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B'Midbar/Numbers 16:34 And all Israel that was around them fled at their sound, for they said, "Lest the earth swallow us!"
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We now find ourselves in the middle of another tense moment in the wilderness life of the Israelites. Taking out, perhaps, their frustration at heading back into the desert under the sentence of never personally entering the Land they had been promised, Korah - a Levite and cousin of Moshe - manages to stir up a revolt against Moshe. The issue appears to concern the question of priesthood: who can act as a priest. Before Mt. Sinai, the firstborn in each family had been able to perform priestly duties for his household - now only the sons of Aharon can be priests and only the Levites are allowed to assist them. All the firstborn of the other tribes are completely disenfranchised. Beneath the surface, however - as will be seen a little later on in the story involving the staffs of each of the twelve tribal leaders, this is a more general rebellion against Moshe's leadership. As Korah says to Moshe and Aharon at the start of the incident, "You take too much upon yourselves! After all, the entire community is holy, every one of them and Adonai is among them. So why do you lift yourselves up above Adonai's community?" (B'Midbar 16:3, CJB). HasHaShem really chosen Moshe and told him to set everything up this way, or is it just overblown nepotism? In the background is surely the underlying complaint, "Who said we have to back to the desert again?" Is this just Moshe throwing a fit because the Israelites wouldn't obey him?
In the immediate sequence of which this forms a part, Moshe has gone to challenge Dathan and Abiram, at HaShem's instruction. He tells all their neighbours to move away from their tents, specifically warning them to "Move away from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins" (v. 26, NJPS). Stephen Sherwood points out that the verb , to sweep away, used in the last phrase , "lest you be swept away", also appears twice in Avraham's challenge to HaShem over Sodom - "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?" (B'resheet 18:23-24, NJPS) - and twice in the angels' words to Lot as he is saved from the destruction: "Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city ... Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away" (19:15,17, NJPS). Sherwood concludes that "YHVH will not sweep away the good with the bad, but eventually the good must get out of the way let they be swept up with the wicked."1
After Moshe finishes speaking, "the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah's people and all their possessions" (B'Midbar 16:31-32, NJPS). Jacob Milgrom comments that the phrase "they vanished from the midst of the congregation" (v. 33, NJPS) is significant because although it uses the verb , "to become lost, perish, be carried off" (Davidson), it "implies the penalty of karet, extirpation, and indeed all traces of the line of Dathan and Abiram were eliminated." They and their descendants disappeared from the people of Israel.
Now we come to our text. What was their sound? The noun , used with with a 3mp possessive pronoun suffix, 'their', has a number or meanings - voice, cry, sound, report or news, thunder2 - a number of which might be possible here.Rashi simply says, "because of the sound that emerged upon their being swallowed up," while the Rashbam suggests that "the 'cry' of them was the shrieking they made as they fell: 'At the sound of their fall the earth shall tremble; the sound of their cry shall be heard at the Red Sea' (Jeremiah 49:21, ESV)." Seismologists might explain that the sound, like 'thunder' was the scraping of the rocks as the tectonic plates jostled against each other, the acoustic shock of the subterranean forces involved in a plate shift or collision. Modern day sink-holes - opening at the surface because of old, perhaps forgotten, mine-workings far underground - make extremely loud noises as tons of rock and soil move and collapse. The use of the 'their' pronoun is the determinant factor. 'Their' here refers to 'they' in the previous verse - "They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation" (B'Midbar 16:33, NJPS) - which, in turn, refers to Dathan, Abiram and their families: "Dathan and Abiram had come out and they stood at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, their children, and their little ones" (v, 27, NJPS).
What happens next? Our text vividly tells us. Everyone runs for their lives. TheChizkuni comments: "The people scattered out of fright because of the cry of those who were swallowed up." Wouldn't you have done the same? Perhaps too, the people are struck by the thought that it might have been them. If Korah, Dathan and Abiram actually surfaced and expressed their feelings in rebellion, it is very likely that many others in the camp were resentful about being back in the desert and uppity about what they thought was Moshe's high-handed and dictatorial behaviour. Dennis Olson is sure of it: "The earth's swallowing of the rebels causes panic among the rest of the congregation as they run and cry out, 'The earth will swallow us too!' The people reveal some inkling that they may be somewhat implicated in the whole affair as well."3 For Korah to have been able to assemble a party of two hundred and fifty men - and not just nobodies, but "chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute" (v. 2, NJPS) - there must have been pretty widespread discontent and agreement that something needed to be done. When Korah challenged Moshe, with the support of Dathan and Abiram, a lot of voices in the camp would have muttered under their breath, "Me too! Korah speaks for us as well!" That is why the Torah bluntly records that all Israel fled at the sound, lest they be swallowed up too!
Let's take one more look at the response of the people in this incident and then see how we might be affected by the same issues. In verse 26, Moshe warns the assembly - - to move away and not touch anything belonging to the rebels, lest they are "swept away in all their sins." The text then uses a plural verb to report that 'they' moved away, from the root , to go up; hardly an energetic response. The people moved as individuals, some more, some less, some reluctantly, probably some hardly at all; they didn't move as one people. In verse 34, while the verb - to flee, escape, go away4 - is still plural, this time is indicative of the people scattering in every direction, unable to move fast enough to get away from the epicentre. The people were not particularly bothered about disengaging from sin to save their souls, but moved like lightening to save their skins. Does that sound familiar?
On the question of sin - whether it is sticky or not, or whether it draws us in - the writer to the Hebrews is very clear. He writes about "the sin which so easily entangles us" (Hebrews 12:1, ESV); that sounds pretty adhesive to me! Some people maintain that they have no problem with sin; they can ignore it or leave it. "No problem," they say, "being around sin. We just don't do it and can walk away untouched at any time." That isn't the advice that Rav Sha'ul gives Timothy; on the contrary he urges him, "But as for you, O man of G-d, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness" (1 Timothy 6:11, ESV). That seems to suggest that sin is highly dangerous and that we should flee - the same word as our text - from it at all times and pursue instead exactly the opposite direction. This is echoed by Peter, who quotes the Psalmist to say, "Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it" (1 Peter 3:10-11, ESV).
We should be explicitly and consistently turning away from evil, from sin and instead doing good. This needs to be actively and persistently pursued so that we don't become contaminated or tainted by sin and so grow numb and fall away from our relationship with Yeshua. We are to "make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Romans 13:14, ESV). Cut yourselves no slack, make no excuses and don't put yourself foolishly and needlessly in the way of temptation. As HaShem told Cain, "Sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master" (B'resheet 4:7, NJPS). This applies to every single one of us. Your choice; what are you going to do today?
1. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 165.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 390.
3. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 105.
4. - Clines, page 265.
Further Study: Romans 13:11-14; Ephesians 4:20-24
Application: Have you ever been hooked and drawn in by sin that you knew was wrong and had determined to resist, but nevertheless found yourself doing? Learn the lesson and flee from even the suspicion of sin so that it cannot get you again. Call on Yeshua and run like crazy, lest you too be swallowed up by it.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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