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Good Tassels Gone Bad

good tassles gone bad fire of korah sxc hu smallThe giving of the tassel to the Israelites in Numbers 15:38-41 is a powerful symbol of God’s love and acceptance, a divine gift to aid them in their struggles against sin, and an ever visible reminder of their privilege and responsibility as a kingdom of priests.[1]

The shocking thing… well, maybe not so shocking if you know much about human nature… is that this symbol turns rapidly into an instigation to rebellion and, thus, plays a role in the many deaths that follow it.

When reading biblical narratives, one is not just reading random bits of history that struck the historian of special interest… perhaps because his good ol’ Grandpappy fed his mind on delightful tales while bouncing him on his knee as a youngin’. These books are carefully constructed in order to give an inspired interpretation to the history of Israel, selecting, crafting and arranging these tales in order to preach. Unlike modern historians, the ancients were far less concerned with the chronology of events than they were in the relationship between events.

The recording of the tassel command on the heels of warnings against “high handed sin” in Numbers 15:30-31and of the defiant Sabbath breaker in Numbers 15:32-36 is not an accident, and is not necessarily linked chronologically in the actual events. Just so, following the giving of the tassel with Korah’s rebellion is neither an accident nor is it governed by the historian’s psychological need to tell what happened next. No, he is driven rather by what happened as a consequence.  You can read the story of Korah in Numbers 16:1-35.

Having studied the garment imagery of the tassel a good deal over the years, I can almost see the scene unfolding in my mind. Moses has already established a hierarchy of responsibility in the service of YHWH in and around the tabernacle. The high priest, priests, three tiers of Levites, Israelites, and finally sojourners are given responsibilities in a graded relationship to the Holy. Then YHWH gifts the Israelites with the tassel… a symbol of priesthood… They are called to be a kingdom of priests after all. (Exodus 19:6)

Korah, however, looks at the tassel and sees not duty to the law, part of which has decreed through divine will the grading of responsibilities. No… he sees a frustrated privilege, and an equality denied him. He sees his rightful function kept out of reach by the hierarchy of the tabernacle system. He is better than this… all he gets to do is carry the holy furniture as Moses drags them around the wilderness. (Numbers 3:27-31) He can’t even touch them under pain of death (Numbers 4:15) or enter or even peer into the Holy place where these instruments are set up. (Numbers 4:20) He grumbles to his friends. He grumbles to his family. He’s a victim; he deserves justice; the system has to change. He creates a storm of discontent that grows into a mutiny.

I can almost see him holding out his pretty new tassels in Moses face. He says to YHWH’s prophet, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” That must, after all, be the implications of the meaning of the tassel… the implications of its equalizing vision, right? It makes perfect sense… the ranking just seems so arbitrary, based on accident of birth and not merit.

He gathers his forces; he enters into a contest ordeal with YHWH as judge with life or death as his reward.

He discovers quickly, however, that equality before God does not mean eradication of divine functions. YHWH is a God of order; he has ordered this world and ordered his tabernacle.

Unafraid, Korah leads his men into the presence of the Holy One whose fading essence once lit the face of Moses with its after burn, (Exodus 34:29) whose Holy fire once consumed the very sons of Aaron for their trifling, (Leviticus 10) whose presence shook the mountains (Exodus 19-24) and whose breath drove the sea asunder. (Exodus 14-15)

They fared poorly.

“And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods.  So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. …And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.” (Numbers 16:32-35)

Our lessons here may be many, so long as they sprout naturally from the tension between equality of essence (say, priesthood of all believers or Image bearers) and equality of function (say, leadership, natural order, or divine decree).

[1] For more information on this read by posts “Why Hassle with a Tassel,” “A Colored Past to Dye For,” and “When a Biblical Law Breaks the Law.”

[2] Media Pic from sxc.hu

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