Because of their failure to trust God and refusal to take the promised land, the Israelites who had come out of Egypt were to spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness. Yet, God would continue to provide for them, and they would continue to complain and rebel. The people of Israel needed a time of purification before they would learn to completely rely on the Lord.
The first rebellion was by Korah. He was of the Levite (priestly) tribe. He and 250 others were challenging Moses and Aaron’s authority. They believed that all of the Levite clan was set apart, thus there was no need for Moses and Aaron to be over them. Moses told them to make an incense offering to God to see if He accepted it in front of all the people. Abiram and Dathan of the tribe of Reuben also rejected Moses and Aaron’s authority, but refused to come forth to watch the incense offering.
When Korah and the 250 priests made the offering with Moses and Aaron, God told Moses and Aaron to stand aside while He consumed the whole community for the sins of Korah. Moses again intercedes for the people asking that they not all die for Korah’s sin. God obliges but tells everyone to move from Korah, Abiram, and Dathan’s tents so that He could show them His justice. Once everyone had moved, the earth opened up and swallowed Korah, Abiram, and Dathan’s family, tents, and all of their possessions. God then sent fire to consume the 250 priests who had questioned Moses’ authority with Korah.
The next day, instead of believing that God was the source of the events of the day prior, the Israelites accused Moses and Aaron of killing the rebels on their own accord. God’s anger again came against the people for their hardness of hearts and sent a plague which ended when Aaron offered incense for the people. God then instructed Moses and Aaron to place a staff from the head of each tribe of Israel in front of the Ark of the Covenant overnight. In the morning, Aaron’s had sprouted flowers and almonds as a sign that the Levites were set apart and Aaron was the high priest.
As they continued to wander through the wilderness, the people grumbled for water. Moses and Aaron were instructed to speak to the rock in the wilderness of Kadesh to produce water, however they struck the rock twice and took credit for the Lord’s work. Thus they would not enter the promised land. It wasn’t much later that Aaron died, leaving his duty as high priest to Eleazar, his son.
It wasn’t long before the people began to complain about the food again. God sent snakes among the people and all who were bitten died. Moses interceded and God instructed him to make a bronze serpent, mount it on a pole, and all who looked on it would be healed.
Even though the people were constantly rebelling against God, the people were very successful in battle. They conquered whoever they met in battle. The Moabites took notice and tried to get the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. However, he could only speak the words of God and blessing came out of his mouth. Despite this, the Israelites fell to idol worship yet again. God sent a plague against the people until Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, with zeal for God killed an Israelite and a Midianite woman who entered into idol worship. Once the Isrealites had conquered the Moabites, the scene was set for them to take the promised land.
In all of these stories, we see the constant intercession of Moses who asks for mercy on the people. It is because of Moses’ love of God that God shows mercy. We see some typological significance in the story of Korah’s rebellion. Korah did not think there should be a hierarchy above the priestly tribe, yet God affirms that there is. In the Catholic Church today, we ascribe to the hierarchy because of this foreshadowing, and because Jesus follows the same pattern with His apostles (Peter, James, and John were of an elevated position). Even though we have the ordained set aside for governance, teaching, and the sacraments, there is a hierarchy even amongst them.
We also see that Moses and Aaron were susceptible to mistrust of God. When the people complained about water, they asked “Are WE to bring forth water for you?” They had taken personally the constant questioning of their authority and taken the moment to remind the people of all they had done. Yet, it was not them who had acted, but God who had worked through them, and it was only because of God that they were able to lead. In their moment of frustration, their pride had shown itself.
Finally, the most significant typological story from this time period is one that Jesus will reference. Because of the sin of the people, snakes bit the people, which resulted in their death, but those who looked at the bronze snake nailed to a pole would be healed. The snake is a representative of our sin. It kills us. Jesus takes our sin, is elevated, and nailed to the cross. All who look upon the one whom we have pierced in humility and sorrow for our sins will be healed.
In the wilderness, we can learn a lot about how our sin pits us against God. We can also learn much about God’s justice, mercy, and providence. In every circumstance, the Israelites fall short of God’s intention for them. We even see Moses fall short. But God is preparing the people to be a nation from which will come His Son who will not fall short and lead his new people, the Church into the promised land.