We sometimes read the Bible as if it’s simply a collection of stories from long ago. There were some strange things that happened then and strange people who did them.
We tend to think we live in different times, more sophisticated times. And we sometimes think the problems of yesteryear are not relevant to us today.
I want to propose that God did not give us these eternal words in order that we come to that conclusion. The challenges for characters in the Bible are as much ours as they were theirs.
This week we read the troubling story of Korach in Numbers, along with special verses from Isaiah. Having experienced the many evils of the 20th century and the growing terror and division in our own times, we are hardly exempt from the exercise of tackling and understanding this text. Rather, it ought to be mandatory!
Korach was a quintessential demagogue. He came from an advantaged position and wanted yet a greater position with more power. He affiliated with the unstable and ambitious to overthrow Moses and other God-designated, God-serving leaders. He used crowd-pleasing words of the people’s mission as his own rallying cry, cynically bringing them to his side. And he attacked the leadership of the community when it was at its most vulnerable and his chance of taking it down was the strongest.
Have we not seen this story throughout history? Do we not see elements of it in our own lives today – whether through actual demagogues in the world or contentious and destructive behavior in certain would-be or actual leaders in our own communities and nation?
As the Bible teaches, the actions of Korach and his followers are thoroughly despicable to God. Korach is fundamentally out for personal gain and glory, not what’s in the best interest of heaven or the community. Especially when times are hard for people, we should never tolerate the self-seeking and ambitious pretender who preys upon our weakness to get power.
The Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, teaches that such a person who makes the right left and the left right lays waste the world. With God’s help, it is our duty to separate ourselves from Korach in whatever form we find him, oppose him, and defeat him.
How timely, then, is this week’s Isaiah text that comes our way. The prophet stresses what God cares about greatly in the world. “It is to this that I look: the poor and the broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word.” It is their “gladness” that the Divine promotes, principally through protecting them from others, who for the sake of self-glorification, hate them and seek to cast them out. In other words, the God who stands for the innocent and the good against the oppressor is the same God who stands with Moses against Korach.
Having studied this lesson, we might be tempted zealously to implement its lessons quickly and cheaply by labeling our own political opponents as today’s Korach. Of course, that’s just another form of demagoguery, in which we, too, act mainly “for the sake of our own name.” Let’s eschew that temptation.
We should resist the call of emotions that push us to take the easy and selfish path and follow those who would lead us astray. Rather, the text challenges us to probe deeply into the mission God has given us, pursue it, and support those who are truly leading us to its fulfillment.
If we understand this guidance and follow it, we can show that we understand that the Korach tale was written for us, too!