Numbers 16: Korah’s Rebellion
In Chapter 14, we saw the people refusing to enter the Promised Land, because they didn’t trust the LORD to help them defeat the people living there. In this chapter, further rebellion happens, when the Levites—or, some of the Levites, at least—rebel against Moses and Aaron. Verses 1–2 say that they “[become] insolent and [rise] up against Moses.” A group of 250 men, who are “well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council,” come to oppose Moses and Aaron, because they feel that Moses and Aaron are getting too arrogant.
“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?” (verse 3b)
It’s already been mentioned that Moses is the most humble man on Earth, however, he also knows that the LORD has chosen him to lead the Israelites, and that the LORD has chosen Aaron to be High Priest. Especially ironic is the fact that Moses never wanted the job in the first place—he’s just doing it because the LORD told him to, and he doesn’t want to refuse Him. So his response to the Levites shows both humility and confidence that he is doing the LORD’s will: first, he falls face down. I think this is his response to blasphemy; the people are not properly representing the LORD’s will, as Moses does. Second, he responds to them:
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. You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers and tomorrow put fire 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 also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! 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? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. It is against the LORD that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?”
So it will be a showdown. The Levites and Aaron will bring censers of fire before the LORD, and the LORD will choose whoever He wants to choose.
In the meantime, Moses summons Dathan and Abiram, two of the rebels, and they refuse to come. And, as is so often the case, they bring out the “if only we’d stayed in Egypt” speech:
Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. But they said, “We will not come! Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert? And now you also want to lord it over us? Moreover, you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes of these men? No, we will not come!” (verses 12–14)
At this, Moses becomes angry, because he has “not taken so much as a donkey from them” (verse 15), and this is how they’re treating him. So he tells the LORD not to accept the offering of the people who are rebelling.
So Moses tells Korah, who appears to be the leader of the rebellion, that he and all of his followers are to appear before the LORD, the next day, along with Aaron, with their censers full of incense. So, the next day they do so, and the LORD appears at once, saying to Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once” (verse 21).
Again, the response by Moses and Aaron shows good leadership, in my mind: rather than saying “See? We told you so!” and sitting back to watch the wrath, they fall facedown before the LORD, and beg Him to only punish the guilty people, not the ones who weren’t involved in the rebellion. So the LORD instructs Moses to have the “assembly” move away from the tents of the rebellion’s ringleaders—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. (I put the word “assembly” in quotes to note specifically that this is the word used in the text (in the NIV); I normally interpret this word to mean the entire Israelite nation, although it may not.)
And Moses so instructs the people, to do so, and to not even touch any of the men’s things, and the people obey him, and move away. Moses then has a further sign for the people, to prove to them that this is the LORD’s doing, not his own: He tells the people that if the men being punished die a natural death, it must only be a coincidence, and the LORD hasn’t sent him [Moses]. (He doesn’t use the word coincidence, I just want to emphasize the point.) But, he says, if the ground opens up and swallows them whole, then that will be a sign that they are being punished for treating the LORD “with contempt” (verse 30).
No sooner has Moses finished saying this than the ground does split apart, and swallow the rebellers, including all of their households and their possessions. The ground then closes back up over them. This sends the rest of the Israelites into a panic, fearing that the ground will swallow them, too, and they flee the scene. At this point, fire also comes from the LORD, and consumes the rest of the 250 men who had offered incense in their censers.
The LORD instructs Moses to have Aaron’s son Eleazar scatter the coals from the burned men outside the camp, but to gather up the censers, because they have become holy—“for they were presented before the LORD and have become holy” (verse 38). He is to take the censers, and hammer them into sheets, which are to be overlayed onto the altar. So he does so.
Verse 40b says “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.”
So now that this is all over, the Israelites realize that Moses has been ordained by God to be their leader, and that Aaron has been ordained to be the High Priest, and all of the problems are over. Ha! No, I kid. The next day, the Israelites begin grumbling against Moses and Aaron again. “‘You have killed the LORD’s people,’ they said.” (verse 41b)
The “assembly” gathers in front of the Tent of Meeting, in opposition to Moses and Aaron, and suddenly the glory of the LORD appears. He instructs Moses to get away from the people, so that He can “put an end to them at once” (verse 45). And, indeed, a plague strikes the Israelite people, and they start dying.
Instead of getting away, though, Moses and Aaron fall facedown, and Moses instructs Aaron to get his censer and put some incense in it, to make atonement for the people. He does, and dashes out into the “assembly,” to make atonement for them. The plague stops right at the point where Aaron is standing, so that he ends up standing between the living and the dead (verse 48).
14,700 people die the plague, in addition to the people who had died because of Korah’s rebellion.
I already said this, but in my mind, there is some good leadership happening in this chapter, on the parts of Moses and Aaron. And what I mean by that is this: Some of the Levites rebel, and claim that Moses and Aaron are think they’re better than everyone, and their response is to think about it from the LORD’s point of view—what would be best for Him? The LORD punishes the rebels, and the people revolt, and again, Moses and Aaron think about it from the LORD’s point of view—what would be best for Him? They also take the time to pray for the people themselves; rather than simply saying “they deserve what they get.”
Which would be, let’s face it, true—but then again, I deserve to go to hell, don’t I? I won’t, because Christ took my punishment for me, but that’s what I deserve. So it should never be my place to think about what someone else deserves; if I think someone is sinning, their punishment should never enter my mind. I should pray for them, I should try to help them, I should be ready to forgive them. I should leave punishment up to the LORD.