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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 16

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The whole of these two chapters, except the last short paragraph of Numbers 17, deals with the events related to the Rebellion of Korah, and even those two verses record the congregation’s reaction to the events just related. Also, the Jewish Bible ends chapter 16 at verse 36, transferring the last fifteen verses to Numbers 17. Therefore, it seems advisable to think of these two chapters (Numbers 16-17) as one.

As is usually the case where Biblical narrative is concerned, the current crop of commentaries still wallow in all the allegations and uncertainties of the radical criticism of the first half of this century. Their objections to this account of Korah’s rebellion makes out that there were really two different rebellions, one led by Dathan and Abiram which was essentially an objection to Moses’ civil government, and another led by Korah which sought to broaden the priesthood to allow others than the sons of Aaron to participate. According to critical theory, the two accounts were interwoven and combined. Of course, all of this could be true, if Moses himself was the one who combined the two rebellions as a composite in his account of it, a thing not impossible at all, especially if the events happened simultaneously or almost so. This is not what the critical fraternity have in mind however. They would make the Korah account a FABRICATED narrative woven into the Numbers record for the purpose of strengthening the exclusive right of the priesthood as belonging to Aaron only, something, which according to them took place centuries after Moses.

We cannot believe that anything like this occurred. The rebellion here was one in every sense of the word, and like all rebellions, there were diverse elements cooperating in the prosecution of it. To find two accounts here is merely pedantic doodling. The proposition that “P” wrote part of the story (the priestly source) is frustrated by the fact that the sections they assign to “P” have inferences and assumptions that are traceable to all of the other “alleged sources,” also by the fact that no two scholars agree on which passages belong either to “JE,” or to “P”; and Marsh even split “J” into subordinate parts, that maneuver springing from the very obvious truth that the alleged “JE” is in no sense unified.(F1) Furthermore, both the Samaritan and Septuagint (LXX) versions support the narrative as it occurs here.(F2)

How do they get all that?

(1) They simply delete certain passages that will not fit their theories.

(2) They misinterpret some passages.

(3) They “emend” (change the meaning of) others.

(4) Their “a priori” assumption is that there is perhaps no truth whatever in the Biblical narrative.

Note the following snide denial by Wade. “What portion, if any, is actual fact it is impossible to say.”(F3) Of course, such a remark carries the meaning that the author of the statement believed that there is very probably no truth whatever in the Biblical account, and that, in case some of it might be true, it is impossible for him to imagine what it could be!

It is long past the time that Christians should stop allowing the Devil to explain the Word of God for them! That was the primeval mistake of our mother Eve.

That there are difficulties with this chapter is true, the reason being that: (1) there could have been damage to the text in some places; (2) that many details are omitted, the knowledge of which would remove all ambiguities; and (3) that people cannot always discern God’s reasons for what he did.

What people really have trouble with in the Bible is not so much the sacred text as the whole conception of the SUPERNATURAL. Such things as a providential earthquake to crack open the earth and swallow some of God’s enemies, or a common walking stick left overnight in a dry place, that actually budded, bloomed out with fresh leaves, blossoms, and ripe fruit all at the same time within a twenty-four hour period - aye, “There’s the rub.” People, who do not actually believe in the God of the Bible will never be able to understand it!

Verses 1-3

“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 certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, called to the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Jehovah is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of Jehovah?”

“Now Korah” Korah was clearly the leader of this rebellion, a fact inherent in his name’s appearance here at the head of the narrative, but, as in every rebellion in all ages, there must of necessity have been others besides the leader who associated with it. Despite the plural “they” in Numbers 16:3, it was Korah who took the 250 princes (Numbers 16:2); and Dathan and Abiram, the dissident Reubenites, are mentioned as satellites and subordinates. True, Moses, in Deuteronomy 11:6, mentioned what God “did to Dathan and Abiram,” with no mention of Korah, but the rebellion was not even under consideration in that passage. What Moses referred to was the spectacular wonders God that had performed now and then in Israel’s history, citing particularly those men as being “swallowed” up by the earth! Korah’s name could not have fit into that context at all. Korah probably perished, not in the earthquake, but in the fire from God that devoured the 250 princes whom he led. This is just another SICK EXCUSE that the critics have seized in order to allege TWO REBELLIONS. Throughout both the O.T. and the N.T., Korah stands out as the named leader and author of this rebellion,(F4) and there is no mention anywhere of a rebellion by Abiram and Dathan, except in their participation here as satellites.

There were three visible elements in this major challenge of Mosaic authority:

(1) Korah, himself a Levite, and a part of that group assigned to guard and transport the most sacred portions of the sanctuary, was not satisfied with his status and desired also a share of the priesthood, even the High Priesthood, and moved, through ambition and jealousy, to seize it contrary to the express commandment of God.

(2) Dathan and Abiram and On were Reubenites, their ancestor, Reuben, the first-born of Jacob, having been deprived of the right of primogeniture (because of his adultery with Bilhah, the concubine of his father Jacob), thus losing the headship of Israel, and many have supposed that the participation of some of Reuben’s descendants in this rebellion led by Korah was due to their hope of recovering some of the lost prerogatives of Reuben, especially as it pertained to the leadership of Israel.

(3) Then, there were 250 princes from all of the Twelve Tribes. They, also, apparently were moved by a number of motives:

a. They had just been “passed over” in previous enumerations of the leaders of the tribes and were perhaps jealous.

b. They were disgusted with the sentence of death announced for their whole generation in the previous chapters.

c. They possibly blamed Moses for their disastrous defeat at Hormah, where, it will be remembered, the ark did NOT accompany them.

d. And the “public” always finds occasion to complain, disapprove, and ultimately reject public leaders, no matter who they are.

It is a tribute to the skill and ability of Korah that he was able to organize and rally these several streams of dissatisfaction into one viable sedition directed against Moses and Aaron. In a human sense, one may well understand their motivation. They were simply determined not to waste away and die there in the wilderness without a vigorous attempt to do something about it. To them, the most practical thing appeared to be the overthrow of Moses and a return to Egypt, which they remembered as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 16:13)! The blindness of this whole rebellious movement is not only seen in the false memory they had of Egypt, but also in their total unawareness of God and God’s will as made known unto them through Moses.

“On” was here named a part of the seditious party, but the fact of his being nowhere else mentioned is interpreted in various ways. Most believing scholars assume that perhaps, “He probably withdrew from the contest before it came to a head.”(F5) Critics, on the other hand, never miss an opportunity to use their axe on the Word of God. Wade mentions “others” who see a split in what the critics usually call the “J” source, making another from “E”, hence “JE”.(F6) Some dismiss On’s name here as due to “a textual error.” All quibbles of that kind may be resolved in the simple truth that no man knows why On’s name appears here and nowhere else. In the brief story of an entire rebellion, would Moses have stopped to make a report on just who was involved at every moment of it, or who might have been drawn into it at first and later withdrew from it? We are simply not dealing with that kind of narrative, and how blind are those using such devices, which have no effectiveness at all when applied to the Word of God.

“All the congregation are holy… wherefore lift ye up yourselves (Moses and Aaron) above the assembly…?” (Numbers 16:13). Note the skill by which Korah combined two definite streams of complaint. As pertaining to Korah and his partisans, their complaint centered on the exclusiveness of holiness to the priesthood, and as for Dathan, Abiram, and On, the elevation of Moses over the people (Moses was a Levite), rather than some Reubenite from the tribe of Dathan and Abiram (Reubenites) was the issue. Both issues come up in the same Numbers 16:3. Even the great bone of contention about that sentence of death in the wilderness, which seems to be the grounds upon which the 250 princes associated with the sedition, was explicitly included in Numbers 16:13. “Thou hast brought us up… to kill us in this wilderness.”

Now look at this: The critical nonsense that ascribes this passage to some priesthood in post-exilic times, who allegedly invented this narrative and inserted it into the Holy Scriptures to strengthen their claims of the Aaronic priesthood, appears here as unqualifiedly fraudulent. Could a priesthood intent on strengthening their claims have inserted a reference here to Exodus 19:5-6, which reference exposes the whole Jewish priesthood in their true status as a substitute for the will of God? See my notes on that passage. It does anything but strengthen the priesthood of Israel, but rather casts a most solemn shadow over all of it, a shadow that culminated in Malachi in God’s curse of that very priesthood! Of all the theories ever concocted by unbelieving men, this priesthood “source” of anything in the whole Bible is the champion falsehood!

Verses 4-11

“And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face: and he spake unto Korah, and unto all his company, saying, In the morning Jehovah will show who are his, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he shall choose will he cause to come near unto him. This do: Take you censers, Korah, and all his company; and put fire in them, and put incense upon them before Jehovah tomorrow: and it shall be that the man whom Jehovah doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi. And Moses said unto Korah, Hear now, ye sons of Levi: seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of Jehovah, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them; and that he hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? and seek ye the priesthood also? Therefore thou and all thy company are gathered together against Jehovah: and Aaron, what is he that ye murmur against him?”

“He fell upon his face” (Numbers 16:4). Some interpret this as a display of the dismay of Moses, but we agree with Dummelow that, “It shows that he prayed for guidance.”(F7) Only Divine wisdom could have enabled Moses to deal so effectively with this revolt.

If we paraphrase Moses’ response to Korah, it has every appearance of yielding to the rebel’s request: “Very well! You wish to serve in the priesthood; why don’t you try it? Just take your two hundred fifty princes and appear, every one of you, at the tabernacle tomorrow morning, and let all of you take censers with fire on them; and you just go ahead and take over!” What a victory Korah no doubt thought that he had won! Korah, it seems, had forgotten all about Nadab and Abihu (Numbers 10:1-10). Jamieson also discerned this: “Since you aspire to the priesthood, then go perform the highest function of the office, that of offering incense, and if you are accepted, well!”(F8)

The primary direction of Korah’s movement was against Aaron (Numbers 16:11), and as Dathan and Abiram had not appeared with Korah here, there was no need for Moses to mention himself, but only Aaron.

Moses had every reason to suppose that when he sent for Dathan and Abiram that they, having heard of that “victory” of Korah, might also have appeared to claim a victory for themselves, but just MAYBE they remembered Nadab and Abihu! At any rate, they would not appear, as next related.

Verses 12-14

“And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; and they said, We will not come up: is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us? Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.”

For whatever reason, Dathan and Abiram refused to respond to Moses’ summons. One may surely suspect that they were more discerning than Korah and that they did not believe that he had won any victory. Surely, someone in Israel must have thought about what happened to Nadab and Abihu.

“Land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 16:13). This description, invariably, throughout the O.T., is a reference to the land of Canaan, but here, in the perverse hatred of the rebels, it is “used as a designation of Egypt.”(F9) For Israel, Egypt was slavery, genocide, the whips of the slave masters, and the utmost contempt of the whole Egyptian society. “A land flowing with milk and honey indeed!” HOW BLIND IS REBELLION AGAINST GOD!

“Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men…?” (Numbers 16:13). Plaut identified this expression as a rather bold idiom with the meaning of, “fool us, hoodwink us, throw dust in our eyes, or blind us to the true facts.”(F10)

Verses 15-19

“And Moses was very wroth, and said unto Jehovah, Respect not thou their offering: I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them. And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before Jehovah, thou, and they, and Aaron, tomorrow: and take ye every man his censer, and put incense upon them, and bring ye before Jehovah every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each his censer. And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood at the door of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. And Korah assembled all the congregation against them unto the door of the tent of meeting: and the glory of Jehovah appeared unto all the congregation.”

Note that Korah is the one who assembled the people, his purpose, no doubt, being that of demonstrating the great “victory” he had won before Moses. Lo, Korah himself and all of his company will go right in and perform the highest function of the priesthood, and everybody will see it! Well, that is, no doubt, what he thought.

Regarding the 250 censers: There were definitely more than that, because after that number was given, Korah also and Aaron, were also designated to appear with their censers (Numbers 16:16). The number 250 is therefore a round number.

Then what happened?

Verses 20-24

Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, so that I may consume them instantly.” But they fell on their faces and said, “God, the God of the spirits of humanity, when one person sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?” Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the congregation, saying, ’Get away from {the areas} around the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’“

Moses was commanded that he and Aaron should separate from the whole congregation (Numbers 16:21), but Moses interceded for God to spare the congregation, and God responded favorably, at the same time instructing Moses to warn the people, and that all should separate themselves from the polluted sanctuary just about to be taken over by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses at once warned the people, and the next verses show that they obeyed.

“Shall one man sin…?” Who was this one man? “He was Korah, the leader of the rebellion.”(F11)

“Congregation” Smick pointed out that two different words in the Hebrew are rendered “congregation” in this verse (including Numbers 16:19),(F12) indicating that the congregation that followed the summons of Korah to the tabernacle may have been much smaller than that of all Israel. Any considerable group of people may be called a congregation.

Moses certainly anticipated that Korah and his company would fail in their presumptuous efforts, but the absence of Dathan and Abiram made it expedient for Moses to dispose of that phase of the rebellion at a time when many may have supposed that Korah had indeed achieved “a victory.” Thus, the sacred narrative introduced Moses’ next action.

Verses 25-30

“And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; on the elders of Israel followed him. And he spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins. So they gat them up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood at the door of their tents, and their wives, and theirs sons, and their little ones. And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that Jehovah hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then Jehovah hath not sent me. But if Jehovah make a new thing, and the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into Sheol; then ye shall understand that these men have despised Jehovah.”

“The tabernacle of Korah, Dathan and Abiram” (Numbers 16:27). This has the utility of identifying the tabernacle (soon to be polluted by Korah and his men) as also being the tabernacle of Dathan and Abiram (in its projected pollution). There was only ONE rebellion, not TWO. The ones who followed Moses understood this and also separated themselves from “the tents” of the rebels, as Moses extended his request for “separation.” “Sheol apparently has a more extended meaning in the O.T., but “here it means only the grave.”(F13)

Very well, if Dathan and Abiram will not come to Moses, them Moses will go to them, and announce the sentence that God pronounced against them through Moses.

Verses 31-35


“And it came to pass, as he made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them; and the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into Sheol and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly. And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them; for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up. And fire came forth from Jehovah, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense.”

“All the men that appertained unto Korah” (Numbers 16:32). “All the men” here is exclusive of the ones, who along with Korah himself, were in the process of taking over the tabernacle (apparently at that very instant). Some have mistakenly inferred from this verse that Korah himself was among those swallowed up by the earth, but that is an error. “Korah was swallowed up,” which one encounters here and there, means that he was thus “swallowed up” in that a powerful element of his rebellion was thus destroyed. The narrative does not mention in detail the death of Korah, but there can be no doubt whatever that he who had initiated the rebellion for the express purpose of taking over the priesthood would also most surely have been present with “his censer,” as Moses had specifically challenged him to do (Numbers 16:17), and that Korah was present with the 250 princes and partook of their fate. Numbers 26:10 declares that he perished with his followers.

“All the men pertaining to Korah” (Numbers 16:32). This is also restricted in meaning to indicate merely those who concurred in and aided the rebellion as his followers. It does NOT include Korah’s sons.

His sons did NOT perish with him, but perpetuated his family (Numbers 26:58), to which the celebrated Korahite singers of David’s time belonged (1 Chronicles 6:18-22, and 1 Chronicles 9:9).(F14)

Verses 36-40

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are holy, even the censers of these sinners against their own lives; and let them be made beaten plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before Jehovah, therefore they are holy; and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel. And Eleazar the priest took the brazen censers, which they that were burnt had offered; and they beat them out for a covering of the altar, to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no stranger, that is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to burn incense before Jehovah; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as Jehovah spake unto him by Moses.”

The great purpose of preserving the bronze censers and of making from them a memorial “unto the children of Israel” was that of perpetuating the Aaronic priesthood as exclusive possessors of that priesthood, as stated in Numbers 16:40.

“To the end that no stranger, that is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to burn incense before Jehovah” This regulation displeased many in Israel, and when Jeroboam came to the throne of the Northern Israel, one of his sins was that of appointing priests of all the people (1 Kings 13:33-34). It was from this basic root that the eventual destruction of the Northern Israel derived. No priesthood of Israel in any sense was ever able either to add to or to diminish from the Sacred Scriptures, because, the power to augment is also the power to diminish, and it is simply inconceivable that if any such power had pertained to Jewish priests, particularly those of Northern Israel who generally were not Aaronic in any sense, and still less any of those in Southern Israel (Judah), could ever have left in the Pentateuch (and the Prophets also) such a fantastic array of material that is detrimental to the image of that priesthood as actually found there. Aaron was an idolater in the matter of the golden calf. Nadab and Abihu were destroyed by Jehovah for disobedience. And God finally disinherited, outlawed, and cursed the whole Levitical priesthood for their sins and arrogant disobedience. “I will send the curse upon you: yea, I have cursed your blessings already” (Malachi 2:2).

Verses 41-46

“But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of Jehovah. And it came to pass, when the congregation was assembled against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tent of meeting: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of Jehovah appeared. And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting. And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation that I may consume them in a moment. And they fell upon their faces. And Moses said unto Aaron, Take thy censer and put fire therein from off the altar, and lay incense thereon, and carry it quickly unto the congregation, and make atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from Jehovah; the plague is begun.”

“All the congregation… murmured” (Numbers 16:41). This shows how widespread was the discontent that Korah had taken advantage of in the organization of his revolt. God had judged and destroyed the leaders of this defection, but the people themselves who also were a definite part of the trouble, although having escaped up to this point, would now also suffer a severe judgment from the Lord.

“Ye have killed the people of Jehovah” Their blaming the death of the rebels upon Moses evidently came from their blaming the prayers of Moses and Aaron for causing the judgments to be sent. They referred, perhaps, not merely to the leaders, but to the two hundred and fifty also.

Since the people also were so vital a part of this rebellion, God promptly judged them also, more than 14,000 of them dying at once by means of a devastating plague that God sent among them. The choice of that penalty also permitted the people to see that it was only through the prayers and intercession, and atonement offered via Moses and Aaron that prevented all the murmuring multitude from suffering the same death penalty. The plague began immediately after the murmuring started.

Verses 47-50

“And Aaron took as Moses spake, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed. Now they that died by the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, besides them that died about the matter of Korah. And Aaron returned unto Moses unto the door of the tent of meeting: and the plague was stayed.”

The three centers of their rebellion, as mentioned at the beginning of our discussion of this chapter, were those pertaining to: (1) Korah; (2) Dathan and Abiram; and (3) the people in general. The three punishments visited upon the three centers were: (a) the swallowing up of Dathan and Abiram; (b) the burning of Korah and the two hundred and fifty by fire from Jehovah; and (c) the plague that destroyed over 14,000 of the people. How appropriately these punishments were meted out! Furthermore, as the great purpose of the rebellion had been that of dividing Israel. God divided them (the rebels), disposing of them by the most severe punishments in three separate instances. “God divided the people, to separate them from Korah and his group; he divided Korah’s group by severing the faction under Dathan and Abiram; he divided the earth and caused it to swallow them; he divided the rebellious people, making a separation between the `dead and the living’ (Numbers 16:48),”(F15) “with Aaron standing between with the censers of incense and the prayer of atonement.”(F16) It is a blind exegete indeed who cannot see the hand of God in this narrative, all of these logical and consistent elements of it giving the most effective testimony affirming the unity and authenticity of the narrative.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 16". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-16.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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