Once upon a time, a generous pastor invited her congregation to identify biblical characters on which they’d like her to preach. It was a good faith gift, a sign of her magnanimity, of her desire to share worship responsibilities with her congregation. This gracious pastor imagined the congregation would choose characters from whom they might learn how to live their faith more authentically.
This magnanimous pastor imagined wrong. Given the whole Bible from which to choose—a book filled with hundreds of faithful characters— someone in this kind pastor’s congregation chose Korah, a person who openly opposed his community’s leadership. Listen.
Now Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—took two hundred and fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,* and they confronted Moses. (Moses. Prophet of God. The one who defied Pharaoh and led the people out of slavery in Egypt. These 250 people—under Korah’s leadership—confronted Moses.)
They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ (In his defense, Korah has some good theology here. In the UCC we call the idea he’s talking about “the priesthood of all believers.” What that means is that all of us have equal access to God. So, Korah questions the need for Moses to set himself so high above the rest of the congregation.)
When Moses heard it, he fell on his face. (To show deference, perhaps…to let Korah know that he’s listening.) Then he said to Korah and all his company, ‘In the morning the Lord will make known who is his, and who is holy, and who will be allowed to approach him; the one whom he will choose he will allow to approach him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all your* company, and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before the Lord; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You Levites have gone too far!’ (First, Korah tells Moses he’s gone too far. Now, Moses tells Korah HE’S gone too far. Like squabbling siblings, they run to a parent for mediation. Big Brother Moses continues.)
Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you Levites!(Levites were the people—from the tribe of Levi [cousins to Moses and Aaron]– who took care of the Tabernacle, the community’s worship space. Because they dealt with the holy things, the Levites were set apart from the rest of the Israelites.) ‘Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? He has allowed you to approach him, and all your brother Levites with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well!(Let’s see…what might be an appropriate parallel? I know! Let’s think of, oh, our music director as a Levite. “God has allowed you to approach [God], and all the other choir members with you; yet you seek the [pastor’s job] as well.” That brings it home, huh? Did I mention that Korah translates literally as “bald head?” I’m just saying.)
Yet you seek the priesthood as well! Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against the Lord. What is Aaron that you rail against him?’
Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab (More rebels); but they said, ‘We will not come! Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey (…a land flowing with milk and honey…where they were slaves…) to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?It is clear you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come!’ (I just don’t know where our ancestors in faith came up with stories like this. Congregants opposing their leaders? Where did they get this stuff?)
Moses was very angry and said to the Lord, ‘Pay no attention to their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed any one of them.’ (Okay, parents. Have you ever had one of your children make suggestions about what punishment you might inflict on one of their siblings?) And Moses said to Korah, ‘As for you and all your company, be present tomorrow before the Lord, you and they and Aaron; and let each one of you take his censer, and put incense on it, and each one of you present his censer before the Lord, two hundred and fifty censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.’
So each man took his censer, and they put fire in the censers and laid incense on them, and they stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. Then Korah assembled the whole congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole congregation. (Read that last sentence again.) And the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole congregation. (Isn’t that great? It must have grieved God’s heart that the congregation was so divided. Even so, “The glory of the Lord appeared to the WHOLE congregation.”)
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: ‘Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.’ (Yeah. Meet the angry Old Testament God we all have problems with. We’ll talk more about this angry God in a minute. For now, let’s just stay with the story.) They fell on their faces, and said, ‘O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?’ (Now this is cool. Even though Korah had incited the people to rebel against them, Moses and Aaron prayed for mercy for the rebels.The hot anger they were feeling a minute ago has abated. Somewhat.)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Say to the congregation: Get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. So Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram; the elders of Israel followed him. He said to the congregation, ‘Turn away from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, or you will be swept away for all their sins.’ So they got away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrance of their tents, together with their wives, their children, and their little ones. And Moses said, ‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’ (Despite their prayers, God still has a point to make with the rebels. As leader of the people, Moses has no choice but to follow through. I wonder what will happen next?)
As soon as he finished speaking all these words, the ground under them was split apart. (Uh oh.) The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (I’M not the one who chose this passage!) All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense. (Choir: “And if there is no fire from heaven”)
To whoever chose Korah: What are you trying to say??????????
In a conversation with a room full of pastors at the Conference meeting on Friday, I asked if anyone had ever heard of Korah. Not one of them had. In truth, I hadn’t either.
After hearing the story, I’m not surprised we don’t hear much about Korah. Nobody looks good in this passage. Korah, a Levite, incites a rebellion against the leadership of the community. Moses, said leader, gets angry with the people. God gets angry with the people….to the extent—it appears—that God opens a hole in the ground and fast tracks those people to Sheol; then God shoots fire from heaven to burn up the rest. Yes, there’s probably a good reason this passage isn’t included in our regular list of readings.
When you come across a difficult biblical passage like this one, the first question to ask is, Why is this story here? The story of Korah has several possible interpretations.
Some people see in itevidence of a vengeful God. Those are the folks who attribute disasters to the“sin” of the victims: those people, they reason, must have been swallowed up by the chasm created by that earthquake because they did something wrong, not because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve known too many good people hurt by too many disasters to believe anything that absurd. I’m guessing you do, too.
Another interpretation might see the story as an endorsement of the community’s leadership. Recall that much of the Old Testament was written while the people were in exile. During exile, the people tried to re-build their devastated community. They did that rebuilding, in part, by writing stories. So…if you wanted to rebuild your community, re-establishing the Mosaic and Aaronic line as the leaders of the people, what kind of story might you write? How about one that illustrates just what happens to people who rebel against that leadership? That would do it! As the leader of a religious community, that interpretation does tempt me. Just a tad.
A third interpretation might see the story of Korah as a corrective to the power system in place. If everyone has equal access to God, then why are all the decisions about the community’s worship and religious practices made by only two people? Korah’s rebellion could be seen as an act of social justice. He rallies the masses in a protest against the oppression of absolute power. He dares to speak truth to that power. The demise of the rebels demonstrates just how destructive absolute power can be. Another intriguing interpretation…assuming you’re not the leader of a religious community!
Three viable, but ultimately unsatisfying interpretations. So– if this story isn’t a portrait of a vengeful God or an endorsement of religious leadership or an indictment of oppressive power, what is it? Why is this story in the Bible?
I’m starting to think this story is a cautionary tale. It’s not about endorsing one group over another; it’s not an indictment of oppressive power…no, this story shows us what can happen when we use worship for anything besides worshipping God.
Korah was a Levite, a person who tended the tabernacle, who handled the holy things in the sanctuary….yet he wanted more power. Moses and Aaron—being supreme leaders of the community and, thus, of its worship—were happy with the way things stood….so happy that, when their authority was challenged, they tried to get God to withhold blessing from the rebels. Neither Korah nor Moses and Aaron were using the things of worship—like the censers– to help them open themselves to God. They weren’t worshiping God. Each group was using God to obliterate their enemies.
The aptly named William Temple, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, described worship as “the submission of all our nature to God.” I titled this sermon, “The Real Worship War.” The real worship war isn’t about what songs to sing or whether or not to use screens in worship or whether or not to wear robes. The real worship war is internal; it’s fighting ourselves to “submit our nature to God.” Temple goes on to describe that submission as “the quickening of the conscience by [God’s] holiness; the nourishment of mind with [God’s] truth; the purifying of the imagination by [God’s] beauty; the opening of the heart to [God’s] love; the surrender of will to [God’s] purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration,the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable, and therefore the chief remedy of that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.”
We worship God, not for God’s sake, but for our own. The real worship war is the fight to open ourselves completely to God, to give ourselves over to God’s movement and leading, to relinquish our own will in favor of God’s. I wonder sometimes if we pick fights with each other over worship—like Korah and Moses and Aaron did—because it’s easier to fight about music or robes than it is to fight the real worship war—giving ourselves over completely to God?
When inviting people to sing the song we sang earlier, Allen called it “funny.” In one respect, he’s right. It is a funny song. Any song with the words “ditties” or “androids” or “zombies” is going to be funny. In another respect, though, I think Ken Medema got it exactly right.
Where are the songs about Jesus who comes to us, washing our feet, who asks us to follow… Jesus, whose friends will give food to the hungry; Jesus, whose friends will give drink to the thirsty; Jesus, who asks us to love our old enemies; Jesus, who always is quick to remind us the things that I do you will do and yet greater?
Are these not the songs we might want to be singing? The old ones, the new ones, the complex, the simple? Not standing there waiting while praise bands and choirs fill up the space where we don’t know the song, but singing with passion and purpose and trembling and watching our neighbors and sensing their offering.
And singing to Jesus, who lives here among us; not up on some cloud or in some holy fortress, but here in the hearts of the laughing and learning struggling and striving, working and weeping people who make up this fragile communion, this holy assembly this wonderful family of God.
The real worship war isn’t about what style of music to do or what version of the Bible to read or whether or not clergy should wear robes….the real worship war is waged in our hearts. Will we open ourselves to God? Will we offer God our praise and gratitude? Will we risk being changed by the one who loves us and hopes for our wholeness? When we come to this place, this space, at 8:30/10:00 on a Sunday morning, will we dare to open ourselves and let God change us for the better so that we might go out into the world and work to change it for the better? Today, here, right now, Will you open yourself–mind and heart– to God? Or will you remain a casualty of the worship war raging inside you?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013