Numbers 16 – Korah’s Rebellion
A. The battle lines are drawn: Korah and his followers oppose Moses’ leadership.
1. (1-3) The accusation against Moses and Aaron.
Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”
a. Now Korah the son of Izhar: This rebellion, like all, had a leader and followers. This leader was Korah, descended from Kohath. Both Moses and Korah were descended from Kohath, but by different sons (Moses through Amram [Numbers 26:58-59], and Korah through Izhar).
i. The Kohathites had the most exalted duty among the Levites; their charge was to carry the most holy things of the temple, after Aaron and his sons had covered them with the specially prepared coverings (Numbers 4:15).
ii. The name Korah means “baldness.” Old baldy was going to give Moses a tough time!
b. You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy: Korah was not content with what the Lord had called him to do in serving with the other Levites of the family of Kohath. He accused Moses of pride and exclusionary leadership.
i. It was significant this accusation was made publicly, in front of two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation… men of renown. Men like Korah are always playing to an audience, always trying to draw a following after themselves – after Moses has already gathered the nation and led them this far, of course!
c. You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: This was a clever attack. Korah acted as if he represented the people and fought for their interests. The truth was that he desired a following and a position for himself.
i. “Moses, you shouldn’t be the leader. Let everyone be a leader. God can speak to everyone.” Rebels and divisive persons have always used such words for their cause.
ii. Significantly, Korah proclaimed the holiness of the people (all the congregation is holy) and regarded strong leadership as unnecessary (You take too much) at the very time when the nation was not holy and desperately needed strong leadership! Korah, like many rebels and divisive persons, completely misread the state of the “flock” – because he was not a true shepherd.
d. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the congregation of the Lord: Korah accused Moses (and Aaron) of pride and self-seeking. The truth was that Moses had not aspired to his position, that God had indeed called him, and Moses did not in fact see himself as above the congregation.
e. Two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown: On a human level, Korah was successful because these followed him. The “Korahs” of the ministry are difficult enough to deal with, but the people who follow them – the two hundred and fifty leaders… representatives… men of renown – who lack the discernment to oppose the “Korahs” can be even more painful.
2. (4-11) The response of Moses to Korah and his company.
So when Moses heard it, he fell on his face; and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is His and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him. That one whom He chooses He will cause to come near to Him. Do this: Take censers, Korah and all your company; put fire in them and put incense in them before the Lord tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the Lord chooses is the holy one. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” Then Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the Lord. And what is Aaron that you complain against him?”
a. When Moses heard it, he fell on his face: Moses first prayed. Being a humble man, he probably asked God if his critics were right or had something to teach him. He probably asked God what should be done in the situation. He certainly asked God to spare the nation and he asked God to not allow these divisive men to bring permanent harm to the people of God.
b. And he spoke to Korah and all his company: We don’t know how long Moses prayed, but after prayer he had a sense of God’s direction for this crisis. He issued a challenge whereby Korah and his followers would come before the Lord, and Moses and Aaron would also come, so that the Lord would choose His leaders.
c. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi! This shows that Moses did not doubt the outcome of the test. He knew that God would prove him right and Korah wrong. Therefore, Moses was unafraid to put it to the test.
d. Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel: Moses knew that the rebellion of Korah was rooted in ingratitude. They were not thankful for the wonderful ministry God gave them to do. He rebuked the pride and self-seeking that prompted their challenge.
i. Even if Korah was right, this was the wrong way to approach the problem. A power play like this was the wrong way to remove a leader like Moses. The methods of Korah (his use of accusation, intimidation, the gathering of a rival following) revealed his rebellious, divisive heart.
3. (12-14) Dathan and Abiram speak for the rebels.
And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up! “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you should keep acting like a prince over us? Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!”
a. Dathan and Abiram: These were co-conspirators with Korah (Numbers 16:1). They would not even meet with Moses, nor answer his challenge. They chose to accuse Moses instead.
b. Out of a land of milk and honey: This shows that Dathan and Abiram colored the past. They thought of Egypt as a land of milk and honey, even for the Hebrew slaves. Rebels and divisive people commonly create a past of their own preference, a past that puts leaders like Moses in the worst possible light.
c. To kill us in the wilderness: This shows that Dathan and Abiram assigned an evil heart to Moses. They spoke as if they had discovered the plot of Moses and Aaron: To lead the nation into the wilderness and then kill them. The foolishness of this shows how, against all reason, rebels and divisive people often assign every evil intention to the heart of leaders like Moses.
d. That you should keep acting like a prince over us: This shows that Dathan and Abiram refused to acknowledge growth in Moses. It was true that Moses was at one time a prince, a self-confident man who thought he could deliver and lead Israel with his own hand. God broke him of that with forty years of leading another man’s flock in the wilderness. Yet Dathan and Abiram threw it back in his face, as if God had never dealt with Moses in these areas.
e. You have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey: This shows that Dathan and Abiram had unfair expectation of Moses. It was true that Moses had not yet brought them to the Promised Land, and it was true that some of the blame must lay at the feet of Moses because he agreed to the demand of the people to send spies into the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1:19-23). Yet, it is wrong to wholly blame Moses for this, or to think that Korah could have done any better.
i. It is unbelievably easy for the Korahs of this world to sit back and say, “If I was leading the nation at Kadesh Barnea, I would have done thus and so.” But Korah was not leading the nation, and men of his type rarely do. God rarely puts the Monday-morning quarterbacks, the backseat drivers, in positions of real leadership – except as a chastisement, to show them just how difficult leadership really is – and that perfect leadership, like perfect anything, is impossible.
ii. Leaders should expect to be held to a higher standard; but it is patently unfair to hold a leader to a perfect standard.
f. We will not come up: This shows that Dathan and Abiram considered themselves under no authority. It said, loud and clear: “Moses, we have no respect for your authority. We will listen to God, but not to you. Your word means nothing to us.” They simply would not submit.
g. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up: Perhaps Dathan and Abiram did not speak for all of the 250 leaders, representatives, and men of renown. Yet none of those 250 were heard to raise an opposing voice to their harsh accusations.
i. Some of the 250 thought that maybe Dathan and Abiram were going a little far; but they did not have their courage to speak up. They were wrong because they allowed Moses to be accused this way with no one to defend him.
ii. It was easy for them to stand back and say, “Well, I won’t take sides. I can be friends to both groups.” But here and in many subsequent conflicts, silence is taken as agreement. If a godly man or woman – especially a leader – is being falsely accused, and you say nothing, you have sinned, because your silence is received as agreement.
4. (15-19a) Moses restates his challenge.
Then Moses was very angry, and said to the Lord, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them.” And Moses said to Korah, “Tomorrow, you and all your company be present before the Lord; you and they, as well as Aaron. Let each take his censer and put incense in it, and each of you bring his censer before the Lord, two hundred and fifty censers; both you and Aaron, each with his censer.” So every man took his censer, put fire in it, laid incense on it, and stood at the door of the tabernacle of meeting with Moses and Aaron. And Korah gathered all the congregation against them at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.
a. Then Moses was very angry, and said to the Lord: After the words of Dathan and Abiram, Moses was angry – very angry. He knew he has done nothing to deserve such an accusation, and he did the right thing – he left the situation to God.
i. Remember that Moses was, after all, a man of political power; it was certainly within his capability to have Korah and his followers (like Dathan and Abiram) arrested and/or executed. Instead, he left the situation to God.
ii. Sometimes people are offended that a man like Moses was angry with men like Dathan and Abiram. They think a gentle, easy love is the proper response. Such thinking is understandable, but wrong. Shepherds are gentle with wayward sheep who might injure themselves, but they are passionate against wolves who would injure the flock.
b. I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them: This shows that Moses was a man of integrity and service to the people. Moses could rest in his clean conscience before God.
i. This reminds us of Paul’s testimony before the Ephesian elders in Acts 20: Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God… I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel… I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak (Acts 20:26-27, 33, 35). When a leader is troubled by rebellious and divisive persons, there is something glorious about a clean conscience.
c. Let each take his censer and put incense in it, and each of you bring his censer before the Lord: This specified the challenge. God would approve or disapprove of these 250 men gathered with censers of incense before the door of the tabernacle.
i. God used the censers with fire and incense in this test for a good reason. A censer is a metal pot used to burn incense, and they were used in the priestly worship of God. Since Korah and his companions questioned Moses and Aaron’s right to lead the nation and conduct the priesthood, each group would come to the Lord as worshipping priests – and God would show which group He accepted.
ii. Moses made the rebels take the position they desired – the position of priest. Often the best judgment on the divisive and rebellious is to let them lead.
iii. Humanly speaking, the odds were not good. It was Moses and Aaron standing alone against all the congregation. Yet God would make this choice, and not popular opinion.
B. God affirms Moses’ leadership over the nation of Israel.
1. (19b-21) God announces judgment on the rebels.
Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation. And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.”
a. Separate yourselves: It is as if God said, “Moses and Aaron, will you please move away? I’m going to destroy all these rebels in an instant, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
b. That I may consume them in a moment: God decided to make His choice immediately evident. Sometimes this is not the case when God deals with modern Korahs and their followers.
2. (22) The intercession of Moses and Aaron for Korah and the rebels.
Then they fell on their faces, and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with all the congregation?”
a. Then they fell on their faces: This was amazing love from Moses and Aaron. Undoubtedly, one of God’s reasons for allowing such a painful event in the life of Moses was that God wanted to see this kind love drawn out of Moses. Perhaps it was only the prayer of Moses and Aaron which could spare the lives of these men who have tried to bring them down. Such love for the undeserving shows that Moses and Aaron were growing in love and being transformed into the image of Jesus – before Jesus ever walked the earth.
i. Again, the importance of prayer is emphasized. It seems as if there were no prayer, then the rebellious congregation would be destroyed. We should think that Moses’ prayer was essential.
b. Shall one man sin, and You be angry with all the congregation: Moses and Aaron saw right through it. Though many were involved (at least more than 250), one man was at the center of it all – Korah. His sin, his drawing of a group after himself, was the cause of all this mess.
3. (23-35) God’s judgment on the rebels.
So the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’” Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.” So they got away from around the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, their sons, and their little children. And Moses said: “By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the Lord.” Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly. Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up also!” And a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense.
a. The elders of Israel followed him: This was glorious. God had appointed elders back in Numbers 10:16-30, in response to another attack on Moses’ leadership. There, the elders were to be men with the same spirit and vision as Moses, men to help him bear the burden, men to stand with Moses. Here they did exactly what God appointed them to do.
b. Lest you should be consumed in all their sins: Moses, in response to God’s command to get away from the tents of the leaders of the rebellion (Korah, Dathan, and Abiram), plead with the people to separate themselves from the divisive persons.
i. The same attitude should be among God’s people today. They should stay away from divisive, argumentative, contentious people in the body of Christ. You don’t want to be close to them if God should deal with them. A divisive, contentious man will influence you, and you do not want to be consumed in their sins.
ii. The New Testament also speaks along this same principle: Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned (Titus 3:10-11). Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple (Romans 16:17-18).
iii. Remember a divisive, contentious person will never claim to be divisive and contentious – they always consider their work a noble cause. Therefore, Christians need some discernment and to look at what others do, not only at what they say.
c. By this you shall know: God gave Moses supernatural insight to know some special judgment (a new thing) was going to come upon Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The earth would swallow them up, as evidence that these men have rejected the Lord.
d. The ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up: This was just the way Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were destroyed – along with their families.
i. We may be uneasy seeing the families destroyed also, but it clearly shows that the families of the rebellious, divisive, contentious people suffer also – often greatly.
e. A fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men: God appointed judgment for those who walked in agreement with Korah. Korah and his close associates were swallowed…up by the earth; these two hundred and fifty men were destroyed by fire. Their worship was not received.
4. (36-40) A bronze covering for the altar.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Tell Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, to pick up the censers out of the blaze, for they are holy, and scatter the fire some distance away. The censers of these men who sinned against their own souls, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar. Because they presented them before the Lord, therefore they are holy; and they shall be a sign to the children of Israel.” So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which those who were burned up had presented, and they were hammered out as a covering on the altar, to be a memorial to the children of Israel that no outsider, who is not a descendant of Aaron, should come near to offer incense before the Lord, that he might not become like Korah and his companions, just as the Lord had said to him through Moses.
a. Pick up the censers out of the blaze, for they are holy… let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar: The censers were beaten flat and used to cover the main altar of sacrifice. The censers of the rebels were holy and preserved because even though Korah and his followers worshipped wrongly, they worshipped the right God.
i. “Can you imagine the scene? True priests are picking among the bodies, charred flesh, stench, smoke, smoldering embers, and twisted parts. They are to make a count. There were 250 censers; not one is to be lost. Each one is recorded, each one cleansed, each one holy.” (Allen)
ii. In the end, each one of the 250 were identified completely with Korah. Perhaps that wasn’t how they meant it. “Well, I don’t agree with everything Korah says, but he’s got some good points.” But to God all those distinctions were lost. All the censers are hammered together, and collectively titled: Korah and his companions.
b. Scatter the fire some distance away: The fire was not holy and was to be scattered away. It was a strange fire – not acceptable to the Lord at all.
c. They were hammered out as a covering on the altar, to be a memorial to the children of Israel: The censers were thus memorialized and served as an important reminder. God appoints His leaders, and no one should be a divisive rebel like Korah.
i. If Christians today encounter ungodly, divisive leadership they should do what the 250 followers of Korah did not do. The right thing to do is to, if possible, remove yourself from such leaders without becoming rebellious and divisive. If it isn’t possible, leave it up to God to deal with it (as David allowed God to deal with Saul) instead of taking matters into his own hands.
ii. In the Hebrew edition of the Old Testament, Numbers 16:36 begins a new chapter (chapter 17).
C. The people murmur against Moses and Aaron.
1. (41) The accusation is made: You have killed the people of the Lord.
On the next day all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.”
a. On the next day all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron: Poor Moses! He no doubt hoped that all the trouble was over when the rebels were judged. But now he had to deal with those who were sympathetic to the divisive people and who felt sorry for them.
b. You have killed the people of the Lord: Their accusation against Moses was absurd. Moses certainly did not kill them. When the earth opens up and swallows more than 250 people, it is evidently the hand of God, not of Moses.
2. (42-45) The threat of judgment on the children of Israel for their sympathy for Korah.
Now it happened, when the congregation had gathered against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tabernacle of meeting; and suddenly the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. Then Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of meeting. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces.
a. Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment: God reacted the same way towards the sympathizers as He did towards Korah and his company. Evidently, these people deserve to be judged.
b. And they fell on their faces: This humble, desperate reaction showed that they took the threat of judgment seriously. They understood that it was no small thing to sympathize with a divisive, contentious person. God takes it seriously, and so should we.
3. (46-50) Aaron’s intercession stops the plague of judgment upon the children of Israel.
So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the Lord. The plague has begun.” Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and already the plague had begun among the people. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; so the plague was stopped. Now those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, besides those who died in the Korah incident. So Aaron returned to Moses at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, for the plague had stopped.
a. Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them: God had promised judgment in Numbers 16:45 (that I may consume them in a moment). Therefore, Moses told Aaron, as the high priest over God’s people, to immediately offer incense to make atonement for the congregation.
b. Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly: Moses and Aaron might have had an interest in letting God consume all those who sympathized with those who rebelled against their leadership. Instead, out of love, they tried to stop the plague.
i. We have no reason to think that Korah or his group would have shown the same mercy to Moses. They probably would have passively said, “Well God, go ahead and give them what they deserve. I knew they had it coming to them!” Korah and the complainers didn’t have the same shepherd’s heart for Israel that Moses and Aaron did.
ii. Aaron ran into the midst of the congregation; his sense of urgency is characteristic of true intercession.
c. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people: A censer filled with burning incense was used to stop the plague. Incense is a picture of prayer in the Bible (as in Revelation 8:3-4), because the sweet-smelling smoke of incense ascends to heaven as our prayers would. This was a dramatic picture of Aaron, as high priest, interceding for God’s people.
d. And he stood between the dead and the living, so the plague was stopped: The plague stopped where Aaron prayed. Intercessors do the same thing today; they stand between the dead and the living, beseeching God’s mercy, preserving and promoting life with their prayer.
i. To stand between the dead and the living speaks of how serious the matter of prayer is; it is no casual pursuit, no fatalistic exercise in self-improvement. Prayer moves the hand of God and moves it to stop death and to give life!
ii. When was the last time we prayed as if life and death depended upon it?
e. Those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred: This is a great number, but not compared to the consuming of the whole nation. Even now, the generation of unbelief was perishing in the wilderness, so a new generation of faith and boldness could be raised up to take the Promised Land.
i. Most importantly, Aaron the high priest’s work here is a picture of our high priest Jesus, and his work on our behalf. We were guilty sinners deserving judgment, we were rightly plagued, our Savior was sent on His mission, He was unjustly accused and attacked, He prayed on our behalf, He “ran” to save us, He stood between death and life for us, and He is the only chance for salvation, being the dividing line between death and life.
ii. “Aaron wisely puts himself in the pathway of the plague. It came on, cutting down all before it, and there stood Aaron the interposer with arms outstretched and censer swinging towards the heaven, interposing himself between the darts of death and the people. ‘If there be darts that must fly,” he seemed to say, “let them pierce me; or let the incense shield both me and the people.’” (Spurgeon) There is nothing that can save the soul of man except Jesus Christ standing between that soul and the judgment of God.
iii. “If Aaron the high priest, with his censer and incense, could disarm the wrath of an insulted, angry Deity, so that a guilty people, who deserved nothing but destruction, should be spared; how much more effectual may we expect the great atonement to be which was made by the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom Aaron was only the type! The sacrifices of living animals pointed out the death of Christ on the cross; the incense, his intercession. Through his death salvation is purchased for the world; by his intercession the offending children of men are spared.” (Clarke)