Screaming, terrorized people of all three families – Korah, Dathan and Abiram- rushed wildly and aimlessly in all directions. Then the quivering mound of ground suddenly collapsed and fell back into a deep, yawning chasm! Tons of soil and rock slipped off the vertical sides of this horrifying hole and thundered down into dark oblivion, taking people, tents, animals and most everything that belonged to Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Num. 16:31-33 and 26:10). It was as though a gigantic mouth had opened in the Earth’s crust and for one purpose of swallowing the rebellious men and their possessions!
The only ones spared in this unusual catastrophe were the children (Num. 26:11). God miraculously saved their lives by causing them to run in the directions in which they could escape. That way God could keep His promise to take all the children safely into the Promised Land (Num. 14:31 and Deut. 1:39).
For a few seconds the ground thrashed and rolled, churning the victims into the black depths. Then the sides of the pit crashed together with a mighty roar, dirt and sand spewing high into the sky in a dusty cloud. The pit closed so firmly and so evenly that there was little evidence left to show the three homes. Their families and all their flocks had peacefully existed there only a few seconds previously. God had struck with such quick punishment that the victims were both slain and buried in one devastating event!
This calamity was witnessed by a hord of inquisitive Israelites who madly scattered in horror from the scene of destruction, fearful that the ground would open up again and swallow all of them (Num. 16:34). People and tents were trampled in the chaotic mass stampede to flee from where the Earth had opened and closed so suddenly.
Among those who fled were the two hundred and fifty men who had followed Korah and who had brought their censers to see if God would choose them as priests. There were many among them who had begun to regret going along with Korah. But when they witnessed the dreadful end of their champion, they were filled with terror. Most of them fell in with the shocked people streaming away from the scene of destruction.
Even though they were soon scattered among thousands of others, all two hundred and fifty men suddenly met death by bolts of fire, shooting down from the sky (v. 35). People around them shrieked in abject fear as they saw the bodies of Korah’s followers burst into dazzling flames, glow brightly and then shrivel into masses of charred shapeless coals.
Later, God told Moses that one of Aaron’s sons, Eleazar, should gather up all the censers carried by those destroyed men because the censers had been consecrated for priestly service.
“The metals in those censers have been hallowed for service to Me,” God explained. “Save them so that they will be used in forming special plates with which to cover the altar of burnt offerings. Then let those plates be a reminder to the people that no one except the descendants of Aaron is to offer incense before Me. Anyone who does otherwise will be subject to the fate of Korah and those who followed him with their foolish ambitions” (vs. 38-40; II Chron. 26:14-21; and Heb. 5:4).
Many of the Israelites who had fled from the scene of terror didn’t stop until they had reached the bases of the mountains that were not far distant. Most of them gradually returned to their tents that same night, however, after it seemed evident that there probably wouldn’t be another horrible opening of the ground. Nevertheless, there was little sleep that night for many who vividly remembered the terrible events of that day.
Next morning, however, the general attitude of the people began to swing back to that of their usual rebellion. There were still many who wanted to see Moses and Aaron lose leadership. They spread tales that the earthquake and the sky fire of the day before were brought about by some kind of terrible magic. They blamed Moses and Aaron for using the magic to kill all those who had died.
This foolish gossip caught on like fire in a windy field of dry grass. By afternoon a sullen and growing crowd was milling around close to Moses’ tent. Moses was dismayed when he came out of his tent and the crowd began to shout.
“You have murdered the people who should have been put in God’s service!” they chanted (Num. 16:41).
The attitude of the people in the crowd showed that at least part of them actually doubted that the events of the day before were entirely God’s doing. Otherwise, they should have feared to make such a strong untrue accusation. At first Moses thought that only those gathered before his tent were blaming him for what had happened. He was more distressed when his officers began bringing in reports of people talking accusingly from all parts of the camps.
Moses went back into his tent to confer with Aaron, leaving the shouting crowd to be handled, if it were possible, by loyal Israelite officers. As soon as Moses entered his tent the crowd quickly became silent.
“The cloud is covering the tabernacle!” someone outside shouted excitedly. “A bright light is glowing from inside the tabernacle” (v. 42)!
Moses and Aaron knew that this meant that God wanted to talk to them. They hurried out of the tent, strode swiftly to the tabernacle and prostrated themselves before the piercing light.
“Get out of this vicinity at once! “God spoke to them. “I intend to snuff out the lives of all these people because of their sinful attitudes, their ugly disrespect!”’
Moses and Aaron were very fearful for all Israel when they heard these words from God. On their knees, with their foreheads bowed all the way to the grounds, they begged Him to be merciful and spare the people.
But even while they prayed, an officer rode in from an outlying part of one of the camps to announce that people were falling dead by the hundreds where he had just been. The news spread throughout the crowd, which then began to break up. Those who didn’t hurriedly leave started to moan and groan so loudly that Moses and Aaron were roused from their praying.
When Moses heard what was happening, he was more fearful than ever. “God has already started to wipe out Israel with some kind of terrible plague!” he exclaimed to Aaron. “Perhaps God’s wrath will subside if we humble ourselves by making a special atonement for the people. Take a censer, get hot coals from the altar and some incense and hurry out among the stricken people with it!”
Aaron quickly did as Moses commanded. He ran all the way to the camp where the deaths were taking place, and elbowed his way through knots of excited shouting, moaning people who were hurrying in all directions.
“Don’t go near them!” Aaron heard someone shout, and saw a man pointing a trembling hand at some figures grasping on the ground. “They have some awful disease that is causing them to suddenly choke to death! It’s spreading to other people” (vs. 43-46)!
Aaron quickly scanned the scene of horror before him. People were strewn everywhere. Some were motionless. Others were tossing and struggling, clawing feverishly at their own throats. Most of those attempting to flee from the dying masses were stumbling to the ground, only minutes later to fall victim to the mysterious force that was causing people’s throats to tighten shut.
Realizing that God was dealing with these people, Aaron stepped into the area between the dead and those who fled. He held his censer up and sprinkled incense on the glowing coals. As the perfumed smoke drifted upward, he uttered in deep sincerity a prayer for God to forgive the Israelites and stop the plague.
All round him people were stumbling down, overcome by the throat-clutching plague. But when Aaron finished praying and looked about, he saw that none of those fleeing were falling to the ground. They were leaving the dead far behind. It was plain to Aaron that God was allowing the people to escape, and that meant that the plague was stopped (vs. 47-48)!
As a result of the faith of Moses and Aaron, God had decided at the last moment to spare the people. If Moses and Aaron hadn’t earnestly prayed to Him, the whole history of Israel and the world would have been altered!
This is one of the outstanding examples of all time of how answered prayer can change the course of history. There have been many other times – more than most people realize. God is always ready to listen to the appeals of those who faithfully obey Him.
However, God is not what some might term a soft-hearted pushover. There is more love and mercy in His character than human beings can understand, but that mercy is tempered by judgment and justice. God’s mercy extends in much greater measure than we can imagine to those who are willing to let God rule them. But He does punish the wicked for their own ultimate good.
Once again a great number of Israelites were sobered by their close brush with death, though far from all of them realized just how near they had come to being completely wiped out.
It was no small task to remove the victims of the short-lived plague. 14,700 bodies were taken from the camp and buried at a distance in the wilderness sand. This figure did not include any who were taken because of the rebellion of Korah and his supporters (vs. 49-50).
All this loss of life had come about mostly because of the greedy desire of ambitious men to take over the high offices of the nation. Although God had performed astounding miracles to show that the wrong people wouldn’t be allowed in the priesthood, there were still men who coveted those high positions, and many more who were yet to be convinced that the Levites weren’t to be replaced by others outside their tribe.
God wanted to settle this issue once and for all, by performing one more miracle in which a few leaders would have a part. He was now going to convince the last of the doubters.
Carrying out instructions from God, Moses commanded each of the twelve tribal princes to bring him the official staff or rod of his respective tribe. These rods had been in the various families for a long time. They had been fashioned from straight tree limbs that had become hard, seasoned and polished. The rod for the tribe of Levi as the one used by Moses in Egypt to perform miracles. It was later presented to Aaron.
On each of the rods was inscribed the name of the prince of the tribe to which it belonged. Aaron’s name was inscribed on his staff for the tribe of Levi. In the presence of the princes Moses took all the rods and placed them in the tabernacle close to the ark (Num. 17:1-7).
“Tomorrow I shall go back after the rods,” Moses told the leaders and the crowd behind them. “One of those rods, even though they are actually nothing but hard, dry sticks, will tomorrow be budded out as though it were a green branch. The rod that is budded will indicate in which tribe the priesthood will exist from now on!”
There were smiles and expressions of doubt on all the faces except Aaron’s. The tabernacle was guarded all that night. Next morning when Moses brought the rods out of the tabernacle for inspection, those expressions of doubt turned to that of amazement.
All the rods were the same as when they had been put in the tabernacle the day before; that is, except the staff with Aaron’s name on it representing the tribe of Levi. It was studded with live limbs ending in tender buds, green leaves, reddish blossoms and even a few almonds ready to pick (vs. 8-9)!
“Now deny that evidence that God wants the priesthood to remain only in the tribe of Levi!” Moses told the astonished leaders. Heads nodded in silent agreement as the crowd broke up. At God’s command, Moses put Aaron’s rod back in the Ark of the Covenant as a stern reminder to would be rebels. From that time on there were no more great efforts to take over the priesthood (vs. 10-11 and Heb. 9).
The people were so impressed by this latest miracle that they told Moses they finally realized that they didn’t dare go anywhere near the tabernacle in an effort to get the priesthood because God would slay them all if they did (Num. 17:12-13).
Be watching for the next installment of the Story of the Bible.