God gives a central decree when He says "Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19:5-6). The Apostle Peter expounds on this in the second chapter of his First Epistle, confirming that the entire people of God is a holy priesthood offering up spiritual sacrifices (good deeds, building virtues, witness); in addition, the people of God is to be built into both a living community and an edifice, a temple that God inhabits. Christ is our cornerstone. If we believe in Him, we will not be put to shame in our functions of the royal priesthood.
The presence of a priesthood of all believers, however, does not preclude an ordained priesthood. Because God is in our midst, we must have a specifically ordained priesthood to serve the sanctuary and offer sacrifices.
Korah, a Levite, considered the presence of an ordained priesthood to be elitism and, making allies with a number of other rebellious individuals, oversteps the boundaries of the temple to offer incense (cf. Num 16). After Moses and Aaron temporarily intercede for the whole people, God’s judgment upon Korah and his band was that the "ground beneath them split open and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their families […] they went down to the nether world […] and fire from the Lord consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense" (16:31, 33, 35). Do we ever hear of Catholics in America who act this way? If so, how might God react to their actions?
In response to the rebellion and the people’s murmuring, God then sent a plague upon the whole people so terrible that even after the intercession of Moses and Aaron it killed 14,700 people. To illustrate God’s favor, one staff from each tribe is selected for a demonstration. The next day, Aaron’s staff, representing the house of Levi, "had sprouted and put forth not only shoots, but blossoms as well, and even bore ripe almonds!" (Num 17:23).
In Chapter 20, we see the old guard changing in the account of the deaths of Miriam and later Aaron. Just as they had at Massah, the people begin murmuring for water at Meribah (also known as Korah). In a rare lapse, Moses chooses not to listen to the Lord’s commands to speak to the rock to yield its waters, but instead strikes it twice. Although water did gush forth for the people to drink, both Moses and Aaron (who complied with the decision) will not be permitted to enter into the promised land. Paul later teaches that this rock was Christ. One can learn from this lapse that the law (Moses) alone cannot bring you into the promised land, but instead Joshua (or in the Greek, Jesus) alone can bring you to your rest.
Because the Edomites will not let the people pass into Palestine, the Israelites begin a long march to their promised land. A testament that God has not completely withdrawn from his people, he grants them victory over Arad at Hormah and protects them from the saraph serpents they so deserve with the bronze serpent mounted on a pole. The people then are victorious over Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan.
The Moabites, Edomites and the Ammonites are all kindred people to Israel, and God will not permit His chosen people to attack these others, lest they incur blood-guilt. Nevertheless, Balak the King of Moab is content to eliminate the Israelites, whom he likens to an "ox [that] devours the grass of the field" and devours all the country around his people (Num 22:4). Balak calls on a Syrian mystic, Balaam, who is not in the circle of the promised people, but has real spiritual power.
The Lord tells Balaam not to accept Balak’s first payment to curse the Israelites. After Balak increases the reward, the Lord tells Balaam to "do exactly as I tell you." Seeking to press the limits of God’s decree, the impatient Balaam sets off with the some of the princes of Moab, hoping to curse the Israelites if at all possible. To illustrate that you cannot bargain with God to do perverse things, the donkey he is rides on sees the angel of the Lord waiting to kill Balaam for his disobedience. Every one of the seven times Balaam seeks to curse the people, he ends up blessing them. In Peter’s Epistles, the Epistle of Jude and Revelation, Balaam is seen as a false prophet from among the people who secretly brings in destructive heresies. Balaam then instructs Balak how to bring evil upon the people: get them to worship Baal of Peor. Finally, the zeal of Phinehas (25:6-14) keeps God’s wrath from consuming the people.
Music: Chopin’s "Nocturne No. 1 in B Flat Minor, Op. 9" performed by Vadim Chaimovich. www.musopen.com