Who Is the Destroying Angel in Numbers 16?

Question:  Who exactly is the “destroyer” referenced in 1 Cor 10:10, when interpreted in light of the wording of Exo 11:4, 12:23, and 12:29 in the NKJV translation?

Answer:  The incident referred to in 1 Corinthians 10:10 actually refers to an event that occurred in Numbers 16 when several Levites were challenging Moses’ authority as leader.  The leaders of the rebellion, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, were standing at their tents and God told Moses He was going to destroy all the assembly who was supporting them.  Moses asked Him to only deal with the leaders.  God opened the earth and swallowed them and their families alive.  Several of their followers who were offering incense on the altar were killed by fire.  When the next day the assembly came again to Moses and accused him of killing these leaders, God began to kill them with a plague.  Moses and Aaron offered a sacrifice on their behalf so that more did not die.

In Exodus 12 Moses told the Israelites that Yahweh would go “through the land to strike down the Egyptians” but that if they applied the blood of the lamb to their doorposts God would “not permit the destroyer to enter” their houses (verse 23).  Though it does not say a “destroying angel” did this in Numbers, Paul is undoubtedly assuming the Jewish tradition that the same angelic activity that occurred in Exodus with the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt (see Psalm 78:49) was repeated in Korah’s rebellion.  Whether the angel from God opened the earth, sent the fire that killed those offering illicit fire on the altar and sent the plague, or whether the angel was commissioned for just some of that action, we do not know.

It is possible that the destroying angel was the angel of Yahweh.  The angel of Yahweh (this means, the messenger of Yahweh) is a separate person from God but at times is identified as Yahweh (compare Genesis 16:7-11 with Exodus 3:1-6).  It seems best to understand this by positing that Jesus, the Son, is the angel of Yahweh.  We can understand this because we know that Jesus, the Son, is both equal with God and yet a separate personality from God the Father.  This helps make sense in this passage of Yahweh taking responsibility for opening the earth, sending the fire and the plague.  Yahweh did, but it was Yahweh the Son, not Yahweh the Father.

We see this stand out in stark relief in Genesis 19:24 when the text says that in judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Yahweh rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah from Yahweh out of the heavens” (when you see LORD in all caps this is the English representation of the divine name, Yahweh).  The Son was bringing down judgment from the Father in heaven.

Interestingly, in 1 Corinthians 11 we read that some of the Corinthians were sick and some had died because they were violating another sacred symbol of God, the Lord’s supper, by their inappropriate behaviors.  God still does not tolerate wanton abuse of His holy symbols and leaders.  And that is the intent of Paul in this passage, also, to warn the Corinthians against offending God’s holy ordinances.

Randall Johnson

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6 thoughts on “Who Is the Destroying Angel in Numbers 16?

    • Chris, thank you for sharing your article with me and for the level of study you put into this. I want to respond, not to in any way diminish your work, but to propose some ideas to think about.

      Yes, the word in Hebrew is a verb but it is used as a participle in our context, “the one who destroys,” making it in essence a noun, i.e., the destroyer. It is used this same way in Jeremiah 2:30 of a lion and in 1 Chronicles 21:15 of the angel of Yahweh doing God’s bidding in response to David’s sinful numbering of the people (see 2 Sam 24 also). It is quite possible that the angel of Yahweh who is doing the destroying is the Son of God, Himself Yahweh and so designated on several occasions. It is used this way in Isaiah 54:16 of a “destroyer” whom Yahweh has created and uses, and in Jeremiah 22:7 of destroyers whom Yahweh sends against the evil ruler of Judah.

      And here is where I would suggest that the presumed figure of speech which makes actions attributed to Yahweh as instead actions of one He permits to wreak destruction perhaps runs into trouble. We would like to exonerate Yahweh from responsibility for the destruction that enters human life and to be sure He does not take blame for it in the sense that He unjustly destroyed someone. But in these passages He is taking responsibility for sending the destruction. Even if we say He only permitted it, this does not let Him off the hook, so to speak. If I permit someone to hurt another innocent party, when I have the power to stop it, I am responsible.

      I believe a better way to understand what is going on is that God is using an agent, whether Satan or another, to accomplish His will and His will is just. We may not be able to describe why it is just in all cases because we don’t know all the facts that God knows.

      • I have read it and it is very helpful. Thank you for sharing it with me. However, I am not sure it changes the question here. Acts 13:29 is instructive in this regard. It says the rulers took Jesus down from the cross, meaning they allowed him to be taken down, but it could not have happened apart from their command. They bore responsibility for taking Jesus’ body down, though they did it through a secondary agent. And when it comes to God’s actions, He takes responsibility for what He permits to happen.

        In fact, when it comes to Pharaoh’s being hardened, as we know, it both says God hardened his heart and Pharaoh hardened his heart, and we might suppose to employ this figure of speech with regard to Yahweh hardening his heart (permitting it to be hardened). But Paul, in Romans 9, takes it quite clearly to mean that God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart and claims that God is just in all He does. He hardens whom He will. Paul’s objectors reason, “Then why does He still find fault, for no one resists His will?” This is Paul’s opportunity to argue back that they misunderstood the text and that the figure of speech there means Pharaoh was permitted to harden his heart. But Paul does not question either of the premises of his detractors. He accepts both that God finds fault and that no one resists God’s will, but challenges the detractor by saying, “Who are you to answer back to God, the one who made things this way?” And he further describes God’s purpose in such determinations in the verses that follow.

        So we end up at the same place. If indeed Satan was the destroying angel God used against Egypt, nevertheless God takes responsibility and could have stopped it if He deemed such taking of the firstborns’ lives unjust. As we know from Job, Satan could not and does not do anything outside the express permission of God. But such permission does not make God culpable. This is the great mystery that Paul does not resolve but asks us nonetheless to accept, that God punishes evil and yet those who do evil have done so under the sovereign permission of God. This does not make sense to us but we do not have an infinite mind to understand the infinite God. We never will have an infinite mind and so may never really be able to understand the resolution of this conundrum. But we trust the character of God that He only does what is just.

      • I appreciate your insights and feedback. There is common ground between us.

        We know that God allows evil in the world. One reason is because He has given human beings free will (to do good or evil), but He also allows the Devil to do evil in the world by tempting and influencing human beings.

        I believe in Exodus He allowed the Devil (the destroying angel) to do evil. Slaying firstborn children for the actions of the king of Egypt is not justice. It is evil. There is no moral principle to justify it. No one should be punished for for someone else’s sins.

        For this reason, I disagree with your statement: “God takes responsibility and could have stopped it if He deemed such taking of the firstborns’ lives unjust.”

        God allows injustice, but He often uses it for good. God also permitted the evil of the Israelites being slaves for 430 years. By permitting the Devil to do evil, over 600,000 men were set free.

        In response to your feedback, I revised my essay further to make my position more clear. This is one of the revisions I made:

        “The Lord permitted the Devil to do evil, so that Israel would receive justice: freedom from slavery. The Devil was allowed to kill the firstborn because Pharaoh rejected the plea of Moses to “Let My people go!” The Lord brought nine plagues upon Egypt, but Pharaoh persisted in doing evil. Consequently, the Lord allowed evil to come upon the nation, and the firstborn were struck dead by the destroying angel. This was the only way that Pharaoh would relent, and the Lord’s “firstborn son”, Israel, was set free.”

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