Even though by this time in the story the Israelites have witnessed numerous examples of God’s power and have seen time after time that Moses is God’s chosen leader, they continue to have times where they decide it’s a good idea to rebel against both. In this chapter, a group decides to question the leadership positions of both Moses and Aaron and pay the ultimate price for doing so. The lesson, as always, is that man is irrationally sinful apart from God, and our memory and knowledge of His great power and holiness are often overwhelmed by our selfishness.
We don’t know when this story takes place in relation to the rebellion at Kadesh (when they refused to enter Canaan). It could occur soon after that tragedy or it could happen years later, so we don’t know if the judgment of God on their rebellion is still fresh in their minds. Judging by the events of the chapter, it seems as if some time has elapsed and God’s wrath is no longer so real.
Regardless of when it happens, it starts with four disgruntled men who decide to question the leadership structure of the nation. A man named Korah, who is a Kohathite from the tribe of Levi, and three men from the tribe of Reuben – Dathan, Abiram, and On (who for some reason isn’t mentioned again) – rebel against Moses and Aaron.
Some facts about these four men will make the story more understandable. First, the Kohathites are a clan in the tribe of Levi who carry the most holy objects in the tabernacle when Israel moves. They carry all the items that are in the holy place and the holy of holies, including the ark (3:27-32, 4:1-16). Another thing to know is the Kohathites and the tribe of Reuben both camp on the south side of the tabernacle (2:10, 3:29), so these four men likely know each other because of their proximity in the camp.
Korah gathers 250 other men (leaders of the congregation, men of renown – [Think how discouraging this is for Moses – leaders in the camp, perhaps mostly from the tribe of Levi, jump at the chance to challenge his rule – it’s a recurring theme throughout Numbers that Moses’ leadership isn’t all that well-received – it never takes much for the people to rebel against it – something to take as an object lesson about positions God puts us in – following God isn’t always popular]) and they – as a group – approach Moses and Aaron. They tell them that all the people in Israel are set apart and holy, and all enjoy God in the midst of the camp, so why do the two of them exalt themselves over everyone else? Why does Aaron alone get to be high priest? These men are Levites set apart by God for special roles and privileges, but they’re communicating that it’s not enough. They want a chance to be high priest too.
We read this and immediately wonder how anyone could still rebel after all they’ve seen to this point. It wasn’t that long ago that Aaron and Miriam also questioned Moses’ position and were harshly punished (12:1-15 – this must be in Aaron’s mind as he listens to Korah and his followers) – something you would assume this group would remember. And time and again they’ve seen God interact directly with Moses, and they know God ordained Aaron as high priest. Yet they act as if none of these things is true. They point at Moses and Aaron and accuse them of setting themselves up as if God wasn’t involved at all. Their selfishness overwhelms their memory and discernment.
As he has in so many instances, Moses instantly understands the gravity of what the men are doing, and he likely knows how it’s going to end. That he falls on his face shows both how distraught he is over their words and how fearful he is of God’s response. These men have no idea what they’re really saying. They see it as a challenge of two arrogant men. Moses knows it’s a challenge directed at God, and that God doesn’t react well to challenges to His authority.
Interestingly, Moses doesn’t defend himself or Aaron. He simply says they’re going to let God decide between them and the rebellious Levites. He knows he is where he is solely because God put him there, and he sees no need to explain himself to these men. Earlier in the book he was described as an amazingly humble man (12:3); here he shows that aspect of his character by not spending any time justifying himself or his brother.
He goes on to rebuke Korah and the other Levites because they’ve already been set apart for the special work of God, yet it’s apparently not enough for them. They have special roles, but they want the MOST special role of all – high priest. They aren’t satisfied with the exalted place God has for them – they want more.
Moses actually uses their words against them. Their accusation (vs 3) against Moses and Aaron was, “You have gone far enough!” Moses says back to them, “You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi.” It’s a little back and forth. “You have gone far enough!” “No, YOU have gone far enough!” Moses makes it clear that the problem isn’t him and Aaron exalting themselves. The problem is a group of men rebelling directly against the Lord.
Notice the test Moses sets up. He wants all of them – all 250+ of them – to come to the tabernacle tomorrow and bring a censer to burn incense in the presence of the Lord. The reason for this test is that it’s a function only a priest can perform. Thus whoever is accepted by God – and if anyone’s really thinking they should know that whoever is NOT accepted will die – will be the real high priest. What’s amazing about this test is that the guy they’re complaining about – Aaron – lost two sons because they offered strange fire before the Lord (Lev 10:1-2). Do they – a group of Levites – not remember that? From that standpoint it’s amazing that they agree to this at all. Surely they know the stakes involved? It shows how far gone they are in their self-absorption and envy. They don’t step back and consider the consequences of what Moses suggests. They just want Aaron taken down and they want their shot at the highest office. Their selfishness makes them blind fools.
We find out in these verses that it was only Korah and his group that came to Moses and Aaron. For some reason, the Reubenite group – led by Dathan and Abiram – didn’t confront them. Somehow Moses knows they’re part of the rebellion, however, so he sends a message to them telling them to come to him. They refuse. They instead send a message of their own back to Moses accusing him of the following:
- Bringing them out of a wonderful land of Egypt – a land flowing with milk and honey – to die in the wilderness (Moses has heard this so many times that he probably mouths the words as they say it – it’s the default complaint in every rebellion).
- Not taking them into Canaan as he’d promised to do. So – according to them – He took them OUT of a land of milk and honey and failed to lead them INTO another land flowing with milk and honey. With this accusation they turn everything on its head. That they’re wandering in the wilderness and not living in Canaan is now Moses’ fault. It’s not the people’s rebellion that put them in the wilderness. It’s Moses’ leadership.
- Fooling everyone to keep his position. They use an odd expression – “Would you put out the eyes of these men?” This isn’t entirely clear in its meaning, but it very well could be an expression similar to “You’re pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.” He’s deceiving the people to exalt himself.
They send their message and refuse to come to Moses. They reject his authority to summon them. They effectively say, “We won’t come and you can’t make us.”
The response of the Reubenites coupled with the accusations of the Kohathites make Moses angry. He goes to God and tells Him not to regard their offerings (that will come tomorrow) and defends his leadership by saying, “I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I done harm to any of them.” [Good life lesson here – it’s typically better to vent to God rather than to men – Moses didn’t say this to the men rebelling against him – he says it to God – sometimes it’s best to justify ourselves to God and let Him worry about defending our rights.] What’s interesting about this scene is that God doesn’t say anything to Moses. It’s also interesting that nowhere in the text does God instruct Moses to have the rebels offer incense. It appears that Moses knows the mind of God and acts accordingly.
Korah and the 250 men bring censers and assemble at the tabernacle the next day. Moses and Aaron (who also has a censer ready to burn incense) appear too. Apparently, Dathan and Abiram still don’t show but stay at their tents.
Korah doesn’t just bring his 250 followers. He also assembles all the congregation at the doorway of the tabernacle to rebel against Moses and Aaron. It’s hard to know who all this includes, but the picture is of the majority of the nation squaring off against Moses and Aaron. Unbelievable. It’s as if they’ve totally forgotten everything that’s occurred to this point. What’s probably happened is that they’ve heard Korah’s complaint and it’s registered with them as they consider that they’re sentenced to die in the wilderness. They have very little to live for and it’s all Moses’ fault. They’re bitter and someone needs to pay. Forget everything else and what typically happens to people who take on God. Someone needs to pay for their sorry state. “Go Korah! You tell ‘em!”
After everyone assembles, God appears and talks to Moses and Aaron and once again – as He’s done several times on this trip – threatens to destroy the whole nation and start over with the two of them. Moses and Aaron – showing their character and love for a people who right now are rebelling against their leadership – fall on their faces before God and beg Him to spare them. They appeal to His justice and say that only Korah and his followers deserve to be punished – not the whole nation. God relents but gives further instructions.
Moses leaves the tabernacle and leads a group of elders – along with Korah, apparently – to the tents of Dathan, Abiram, and Korah. The three men gather at their tents (remember that they camp on the same side of the tabernacle) along with their wives and children and servants (although Korah – for some reason – doesn’t have his sons with him – see 26:9-11).
Moses tells everyone to back away from the three dwellings and not touch anything. He tells the congregation that if the three men die normal deaths, then God hasn’t sent him to be leader of Israel. If, however, the three die in a way no one’s seen before – by the earth swallowing them alive – then the congregation will know that God sent Moses and that the men have spurned the Lord.
Can you imagine this scene? Can you imagine what must be going through the heads of the three men? Can you imagine how their wives and families feel? Can you imagine what the people backing away from the three tents must think? The tension has to be palpable. Remember, these people have witnessed some incredible things. What Moses says might be hard to believe, but it’s not so out there compared to crossing the Red Sea or seeing God at Sinai. Notice that the people obediently back away – no one questions Moses’ instructions (even though they were just rebelling against him – perhaps the glory of the Lord changed their attitude a bit). They believe what he’s saying. The anxiety in the tents of the three families has to be off the charts. It must be terrifying to watch the people back away and leave you alone in the center.
After Moses speaks, the earth opens up and swallows all three families along with their possessions. The earth then closes over them. Nothing’s left. No tents, no belongings, no people. The three dwellings that were there a minute ago are all gone – wiped away. And the people who were there just went alive into hell (the families become the tragic opposite of Enoch and Elijah – instead of not dying and going straight to heaven, they don’t die and go straight to hell).
Not surprisingly, the people who witness this panic. They run from the area and cry out that they may get swallowed up too.
At the same time the three families go down to Sheol, God sends fire from His presence and consumes the 250 men burning incense in front of the tabernacle. They meet the same end as Aaron’s sons for committing the same crime.
Thus God purges the camp of those who rebel against His servants. Moses IS God’s choice. Aaron IS God’s high priest. And if anyone rebels against either one they rebel against God.
God instructs Moses to have one of Aaron’s sons take the bronze from the censers of the dead men and use it to cover the altar. Thus the altar becomes the bronze altar.
The first five words of this section are truly hard to believe. But on the next day. THE NEXT DAY. THE NEXT DAY after witnessing the earth swallowing up three families and seeing 250 burn to death because they rebelled against God’s leaders, the people of Israel grumble against Moses and Aaron and accuse them of being the reason the people died. Think about this. The people who died lost their lives because they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. So the people who lived – only, by the way, because of the intervention of Moses and Aaron – now rebel because Moses and Aaron caused the people to die. So if you grumble against Moses and Aaron, you die, so you grumble against Moses and Aaron because it’s not right that people who grumble against Moses and Aaron die – even though you’re going to die for grumbling against Moses and Aaron (this last part of the logic apparently never registers).
[Toward the end of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), the rich man suffers in Hades and begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world to warn his brothers about eternal damnation. Abraham tells him that they have ‘Moses and the Prophets’ (scripture) and so they have enough to warn them. The rich man protests that that’s not enough, but that if they saw someone rise from the dead, they’d believe. Abraham tells him that if they won’t listen to scripture, then even if someone rose from the dead to tell them they wouldn’t believe him either. This text proves Abraham’s words. These people see an amazing display of God’s judgment and the very next day act as if it didn’t happen. One day is all it takes for them to lose their belief. No miracle or sign is enough to overcome our unbelief apart from the Spirit’s work.]
God once again appears and threatens to destroy the people. Once again Moses and Aaron intercede, but this time they don’t appeal to God but take action to appease His wrath. God sends a plague to destroy the people and Moses instructs Aaron to take a censer and run into the midst of the people and burn incense to stop the plague (fulfill his high priestly role – what was just tested by Korah and the 250 men). Aaron does as he’s told and the plague stops, but not before 14,700 people die (don’t gloss over this number – think about the impact of this many people dying in one day – think about the mourning that must break out throughout the camp – think about the logistics of burying them). The people pay dearly for their grumbling against Moses and Aaron – something that PERHAPS they could’ve seen coming.
Takeaways from the Passage
- There has never been more than one way to God. Korah’s sin – beyond his basic rebellion against God – was in presuming that more than one person (and one family line) could be high priest. When he and the 250 men burned incense before the Lord, they put themselves in the role of the one who atones for the people’s sin. But there is only one high priest who can do that (as Aaron showed the next day). And, as we know, that never changes. Aaron is a type of the great high priest to come (Heb 4:14). Thus, the death of Korah and the rebellious Levites shows that what Jesus said 1400 years later is true – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (Jn 14:6).
- There is no way to overstate God’s holiness. It’s perhaps easy to read a passage like this and discount it as another harsh Old Testament story and go on our way. But there’s a truth in Numbers 16 that directly relates to our lives. It tells us that over 15,000 people died of various causes over a two-day period for one reason – they treated the holiness of God lightly. They decided they could approach God on their own terms and disdained the leadership He put in place. And they died as a result. It pays to remember this as we go about our daily lives in the presence of our Creator. We obviously have a different access to Him because of Christ, but He’s the same God today as He was in this chapter, with the same view of sin. So when we’re tempted to downplay our selfish choices or take our redemption for granted, we should remember the fate of the 15,000 and what it tells us about God’s holy nature.