3.41 Numbers -- The Burden
By this time, it should be clear that God and Israel were off to a bad start. Their relationship was not going well. Three times or more in a couple of months God had been on the verge of nuking the lot of them. And yet, is it impious to feel sorry for the hapless Israelites? All the cooped up sins of decades of oppression and servitude surfaced in the desert. These were a dysfunctional people, who had never known a time when they weren't abused and subject to the whims of tyrants. Now they found themselves again in a very structured society, with no learning curve, no tolerance, no personal freedom. They either obeyed or they died. They were told that they were on the march to their own homeland, "a land of milk and honey," but like all their other dreams in life, this too was a mirage. Instead, they were condemned to a life sentence of dust and sand, of walking aimlessly till they died. It is no accident that Korah's rebellion occurred right after the death of the spies and the expulsion of Israel from Canaan. Who would not rebel in frustration and despair at this desolation of all their hopes?
Sometimes, Jews have spoken of the burden of being chosen. This expresses the Exodus generation's attitude exactly. And that is also the problem. It was a burden more than a privilege, in their estimation. These people had limited aspirations -- some land of their own to farm, freedom to settle in peace, and heirs to follow after them. They did not have a driving religious passion, a desire for holiness, spirituality. But in order to succeed with God, in order to keep the Law the way it was meant to be kept, they needed these qualities. You cannot obey divine laws halfheartedly, you cannot offer sacrifices in a slovenly way -- in either case, you die. And you cannot be God's chosen people, bearing His Presence to the world, when your main ambition, your highest goal, is to have your own family farm. God demands first place in His people's desires.
It was the job of the surviving Kohathites to carry the Ark as the Israelites travelled (Num 3:31). The Ark was carried on poles stuck through rings on the outside. No Levite ever touched the Ark or looked inside it. This was the sacred burden of that family. The Kohathites literally bore the Presence of the Lord upon their shoulders. This was not a symbolic presence -- His glory actually rested upon their backs. And He limited Himself to their speed of walking. This task was perhaps the greatest service in the camp, next to that of the Aaronic priests themselves, but Korah had despised it because he couldn't see the honor in it.
In the same way, it was the responsibility of Israel as a whole to bear the Presence of the Lord before the nations. Were they not called "a kingdom of priests?" As He rested in the Ark upon the shoulders of the priests, so also He rested upon the people of Israel, and the weight of His Presence was a burden to them. It cost them hardship -- obedience to law and ritual, the necessity of maintaining personal purity, putting down and pulling up tent stakes at God's pleasure and moving only where He led. And they despised the burden, because they too had no vision of the honor and privilege.
Though they did not grasp it, this was God's master plan -- the creation of an historic community that would "carry" Him before the nations. There was a twofold pilgrimage under way: Israel on the move through the desert and eventually to Canaan, and Israel marching forth through the centuries -- in both dimensions carrying the Lord enthroned in their midst, bearing the burden of His weight upon them, not with complaint, but willing and grateful for the honor.