The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, O.P.

Despite its popular association with medieval Catholic superstition, trial by ordeal is no invention of the Christian world. It reaches back to magically minded ­jurisprudential practices widespread in the ancient Near East, already ­attested, for instance, in Hammurabi’s Code. It is thus no surprise to find such trials also present in the Bible; for in countless ways Israel acted like her ancient neighbors. The Book of Numbers thus includes, for example, a ritual recipe for detecting adultery through the drinking of bitter waters (Nm 5:12-27).

The most spectacular biblical ordeal is the judgment arranged for Korah and the rebel Levites in Numbers 16. This grand show-trial by incense fire was the original ­auto-­da-fé, a stupendous scene of triumphant priestcraft staged to demonstrate who alone was fit in Israel to hold the sacerdotal dignity. Korah and his company had complained against Moses and Aaron, with a very modern, anti-hierarchical sentiment: All the congregation are holy, every one of them…why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord? (Nm 16:3). In response, Moses challenged the insubordinate Levites to take censers and fire and stand before the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. The Lord’s judgment then came with a violent vindication of Moses and Aaron, as the earth opened to swallow up the rebel leaders alive, while fire burst forth and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering incense.

From a cynical, skeptical, anachronistic viewpoint sympathetic to the anti-clerical sentiment of Korah, it would be easy to reckon this story as a great self-serving fiction: the mythic scare tactics of priestly self-legitimation. Read in its proper biblical frame of mind, however, it belongs to a wider drama about the dangerous holiness of God. Indeed, the death of Korah & Co. echoes the earlier death of two ­accredited Aaronite priests, Nadav and Abihu, who similarly offered unholy fire and were incinerated on the spot (Lv 10:1-2). Divine fire thus threatens all who draw near, the chosen priest no less than the Levite. The message is therefore not that priestly ministers are somehow holier than their fellow men, but rather that God is infinitely ­holier than all—even the priests!

The hierarchical reservation of certain sacred duties to the chosen priests alone is a mechanism in God’s economy of salvation meant to impress upon all that service at the altar is anything but mundane. Through those who are near to me, I will show myself holy, says the Lord (Lv 10:3). In just this spirit, the Fathers of the Church were quite keenly and fearfully aware that their elevation to the office of bishop placed them in a mortally dangerous situation—not that the earth would swallow them alive, but that a unique and deadly judgment awaited them after their service. In a word, playing priest always means playing with fire. It is with precisely this biblical understanding that the Letter to the Hebrews proclaims of the priesthood that No man takes this honor upon himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb 5:4): for God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).


Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.