Trying times are upon us, my dear readers – and, like everyone else, I am seeking the answers. The words that ring in my mind these days, are the words from Numbers 16: “And the plague was stopped”- and even though I know very well the Hebrew word, עָצַר atsar (“stopped”), that is used here, I was still blessed to read in my Bible program the list of all the possible biblical meanings of this word:
1) to restrain, retain, close up, shut, withhold, refrain, stay, detain 1a) (Qal) 1a1) to restrain, halt, stop 1a2) to retain 1b) (Niphal) to be restrained, be stayed, be under restraint”.
To restrain, retain, close up, shut, withhold, refrain – that is exactly what we need today isn’t it? But how did it happen then? How was the plague stopped? Let us study this chapter together, and try to understand exactly what God says to us today. C.S. Lewis wrote: suffering is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. If so, undoubtedly God is speaking very loudly these days – so let us try to understand what it is that He is saying to us.
Before we move to the book of Numbers, I would like to share some thoughts. I do need to issue a very stern warning though: this is not a prophecy! For me personally, it was a powerful revelation and that’s why I would like to share it with you, but there is no way I would pretend to know the “ultimate truth”. Like you, I have more questions than answers, but I just want to bring your attention to two obvious facts.
The first one is the “when” of the plague – the timing. Coronavirus is happening right before Passover (this year, Passover starts on April 8th ) – exactly at the time when the plagues in Egypt were happening. Are we witnessing a second Passover? In our previous, before-Corona, life (that feels so remote to us now, although it was only a few weeks ago), we were very aware of – and alarmed by – the growing anti-Semitism in the world. Might it be that the God of Israel is standing behind His people? Might it be that He is using this plague in order “to rouse a deaf world” and to shake off from it the hatred of His people? Of course, there is coronavirus here in Israel as well, and our lives here have become as scary and surreal as everywhere else: empty streets, closed stores, crowds of masked people waiting before the entrance to supermarkets etc.; yet the approaching Passover makes me think, again and again, about the Egyptian plagues: did the people of Egypt realize that it was all about the Hebrews—that they were key to that story? Jewish people are always the key to God’s plan and God’s heart – and I can’t help but think that somehow, Israel is one of the keys to unlocking today’s story. But once again, this is not a prophecy, I may well be wrong – I am simply sharing my personal thoughts and my personal feelings with you.
Even more significant – and less obvious – is a second factor that I would like to bring to your attention: the “where” of the plague. If we consider which countries were hit the hardest (outside China), we realize that this topography may not be by chance and may well have to do with the attitude of these countries – in the past or in the present – towards His people. Trust me, the suffering of the simple people in these countries seems as unfair and as incomprehensible to me as it seems to you – but these are the sad but true facts, and I am just trying to decipher God’s message through these facts. Once again, I may l be wrong. Once again, my heart goes out to all the suffering, whatever country they are from – and like you (and like Abraham in the Bible), I am asking God how can it be that innocent people are suffering and dying because of the sins of the others. But the numbers are soaring – and these are the facts and not just my personal thoughts.
Between the Dead and the Living
And now, let’s open Numbers 16. I suppose, most of you know the story of Korah and his rebellion – how “they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown”. You probably remember “that the ground split apart under them, and the earth … swallowed them up”. What I find very interesting in this chapter, though, is the fact that it’s not right after the Korah rebellion that the plague began: as a punishment for this rebellion, just 250 people, along with their households, were swallowed up by the earth – and the story seemed to be finished. But it was on the next day, when “all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD,” that the “wrath has gone out from the LORD” and “the plague has begun.”. What made God so angry?
There is no better commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself, so in search of an explanation, let us consider another well-known story: when Moses saw the people sinning with the golden calf, his “anger became hot” and he broke the tablets that God gave to him. We know that not only did God not rebuke him for doing so, but He Himself was so angry that He wanted to destroy the people! The obvious conclusion: God is angry when something that is not His, is called by His name. And that’s exactly what happens in the story from Numbers: when the Israelites call those people who rebelled against Moses (and by doing so rebelled against the God of Moses), “people of the Lord,” – “wrath has gone out from the LORD. The plague has begun.”
14,700 people died from this plague (almost like the death toll in the world now – at the time of writing this post it’s 13,071). But how was the plague stopped? We read that Aaron put fire and incense in his censer and “ran into the midst of the assembly … and made atonement for the people.”. – and here is the key verse that I’ve kept hearing in my head ever since it all began: “And he stood between the dead and the living; so the plague was stopped.”
Friends, I am not making any conclusions here – it is not my place, after all. I do want to know, however, how the plague can be stopped. Let us think together and seek the answers together; I invite you to share here your comments and your thoughts. Maybe, together we will understand how the plague was stopped.
 Exodus 32:19
In these difficult days, when it feels indeed as if God is hiding His face from His people, I invite you to check out my books – because now I understand that some of them have been written for such a time like this!. You can get them from my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/