“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censor and put incense in it,
along with burning coals from the altar,
and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them.
Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.’”
Korah, Dathan and Abiram confronted Moses and Aaron, opposing their leadership. They said to Moses, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, everyone of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” They wanted Moses and Aaron to share the power and authority. They figured, “we are all holy, God is with all of us. What made Moses and Aaron so special?” What is troubling about this story is that Korah, Dathan and Abiram have already been set apart for special service to the Lord. They were part of the tribe of Levi; they were set apart and given special privileges helping Aaron and his sons with the priestly duties. These tasks were very honorable. These men were already set apart and given special responsibilities from God, but they wanted more. Furthermore, we continue through the text and find that they were being rebellious and simply disrespectful to Moses and his leadership. Moses told them that God will decide between them. What we have is a similar story as First Kings 18 when Elijah is on Mount Carmel. Elijah lets God choose between them. Moses told Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and all their followers to come the next day with their censers filled with burning coals and incense to burn before the Lord. Moses, Aaron, and the others did the same. Verse 19 says that “Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” The picture we have here is a showdown; Korah and his follows on one side of the tent entrance, and Moses with his followers on the other. The expectation was that God would come down and decide between the two groups—He did.
The glory of the Lord appeared and spoke to Moses saying, “separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.”—God had chosen. God was going to stand behind the current leadership, Moses and Aaron. God’s anger was stirred so much that he wanted to destroy the whole assembly. Moses fell on his face and begged God to spare the assembly, and only deal with the guilty ones—Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their followers. In God’s mercy and response to Moses’ plea, the earth opened with a consuming fire only killing the guilty—250 men. It was a very sad day in Israel. That is where the story should end, but it gets worse.
The Israelite assemble does not know half of the story, as we say. They are unaware and have no appreciation for the fact that if it were not for Moses falling on his face and pleading with God, they would all be dead along with those consumed by fire. The very next day the people come to Moses and Aaron grumbling and say, “you have killed the Lord’s people.” Furthermore, the scene shows another showdown; the people gather in opposition against Moses and Aaron. Immediately, the cloud of glory descends on the tent and Moses and Aaron go in and appear before the Lord. The words God spoke to them were most dreadful and pierced their hearts in anguish. Moses fell face down upon hearing the words. God tells Moses, “get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” Moses will demonstrate his character by his response—he will demonstrate true leadership.
God is about to send a plague into the Israelite assembly. The intention is that the whole assembly will be infected and die in just a matter of moments. Moses turns to Aaron and says, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” In just a matter of hours, the nation of Israel will be no more. Moses knows their only salvation is that their sins are atoned for in order to turn away God’s wrath. Aaron hurries and fills his censer with incense and burning coals and runs into the assemble. The plague had already begun. He runs further and further into the camp until he comes to the break point where the plague has not reached yet, but in moments it will be too late—verse 48 says, “he stood between the living and the dead…” Aaron offered up atonement for the sins of the people; the obstinate and rebellious people, but non-the-less, atonement was made, and the plague stopped.
Reflecting on this last scene can leave a person mesmerized. Moses gets yet another chance to start over, but once again, he proves his leadership caliber by choosing to save. Can you imagine the intensity in the voice of Moses when looking over to Aaron: “Aaron, run! Get your sensor, fill it, make atonement! Aaron, we can stop this, but we need to stand between them and the wrath of God!” I picture the scene over and over again; Aaron running through the assembly trying to find the end of the pervading plague. Finally, after running with urgency, running past people who are plagued and dying. He must run fast enough to get to the break point—he must get in between the “living and the dead.” The moment finally comes. We have seen two showdowns in this story and are about to see one last and final showdown that will impact both heaven and earth. Aaron finds the break point and stands before the people unaffected by the plague. He begins to offer atonement for the nation behind him while looking at the fatal plague before. It is a showdown— not between men, but between the wrath of God and the mercy of God. Aaron stands there trusting in God’s mercy and offers atonement, begging God to show mercy where wrath is due. What will triumph? Will wrath continue to it’s course, or will mercy prevail? Due to the atonement, the wrath of God was stopped. But not after losing 14,700 people. Aaron ran as fast as he could, but still some were lost. In the final scene of this story, I imagine Aaron returning to Moses, and being physically exhausted, emotionally broken, saying with both joy and tears, “Moses, we did it, we stopped it. But we did lose some.”
This truly is a story of salvation. We too are a people deserving wrath. But Christ, also having a superior leadership caliber stands between us and that wrath, and he cries out, “Father, show mercy where wrath is due.” A question I ask myself after reading this story is, “do I have such an urgency to save?” Will I hurry and run to stand between the people and God’s wrath?