Chapter 16

NUMBERS CHAPTER 16

Korah’s Rebellion

    • One day Korah (Izhar’s son, Kohath’s grandson, and Levi’s great-grandson- therefore a Levite), along with two men from the tribe of Reuben- Dathan and Abiram (sons of Eliam and On, grandsons of Peleth) enlisted 250 prominent Israelite men and incited rebellion against Moses. These 250 men were leaders of the community. They united against Moses and said, “Everyone in this entire community is holy and the Lord is among us all. What gives you the right to act as if you are greater than any of us? You’ve gone too far!”

      • In order to better understand this rebellion we’ll look at a few important points.

        • This rebellion is primarily a challenge to the Aaronic priesthood, a central element of the priesthood as dictated by Mosaic Law. HCSB commentary points out, “…this narrative is chiefly concerned with the priesthood in the challenge to the preeminence of the Aaronic line…”)

        • Korah, the instigator of this uprising, is closely related to Moses. Guzik writes, “Both Moses and Korah were descended from Kohath, but by different sons (Moses through Amram [Numbers 26:58-59], and Korah through Izhar).”

        • Essentially, this comes down to Korah being dissatisfied with the role God ordained his family line to fulfill. Even though the duty his family had been assigned was prestigious, he was envious of Moses’ position. Guzik writes, “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).” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “All priests are Levites, but not all Levites are priests. The priests are the descendants of Aaron and actually performed the rituals in the sacred areas. Although the Levites are members of the priestly caste, they have less power and privilege than the designated Aaronic priests. Korah is attempting to claim this distinct status for himself.”

          • Guzik notes the clever angle Korah used in his rebellion, “Korah acted as if he is represented the people and fought for their interests. The truth was that he desired a following and a position for himself…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.”

      • Why did the Reubenites become entangled in this venture? HCSB commentary notes, “The Reubenites were encamped on the south side of the tabernacle with the Kohathites (2:10-11; 3:29), and this proximity facilitated the relationship between the groups.”

    • When Moses heard what they were saying, he fell face down on the ground. Then he told Korah, “In the morning the Lord will show us who is holy, set apart, and allowed to enter into His presence. Korah, tomorrow you and your followers prepare your firepans, light them, and burn incense before the Lord- we’ll see who the Lord chooses. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far.”

      • Guzik writes, “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…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.”

    • Moses continued speaking to Korah, “All you Levites listen! Is it not enough for you that God has chosen you out of all the Israelite community to come near to Him by serving in the Taberacle and ministering to rest of the community? Now you demand the priesthood as well? What has Aaron done that you are complaining about him? The Lord is the one you are all revolting against.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible points out, “As in all of these historical episodes, the coconspirators protested relatively minor issues and questioned the actions of their leaders, but Moses reminded them that they were really rebelling against God.”

    • Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram to come before him, but they refused to come saying, “Isn’t is enough that you brought us out of Egypt- a land flowing with milk and honey- just to kill us in the wilderness? Now you’ve appointed yourself as ruler over us all. Actually, you haven’t even done what you said you would. You haven’t led us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us fields and vineyards as our inheritance. Are you deceiving us by calling us just so you can gouge our eyes out? No, we’re not coming.”

      • Guzik notes how Dathan and Abiram refer to the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, “…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.”

      • Guzik also points out the unfair accusations be hurled at Moses, “…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.”

      • Dathan and Abiram also unfairly blame Moses for the fact that they haven’t made it to the promised land yet. Truly, the Israelites’ own lack of faith and initial refusal to go into the promised land for fear of its inhabitants is the reason they haven’t (and this generation won’t) come to the promised land- not Moses.

    • After this Moses got angry and said to the Lord, “Don’t accept their offering. I have never taken so much as a donkey from them or mistreated even a single one of them.” To Korah Moses said, “Each of you- all 250- come here tomorrow and present yourselves before the Lord with your firepans prepared to present to the Lord. Both Aaron and Korah will bring their firepans to present also.”

      • 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…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.” (Guzik)

    • The next morning, Korah assembled the entire Israelite community at the Tabernacle entrance. He and each of his 250 followers were there with their prepared firepans. Then, the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole community and He said to Moses and Aaron, “Move away from all of these people so I can destroy them instantly.”

    • But Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground and pleaded with God, “You are the God who gives breath to all living things! Will you vent Your wrath against the entire community for the sin of one man?”

      • 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 can 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… 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.” (Guzik)

    • The Lord responded to Moses and said, “Tell the community to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”

    • Moses, followed by the elders of Israel, went to the tents of Dathan and Abiram and warned everyone to get away from the tents of these wicked men and not to touch anything that belonged to them or they would also be destroyed for the sins of Dathan and Abiram. Everyone obeyed, moving far away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Meanwhile, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram came and stood at the entrances of their tents along with their wives and their children.

    • Then Moses said, “You will know according to what happens to these men whether or not the Lord sent me to do all these things or if I have done them on my own. If nothing out of the ordinary happens and these men die a natural death, then the Lord did not send me. However, if something extraordinary happens- the ground opens up and swallows these men along with all of their possessions and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will know that these men have rejected the Lord.”

      • Guzik writes, “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.”

      • For some of you, this may be the first time you have encountered the word “Sheol,” so you may be wondering what it means. Various translations give alternate renderings of the Hebrew word “Sheol.” The ESV, NASB, CSB, HCSB, ISV, and Young’s Literal Translation leave the Hebrew word untranslated. However, the following translations give these alternate renderings of “Sheol” in this verse:

        • NIV: “realm of the dead”

        • NLT: “the grave”

        • KJV: “the pit”

        • I have chosen to keep the original Hebrew here because in my research I have found that, as is sometimes the case, there simply is no English equivalent that adequately corresponds to the Hebrew meaning of the word. The following article by Don Stewart for Blue Letter Bible gives an excellent analysis of the meaning(s) of the word Sheol. While he does insert his own theological beliefs regarding what happens after one dies (which of course many individuals even within Christianity debate), his analysis of the Hebrew word is excellent and backed by Scripture. Therefore, even if one disagrees with Stewart’s view on life after death, his definition of this unfamiliar term is valuable: What is Sheol

          • In his article, Stewart lists the five basic ways that Sheol is used in Scripture: (1) the unseen realm of the dead (2) the grave – the actual place where bodies are buried (3) specifically, the place of punishment for the wicked (4) symbolically (5) the place from where the righteous are saved. Stewart notes that the context in which the word is used determines its meaning. However, he adds, “Sometimes the exact meaning of Sheol is hard to determine – it can overlap these categories. Consequently it is essential to check out the context to find the correct meaning of Sheol each time it is used.”

        • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes this explanation of the ancient Hebrew concept of “Sheol,” “…at this point in Israel’s history it was perceived to be a shadowy, unknown realm of the dead- the netherworld of both good and evil where one was gathered to one’s ancestors at death.” Regarding the context of this particular passage in the book of Numbers, this source continues, “Normally, one placed a dead person in a cave or man-made tomb, where the body slowly deteriorated. Later the bones of the deceased were added or gathered to those of one’s ancestors in the ancient burial site. But in this instance the bodies of the rebels (and perhaps their families and possessions) plummeted into a gaping abyss, which soon closed over them with collapsed dirt and rock from the desert terrain.”

        • The Berean Bible Society has provided a comparative analysis adapted from Caleb J. Baker’s “Life And Death” (Bible Institute Colportage Ass’n 1941) of how the terms “Sheol” and “queber” (Hebrew for grave) are used in Scripture which illustrates that “grave” is actually quite an inadequate translation. The very fact that there is a Hebrew word for “grave” and yet the word “Sheol” is used instead should be enough to encourage anyone to investigate the meaning of the word Sheol further. They list the following points:

          • Sheol is never used in plural form. Queber is used in the plural 29 times.

          • It is never said that the body goes to Sheol. Queber speaks of the body going there 37 times.

          • Sheol is never said to be located on the face of the earth. Queber is mentioned 32 times as being located on the earth.

          • An individual’s Sheol is never mentioned. An individual’s queber is mentioned 5 times.

          • Man is never said to put anyone into Sheol. Individuals are put into a queber by man (33 times).

          • Man is never said to have dug or fashioned a Sheol. Man is said to have dug, or fashioned, a queber (6 times).

          • Man is never said to have touched Sheol. Man touches, or can touch, a queber (5 times).

          • It is never said that man is able to possess a Sheol. Man is spoken of as being able to possess a queber (7 times).

    • As soon as Moses finished speaking, the ground beneath them split open and swallowed them, their households and all that they owned, as well as all of Korah’s followers. They all went down to Sheol alive and the ground closed over them. When the people around them heard their screams they ran because they were afraid the ground would swallow them also. Then fire came out from the Lord and burned up the 250 men who were presenting incense.

    • Then the Lord gave Moses the following instructions: “Tell Aaron’s son Eleazar to get the go collect the firepans from among the the burning debris because they are holy. Also scatter the burning coals. Take the firepans that the 250 sinners used and hammer into metal sheets to plate the altar with because they were presented to the Lord and they are holy. These will serve as a warning the Israelites.”

      • In Guzik’s commentary he quotes Allen, who describes quite a scene, “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.”

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Although the men who used the incense burners were wicked, the vessels themselves were holy and had to be treated with care and respect…The bronze sheet made by Eleazar to cover the altar replaced or supplemented the one made previously (Exodus 38:2).

    • Eleazar did just as he was commanded. This altar plating served as a reminder to the Israelites that only descendants of Aaron were authorized to offer incense before the Lord. Anyone else who attempted to do this would suffer the same fate as Korah and his followers.

    • The very next day, the entire Israelite community accused Moses and Aaron saying, “You killed the Lord’s people!” As the people gathered together against them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the Tabernacle. The Lord’s cloud had suddenly covered it and the glory o the Lord appeared. As Moses and Aaron approached the front of the Tabernacle the Lord said, “Move away from these people, so that I can destroy them immediately.”

    • But Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground. Then Moses told Aaron, “Hurry! Get your firepan, put some fire from the altar and some incense on it. Go to the community and make atonement for the immediately because the wrath of the Lord is upon them- the plague has already begun.”

    • Aaron did just as Moses had said. When he ran into the middle of the people with his firepan he could see that the plague had already broken out among them. He stood between the living and the dead making atonement for the people and the plague stopped. Seeing that the plague was over, he returned to Moses at the entrance of the Tabernacle. The total number of people who had died from the plague was 14,700 not counting the ones who had just died in the Korah incident.

      • Guzik writes, “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.”

      • HCSB commentary notes, “…Aaron graphically displays his role as mediator in making incense atonement for the people, standing literally in the gap between life and death.”

      • On incense and prayer Guzik writes, “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…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.”

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