Bible Commentary: Numbers 16

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Numbers 16

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The Rebellion of Korah

Korah, a first cousin to Moses, and 250 leaders of the assembly arose in self-exaltation against Moses and Aaron with claims that they were superseding their authority. These men hypocritically accused Moses and Aaron, saying, “You exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord” (verse 3). There is within sinners the proclivity to accuse others of the same sin they are committing (verse 7; Romans 2:1 Romans 2:1Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are that judge: for wherein you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you that judge do the same things.
American King James Version×
). These men wanted a piece of the action, to appoint themselves as leaders and teachers over the congregation. They took too much upon themselves, speaking evil of things they did not understand (compare Jude 1:10-11 Jude 1:10-11 [10] But these speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves. [11] Woe to them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core.
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). They were refusing to recognize that God was working in a special way with Moses and Aaron, and they hadn’t learned anything from Miriam and Aaron’s misjudgment in a similar way regarding Moses.

Moses told Korah and the 250 to bring bronze censers (devices for burning incense, each made of a bowl with a colander on top, swung on a chain). Why? Because besides the contention over judging the nation, these men were also disputing Aaron’s position over the priesthood. They were not priests, and the burning of incense was a priestly duty these men were trying to usurp (Numbers 16:40 Numbers 16:40To be a memorial to the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the LORD; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the LORD said to him by the hand of Moses.
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). Again, they had apparently not learned anything from the terrible mistake of Nadab and Abihu, who had died because they offered strange fire before the Lord (Numbers 3:4 Numbers 3:4And Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father.
American King James Version×
; Leviticus 10:1-2 Leviticus 10:1-2 [1] And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. [2] And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
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).

Because God is the One who put Moses and Aaron in their respective offices, the rebellious action of the men led by Korah was actually against God (Numbers 16:11 Numbers 16:11For which cause both you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD: and what is Aaron, that you murmur against him?
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, Numbers 16:30 Numbers 16:30But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain to them, and they go down quick into the pit; then you shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.
American King James Version×
). Moreover, as the sons of Levi, they had already been appointed to very respected positions in the service of His tabernacle. And yet they weren’t satisfied—they wanted the judgeship and priesthood also (verses 9-10). “The men who were seeking a higher position were in fact being contemptuous of the place to which God had appointed them. Moses’ response was condescending and scathing: ‘Is it a small thing to you?’ The dissenters should have realized how gracious God had been in giving them the life work He had provided. They were not unlike people who complain about the gifts God has given them” (Nelson Study Bible, note on Numbers 16:9-11 Numbers 16:9-11 [9] Seems it but 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 service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them? [10] And he has brought you near to him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you: and seek you the priesthood also? [11] For which cause both you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD: and what is Aaron, that you murmur against him?
American King James Version×
).

These men rejected Moses’ authority, claiming that he was lording authority over them like some worldly prince—which is utterly ridiculous given the humility of Moses and His many intercessions for the Israelites, including his offer to give up His own eternal salvation to save them. Dathan and Abiram, two allies of Korah, even praised Egypt as the land of milk and honey (verse 13), accused Moses of wrongdoing for leading them out of that land, and absurdly blamed him for the fact that the Israelites had been denied entrance to the Promised Land (verse 14). It may be that many were beginning to be swayed by these accusations, since God once again stands ready to blast the entire nation from existence—though He relents from this course at the intercession of Moses and Aaron. Nevertheless, the principal evildoers come to a dramatic end.

It is easily overlooked here, but, thankfully, not all of Korah’s family followed him in this rebellion (Numbers 26:11 Numbers 26:11Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.
American King James Version×
). Indeed, Korah’s descendants were later prominent among the Levites (see 2 Chronicles 20:19 2 Chronicles 20:19And the Levites, of the children of the Kohathites, and of the children of the Korhites, stood up to praise the LORD God of Israel with a loud voice on high.
American King James Version×
), serving as gatekeepers at the temple (1 Chronicles 26) and as musicians, contributing many psalms for temple worship (see Psalms 42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88). There is a natural human tendency to support those within our families. But this becomes a problem when the family member being supported is engaging in wrongdoing. There is a similar sin in the supporting of those in leadership positions when they are leading sinful lives (verse 26). The scriptures are clear that God disqualifies leaders who refuse to repent of overt sin in their lives. We can never condone sin. To just say, “I’ll put it in God’s hands,” when we have an obligation to stand up and be counted, is the same as temporarily approving of a sinful situation—and that is always wrong. That’s why Moses drew that proverbial “line in the sand,” asking people to show where they stood by backing away from the rebels.

The people of the congregation do back away and witness the incredible event of the earth swallowing up the leading rebels with their families and fire consuming the unauthorized incense offerers. But astonishingly, the congregation complains against Moses and Aaron the next day, blaming them for killing God’s people. God is understandably infuriated, and again—only the next day!—He tells Moses and Aaron to get out of the way so that He can destroy the nation (verses 44-45). In His wrath God sends a terrible plague. But again, Moses desires to save the people and orders Aaron to quickly make atonement for them. Aaron, as a clear type of Christ—a mediator, a savior, a deliverer—intercedes for the congregation, standing between life and death to stop the plague, which had already slain nearly 15,000 people (verses 48-49).

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