Korah, Dathan and Abiram
1 Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent[a] 2 and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. 3 They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
It seems that whenever new rules are made, rebellion rears it’s ugly head. Korah (from the line of Levi- meaning he is a Levite) is the ring-leader of these 250 community leaders. Some of these were first-born heads of families, and all leaders who are respected and well-known. It is not uncommon for those in leadership to think they can do better than those over them and forget that God is the one who has placed the leadership in position over them. In any case, they have decided that they are just as holy as Moses and Aaron and just as worthy to lead the people as they are. They even proudly boast of their holiness. They accuse Moses and Aaron of taking the honor of leadership for themselves. The men with them are also from their tribes, which means some of these men are Levites also. These are men who witnesses God speaking with Moses on the mountain, with all of the spectacle, yet still dared think they were worthy of leadership.
4 When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. 5 Then he said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. 6 You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers 7 and tomorrow put burning coals and incense in them before the Lord. The man the Lord chooses will be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!”
Moses falls on his face in response to the rebellion. This is a demonstration of yielding. In this act he shows that he would be willing to gladly resign his leadership in humility. This act also shows submission to God and his leadership as he seeks guidance from the Lord. A simple test of God’s will is set up… showing Korah and his followers that Moses is willing to let God decide who is holy and worthy to lead the people. This is very wise, should he have argued his own case they could have opposed him by sheer force, but leaving it in God’s hands makes it undeniable and final. This is a good thing to remember, that when God has called you, he will also fight your battles as long as we remain humble and submitted to him.
8 Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! 9 Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the Lord’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? 10 He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. 11 It is against the Lord that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?”
Moses knows that if God does not choose Korah and his followers, it could go badly for them so he tries to reason with them. He reminds them that as Levites they already have much favor from the Lord. They were in service to him in the temple. He warns them that over-reaching for more out of greed and pride is going against God, who appointed them to the place they were already serving. It is not Moses they are rebelling against, but God Almighty himself. It is good to remember what God has called us for and not seek a higher position just because we think (in our own minds) that we deserve more.
12 Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. But they said, “We will not come! 13 Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you also want to lord it over us! 14 Moreover, you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you want to treat these men like slaves[b]? No, we will not come!” 15 Then Moses became very angry and said to the Lord, “Do not accept their offering. I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them.”
Moses then summoned the others, to also try to talk them out of this rebellion. But they wouldn’t even come and speak with him. They accuse him of lying to them about the promised land and that his ultimate goal is to have them as his own slaves. They tell him that Egypt was a land filled with milk and honey, seeming to completely forget that they were mistreated in slavery there and that their very children were killed by order of the pharaoh. Moses becomes so angry at these false accusations that he tells God not to accept their offering because he had never wronged them and only did as God instructed.
16 Moses said to Korah, “You and all your followers are to appear before the Lord tomorrow—you and they and Aaron. 17 Each man is to take his censer and put incense in it—250 censers in all—and present it before the Lord. You and Aaron are to present your censers also.” 18 So each of them took his censer, put burning coals and incense in it, and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 19 When Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the glory of the Lord appeared to the entire assembly. 20 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 21 “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.”
So the next day, Korah and the opposition have not changed their minds. They are ready at the tent of meeting and follow the instructions to make incense to the Lord. The incense was supposed to be a sweet-smelling sacrifice to the Lord. In the hands of prideful arrogant men, it becomes an offense to God. His glory appears before them and his distaste is evident in his instruction to Moses and Aaron. He tells them to put some distance between themselves and everyone else – he means to destroy the entire population! Not just the accusers, but everyone. It would seem that the populace had joined with Korah against Moses, since they were together with the accusers during the trial.
22 But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, “O God, the God who gives breath to all living things, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?”
23 Then the Lord said to Moses, 24 “Say to the assembly, ‘Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.’”
True leaders put the people they serve before themselves. And in evidence of their humble, pure and true leadership, Moses and Aaron fall before the Lord and plead on behalf of the people. Intercession is part of leadership, which Korah did not exhibit, he instead put forward false accusations and riled the people with feelings of injustice and anger against Moses and Aaron. God hears the appeal of Moses and Aaron and tells him to have everyone move away from the tents of Korah and his followers.
25 Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 He warned the assembly, “Move back from the tents of these wicked men! Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins.” 27 So they moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram had come out and were standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents.
Moses tells the people what God has said and they obeyed. It would seem that God tested them this way. If they moved away, they would be spared, but if they didn’t, or if they touched anything these people owned, they would be assumed just as guilty and be destroyed with those who had sinned against God. As the people obeyed though, we see that the rebellious and their families did not repent, they stood at the entrances to their tents with the men in defiance.
28 Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: 29 If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”
31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!”
Moses tells the people the sentence of almighty power from God to punish the wicked. They will suffer an unnatural death, having the earth swallow them and God does not delay in his execution of that sentence. The very moment Moses is done telling them, it happens. But this is only those ASSOCIATED with Korah and the other men. This is the families, and everyone who did not move away when Moses told them to do so. The others ran away, hearing the screams, because they knew they deserved the same fate.
35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
36 The Lord said to Moses, 37 “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, to remove the censers from the charred remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the censers are holy— 38 the censers of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives. Hammer the censers into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before the Lord and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites.”
Here we see why God did not swallow the men in the earth. He had another punishment designed for them that would also preserve the holy things. These objects belonged to God and he did not want them destroyed, but used as a reminder to those who witnessed this event so they would never again make the mistake of coming against the leadership God had set in place and try to seize that leadership for themselves. The ashes of the sinful had to be scattered outside of the camp because they were unholy, and the holy censers had to be separated.
39 So Eleazar the priest collected the bronze censers brought by those who had been burned to death, and he had them hammered out to overlay the altar, 40 as the Lord directed him through Moses. This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the Lord, or he would become like Korah and his followers.
41 The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the Lord’s people,” they said.
These misguided people still do not understand that Moses and Aaron are the Lord’s annointed. They accuse them of murdering “the Lord’s people”. It is amazing that they could witness the ground swallowing people and fire from the Lord consuming men and still think that Moses and Aaron had something to do with it! How blinded they must have been to think they could get away with speaking against God’s leadership!
42 But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned toward the tent of meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord said to Moses, 45 “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” And they fell facedown.
God wastes no time arriving in defense of Moses and Aaron. Again God is going to destroy them all, and again Moses and Aaron intercede for them, begging for God to spare them, knowing that mercy was likely not going to be shown a second time.
46 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” 47 So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. 48 He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. 49 But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. 50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the tent of meeting, for the plague had stopped.[c]
Moses tells Aaron to quickly make atonement for the people. Death came quickly and a plague has already begun striking them down in the time it took for Aaron to follow Moses’ instruction for atonement. In boldness, Aaron ran right into the midst of the plague with his incense, standing between the living and the dead with no regard for his own safety. The holy in the midst of the sinful stopped the plague. We see again an example of leadership in the complete humility and sacrifice of Moses and Aaron. Even when the people came against them, they continued to plead for mercy and forgiveness – literally standing between the people and the judgement of death for their sins.
- Numbers 16:1 Or Peleth—took men
- Numbers 16:14 Or to deceive these men; Hebrew Will you gouge out the eyes of these men
- Numbers 16:50 In Hebrew texts 16:36-50 is numbered 17:1-15.