Breaking free from family history

Failure and shame are a toxic legacy to pass down through the generations. Reputations endure. Imagine a person of sterling character and keen financial instincts, but one who bears the last name of “Madoff.” Who (other than a recluse with a bad memory) would hire or trust this person to handle their money? He could be Bernie’s third cousin twice-removed on his mother’s side (I just made that up — is there such a thing?), and it wouldn’t matter. The name’s the thing.

The scandal doesn’t have to be global to ruin the family name: local communities can be equally unforgiving. But the Psalms demonstrate that the burden of a tarnished family name doesn’t have to disqualify one from ministry. You don’t have to be David, or someone in the tradition or house of David, to write a psalm or lead worship. You can be a descendant of Korah. The name may not mean much to us, but it did to the ancient Israelites. And Psalm 84 teaches us that one’s family legacy doesn’t have to shackle one’s service to God.

. . .

Numbers 16 tells the story. Korah, a Levite, with his allies Dathan and Abiram, led a revolt of 250 prominent Israelite men against Moses and Aaron. The rebels, apparently, aspired to priesthood, not satisfied to only perform their Levitical duties to the tabernacle (vss. 8-10). They saw Moses and Aaron as holding them back, and chafed against what they took as pompous arrogance (vs. 3).

To make a long story short: in punishment, and as Moses predicted, God caused the earth to open beneath Korah and his household, and they “went down alive into Sheol” (vs. 30, 33, NRSV) — though, as we’re told later, not all of Korah’s descendants died (Num 26:11). The other rebels were consumed with fire.

Naturally, the people fled in terror. And you’d think this would settle the matter once and for all. But no: the next day all the Israelites rebelled against Moses and Aaron, piously complaining that they’d “killed the people of the LORD” (Num 16:41). For this new rebellion, God sent a plague. Moses and Aaron quickly made atonement for the people, and God relented — but not before over 14,000 more people had died.

I’m guessing the people remembered this story. They remembered it well.

Indeed, the story may have become inexorably associated with the family name. At the beginning of Numbers 26, God orders a census of the people; what follows is a straightforward list of the names of the tribes, clans, and their numbers. Nothing else is reported beyond these demographic facts — until the names of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are mentioned. The story of their rebellion and punishment is retold, as if people needed to be reminded of this particular piece of their history and none other.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of the story for the line of Korah. Later, his descendants can be found back in their Levitical roles — and this time, their service is glad and grateful. After their return from Babylonian exile, they serve variously as gatekeepers of the tabernacle (1 Chron 9:19) and were also in charge of the showbread that represented the twelve tribes (vs. 32). In 2 Chronicles 20, when the people are threatened by invasion, it’s the Korahites who lead the praise of God (vs. 19); soon, God causes the invading armies to attack and destroy each other, to the fear of Israel’s enemies (vs. 29).

The family history is redeemed, and this seems to be reflected in Psalm 84.

. . .

Psalm 84 is attributed to the Korahites. The poem reflects the psalmist’s utter joy at serving and worshiping in the temple. Overall, the words suggest the song of a people making pilgrimage to Zion, perhaps even with the king leading the procession. But at points, the words seem more specifically to embody the visceral longing of a dedicated Levite for the temple:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
    to the living God
. (vss. 1-2)

The language is reminiscent of the opening of Psalm 42, also a song of the Korahites. Other verses also seem to reflect glad Levitical service, most famously, verse 10:

For a day in your courts is better
    than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than live in the tents of wickedness.

The story of Korah and his descendants tells us that we don’t have to be prisoners of our family history, even when the family name comes with a reputation or has become nearly synonymous with failure.

People, of course, have long memories that prejudice their responses; it’s not easy to live down a negative reputation. But God’s memory is longer, and God is the one who makes an honored place for Korahites of every type and stripe to serve him.

If this is how God chooses to operate with his people, who are we to differ?