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God’s Word for You

Numbers 16:28-35 The earth opened its mouth and swallowed

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, September 27, 2021

28 Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that all this was not just my idea. 29 If these men die a death like everyone else and if they suffer the same fate that everyone does, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD creates something unheard of and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.”

Moses proposes a dramatic scene: If I’m wrong, then nothing will happen at all. We’ll all just die out here of natural causes, and you will know whether I’ve been lying and the Lord has not really been speaking to me about these things. But on the other hand, Moses says, if I’ve been telling the truth, then the Lord will do something new that you’ve never seen before. The ground will open up and swallow Korah and Dathan and the others!

We can well imagine a ripple of laughter beginning to go through the group at this point. After all, how likely would it be for a prophet to say “This will happen” and for the Lord immediately to do what the prophet said? Wouldn’t Moses be guilty of the very thing he was saying Korah was guilty of, which was giving commands to God about what to do or who should lead the nation? We don’t need to wonder whether Moses just made this up on the spot in his anger, or whether Moses had received this from God. A night had passed since Moses had proposed this meeting (or showdown), and we can be confident that the Lord spoke to him or gave him a vision or dream of what would happen. What Moses was really illustrating is that the Lord’s wrath can flare up in a moment (Psalm 2:12), and that on the wicked “he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot” (Psalm 11:6). Korah’s insolence had climbed higher than even the sin of Sodom. He was in open rebellion against God, like the man Lamech who defended Cain (not Abel) in the days before the Flood, saying, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Genesis 4:24). Korah’s sin were higher than his head, and his guilt “had reached up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).

Whether the laughter really did begin in the group, or was merely in their hearts after Moses’ outrageous words, while Moses’ voice was still echoing in the air, God acted.

31 As soon as he finished speaking all these words, the ground beneath them split open. 32 The earth opened its mouth and swallowed up everyone who was with Korah, along with their households and all their possessions. 33 So they and everything that belonged to them went down alive into the grave. The earth closed up over them, and they disappeared from the midst of the assembly. 34 Hearing their screams, all the Israelites who were around them fled, because they said, “The earth will swallow us up too!”

Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their families had no time at all to react or to try to get away. Imagine what you would do this very moment if the floor and ground beneath you suddenly opened up and the building or street you’re on just fell down into the earth, not just into a basement, but dozens or even hundreds of feet down. The rebels had no time for anything except to scream, which Moses remembers in verse 34. Then the crack in the ground closed over them, and they were silenced forever.

This is the right place to remember that Scripture states the cause of death is sin (Genesis 2:17; John 8:24). Death entered the world through sin (Romans 5:12), “sin leads to death” (Romans 6:16), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But for the sake of anyone who has lost a loved one to something other than Korah’s horrible fate, we should and must take time to define death, and to differentiate between (1) the moral or “distant” cause of death, and (2) the physical or “near” cause of death.

Death is something negative, the separation of body and soul (James 2:26), and therefore it is not “created” by God. Death does not have an essence, and the things God created have an essence, can be observed, and were declared in their original state to have been good in every way (Genesis 1:10, 1:31). Death is the end of a thing, not its being or existing, but its ceasing.

The distant (moral) cause of death is sin, which we have already seen is sin, and the Scriptures say. “sin produced death in me” (Romans 7:13), and “the sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56). The malice of the devil produces this sin in us all, and this produces guilt in man. Satan plunges mankind into sin, guilt, and death; death is Satan’s work. All destruction, ruin and evil are effects of the devil’s wicked work. The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon puts it so elegantly: “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (Wisdom 2:24).

The near (physical) cause of death is the ceasing of vital bodily functions, especially the beating of the heart, the breathing of the lungs, and the electrical activity of the brain. These things cease for various physical reasons, such as age, wear and tear on the body, accidents, murders, and so on.

The distant cause of death consists in the causes from which death truly and originally results; the near cause of death are those things (causes) that are present when death is already necessary on account of sin and guilt. Therefore, a loved one will die from a disease, and the underlying cause since conception and birth has been sin, but humanly speaking there is usually not a more recent sin to merit the person’s death except in the case of an execution. But here with Korah and his followers lined up in front of the Tent of Meeting, there was an openly hostile and dangerous rebellion happening against God.

Another thing needs to be said about this passage and the limits of our knowledge about the location of hell. Hell is a definite place (Greek ποῦ), because the beings who are there are actual beings, and corporeality requires a location or habitation. There are only three possibilities for the location of the damned in eternity. Either they could be everywhere, or nowhere, or in a certain place. They cannot be everywhere, since omnipresence is an attribute only of God (Jeremiah 23:24). The damned cannot be nowhere, since they will be in a place, a “there” (Luke 16:26). Finally, the damned must be in a specific location which we cannot find, a place where Jesus went and preached his sermon of triumph before his resurrection (1 Peter 3:19). However, to say that hell is “underground” based on this passage in Numbers 16, or verses such as Psalm 16:10 (“You will not abandon me to the grave”) is an error. The act of burying a loved one does not consign them to hell. The expression going “down” to hell is simply a way to express in language the human entrance (consignment) into suffering and agony. There is no passage in Scripture that is compatible with the Catholic idea of Purgatory. A soul goes either to heaven or hell. No author of Scripture speaks of any other possibility (see Mark 16:16).

35 Fire went out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred fifty men who offered the incense.

Separate from Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their families, the two hundred and fifty rebels were also struck down by God. Their terrible death by fire must have been agonizing. It was the same death imposed on Nadab and Abihu for bringing unauthorized fire before the Lord (Leviticus 10:2).

When God punishes the wicked, we praise him and we are blessed by him. Why? If he did not, people would have no real fear of him. The first use of the law, the law as a curb for unbelievers, would cease to have any effect at all. People would become so depraved and shameless that no one could ever hope to keep the peace or administer justice. Government would cease to have any effect, and human government is a rickety cart to begin with. One day the people want a king (1 Samuel 8:19) and the next day they despise him and want to throw him out (1 Samuel 10:27). If he’s a tyrant, they hate tyrants. If he’s gentle, they hate him for his gentleness. But the fear of God, sometimes disguised as a concern for nature, at least unites some people to behave like better neighbors to each other.

God would use this incident to make a lasting memorial for the people. For us, there is especially the display of God’s glory and power. The church remembers that “it was because of jealousy that Dathan and Abiram were brought down to the grave while still alive, because they rebelled against Moses the servant of God” (1 Clement 4:12). Our love for our leaders, both spiritual and secular, is motivated somewhat by God’s command for us to obey our leaders (Deuteronomy 5:16; Ezra 7:26). But mostly we should be motivated by our love for Christ, who gave our leaders to us, from parents to presidents to kings. Some of those leaders might be more godly than others, but God has placed them here for our good. Give God glory with what you say and do, and give him glory even in what you think. There might be more people than you think who look to you for an example to follow.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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