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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 16

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.Now Korah, the son of Izhar. The impious conspiracy is here related of a few men, but these of the highest rank, whose object was to subvert and destroy the divinely-appointed priesthood. They make their attack, indeed, upon Moses, and accuse him of ruling unjustly; for thus it is that turbulent persons are carried away without reason or discrimination; but, the only cause why they are set against him is because they suppose him to be the originator of the priesthood, as we easily collect from his reply. For he does not command them to stand forth, in order that they may decide respecting the political government or chieftainship, but that it may be made plain whether God acknowledges them as priests; nor does he reproach the Levites with anything but that, not content with their own lot, they have an unreasonable ambition to obtain the honor of the high-priesthood. It was jealousy, then, that instigated Korah and his companions to set on foot first a quarrel, and then a tumult; respecting the priesthood, because they were indignant that the hope of attaining that honor was taken away from themselves and their posterity for ever. Thus there never was any more deadly or abominable plague in the Church of God, than ambition; inasmuch as it cannot be that those who seek for pre-eminence should range themselves beneath God’s yoke. Hence arises the dissolution of legitimate authority, when each one neglects the duties of his position, and aims at his own private advancement.

Now, this conspiracy was the more formidable, because the sedition did not arise from the dregs of the people, but amongst the princes themselves, who were of high dignity, and held in the greatest estimation. For although there were only four leaders of the faction, there is but little room to doubt but that the purpose of the two hundred and fifty was the same; for they would never have eagerly embarked in a grave and invidious contest for the sake of four men; but the fact was, that all unholy covetousness misled them all, for there was none of them who did not expect some prize as a reward of victory. They not only, then, dissemble their mental disease, but conceal it under an honorable pretext; for they pretend that they are instigated by zeal for the public good, and that their object is the defense of liberty. For, inasmuch as ambition is crafty, it is never destitute of some specious excuse: thus, whilst schismatics are influenced by nothing but pride to disturb the peace of the Church, they always invent plausible motives, whereby they may conciliate in some degree the favor of the ignorant, or even of the unstable and worthless. We must, therefore, cautiously weigh the designs of those who seek to make innovations, and to overthrow a state of things which might be endured; for thorough investigation will make it plain that; they aim at something besides what they pretend. By the, fact of their so speedily engaging such a multitude of persons in their party, we perceive how disposed man’s nature is to the most unpromising and unreasonable revolts in the world. Four worthless men wickedly endeavor to overthrow Moses and Aaron; and straightway two hundred and fifty persons are ready to follow them, not of the populace, but chiefs of the tribes, whose reputation might dazzle the eyes of the simple. Hence we must be the more cautious, lest any bugbears (larvae) should deceive us into making rash innovations.

With respect to the wording of the passage, some refer the verb “he took,” (86) to the other conspirators, as if it were said that Korah stirred them up. Others explain it that he instigated himself, and hurried himself onwards by his evil passions. I do not, however, assent to either signification, but take it for “he set to work” (aggressus est.) When it is afterwards said that “they rose up before Moses,” some understand the words according to their simple meaning, others in a bad sense; and undoubtedly here the expression “before the face of,” is equivalent to “against,” and thus indicates the wantonness of their aggression. There is more difficulty in the words קראי מועד, (87) kerei mogned. All, however, almost with one consent, translate them “great in the congregation;” but since the word קריים,keriira, generally signifies persons called or invited, and מועד, mogned, not only an assembly, but also an appointed time, or convention, it seems probable to me that these princes and men of high name are stated to have been present, because they were called according to appointment: as if Moses had said that they were called at a fixed time, or by agreement. For neither do I see any reason why, after the word עדה, (88) gnedah, מועד , mogned, should be used with the same meaning.

(86) A.V. , “took men. ” There has been very much discussion among the commentators respecting this word. Holden says, “There is nothing in the Hebrew answering to the word men, and the verb is in the singular number; the received version, therefore, can scarcely be correct. The most easy and natural construction of the original is, ‘And Korah took (i.e., won over, or drew into a conspiracy with him) both Dathan and Abiram,’ etc. This agrees with other parts of Scripture which attribute this rebellion to Korah, Numbers 27:3; Judges 1:11.” And this appears to be the general opinion.

(87) A.V., “famous in the congregation.” S.M. Vocabantur ad concilium. — W.

(88) עדה, A.V., “of the assembly.”

Verse 3

3.Ye take too much upon you. (89) Some explain, “Let it suffice,” as if they desired to put an end to the tyranny of Moses; but I am rather of opinion that they would thus make a charge of presumptuous and sacrilegious supremacy, as if Moses and Aaron had not only usurped more than their right, but had also robbed God of His supreme authority. They, therefore, reproach the holy men with having impiously subjected to themselves the inheritance of God. Thus we see that God’s faithful servants, whatever may be their moderation, are still not exempted from false accusations. Moses was an extraordinary example, not only of integrity, but also of humility and gentleness; yet he is called proud and violent, as if he unworthily oppressed the people of God. Observe further, that God permits His servants to be loaded with such unjust calumnies, in order to teach them that they must expect their reward elsewhere than from the world; and that the may humble them and make trial of their endurance. Let us learn, then, to harden ourselves, so as to be prepared, though we do well, to be evil spoken of. These ungodly and seditious men betray their senselessness as well as their impudence. For by what right do they seek to degrade Moses and Aaron? Because, forsooth, God dwells amongst the people, and all in the congregation are holy! But holiness is neither destructive of subordination, nor does it introduce confusion, nor release believers from the obligation to obey the laws. It is madness in them, then, to infer that those, whom God has sane-titled, are not subject to the yoke; yet they maliciously stigmatize as tyranny that care of the people which God has intrusted to His servants, as if they would purposely turn light into darkness.

(89) “Sat sit vobis;” let it be enough for you. — Lat.

Verse 4

4.And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face. There is no doubt but that he had recourse to prayer in his perplexity, since he knew that the remedy for so great an evil was only in the hand of God. It is in this respect that the magnanimity of the ungodly differs from the firmness of believers; for it often happens that unbelievers also labor in the defense of a good cause, voluntarily expose themselves to the hatred of many, undergo severe contests, and encounter of their own accord great perils; but with them obstinacy stands in the place of virtue. But those who look to God, since they know that the prosperous or unhappy events of all things are in His power, thus rely upon His providence; and when any adversity occurs, implore His faithfulness and assistance. When, therefore, Moses cast himself upon the earth, this (90) supplication was of more: value than all those heroic virtues in which unbelievers have ever seemed to excel.

(90) “Telle humilite a prier;” such humility in prayer. — Fr.

Verse 5

5.And he spoke unto Korah. Moses did not inconsiderately choose this mode of divination, but by the dictation of the Spirit maintained the priesthood of his brother by this token and testimony; for we know how, in matters of doubt and obscurity, he was accustomed to inquire what God’s pleasure was. He did not, therefore, at this time make this proposal hastily and at random, but by the inspiration of the Spirit had recourse to the sure judgment of God. The effect of his prayer was that God suggested an easy and expeditious mode of conquest.

He bids them take their censers, that by their incense-offering it might be manifested whether their oblation was acceptable to God. By deferring it to the morrow he con-suited their own safety, if any of them might still be not incurable; for he saw that they were carried away headlong by blind fury, and that they could not be recalled to their senses in a moment. He, therefore, grants them some space of time for repentance, that they might be led to consideration during the night; or perhaps his object was that, the tumult being appeased, he might render them all attentive to the decision of God.

Verse 8

8.Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi. He addresses the whole body, and yet it is said that his discourse was directed to Korah alone, and this was because he had corrupted others of the Levites, and therefore is first summoned to God’s tribunal, so that the whole party might be at the same time included. He was able to expostulate with the Levites at once, because their residence was close to the sanctuary.

He accuses them of ingratitude, because they were not satisfied with the honor with which God had already dignified them, but also sought the high-priesthood. In this they betrayed their despisal of His grace; for, if they had rightly valued the gifts of God, each of them would have quietly contented himself with his lot; especially since, in proportion as a person has been liberally dealt with, his ingratitude is more intolerable, if he aspires to anything higher. We are taught, therefore, that the higher the degree may be to which we have been elevated by God’s goodness, the greater is the punishment which our crime deserves, if our ambition still incites us to overleap the bounds of our calling. Nevertheless, such is the perversity of almost all men, that as soon as a person has attained some intermediate position, he uplifts, as it were, the standard of pride (91) and prescribes to himself no limit, until he shall have reached above the clouds. In a word, few are found who do not grow insolent in places of honor. Wherefore we ought to be all the more attentive to this admonition of Moses, that those are most ungrateful to God who despise their lot, which is already honorable, and aim at something higher.

(91) “Comme si Dieu en l’honorant luy avoit dresse une banniere d’orgueil;” as if God by honoring him had raised for him a banner of pride. — Fr.

Verse 11

11.For which cause both thou, and all thy company. He here lays open their sin, which they had endeavored to disguise. For they had neither scruple nor shame, as we have seen, in pretending pious zeal. But in one word Moses scatters these mists, telling them that they were instigated by nothing but pride and envy to disturb the condition of the people. We must observe the expression which he uses, that they are in “arms against God;” for, although they might have never confessed to themselves that they had to do with Him, but only that they were contending for the pre-eminence with men; still, because it was their aim to overthrow the order established by God, Moses casts aside all false pretences, and sets before them the simple fact that they are waging war with God, when they are fighting with His servants. If, therefore, we are afraid of contending with Him, let us learn to remain in our right place. For, however they may prevaricate, who disturb the Church through their ambition, in fighting against the servants of God, they attack Himself: and therefore it is needful that He should resist them, to avenge Himself. For war is not waged against God, as the poets feign the giants to have done, when they heaped up mountains, and endeavored to surmount heaven; but when He is assailed in the person of His servants, and when what He has decreed is in any wise undermined. The vocation of the priests was sacred, so that they who conspired to overthrow it, were the open enemies of God, as much as if they had directed their arms, their strength, and their assaults against Him. We must, therefore, bear in mind the reason which is subjoined, “And what is Aaron?” for, if Aaron had usurped anything for himself, his temerity and audacity would not have been supported by the countenance of God. Moses, therefore, declares that this is God’s cause, because there was nothing human in the ordinance of the priesthood. It was, indeed, an honorable office, so that Aaron justly deserved to be thought something of; but Moses indicates that he had nothing of his own, nor arrogated anything to himself; in a word, that he is nothing in himself, and moreover, that he is not elevated for his own private advantage, and that his dignity is no idle one; but rather a laborious burden placed upon his shoulders for the common welfare of the Church. How utterly ridiculous, then, is the folly of the Pope in comparing all the enemies of his tyranny to Koran, Dathan, and Abiram; for, in order to prove that his cause is connected with that of God, let him show us the credentials of his calling, and at the same time thoroughly fulfil his office. But what frivolous and vapid trifling it is, when some mimic Aaron sets himself up — produces no divine command or vocation — domineers in obedience to his own lusts, and is rather an actor on the stage than a priest in the temple; that all who reject this spurious dominion should be condemned as schismatics! Wherefore let us hold fast this principle, that war is waged against God when His servants are molested, who are both lawfully called and faithfully exercise their office.

Verse 12

12.And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram. He desired, in this way, if it might be, by his holy admonitions, to withhold them from that destruction, on which they were rushing. Therefore he ceased not to provide for their welfare, though he had thus far experienced that they were altogether in a desperate state. Herein he presented a likeness of the loving-kindness of God, by whose Spirit he was directed; not only because he was unwilling to pass sentence without hearing the cause, but also because he endeavored to bring them to repentance, that they might not willfully destroy themselves. Nevertheless it came to pass at this time, as also often afterwards, that not only was the earnestness of the Prophet, with respect to these unbelievers, throw away, but that it hardened them more and more. For we know what was said by Isaiah;

“Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes: lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with hearts, and convert, and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:10.)

Thus does it please God to discover the wickedness of the reprobate, in order that they may be rendered the more inexcusable.

Verse 13

13.Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us. It is not enough for these wicked men, when they are invited to discussion, contumaciously to repudiate the superiority of Moses, unless they also assail him with counter-accusations. The crime they allege against him must be observed. They reproach him for having led them up out of the land of Egypt: though they cunningly suppress its name, whilst they magniloquently extol its fruitfulness, in order to throw into the shade all that God had promised with respect to the land of Canaan. Nay, they seem to transfer slyly to Egypt the very phrase which Moses had often used, so that thus God’s blessing may be, as it were buried. But what gross ingratitude it showed, to allege as a crime against Moses, God’s minister, that deliverance, which was so extraordinary an act of His kindness! In the next place, they reproach him with having brought them into the desert, to die: and this they enlarge upon in the next verse, and maliciously inquire, Where is the truth of the promises? At length they conclude that Moses is impudent in his deceptions, inasmuch as it plainly appears that the people had been imposed upon by him: as if it were his fault that they had deprived themselves of the possession of the promised land. Moses had exhorted them, by God’s command, to enter upon the inheritance promised to them: what dishonesty and petulance, therefore, was it, when they had shut the door against themselves, to complain of Moses, upon whom it had not depended that they were not in the enjoyment of fields and vineyards! In the third place, they taunt Moses with seeking to domineer over a free people. He did indeed preside over them; but how far short of dominion was that moderate control, which was as onerous to Moses, as it was advantageous to the whole people! But this is the condition of God’s servants, that their course is through reproaches, (92) though they are conducting themselves aright.

(92) Addition in Fr., “comme dit Sainct Paul.”

Verse 15

15.And Moses was very wroth. Although it might be, that there was something of human passion here, still zeal for God was supreme in his mind, nor did intemperate feelings, if he was at all tempted by them, prevail. Assuredly, it appears probable, from the context, that he was inflamed with holy ardor; since he executes the vengeance of God, as His lawful minister, so that it is plain he neither spoke nor did anything but at the dictation of the Spirit. Nay, we shall soon see that, although he was anxious with regard to the public safety, he required that but a few offenders should be punished, and not that the multitude should perish. Nor does his anger burst forth into revilings: as those, who are carried away by excess, usually assail the enemies by whom they are injured, with their tongue as well as their hands: but he betakes himself to God; nor does he ask more than flint they may be brought to shame in their pride. This is, indeed, expounded generally, by many, as if Moses desired that God should have no mercy upon them; but inasmuch as the decision of the quarrel depended on the approbation or rejection by God of rite offering they were about to make, he does not seem to me to pray for more than that God, by refusing their polluted gift, should thus chastise their ambition. At the same time also he shows that his prayer springs from the confidence of a good conscience, when he dares to testify before God that he had injured no man. Now this was the extreme of integrity and disinterestedness, that, when the people owed everything to him, he had not taken even the value of a single ass as the reward of all his labors.

Verse 16

16.And Moses said unto Korah. The idea of Moses is not to make an experiment as if in a doubtful matter; but, being assured by the Spirit of prophecy what the event would be, he summons Korah before the tribunal of God, that he may receive the sentence of condemnation which he deserves. Nor does he inveigle him so as to destroy him unawares, but rather still endeavors to cure his madness, if it were possible to do so. For the sacred incense-offering was calculated to inspire him with alarm, lest, by rashly attempting more than was lawful, he should effect his own destruction, especially after so memorable an example had been made in the case of Nadab and Abihu. Moses, however, in reliance on God’s command, does not hesitate to engage in an open contest, in order that the judgment of God might be the more conspicuous.

Verse 18

18.And they took every man his censer. It is manifest how greatly they were blinded by pride, since, although admonished both by the confidence of Moses and also by the previous examples, they still obstinately go forward. Surely if any spark of the fear of God had remained in them, their censers would straightway have fallen from their hands; but Korah seems to have sought, as it were, deliberately how he might cast aside all fear, and totally bereave himself of his senses. For in the next verse, Moses narrates how ostentatiously he hardened himself in his rebellion, before he should offer the incense; for he gathered the people together to his party, in order that the magnificence of his array might overwhelm the grace of God, which opposed[ him. Herein also his senselessness is clearly seen, when he seeks to fortify himself against God by the favor of the, mob, as if he had desired to extinguish the light of the sun by interposing a little smoke. Now, let us learn so to condemn his folly, as that nothing similar may happen in ourselves; for all ambitious persons are affected by the same disease. They collect their forces by endeavoring to ingratiate themselves with men; and, if the world approves of’ them, they are inebriated with such fatal confidence, as to spit at the very clouds. But we shall soon see how God, by a single breath, dissipates all their ungodly conspiracies.

On the other side, the levity of the people is set before our eyes. For some time they had been all accustomed to the duly-appointed priesthood, which they knew to be instituted by God; yet only a single night is required to make them revolt to Korah. And, in fact, as we are by nature slow to act aright, so also we are carried away to evil in a moment, as soon as some villain lifts up his finger.

Verse 21

21.Separate yourselves from among this congregation. Again does God declare that He will bear the people’s great impiety no longer, but will destroy them all to a man. Just, therefore, as he had commanded Lot to depart from Sodom, nay, had drawn him out by the hand of the angel, when He desired to destroy that city, so He now commands Moses and Aaron to give Him room to exercise His wrath. In this He declares His extraordinary favor towards them; as if He were not free to execute vengeance, until they had gone out of the way, lest the destruction should reach themselves. In speaking thus, however, He does not absolutely affirm what He had determined in His secret counsel, but only pronounces what the authors of this wickedness had deserved. It is, therefore, just as if He were ascending His judgment-seat. Thus Moses by his intercession by no means changed His eternal decree; but, by appeasing Him, delivered the people from the punishment they had merited. In the same sense God is said to be influenced by our prayers; not that after the manner of men He assumes new feelings, but, in order to show the more than paternal love with which he honors us, He, as it were, indulges us, when He listens to our desires. Hence we gather that even by this express denunciation Moses was not prohibited from praying; because his faith in the adoption of the people was not destroyed. For we have already said that this principle, that the covenant which God had made with Abraham could not be made void, was so thoroughly an-graven upon his mind, that it surmounted whatever obstacles might present themselves. Resting, therefore, on the gratuitous promise, which depended not on men, his prayer was the offspring of faith. For the saints do not always reason accurately and subtlety as to the form of their prayers; but, after they have once embraced that which suffices to awaken in them confidence in prayer, viz., God’s word, their whole attention is so directed to it, that they pass over the things which seem apparently to contradict it. Nor can we doubt but that it was God’s design, when He delivered his terrible sentence as to the destruction of the people, to quicken the earnestness of Moses in prayer, since necessity more and more inflames the zeal of the pious. In short, Moses was always consistent in his care for the well-being of the people.

Verse 22

22.O God, the God of the, spirits of all flesh. The old interpreter renders the first אל , el, as an adjective, in which some others have followed him; (93) but, in my opinion, the name of God is rather repeated by way of adding force to the sentence. It does not, however, so clearly appear to me why all render the word flesh, in the genitive case. But, since I do not think that the ל , lamed, is superfluous here, but that it is used for ב , beth, as often elsewhere, I have accurately expressed the sense by my translation, “in all flesh.” (94) There is no question but that Moses applies this epithet to God in connection with the present matter; as if he desired to induce God to preserve His own work, just as a potter spares the vessels formed by himself. To the same effect is the prayer of Isaiah:

“But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore,” (Isaiah 64:8:)

for hence he alleges a reason why God should relent, and be inclined to mercy. There is this difference, that Isaiah refers to that special grace wherewith God had embraced His people, whereas Moses carries his address further, viz., to the general grace of creation. It is of little importance whether we choose to expound this (95) with reference to all animals, or only to the human race, since Moses merely prays that, since God is the Creator and Maker of the world, He should not destroy the men whom He has formed, but rather have pity upon them, as being His work. In passing, however, we may infer from this passage, (96) that all (men) have their separate souls, for God is not said to have inspired all flesh with life, but to have created their spirits. Hence the monstrous delusion of the Manicheans is refuted, that our souls are so infused by the transmission of the Spirit of God, as that there should still be only one spirit. (97) But if it be preferred to include the animals, we must mark the grades of distinction between the spirit of man and the spirit of a dog or an ass. It is, however, more fitting to restrict it to men.

(93) In the clause under consideration, אל, El, is immediately followed by אלהי , Elohey, the form given to Elohim, when it is to be used in connection with the next word. The different roots of El and Elohim seem to indicate that El has an especial reference to the power of the Deity, and Elohim to His authority as a judge. There being no practicable equivalent distinction in Latin or English, and the word Almighty being appropriated to rendering שדי, Shaddai, C. and our A.V. do but repeat the word God, whilst the V. and S.M. have fortissime Deus; but C. saw in S.M.’s notes, Aut sic, O Deus, Deus.W.

(94) C.’s supposition, that the preposition ל prefixed to all, is equivalent to ב or in, would not facilitate the version. Noldius, giving instances where, the ל prefixed has the effect of a genitive, cites this passage amongst: others. — W.

(95) “Le mot de chair;” the wordfleshFr.

(96) Addition in Fr., “Moyennant qu’il soit prins des hommes, comme e’est le plus vray-semblable;” supposing it be taken as having reference to men, as is the more probable conjecture.

(97) “Lesquels pensent que les ames procedent de la substance de Dieu;” who think that our souls proceed from the substance of God. — Fr.

This doctrine of the Manicheans is often referred to in the writings of Augustine. The Benedictine Editors, in their index to his works, point out by citations the following particulars: “Manichaeorum error circa animam. Docent animam nostram hoc esse quod Deus est; esse partem, seu particulam Dei; animas non solum hominum, sed etiam pecorum, de Dei esse substantia, et partes Dei asserunt.”

The word which I have translated transmission, is in the Latin ex traduce, a well-known metaphor in theological controversy, derived from the practice of inarching, or grafting by approach, when two neighboring branches are tied together so as to cohere and form one, whilst the parent stocks, to which they belong, continue still to possess a separate and individual vitality. Thus Prudentius, Apoth. 919-921.

Vitandus tamen error erit, ne traduce carnis
Transfundi in sobolem credatur fons animarum,
Sanguinis exemplo, etc.

C. makes frequent allusions to this heretical doctrine as having been resuscitated by Servetus, amongst his other pantheistic notions. See Instit. Book 1. ch. 15. Section 5.C. Soc. Edit., vol. 1, p. 223; and also on Psalms 104:30. C. Soc. Edit., vol. 4, p. 168.

Verse 24

24.Speak unto the congregation, saying. It is evident, from this answer, that Moses was heard as regarded the general preservation of the people, on condition, however, that they should give proof of their repentance, by deserting the authors of the wicked rebellion; for, when God commands them to retire from amongst them, He indirectly implies, that, if they remain mixed up with them, they shall share in the same destruction. Yet it is probable that the elders who “followed” Moses, held to his side, and continued firm in the performance of their duty. And, indeed, it is not at all consistent that Caleb and Joshua, and such like, were ever drawn away into so great a sin. We must not, therefore, take what is said of the whole congregation without exception. When Moses, in his delivery of God’s command, does not address Korah, Dathan, and Abiram by their names, but calls them “these wicked men,” it is not the reviling of anger, but an urgent mode of exhortation; for, had he not thus vehemently marked his detestation of them, there was danger lest his words should have been but coldly received by many, and lest they should have been of little avail. To the same effect also is what he immediately adds: “Lest ye be consumed in all their sins;” as if tie had said, Lest the contagion of so many and such great crimes should infect yourselves. Since they obeyed Moses, it is plain that many of the multitude had been carried away before by folly and levity, for deliberate iniquity would not have been so quickly or so easily corrected. But on the other hand, the marvelous stolidity of Dathan and Abiram is described, in that they came forth unawed, with their wives and children. Still it is not to be doubted but that they were terrified, after they saw themselves to be stripped of all aid and favor; but although the withdrawal of the people disturbed them, they nevertheless stood like maniacs; nor did fear subdue them or prevent them from proceeding in their fatal audacity to their doom. Thus (98) do the wicked often stand astounded, yet in their fear they by no means think of appeasing God.

(98) This final sentence omitted in Fr.

Verse 28

28.And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know. Moses now begins more clearly to show wherefore he has brought the rebels to this open contest, viz., that God may sanction before the whole people, by a terrible exertion of His power, the system established by Himself. For it was no ordinary effort of confidence to concede the victory to His enemies, unless the earth should swallow them up alive. But, inasmuch as this was to be a most conspicuous judgment of God, he arouses their attention by the striking words he uses. If they should be cut off by a sudden death, he would have justly boasted that his cause was approved by God; but not content with this, he desires to be accounted a mere impostor, if they should die the common death of men. In order to express the strangeness of the miracle, whereby men’s senses should be ravished, he employs the word create (99) emphatically; as much as to say, that the mode of their death would be no less unusual than as if God should add something to His creation, and change the face of the world. Thus David, when he prays that his enemies should go down alive into hell (infernos) or the grave, seems to allude to this history, (Psalms 55:23;) for although that descent be understood to mean sudden death overtaking the wicked in a moment in the midst of their happiness and security, still, he at the same time indicates by it this horrible retribution, which had occurred in times past, inasmuch as memorable punishments pass into proverbial instances of God’s wrath.

(99) A.V., “Make a new thing;” margin, “Create a creature.”

Verse 34

34.And all Israel that were round about them. We must suppose that the people were standing around, expecting at a distance the event that was to take place; for they had previously retired from the tents, in token of their separation (from this wicked company.) (100) That they should now fly in confusion, lest the same destruction should overwhelm themselves, is a sign of their bad conscience, which is always troubled in itself, and agitates the wicked with sore inquietude. It is needful, indeed, that even the pious should be alarmed by God’s judgments, in order that their consternation or dread should instruct them (101) in his holy fear, and therefore they never reflect without dread on the punishments which God has inflicted upon the crimes of men. But, since hypocrites carry in their hearts a hot iron, as it were, they fall down like dead men, as if the lightning fell from God upon their own heads. Thus we shall presently see that this blind fear profited them but little.

(100) Added from Fr.

(101) “A s’humilier devant luy;” to humble themselves before Him. — Fr.

Verse 35

35.And there came out a fire from the Lord. The diver-sky of the punishments had the effect of awakening more astonishment in the people, than as if all had been destroyed in the same manner, although God’s anger raged more fiercely against the original authors of the evil, so as to make it manifest that each received a recompense according to the measure of his iniquity. He says that a fire went forth from Jehovah, because it was not kindled naturally, nor accidentally, but was accompanied by conspicuous marks, which showed that it was sent by Him. Yet I do not reject the opinions of others, viz., that God thundered from heaven, since thus His power would have been more manifestly exerted.

Verse 37

37.Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron. Since there is no manifestation of God’s wrath so conspicuous as not to be forgotten too often by man’s stupidity, God was willing to anticipate this evil, and set up a monument for posterity, lest the recollection of this memorable judgment should ever be obscured. He commands, therefore, that a covering for the altar should be made of the censers, in order that none should rashly intrude himself to make the sacred offerings. When He calls them “hallowed,” some understand that it was sinful to transfer them to profane purposes, because they had once been devoted to the service of God. I am, however, rather of opinion that they were set apart (sacratas) as things accursed (anathemata.) Thus the fire which had been upon them is scattered afar, in order that the altar should be cleansed from its pollution. Although, however, there was the same pollution in the censers, yet God would have them preserved as accursed, so that all posterity might understand that none but the priests were to be admitted to the sacrifices. Nor is it superfluous for Him to speak of the rebels as having acted criminally “against their own souls;” but it was in order that the memory of their punishment might be inn manner engraved upon those brazen enclosures, in order to awaken continued dread.

Verse 40

40.To be a memorial unto the children of Israel. This passage again confirms what I have just said, that God’s judgments, which ought to remain in full remembrance in every age, straightway escape, and are blotted out front men’s minds, unless they are provided with certain aids to meditate upon them. This, however, does not happen so much from ignorance as neglect. Wherefore we ought to be the more attentive to the aids to memory, which may retain us in the path of duty.

Verse 41

41.But on the morrow all the congregation. There is something more than monstrous in this madness of theirs. The conflagration was yet smoking, wherein God had appeared as the awful avenger of pride: the chasm in which the leaders of the rebellion had been swallowed up, must still have been almost before their eyes. God had commanded the plates to be molten, which might record that severe judgment through many succeeding ages. All had confessed by their alarm and hasty flight that there was danger lest they should themselves also be exposed to similar punishments. Yet, on the next day, am if they desired deliberately to provoke God, who was still, as it were, armed, they accuse God’s holy servants of having been the authors of the destruction, though they had never lifted a finger against their enemies. Was it in the power of Moses to command the earth to open? Could he draw down the fire from heaven at his will? Since, then, both the chasm and the fire were manifest tokens of God’s wonderful power, why do not these madmen reflect that they are engaging in fatal warfare against Him? For to what purpose was this extraordinary mode of punishment, except that in their terror they might learn to humble themselves beneath God’s hand? Yet hence did they only derive greater wildness in their audacity, as if they desired to perish voluntarily with these sinners, whose punishment they had just been shuddering at. In two ways they betray their senselessness; first, by substituting Moses and Aaron as guilty of the murder, in place of God; and, secondly, by sanctifying these putrid corpses, as if in despite of God. They accuse Moses and Aaron of the slaughter, of which God had plainly shown Himself to be the author, as they themselves had been compelled to feel. But such is the blindness of the reprobate with respect to God’s works, that His glory rather stupifies them than excites their admiration. The foulest ingratitude was also added; for they do not consider that only a very few hours had elapsed since they had been preserved by the intercession of Moses from impending destruction. Thus, in their desire to avenge the death of a few, they call those the killers of the people of the Lord, to whom they ought to have been grateful for the safety of all. Again, what arrogance it is to count among the people of God, as if against His will, those reprobates, when He had not only cut them off from His Church, but had also exterminated them from the world, and from the human race! But thus do the wicked wax wanton against God under the very cover of His gifts, and especially they do not hesitate to mock Him with empty titles and outward signs, as the masks of their iniquity.

Verse 42

42.And it came to pass when the congregation. From the fact that Moses and Aaron were protected by the covering of the cloud, we gather how uncontrollable was the rage of the people. For, although the glory of God only stood over the tabernacle, so that Moses and Aaron were still exposed to stoning, and any other acts of violence, yet it so dazzled the eyes of these wicked men, that they could not touch the holy persons. Nor can we doubt but that they betook themselves to the sanctuary, because, in the extremity of their danger, the only hope that remained to them was in the help of God. When, therefore, they had fled to this sacred asylum, God received them under the shadow of His wings. Thus did He testify, that the prayers and hopes of His people are never in vain, but that He succors them whenever they call upon Him. For although, now-a-days, He does not appear in a visible abode, still He is nigh unto all those who cast their cares upon Him. It might, indeed, have been the case that the sign of God’s glory was seen by none but Moses and Aaron, in order that they might be fully assured that God was near to help them; but, since the expression is indefinite, it is probable that God threatened also the frantic multitude, lest they should proceed to any further acts of violence, although the light was presented in vain to them in their blindness.

Verse 45

45.Get you up from among this congregation. I have expounded the meaning of this expression a little above, namely, that as God regards His people with constant and peculiar love, so He defers His vengeance against the wicked, until these people are set apart, and placed in safety. For tie declares that, as soon as Moses and Aaron have secured themselves, all the rest shall perish in a moment. But incredible was the kindness of both of them, thus humbly to intercede for so ungrateful a people, who deserved to die a hundred times over; for, forgetful of their own lives, which they saw to be imperiled, they were ready to make atonement for the guilt, so as to rescue from death those abandoned wretches who were plotting their destruction. I do not, however, understand this, “Get you up,” merely with reference to place, for they were already separated, having taken refuge in the tabernacle; but it is just as if God had commanded them to sever themselves from the people, and, quitting them altogether, and casting away all care for the public welfare, to provide for their own private safety.

Verse 46

46.And Moses said unto Aaron. The expiation of so great a sin did not indeed depend on the incense-offering, nor are we to imagine that God is appeased by the savor of frankincense; but thus was a symbol set before this grosshearted people, whereby they might be alike aroused to repentance and faith; for however insensible they might be in their rebellion, yet the dignity of the priesthood was so conspicuous in the censer, that they ought to have been awakened by it to reverence. For who would not view his impiety with horror, when he is made conscious of having despised and violated that sanctity wherein the Divine power displays itself for life or death? The sight of the censer might have justly availed to subdue their hardness of heart, so that at last they might begin to condemn and detest their unrighteous act. The second warning which it gave them was no less profitable, i.e., that they might perceive that God was only propitiated towards them by virtue of a mediator; but., in so far as the actual state of things allowed, the visible type directed them to the absent Savior. Since, however, men corrupt and obscure the truth by their fond inventions, His majesty is asserted by the Divine institution of sacrifice. Whilst Aaron, the typical priest, stands forth, until the true, and only, and perpetual Mediator shall be revealed.

The verb כפר, caphar, properly signifies, as I have said elsewhere, to reconcile God to men through the medium of an expiation (piaculum;) but, since here it refers to the people, the sense of Moses is rightly expressed by a single word, as one may say, to purge, or lustrate from pollution.

Verse 48

48.And he stood between the living and the dead. If you understand that the living were everywhere mingled with the dead, you may conjecture that God’s wrath did not so fall upon one part of the camp, as to destroy all that came in its way without exception, as had been the case in the other revolt, but that He selected those who had sinned most grievously. But it is probable that Aaron proceeded so far as to leave behind those who still remained uninjured, and, in the very place where the destruction had occurred, encountered the wrath of God, and arrested its course. Hence it was that both the fervor of his zeal might be the better perceived, and his office of appeasing God was more fully confirmed by its actual success. For what more evident miracle could be required, than when the slaughter, which had both begun to rage suddenly, and then to proceed in a course no less rapid than continuous, was stopped by the arrival of Aaron, exactly as if a hedge had been set up against it? The efficacy of the priesthood in propitiating God, is therefore both clearly and briefly set before us; and hence we are taught, that though we are so dose to the reprobate when they perish, as that their destruction should reach to ourselves, still that we shall be safe from all evil, if only Christ intercede for us.

Verse 49

49.Now they that died in the plague. Already three hundred, or thereabouts, had been destroyed on account of the conspiracy made with Korah; now a much larger number was added. And this, forsooth, is what the wicked reap from their obstinacy, that God being more and more provoked redoubles His punishments; even as He threatens that, unless those whom He chastises shall repent, he will deal “seven times more” severely with them. (Leviticus 26:18.) Wherefore let us learn, when we are warned by His rebukes, to humble ourselves betimes beneath His mighty hand, since nothing is worse than to kick against the pricks; and let us always bear in mind what the psalm says,

“Be ye not as the horse or as the mute, whose mouth must be held with bit and bridle; (because) many sorrows shall be to the wicked.” (Psalms 32:9.)

They rebelliously exclaimed that the people of the Lord were slain, when three hundred had perished; they now experience how much better it would have been to be dumb before God, and to give glory to His holy severity, than, instead of three hundred, to devote to destruction nearly fifty times as many. Let us, then, remember the admonition of Paul:

“Let us beware lest we murmur, lest perchance the destroyer should destroy us,” (102) (1 Corinthians 10:10;)

for nothing is less tolerable in us than that we should frowardly presume to speak evil of God, when Scripture so often exhorts us to be silent in His presence.

(102) It will be seen that he gives the substance, and not the actual words, of St. Paul’s exhortation.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 16". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/numbers-16.html. 1840-57.
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