The most dramatic moment in this dramatic story of rebellion and punishment comes in verse 16:27 with this poignant image: “…and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, and their sons, and their little ones.'”
It’s those words, “and their little ones” that rivets our attention and holds it through the following verses when the ground opens her mouth and swallows them up, when Korach, his men, their households and all that pertain to them “go down alive into the pit.” That image of the little ones standing at the door of their tents with their older brothers and parents lingers as we contemplate the earth swallowing these innocents alive.
It’s a repeat motif, pride, the “murmuring” that spreads fear among the children of Israel, the lack of trust, the failure to embrace a mission, the desperation that results from wandering aimlessly in the wilderness (“We perish, we are undone, we are all undone” – Num. 17: 27).
These are indeed children of Israel, yet they can hardly afford to be children. They are also a subsistence community, on the march through the wilderness, and the actions of some affect all, first with the earth swallowing up those who transgress ethically and everyone and everything associated with them, then with fire that engulfs the co-conspirators and their families, then with plague threatening those who lost their way and their families.
As we saw before, the natural world is permeated with the ethical consciousness that flows throughout creation. It rebels against those whose pride or fear causes them to lose their path and sense of purpose, striking first by swallowing up alive, then with fire and finally with plague. These natural disasters threaten the Israelites as much as they threatened the Egyptians in the land which the Israelites came.
But it is that image of the little ones and their brothers and mothers swallowed up along with their rebellious fathers that stays with us reminding us that in addition to nothing new, there is no such thing as innocence under the sun and that the actions of one put us all at risk.
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