Fear – Numbers, Part 4

To Korah the Levite, the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On, and the 250 leaders of the community[1] who accused Moses and Aaron of exalting themselves above the community of the Lord,[2] Moses said (Numbers 16:16, 17 NET):

You and all your company present yourselves before the Lord – you and they, and Aaron – tomorrow.  And each of you take his censer, put incense in it, and then each of you present his censer before the Lord: 250 censers, along with you, and Aaron – each of you with his censer.

The first time Moses said this[3] I wrote it off as sarcasm.  Here it sounds more like a princely summons to appear at their own executions, considering what happened to Nadab and Abihu, authorized priests who presented unauthorized fire before the Lord.  They appeared as commanded, and not only those who were summoned.  When Korah assembled the whole community against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting, then the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole community.[4]

In the Septuagint the whole community assembled was τὴν πᾶσαν αὐτοῦ συναγωγὴν (literally, “the all here synagogue”).  And the glory of the Lord appeared to πάσῃ τῇ συναγωγῇ (literally, “all the synagogue”).  The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, Separate yourselves from among this community (Septuagint, τῆς συναγωγῆς), that I may consume them in an instant.[5]  It’s probably worth mentioning that this story recounts yehôvâh’s frustration, patience and mercy with condemned Israel rather than redeemed Israel (Numbers 14:28-30a):

As I live, says the Lord, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing.  Your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness – all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me.  You will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you.

A note in the NET suggests that this community meant only “people siding with Korah… an assembly of rebels.”  Moses and Aaron, however, didn’t take it that way: they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all people (Septuagint, τῶν πνευμάτων καὶ πάσης σαρκός; literally, “the spirits and all flesh”), will you be angry with the whole community (Septuagint, πᾶσαν τὴν συναγωγὴν) when only one man sins?”[6]

I find it particularly affecting that Aaron, who was once on the side of his rebellious people and in need of Moses’ intercession, joined Moses here in intercession. And despite Aaron’s former rebelliousness, the Lord answered them favorably. “Tell the community (Septuagint, τῇ συναγωγῇ): ‘Get away from around the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Septuagint, τῆς συναγωγῆς Κορε; literally, “the synagogue of Korah”).’”[7]  Moses did as the Lord commanded him (Numbers 16:25-27 NET):

Then Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel went after him.  And he said to the community (Septuagint, τὴν συναγωγὴν), “Move away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything they have, lest you be destroyed because of all their sins.”  So they got away from the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram on every side, and Dathan and Abiram came out and stationed themselves in the entrances of their tents with their wives, their children, and their toddlers.

In my estimation Moses tried diligently to make what transpired next explicitly clear to all the community (Numbers 16:28-30 NET).

“This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will (Septuagint, ἐμαυτοῦ; literally, “myself”).  If these men die a natural death, or if they share the fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me.  But if the Lord does something entirely new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up along with all that they have, and they go down alive to the grave (Hebrew, sheʼôl; Septuagint, ᾅδου; literally, “to Hades”), then you will know that these men have despised the Lord!”

On cue, the earth split open. They and all that they had went down alive into the pit (Hebrew, sheʼôl; Septuagint, ᾅδου), and the earth closed over them. So they perished from among the community[8] (Septuagint, ἀπώλοντο ἐκ μέσου τῆς συναγωγῆς; literally, “they perished out of the midst of the synagogue”).  The rest of the community didn’t feel particularly pious.  They ran, saying, “What if the earth swallows us too?”[9]  With a surgical precision that honored the intercession of Moses and Aaron, a fire went out from the Lord and devoured the 250 men who offered incense.[10]

In their reaction the next day the whole community of Israelites offers the most valid and poignant measure of the sanctifying power of scary stuff.  I call it scary stuff because yârêʼ, the Hebrew word translated fear, which seems to entail reverence for God and appears to stand as the Old Testament equivalent of New Testament faith, makes no appearance in the telling of this story.  The rest of the community either misunderstood or ignored Moses’ explanation of the previous day’s events.  They thought he did a magic trick, black magic at that: on the next day the whole community of Israelites (Septuagint, υἱοὶ Ισραηλ; literally, “sons of Israel”) murmured against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the Lord’s people (Septuagint, τὸν λαὸν κυρίου)!”[11]

Scary stuff doesn’t produce fear, not the fear of the Lord.  That fear, it seems, like faith only comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.[12]  And the Lord, it seems, was prescient when He wanted to destroy the whole community the day before.

Again, He said to Moses and Aaron, Get away from this community (Septuagint, τῆς συναγωγῆς), so that I can consume them in an instant![13]  Again, Moses and Aaron threw themselves down with their faces to the ground[14] but made no insinuation that the Lord might be destroying the innocent along with the guilty.

Then Moses [the prophet] said to Aaron [the priest], “Take the censer, put burning coals from the altar in it, place incense on it, and go quickly into the assembly and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord – the plague has begun!”  So Aaron [the priest] did as Moses [the prophet] commanded and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague was just beginning among the people. So he placed incense on the coals and made atonement for the people.  He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.  Now 14,700 people died in the plague, in addition to those who died in the event with Korah.[15]

Again, the Lord responded favorably to Moses’ intercession. Through the very same act that fried 250 others He spared the vast majority of the people when Aaron the authorized priest responded obediently to the word of the authorized prophet.  Contrast this to a more “successful” rebellion in the time of Jeremiah, just prior to the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the southern part of the divided kingdom of Israel (Jeremiah 2:12, 13, 29, 30; 4:21, 22; 5:30, 31 NET).

Be amazed at this, O heavens!  Be shocked and utterly dumbfounded,” says the Lord.  “Do so because my people have committed a double wrong: they have rejected me, the fountain of life-giving water, and they have dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns which cannot even hold water.”

“Why do you try to refute me?  All of you have rebelled against me,” says the Lord.  “It did no good for me to punish your people.  They did not respond to such correction.  You slaughtered your prophets like a voracious lion.”

“How long must I see the enemy’s battle flags and hear the military signals of their bugles?”  The Lord answered, “This will happen because my people are foolish.  They do not know me.  They are like children who have no sense.  They have no understanding.  They are skilled at doing evil.  They do not know how to do good.”

“Something horrible and shocking is going on in the land of Judah: The prophets prophesy lies.  The priests exercise power by their own authority.  And my people love (Septuagint, ἠγάπησεν, a form of ἀγαπάω) to have it this way.  But they will not be able to help you when the time of judgment comes!

You unbelieving (ἄπιστος) generation! How much longer must I be with you?  How much longer must I endure you?[16] This was Jesus’ response to an argument He walked into after his transfiguration.  Actually this is Mark’s version of his response.  Matthew’s and Luke’s are quite similar except for διεστραμμένη (a form of διαστρέφω). You unbelieving (ἄπιστος) and perverse (διεστραμμένη, a form of διαστρέφω) generation! How much longer must I be with you?  How much longer must I endure you?[17]  They were not merely unbelieving but were distorting, turning aside from, opposing and plotting “against the saving purposes and plans of God,” according to the definition in the NET.

On the surface of it this doesn’t sound like a promising prelude to the healing of the boy at the center of the story. Jesus didn’t do many miracles in his hometown of Nazareth because of their unbelief (ἀπιστίαν, a form of ἀπιστία).[18]  Yet all three Gospel writers record essentially the same thing, Bring him here to me,[19] Jesus continued.

Matthew Mark Luke
I brought him to your disciples, but they were not able to heal him.”  Jesus answered, “You unbelieving (ἄπιστος) and perverse (διεστραμμένη, a form of διαστρέφω) generation!  How much longer must I be with you?  How much longer must I endure you?

Matthew 17:16, 17a (NET)

I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were not able to do so.”  He answered them, “You unbelieving (ἄπιστος) generation!  How much longer must I be with you?  How much longer must I endure you?

Mark 9:18b, 19a (NET)

I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”  Jesus answered, “You unbelieving (ἄπιστος) and perverse (διεστραμμένη, a form of διαστρέφω) generation!  How much longer must I be with you and endure you?

Luke 9:40, 41a (NET)

Bring him here to me.”

Matthew 17:17b (NET)

Bring him to me.”

Mark 9:19b (NET)

Bring your son here.”

Luke 9:41b (NET)

In Matthew’s most abbreviated account, Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him, and the boy was healed from that moment.[20]  While this is true to the other accounts, Matthew left out some of the detail and some of the nuance of the story. As the boy was approaching, Luke wrote, the demon threw him to the ground and shook him with convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.[21]  Luke captured a bit more of the drama of the story but still left out some of the details.

So they brought the boy to him, Mark wrote.  When the spirit saw him, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell on the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.[22]  Though the sight of Jesus set the spirit off, Jesus didn’t immediately rebuke the spirit and heal the boy.  He paused to take what sounds to a modern ear like a medical history: Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood.  It has often thrown him into fire or water to destroy him.”[23]  It becomes obvious later that Jesus arrived at a diagnosis based on this one question, but it elicited something else as well.

But if you are able to do anything, the boy’s father continued, have compassion on us and help us.[24]  Here is the dilemma for Jesus.  The father’s words were not an expression of faith but something more like putting the Lord to the test (Matthew 4:5-7 NET).

Then the devil took him to the holy city, had him stand on the highest point of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus said to him, “Once again it is written: ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’”

This becomes clearer if I contrast the father’s words to the faith of the Roman centurion.

The Boy’s Father

The Roman Centurion

But if you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us.

Mark 9:22b (NET)

But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed.  For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.”

Matthew 8:8, 9 (NET)

If Jesus had required this kind of faith as a prerequisite to healing someone, He would have healed no one in Israel at all: When Jesus heard [the centurion’s faith] he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel!”[25]  And as a rule He didn’t require those possessed by evil spirits to exhibit any faith at all.  On the contrary, He seemed to want to silence the evil spirits.  Still, the boy’s father (inadvertently, I assume) had challenged Jesus’ authority.  So Jesus fed him the correct answer: Then Jesus said to him, “‘If you are able?’ All things are possible for the one who believes (πιστεύοντι, a form of πιστεύω).”[26]

Concerned for his son’s welfare this father didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth: Immediately the father of the boy cried out and said, “I believe (πιστεύω); help (βοήθει, a form of βοηθέω) my unbelief (ἀπιστίᾳ, a form of ἀπιστία)!”[27]  Medical science has begun to grasp the importance of faith in the context of the natural healing process.  But I don’t think Jesus was interested in the placebo effect here.  I think He would have questioned and instructed this father more on the subject of faith in God and miraculous healing if the boy’s antics hadn’t drawn a crowd (Mark 9:25-27 NET).

Now when Jesus saw that a crowd was quickly gathering, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”  It shrieked, threw him into terrible convulsions, and came out.  The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He is dead!”  But Jesus gently took his hand and raised him to his feet, and he stood up.

Two different versions of Jesus’ disciples asking Him privately (κατ᾿ ἰδίαν) what they did wrong follow (Matthew 17:19, 20 NET).

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately (κατ᾿ ἰδίαν) and said, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”  He told them, “It was because of your little faith (ὀλιγοπιστίαν, a form of ὀλιγόπιστος).  I tell you the truth, if you have faith (πίστιν, a form of πίστις) the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.”

This was the more public privately.  Jesus was clearly concerned that bystanders grasped the importance of faith even as He healed a man’s son who had challenged (tested, or tempted) Him more than he had trusted Him.  The key here is ὀλιγοπιστίαν (a form of ὀλιγόπιστος).

In a world where “faith” is the work we do to merit heaven and distinguish ourselves from those sinners condemned to hell, the translation of ὀλιγόπιστοι (another form of ὀλιγόπιστος) as you people of little faith[28] sounds like the harshest slander and condemnation.  But the disciples saw Jesus’ face and heard the tone in his voice when He said it, and knew that ὀλιγόπιστοι was one word in the Greek language, and that He used that word like a pet name[29] for them.  Because they knew this they were not afraid to ask Him the very same question again, a more private privately (Mark 9:28, 29 NET).

Then, after he went into the house, his disciples asked him privately (κατ᾿ ἰδίαν), “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”  He told them, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

And here I have Jesus’ diagnosis derived during that brief medical history.


As an aside, I read something online about Amen.  The writer was concerned that we who used it at the end of our prayers were invoking an ancient Egyptian deity, a demon in other words.  I thought that was silly even as I read it, but I couldn’t come up with any compelling reason to end my prayers in tongues, a foreign language.  So I began to end them with “I believe,” the translation of Amen as I understood it.  Though I hadn’t really considered it when I prayed Amen, praying “I believe” seemed quite disingenuous at times.  So I amended my prayers then to “I believe; please help my unbelief.”  This is, of course, exactly what Jesus does through his Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23 NET).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (πίστις), gentleness, and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.

Fear – Numbers, Part 5

Back to Romans, Part 49 

Back to Apostles and Prophets, Part 1

Back to My Reasons and My Reason, Part 6

Back to Apostles and Prophets, Part 2

Back to Romans, Part 55

Back to Romans, Part 66


[1] Numbers 16:2 (NET)

[2] Numbers 16:3 (NET)

[3] Numbers 16:6, 7 (NET)

[4] Numbers 16:19 (NET)

[5] Numbers 16:21 (NET)

[6] Numbers 16:22 (NET)

[7] Numbers 16:24 (NET)

[8] Numbers 16:33 (NET)

[9] Numbers 16:34 (NET)

[10] Numbers 16:35 (NET)

[11] Numbers 16:41 (NET)

[12] Romans 10:17 (NKJV)

[13] Numbers 16:45a (NET)

[14] Numbers 16:45b (NET)

[15] Numbers 16:46-49 (NET)

[16] Mark 9:19a (NET)

[17] Matthew 17:17a (NET)

[18] Matthew 13:58 (NET)

[19] Matthew 17:17b (NET)

[20] Matthew 17:18 (NET)

[21] Luke 9:42 (NET)

[22] Mark 9:20 (NET)

[23] Mark 9:21, 22a (NET)

[24] Mark 9:22b (NET)

[25] Matthew 8:10 (NET)

[26] Mark 9:23 (NET)

[27] Mark 9:24 (NET)

[28] Matthew 6:30 (NET)

[29] Matthew 8:26; 14:31 (ὀλιγόπιστε, another form of ὀλιγόπιστος); 16:8 (NET)