The children of Israel blatantly disobeyed God by refusing to conquer Canaan. In response to their reluctance, the LORD sentenced them to wander about in the desert wilderness for 40 years. During this period, all of the adults who were ages 20 and above at the time of the decision not to invade the Promised Land would die. Only the young, who were not responsible for this sin, would be spared. They would grow up to replace their unfaithful parents and grandparents as the next generation of Israel.
The Bible does not speak much about the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. We have already read and studied an extensive amount of information about the first few years of the exodus. In the latter chapters of Numbers and in parts of Deuteronomy we will find a fair amount of content on the final years of the exodus. But these 4 long decades in between - which can be called “the wilderness years” - are covered in just 5 chapters from Numbers 15-19.
There are several laws, ordinances, and duties listed and described in these few chapters. The topics addressed include making proper offerings, keeping the Sabbath, additional procedures for levites and priests, the special ordinance of the red heifer, and more rules regarding spiritual cleanliness. While all of this information is certainly valuable, it does not contribute greatly to the narrative story of the exodus itself.
This sermon series is focused on presenting the chronological history of the exodus - not so much about expounding on the laws of God or teachings of Moses. This being the case, there are really only 2 chapters in the book of Numbers that describe actual events that took place during the 40 years of punishment. We will examine them in today’s message which I’ve titled “Wandering in the Wilderness”.
I. KORAH’S REBELLION (Numbers 16:1-40)
The children of God had been wandering in the wilderness for some time prior to the events described in this chapter, but we can’t say for sure how long. A large number of people in the camp had grown dissatisfied with the leadership of Moses and Aaron. One of the prominent Levites, a man named Korah, conspired with 3 friends from the tribe of Reuben to start an uprising. These men believed that they could lead the camp more effectively than Moses and Aaron. In addition to them, 250 renown leaders of Israel joined Korah’s cause and openly challenged Moses and Aaron’s authority.
Moses instructed these 250 men to assemble at the tabernacle. They were each to bring a pan of fire and burn incense before the LORD. He told them that God would choose from among them who was truly “holy”. Moses also expressed great disappointment with Korah and the other Levites who had joined the rebellion. God had set them apart to serve as special ministers in the tabernacle, yet this was not enough - they wanted to be priests with Aaron instead.
Moses also summoned the insurgent Reubenites to the tabernacle, but they refused to come. Meanwhile God’s anger burned against all of those who had risen up against Him. Moses warned the congregation to back away from the tents of Korah and his co-conspirators. Suddenly, the earth opened up and swallowed the rebels, their families, and all of their possessions. It then closed over the top of them, and all of the traitors perished. At that same instant, fire poured down from heaven killing Korah and the 250 men who stood with him at the tabernacle. Later, the fire pans of those who had died were used to make a covering for the altar.
God brought Korah’s Rebellion to a sudden and tragic end. In the end, hundreds of people died. Sadly, this revolt had been led by a respected Levite who had grown jealous of Moses and Aaron. In the modern church, this would be similar to a disgruntled deacon or elder rising up to defy the godly leadership of his pastor. If the pastor is truly called by God (and I concede that not all are), then rebellion against him is an affront to God himself. The strife and division caused by such an uprising can have lasting repercussions on and in the church.
II. DEVASTATING PLAGUE (Numbers 16:41-50)
By squelching the rebellion, God clearly affirmed that Moses and Aaron were His chosen leaders. Still, many of the Israelites remained frustrated and upset. They came forward accusing Moses and Aaron of causing the death of Korah and his companions. Again God became furious with their continued murmuring, and intended to wipe out the entire congregation. He sent a severe and devastating plague into the camp.
Moses acted quickly to save his people. He sent Aaron into the midst of the assembly with a fire pan of burning incense. Aaron hastily ran, seeking atonement for those who had offended God. Because of Moses’ and Aaron’s quick response the plague was checked and did not spread any further. Still, some 14,700 people died as a result of the outbreak. These deaths were in addition to those who had died in the initial rebellion…
III. AARON’S BUDDING ROD (Numbers 17:1-13)
Though almost 15,000 people had died as a result of their uprising, doubts about Moses and Aaron still lingered. Wanting to put an end to them once and for all, Moses asked the leaders from each of the 12 tribes to bring a rod to the tabernacle. In addition to these, Aaron was asked to bring his rod also. All 13 rods were then placed in the tabernacle before LORD. Moses told the tribal leaders that God would cause His chosen man’s rod to sprout. They were left in the sanctuary over night.
The next morning, Moses brought the rods out. Aaron’s had budded, bringing forth buds, blossoms, and ripe almonds. Clearly God had chosen Aaron to serve as the high priest of Israel. God told Moses to place Aaron’s budded rod before the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle as a sign against the rebels. In the New Testament book of Hebrews (chapter 9, verse 4) we read that this rod was eventually placed inside the Ark along with the 10 commandments and a golden jar of manna.
The people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, yet the story of Korah’s Rebellion, the plague, and Aaron’s budding rod are the only events recorded during this entire time period. Surely more than this must of happened, yet we have no record of it. Why are all of these years left out? Many theologians have put forth different theories. I want to suggest that the absence of information is intentional and speaks volumes…
The fact that so little is written about the wilderness wanderings indicates that nothing of eternal significance took place during these years. The people were weighed down by the burden of God’s punishment. Because of their disobedience they had lost their power, their influence, their reputation, and their hope. They had become miserable and pitiful. The account of Korah’s Rebellion is all that we really need to adequately describe the wilderness years. It was a long season of jealously, rebellion, mourning, and death.
Finally, in the first verse of chapter 20, Scripture states that the surviving children of Israel returned to Kadesh. Isn’t it interesting that this was the exact same location where the wilderness wanderings began? They had aimlessly roamed around in the desert for 40 years only to end up right back where they started! In other words, they had traveled in circles for decades yet never really went anywhere. Could this be a picture of some of us today?
I have witnessed firsthand the misery of many who have chosen to live their lives in disobedience to and in rebellion against God. They have invoked His terrible wrath. They spend their days wandering about in the wilderness. They brazenly question God’s authority and challenge those whom He has chosen. They openly defy and rebuke the LORD. May God have mercy on these insurrectionists.