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 protest 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 hit or 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 of every belief; as soon as God is beginning 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 only bring 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 that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 10:10 that the people in Korah’s rebellion were “killed by the destroying angel.” Paul’s reference in this verse is Korah’s rebellion: “Scholars generally choose between Numbers 14 and 16…Stronger evidence supports Numbers 16. Paul's allusion suggests urgency, extensive danger and immediacy in the punishment of death by 'the destroying angel'. In Numbers 14, the Lord forgave. Thus Robertson and Plummer are 'certain' that the Korah incident was in Paul's view. The decisive support evidence is Paul's use of the Greek word…which establishes a clear word agreement with Numbers 16:33 and 17:12. The Korah incident also supports more cogently Paul's argument.” (Canaan to Corinth, pg. 70-71).
So, who is the “destroying angel” that Paul is referring to? Revelation 9:11 identifies this being as Satan. 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 Planet 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. 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 un-folded to us. God did not fully reveal Satan until it was safe to do so (i.e. when he could do it in human form). In Jesus, God was able to reveal, expose and defeat the one who uses the methods of coercion and violence.
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 for this and said that they did not know what spirit that sort of request came from. Could we say that it is un-Christian
(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 might say “I hate my enemies with a total hatred” (Psalm 139), but we don’t see Jesus doing that so let’s not to wish those things on our enemies.
The story of Job is the best example in the Old Testament of “how things work.” We should thank God every day for the protection that he extends over all of us (both the “righteous” and the “wicked”). When God’s protection is removed, the Devil goes out as a roaring lion to destroy. In Job, Satan even controls the elements against Job’s family and possessions. This protection is how we should interpret what is described in Revelation as the “holding back of the winds.” When rebellion pushes God away, the destroyer does what he does – creating death and destruction in his wake.
Finally, 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 (i.e. – “Now there is a God with hair on his chest! That’s a God I can admire!”), or are more people pushed into protest atheism with the thought that God acts in that way? So, perhaps it wasn’t entirely foolish for Satan to act in this way.
– Brad and Dorothee Cole