Today's reading is Numbers 16-17 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers the rebellion by Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On, and their followers; God's response to the rebellion; the people's complaints about God's resolution; and the blossoming of Aaron's staff as a final resolution to the issue.
It could almost be a running joke, or at least a motif, in Numbers: the people complain about something, God threatens to kill them all, Moses intervenes on the people's behalf, God relents and sends a lesser punishment, and the people start complaining again. This chain of events repeats not once, but twice in the two chapters which form our readings for today. in the first case (Num. 16:1-40), the issue is that Moses and Aaron have raised themselves above the rest of the congregation, who are by God's own admission, holy. Korah the Levite, a few Reubenites, and their 250 followers want to know what's so special about Moses and his brother that warrants special treatment.
In response, Moses tells Korah and his followers to come to the tabernacle the next day with incense-filled censers, and God will show them who's holy. Furthermore, he asks Korah and his Levite followers, and I paraphrase, "isn't being separated from the rest of the people and allowed to serve in the tabernacle enough for you? Why do you also want to be priests?" (Num. 16:8-11)
God's response, however, is not so reasoned. The next day, when Korah and his followers arrive at the tabernacle, God tells Moses he is going to kill the entire congregation of Israel. (Num. 16:20) My astute readers will remember that God said exactly the same thing a mere two chapters before in Num. 14. Yet again, Moses is forced to turn aside God's wrath, and the lord settles for merely bringing an earthquake to swallow the ringleaders into the earth and a fire to consume their 250 followers. (Num. 16:31-35)
You would think this would be enough to teach the Israelites their lesson.
Instead, the congregation immediately starts complaining again. This time they are annoyed that God has killed "the people of the Lord." (Num. 16:41, KJV) Yet again, God becomes angry and threatens to kill the entire ungrateful population. (Num. 16:45) Indeed, God sends a plague that kills 14,700 people before Aaron makes the proper atonement and ends it. (Num. 16:46-50)
To make it absolutely, unequivocally clear that God has chosen the Levites to serve him, and to end this complaining once and for all, God has the leader of each tribe place a rod at the tabernacle. The next day, Aaron's rod, representing the Levite tribe, has blossomed and yielded almonds. (Num. 17:1-11) You would think this would be enough for any people, but the chapter ends with the Israelites complaining that they will all die. (Num. 17:12-13)
I see two primary issues which arise from these incidents. First, why is God so angry? Second, how could the people still be complaining?
This hardly seems like a God who is "slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion." (Num. 14:18, NIV) In the span of three chapters, God has threatened to destroy the entire Israelite population, his chosen people, three times. It is only through Moses' quick thinking that 600,000 men and their families stayed alive. And, as a punitive measure, God still killed nearly 15,000 people! This doesn't seem like the charitable, loving God of the New Testament.
We are forced to reconcile, yet again, God's words with his actions. What can we say about a god who trumpets himself as a merciful and forgiving, but who takes any opportunity to threaten his chosen people with extinction? For one thing, he certainly had good P.R. For another, actions speak louder than words. No matter what God says, he certainly seems pretty trigger-happy.
The flip-side of this argument is, "how could the Israelites have been so stupid?" They witnessed miracle upon miracle, and yet they still complain. Right after God sends fire and earthquake to destroy those who spoke against him and his prophets, they're complaining again. Were they blind?
In a similar journal to mine, Blogging the Bible, David Plotz offers two explanations for why the Israelites continue to complain. First, they may be "faithless, cynical skeptic[s]." Second, they "didn't actually witness the events [they were] supposed to have witnessed." Of the two, Plotz suggests that the latter is more reasonable, and I am inclined to agree with him. After all, there were 600,000 men in the camp along with their families. Even if the tabernacle were pretty large and all the congregation showed up to witness the miracles, it's a safe bet that most of the people would not have been able to see. Think back to the last time you went to a big parade or a popular concert without a raised stage. If you're several people back in the crowd, you're going to have a hard time seeing. And with a congregation of potentially two million people, there would be a lot of crowding.
It might just be that the Israelites didn't witness the miracles, and so were more confident in their complaints. It might be that they thought they were seeing mere trickery, as Pharaoh's magicians were able to replicate many of the early plagues. (Ex. 7-8) It might even be that they were complacent, believing that God would never hurt them.
Whatever the reason, neither side of this conflict seems particularly sympathetic. God seems like a trigger-happy tyrant, while the Israelites seem blind and foolhardy. Only Moses, poor, sweet, caught-in-the-middle Moses, seems in any way to be a sympathetic figure. Don't worry, though. His time will come.