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The leaders of this rebellion were Korah-a Levite of the Kohathite branch of the tribe and thus a kinsman of Moses and Aaron-and Dathan, Abiram, and On, who were Reubenites. Perhaps these Reubenites felt slighted because their tribe had lost the rights of the firstborn and they wanted a larger role in the nation. [Note: Ibid., p. 303.] These men gained the support of 250 other men (perhaps a round number) from the other tribes who were leaders among the Israelites.
These men intended to overthrow the constitution that God had handed down for Israel and to replace it with one that seemed better to them. They based their action on the truth that the whole congregation was holy (Exodus 19:5-6). They inferred from this that all Israelites therefore had the right to serve in the priesthood. They failed to appreciate the fact that God had chosen the Levites for special priestly service because the nation as a whole had apostatized at Sinai (Exodus 32). They also failed to see that divine election to priestly service, which had been the privilege of the entire nation, did not in itself constitute qualification for priestly service. This depended on obedience to God’s covenant (Exodus 19:5).
The rebels attributed Moses and Aaron’s prominence in the leadership of Israel to personal ambition rather than to obedience to God’s commands.
The rebellion of Korah and his followers ch. 16
"As the laws increase and the constraints grow, the people seem less willing or less capable of following them. At this point in the narrative we see that the whole order of the priesthood is thrown open to direct confrontation. God’s Word revealed at Sinai, which at first seemed so final and authoritative, is now being challenged on every side." [Note: Ibid.]
"In Num 16:1-17:28 (Eng. Numbers 16:1 to Numbers 17:13), three stories illustrate the need for and legitimacy of the Aaronic priesthood [i.e., Numbers 16:1-35; Numbers 16:36-50; and ch. 17]. As there had been challenges to Moses’ leadership in chs. 11-14, so here there are challenges to Aaron’s." [Note: Ashley, p. 295.]
It is not possible to determine from the text where or when during the 38 years of wandering this incident took place. This story ties in with what precedes in that Korah and his companions failed to appreciate their calling and became discontented. The tassels on their garments should have reminded them of their high calling and privilege. It was not the "rabble" or even the ordinary Israelites who instigated this rebellion but some of the Levites (cf. Numbers 8:5-26).
Moses fell on his face (Numbers 16:4) in great distress and took the matter to God in prayer (cf. Numbers 14:5).
The test involved offering incense because this was the most holy responsibility of the priests that brought them closest to God. God had already shown how He felt about those who took this privilege on themselves in the case of Nadab and Abihu (Numbers 10:1-3).
The rebels viewed Israel’s experiences since leaving Egypt in a carnal way. They attributed these trials to Moses personally rather than to God. This failure to perceive the will of God as such led them to regard Moses’ leadership as inadequate and unacceptable.
"It was not that Moses was in error or that Aaron was at fault. It was simply that these wicked men wanted their positions.
"Anytime one begins so heavily to emphasize ’my ministry,’ then such a one is in danger of standing in Korah’s sandals." [Note: Allen, p. 837.]
"In Numbers 16:10 b Moses comes to the nub of the matter-not being satisfied with the position to which God has called one, but wanting more for the sake of power and prestige. It is clear that the Levites’ call was to ministry or service of the people, not to power and position over them. This misunderstanding is near the heart of that which makes Korah’s rebellion so tragic: a misunderstanding of God’s call as to privilege and not to service." [Note: Ashley, p. 309.]
God’s method of judging Korah, Dathan, and Abiram was a graphic lesson to the rest of the nation that God would bury those who rebelled against His will. Sin always leads to death (Romans 6:23).
"Sheol, the abode of the dead, is pictured as lying immediately under the surface of the ground . . ." [Note: G. Wenham, p. 137.]
"The point is that rebellion against those whom Yahweh has chosen is rebellion against him. This does not mean simply that leaders are always right. It says that if the leader is appointed by God, rebellion against the leadership is rebellion against God." [Note: Ashley, p. 318.]
The "men who belonged to Korah" (Numbers 16:32) were apparently his followers since some if not all of his sons did not die with their father (cf. Numbers 26:58; 1 Chronicles 6:18-22; 1 Chronicles 9:19). God destroyed the 250 leaders with fire that proceeded from Himself, as He had dealt with Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:2).
The Lord created another visual aid to remind the Israelites that offering incense was a ministry of the priests only. The priests overlaid the altar of burnt offerings with a second layer of bronze that they hammered out of the rebels’ censers (cf. Exodus 27:2). [Note: See Jonathan Magonet, "The Korah Rebellion," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24 (October 1982):3-25.]
"As we think about the notion of the ’holy,’ we recognize that things are made holy in Scripture, not because people are holy, but because the things are presented to the Lord, who is holy. Since these wicked men presented their censers to the Lord, the censers are holy, despite the men’s own wickedness." [Note: Allen, p. 843.]
God’s judgment of Korah’s company did not cause the congregation as a whole to submit to God’s will through Moses and Aaron. The people charged Moses and Aaron with killing their leaders (Numbers 16:41). On the contrary, Moses had been responsible for God sparing the nation through his intercession on several occasions. The fact that the people called Korah’s company "the LORD’s people" (Numbers 16:41) shows how they failed to appreciate what it really meant to be His people (cf. Numbers 11:29; Judges 5:11; 1 Samuel 2:24; 2 Samuel 1:12; 2 Samuel 6:21; 2 Kings 9:6; Ezekiel 36:20; Zephaniah 2:10).
Moses and Aaron fell on their faces when they heard God’s intention to judge the whole congregation with death (Numbers 16:43; Numbers 16:45). Since incense symbolizes prayer in Scripture (cf. Exodus 30:8; Psalms 141:2; Luke 1:10; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4), Aaron apparently moved among the people interceding for them. The plague (Numbers 16:46) was obviously a divine judgment involving sudden death, but more than this Moses did not reveal. A total of 14,700 people died (Numbers 16:49).
Why did Moses not intercede again here?
"All the motives which he had hitherto pleaded, in his repeated intercession that this evil congregation might be spared, were now exhausted. He could not stake his life for the nation, as at Horeb (Exodus 32:32), for the nation had rejected him. He could not longer appeal to the honour of Jehovah among the heathen, seeing that the Lord, even when sentencing the rebellious race to fall in the desert, had assured him that the whole earth should be filled with His glory (chap. Exodus 14:20 sqq.). Still less could he pray to God that He would not be wrathful with all for the sake of one or a few sinners, as in chap. Exodus 16:22, seeing that the whole congregation had taken part with the rebels. In this condition of things there was but one way left of averting the threatened destruction of the whole nation, namely, to adopt the means which the Lord Himself had given to His congregation, in the high-priestly office, to wipe away their sins, and recover the divine grace which they had forfeited through sin,-viz. the offering of incense which embodied the high-priestly prayer, and the strength and operation of which were not dependent on the sincerity and earnestness of subjective faith, but had a firm and immovable foundation in the objective force of the divine appointment." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:112.]
Another explanation is that the writer did not record Moses’ prayer of intercession and God’s reply in the text in this case.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 16". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent