised fire - fire that was not solicited by HaShem. Jacob Milgrom notices that while Moshe mentions fire in the first description of the trial - "take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the L-RD" (B'Midbar 16:6-7, NJPS), he doesn't repeat that in the second description: "Each of you take his fire pan and lay incense on it, and each of you bring his fire pan before the L-RD" (v. 17, NJPS). "Is this omission," Milgrom asks, "a hint that Korah and the chieftains were guilty of offering , unauthorised fire, that is, not from the altar - the sin of Nadab and Abihu (Vayikra 10:2)?" In other words, they didn't follow the prescribed ritual for taking fire coals for the incense offering from the altar as Aharon is instructed for the Yom Kippur ritual: "he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the L-RD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil " (Vayikra 16:12, ESV). They simply used their own fire - and that was strange fire. Milgrom supports his argument by pointing out that in the next chapter when plague strikes the people because they are complaining about the death of Korah's band, "it is hardly accidental that when Moshe asks Aharon to offer incense he specifies that the fire be taken from the altar": "Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them" (B'Midbar 17:11, NJPS).
The other approach - based on status - is outlined by RabbiHirsch. He contrasts this case with the earlier one, reasoning that, "in the case of Nadab and Abihu, the persons were entitled to officiate, but the offering was unlawful because it was devised subjectively by themselves." Nadab and Abihu were correctly ordained priests, sons of Aharon - they were authorised to bring incense offerings. Their problem was that no incense offering was required or ordered at that moment, so that the offering itself was out of order: they just did it because they wanted to. In Korah's case, Hirsch continues, "the unlawfulness lay in the persons themselves that they stepped forth with their firepans presenting themselves as priests justified to perform priestly functions." Korah's people appropriated the status of priests; in effect, they told HaShem that they considered themselves entitled to carry out the function of the priests in bringing an incense offering, even though He had specifically said to the contrary. This supported by the Torah's grim epithet when the two hundred and fifty firepans were hammered out into a covering for the altar, "It was to be a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider -- one not of Aaron's offspring -- should presume to offer incense before the L-RD and suffer the fate of Korah and his band" (17:5, NJPS).
How do believers in Yeshua apply these ideas to themselves? On the subject of status, Rav Sha'ul makes it clear that Jew and Gentile alike have been grafted into "the nourishing root of the olive tree" (Romans 11:17, ESV). Those who were "separated from Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise" (Ephesians 2:12, ESV) have been brought near so that they are "no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of G-d" (v. 19, ESV). We are now all "being built together into a dwelling place for G-d by the Spirit" (v. 22, ESV). The apostle Peter says that followers of Yeshua are "chosen and precious" (1 Peter 2:4, ESV), and "like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to G-d through Yeshua the Messiah" (v. 5, ESV). He then uses the very same words that G-d spoke to the Israelites at Sinai to include Gentile believers into G-d's family: "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (v. 9, ESV). These writings would seem to make it clear that Jewish and Gentile believers are part of the Commonwealth of Israel and do have the status that allows them to bring offerings of prayers and praise to G-d.
On the subject of process, the New Covenant writings offer unambiguous opinion. Yeshua tells the disciples, "Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it" (John 14:13-14, ESV). John sees a vision of "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8, ESV), which are offered by an angel on the golden alter before the throne so that "the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before G-d" (8:4, ESV). The writer to the Hebrews writes that through our "great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Yeshua, the Son of G-d" (Hebrews 4:14, ESV), we may "with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (v. 16, ESV). Rav Sha'ul urges us to "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:18, ESV). These writings pick up the analogy of the incense being offered and declare that we have both the process and procedure to enter G-d's presence and offer Him our prayers.
Lastly, as regards the subject of fire, we who are believers receive the promise that John spoke of Yeshua, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11, NASB), the same Spirit whom Peter described as, "the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the L-rd our G-d shall call to Himself" (Acts 2:38-39, NASB). The same Word and Spirit that Jeremiah identified "in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones" (Jeremiah 20:9, NASB) is in us, "the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8:26, NASB). We have the very fire of G-d in us, given as "a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession" (Ephesians 1:14, NASB). He is no strange or alien fire!
In our day, then, the followers of Yeshua are authorised to serve G-d, they are equipped and enabled to serve G-d and they have the means for offering holy and pure sacrifices of praise, worship and prayer to G-d by the Holy Spirit and in the name of Yeshua. We should move in the power of G-d, according to the calling that He has given us, to proclaim His Name to the whole world; we should glorify Him in all that we say and do, allowing the Spirit to direct in prayer and ministry so that "the L-RD will become king over all the earth; on that day the L-RD will be one and His name one" (Zechariah 14:9, NRSV).
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 755.
Further Study: Psalm 39:1-5; Psalm 141:1-2; James 4:1-3
Application: How can you allow the fire of the Spirit to flow through you today to empower your service as an acceptable sacrifice before the Father? Call on the name of Yeshua and cry out for His grace; He is there for you!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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