This is a really dramatic chapter. There are certain things that happen in the Bible that as I read it I think to myself, I don't ever remember reading this before. This chapter is one of them. I'm sure I've read it before, but I simply do not remember the earth swallowing up alive the families of those who were rebelling against Moses and Aaron. But here we have it. A bit of context might help.
Do you get the feeling that the baseball cheating scandal with the Astros has not lessened, but rather that the more time goes on the more people are upset to the point where I'm thinking it will soon get out of hand. When the season starts I don't think there will be a single safe Astros who will come to bat. Soooo..., it seems like things are spiraling out of control for Moses and Aaron. He just had to deal with the disobedience of the people and their banishment to the wilderness for forty years. Now in this chapter we have another rebellion, but this time it seems to be much more serious because you have the priestly class going against Moses and Aaron, one of their own.
Some of the priestly class have come out against Moses and are upset because of his preferential status before the Lord. They say: you are not the only holy one here, all of us are holy so we should all be able to have an audience before the Lord. We should all be able to make decisions for the people. We should all be able to establish rules and regulations for the people. What makes you so special to think that only you have this right and this responsibility? From Protestant eyes this all makes sense. After all we have what is called the priesthood of all believers. Not one of us, not me, nor any other pastor, has a closer relationship with God than anyone else simply from the fact that we are pastors. We all have the same ability and opportunity to live a full life in full communion with the Lord whether a person is a pastor or not.
That really wasn't the case in the Old Testament. Moses and Aaron really did have the hierarchical upper hand. They set the rules, they called the shots, and that was just how it was. But people weren't happy with that, especially now that things were starting to go south, we better take the reins into our own hands before things really get out of control. You don't often see Moses angry, but here we see him angry. He even tells God not to pay any attention to the sacrifices of the three families who have come questioning his authority. He tells God to disregard them. That is very unusual, so we know we are dealing with something serious.
God has had enough and once again wants to destroy all of the Israelites, but because Aaron and Moses intervene God does not destroy all of them. But those families who rebelled he tells the other to move away from them, and they did. As a result the earth opened up and they all died. Pretty dramatic. Those 250 people who were in the priestly class who wanted to have the same say as Moses were also slaughtered. The people continued to rebel and God sent a plague but once again Moses and Aaron intervene to prevent the plague from spreading any further.
Just think what would have happened if Moses and Aaron had tired of intervening for the people of Israel. What would have happened then? It would have been a bit of a different history from what we have now.