Near to Himself

Then Moses said to Korah, "Hear now, you sons of Levi: Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to serve them? And that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?" (Numbers 16:8-10).

I pretty much love the Books of Moses. Each year I read them, I have new insights, put things together that I had never seen before. Numbers 16 introduces a group of people who actually show up quite a few times later in the Old Testament. Korah, a Levite, and Dathan, Abiram, and On, Reubenites, have come up against Moses to protest his leadership. Their claim: that all Israelites are holy and equal, and that Moses and Aaron have exalted themselves above their brethren. Korah is pretty much the mastermind, and he brings 250 men together to challenge Israel's leadership. I imagine that his crusade for equality in Israel only masks his ambition to serve as a priest. Why? He accuses Moses and Aaron of self-aggrandizement, and a person's accusations often reveal the motives of his own heart. We tend to assume other people are doing the evil we ourselves would plan, in their place.

Korah's motives are understandable. Moses has led Israel out of Egypt, to Sinai, and to the very borders of the "land flowing with milk and honey." People have died along the way; as they have complained against God and assumed the worst of Him, He has executed judgment on them. It hasn't been an easy journey: they have left the familiar to face the unknown, have run out of food and water, have been chased by their enemies--and this all for a promise. And now this generation will not see that promise fulfilled. If all of these things were solely Moses' responsibility, the doom of a 40-year wandering would indicate a clear leadership failure. So they accuse, calling Egypt a land of milk and honey (16:13--"Well, they did kill our children, but at least we had leeks and onions"), claiming that Moses has brought them out of Egypt to kill them, and that he has made himself like their prince. They highlight Moses' failure to bring them into the land of milk and honey (16:14).

What is interesting to me in this passage is that Moses replies to their initial accusation, twice claiming that God has "brought [the Levites--including Korah] near to Himself." If you read Leviticus and Numbers, you can see the duties and the living arrangements of the Levites.  God orders the camp of Israel specifically, arranging the tribes radially around the Tabernacle, in tribal camps specifically placed to the east, south, west, and north. But the tribes themselves are not near the Tabernacle--God has arranged the Levites as an inner circle, with the sons of Aaron at the Tabernacle door (to the east) and the three main subtribes--Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, camping to the west, south, and north, respectively (Num. 3). At least during the wilderness wandering, the Levites live closer to God's manifest presence than anyone.

God also brings the Levites close to Himself through their duties. Only the sons of Aaron may present the sacrifices and touch the holy things, and only the high priest may enter the Holy of Holies, only once a year. In the wilderness wandering, however, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari play important roles in moving the Tabernacle and its furnishings. The Gershonites carry the Tabernacle itself, with all its hanging fabric and cords; the Kohathites carry the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, the lamp stand, the altars, and all of the utensils that go with these. They are also responsible for all the work relating to them. The Merarites deal with all the boards, bars, pegs, and other solid pieces of the Tabernacle. When God's cloud moves, their job is to break down, carry, protect, and reassemble the Tabernacle efficiently, so that Israel may worship God uninterrupted.

Confession: American that I am, none of that feels like being near to God. While I was reading this, though, I was also reading Paul E. Miller's A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships, and he had this to say about obedience:
We discover God through a steady obedience-based faith. Ruth's obedience opened the door to grace. Obedience didn't save her; it just put her in a grace-filled trajectory of sowing and reaping . . . . There is a secondary and neglected pattern in the Christian life, which Jesus describes just before His death: "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him" (John 14:21). . . . Many Christians get stuck by trying to grow their faith by growing their faith. They try to get closer to Jesus by getting closer to Jesus . . . . Ruth discovers God and his blessing as she obeys, as she submits to the life circumstances that God has given her. so instead of running from the really hard thing in your life, embrace it as a gift from God to draw you into His life.
 The direct pursuit of the divine--the heavenly vision--hunts for an experience with God. But God doesn't like to be experienced. He wants to be known. We deepen our love of God not by direct pursuit of God, but through the good work of love, where we enter the gospel and the pattern of Christ's life becomes our pattern. Of course, we always have to begin with God's love for us--that's faith. But once we have that faith foundation, we deepen faith by love . . . as we enter a life of love, we get to know God. (136-138)
 So, in the lives of the Levites, what was God inviting them into? What has Korah missed out on? God's drawing them near to Himself is not merely a question of proximity to the Tabernacle. When the Levites served and lived around the Tabernacle, what would they have seen? This ties into what happened at the Tabernacle. God's people came to the Tabernacle every single day to offer sacrifices for sin, obedience, reconciliation, thanksgiving. Lepers came to the Tabernacle once they had been pronounced clean. People came to the Tabernacle to be tested by the priests, and had to leave the camp weeping, waiting out their leprosy. Serving and obeying God, the Levites would have been able to see Him in the sacrifices, in the testimonies of people who had seen His provision, in the joy of people who were bringing their firstborn children to be dedicated with a sacrifice, in the faces of people for whom atonement had been made, and in their relief. They would have been able to see the wrath of God burning every single day on the altar--but do you know what wouldn't be on that altar? People. What a powerful picture of grace!

In some ways, the Levites would have been closer to the people as a whole than anyone else in the camp, because God had put them into position to see and speak to the people, to offer advice, to adjudicate, teach, and help. They would hear confessions, settle disputes, and witness the joy and sorrow of the various offerings. They would see God's promises come through for His people, see His blessings and discernment made clear. Merely keeping to the path of obedience, trusting that God is good and His word is true, the Levites would have been able to see His ways acted out every day, and to know Him. God was inviting a whole tribe into generations of intimacy.

And this is what Korah missed out on in his ambition. God opened the earth to swallow him, and God consumed the 250 leaders who had come to offer incense. This isn't the end of the story, though. Korah's sons survived, and over generations and generations, they continued in their service, till, in the time of David and Solomon, they were organized to watch at the doors of the temple. Some of them became songwriters, and they wrote:
How lovely is Your tabernacle, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God . . . . For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in You! (Psalm 84:1-2, 10-12).
That God had chosen to live among people is an amazing thing. That He had also chosen to fill their obedience with intimacy is a greater wonder. We never really know what we will understand about Him when we choose to obey.


In personal news, I'm back in the States. I've been here for a little over three weeks, and I'm settling into something of a routine. Much of this time is waiting, as my church is talking through what it would take to send me back to Mexico and support me longer-term. They seem to be very excited about the prospect, and I look forward to it as well. I would definitely appreciate prayer about it.

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