The writer had reached far back into the origin stories of Israel. Back to Abraham, the first patriarch, when he thought perhaps the Lord meant his nephew Lot to be his heir. A time when Abraham’s name was still Abram, a time before Hagar and Ishmael, before even the destruction of the Cities on the Plain.
In that early time, Abraham had rescued Lot and his family from sure enslavement, and had returned the citizens to Sodom along with their flocks, herds, and riches, after a successful raid of the invading kings and armies of the north.
In a ceremony of thanksgiving to God, Abraham had offered a tenth of the recovered treasure to Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of Almighty God. By bowing to Melchizedek Abraham prophetically acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek’s anointing, for the tribe of Levi was already within Abraham’s loins and necessarily knelt with him.
Now, the writer would explain why this was so important.
Why Another Priesthood?
The writer asked what every one of his readers would be thinking:
Now indeed, if perfection had been through the Levitical priesthood (for the [Jewish] people have received-the-Law on the basis of it) what further need would there have been that another priest should arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be named according to the order of Aaron?Hebrews 7:11 (DLNT)
It was a very fair question.
The order of Aaron had been instituted by God, and the priesthood itself carefully explained in the Torah. How were they to view the Law, and the sacred writings, if something like the Aaronic priesthood was not sufficient for salvation? For thousands of years, God had carefully protected the sanctity of that priesthood at great cost to those who had tried to take it for themselves.
Not long after the people had received God’s indictment against them, that because of their unbelief that generation would never enter the promised land (the writer had already brought that sad chapter of their history to mind in chapters 3-4. You can read about that in Part 1 and Part 2), a new revolt fomented. This time, it was among the broader leadership of the people.
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 fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,
and they confronted Moses.Korah, his family, and 250 of Israel’s leaders to Moses and Aaron, Numbers 16:1-2 (NRSV)
That his genealogy had been carefully recorded reflects how important a person Korah was. Charismatic attractive, influential, a natural born leader, people looked up to him. He was a persuasive speaker and a religious man. His clan was second in importance only to Moses and Aaron. It was Korah’s clan that led the whole procession whenever they moved, since they carried the ark.
Now, Dathan, Abiram, and On, were all from the tribe of Reuben. Korah’s clan camped next to the tribe of Reuben, descended from the firstborn of Jacob.
The Reubenites were angry and disappointed that Canaan had slipped through their fingers, and they blamed it on Moses’ poor leadership. They felt their interests had not been properly attended to.
This small inner circle had stirred up 250 other people, all of them well-known leaders and councilmen, and the text says, “they assembled against Moses and against Aaron,” on the authority of Korah.
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?”Numbers 16:3 (NRSV)
You have gone too far?
Well, Moses had just ordered the stoning of a man whose only crime had been to pick up sticks on a Sabbath. Then Moses—upon God’s instruction—ordered everyone to sew blue tassels on the corners of all their outer garments in order to remember all of God’s commandments.
“You have gone too far!”
And this was not coming out of nowhere.
At the foot of Mount Sinai, nearly a year previously, God had said,
“You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”God to the people, through Moses, Exodus 19:6 (NIV)
So, if they were all equal, where did Moses and Aaron get off exalting themselves?
It was a tinderbox of righteous indignation, a seemingly noble cause for more democratic governance based upon the dignity of every person in the camp. But there was also an undercurrent of jealousy, an envious desire for power.
As soon as he heard their accusation and challenge, he fell on his face, and in those moments God gave Moses what he needed to proceed. God would arrange a test, a trial by fire that would reveal who the Lord had chosen.
The rest of that story makes for a very grim read. It was, of course, utter disaster. God had already made it clear only Aaron and his descendants were to serve as priests, and any who offered unauthorized fire would be put to death. That very day, to the horror of the entire camp, those in the extended families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who stood in defiance against the Lord, experienced the wrath of God, which always cleanses from sin, and deals with the people who cling to their sin.
Exclusivity of the Aaronic priesthood
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:
(1) If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me.
(2) 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.”
As soon as he finished speaking all these words, the ground under them was split apart. 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.
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 fifty men offering the incense.Numbers 16:28-35 (NRSV)
Once more, far later in history, God would rule decisively against those who transgressed the sanctity of the Aaronic priesthood.
Uzziah, King of Judah
After Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.
Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. 18 They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense.
Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.”
Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead.
When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the Lord had afflicted him.
King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died.
He lived in a separate house—leprous, and banned from the temple of the Lord. Jotham his son had charge of the palace and governed the people of the land.2 Chronicles 26:16-21 (NRSV)
So how could there now be a priesthood even more sacred to God?