Chapter 16 The Rebellion and Attempted Coup Under Korah, Dathan and Abiram.
This account of a rebellion against Moses and Yahweh is given in order to establish the Aaronic rights to the priesthood, and possibly also to bring out the antagonism that resulted from the failure to enter the land.
2). The Service of The Priests, Answering the Question Who Has The Right To Approach Yahweh.
It cannot be accidental that following the chapter in which offerings and sacrifices were called for, properly offered; the demand was made that unwitting sin be properly dealt with; and that high handed sin be punished by being cut off from among the people; and the people were called on to wear the mark of Yahweh to show that they were His holy people, we have a chapter where high handed sin is openly manifested, and those most guilty are indeed cut off, while it is clearly revealed that His people are only holy through His good services.
In the previous chapter one man defied Yahweh and was cut off. In this chapter many will defy Yahweh and they too will be cut off. And the holiness of the people, which they proudly claimed for themselves, would be seen to be totally of His doing through the means that He has provided.
Here we have a complete justification of Yahweh’s refusal to allow this people to enter His land. They are revealed to be totally unfitted for its conquest and enjoyment.
Also basic to this passage, and the further reason that it is included here, is the fact that it established the uniqueness of the Aaronic priesthood in all aspects of worship in the Dwellingplace. For this trend see Numbers 16:3; Numbers 16:5; Numbers 16:9-10; Numbers 16:35; Numbers 16:37-38; Numbers 16:40; Numbers 16:46-48.
But there can be no doubt that historically speaking it was also a dangerous situation that could have resulted in the end for Israel. It was not just a theological dispute. There was open rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and finally against Yahweh, seething in the camp. So we will first of all deal with this issue which tends to strike the modern reader most. A careful analysis will be necessary as it is due to the failure to make such an analysis that so much criticism is levelled at the passage.
Turning back from Canaan and going back into the wilderness had necessarily shaken Israel to the core. All their hopes and dreams had collapsed, and they had seen before themselves a bleak and unenviable future. And they may well have laid much of the blame on the fact that Moses and Aaron had not allowed them to take the Ark with them into battle (Numbers 14:44). If the Ark had gone before them, they possibly thought, would not all their enemies have scattered and fled before it? (Numbers 10:35). They were disillusioned with both the secular and religious leadership.
Thus the impetus that had mainly bound them to Moses when all seemed hopeful could be seen to have gone. Indeed if he was not needed to lead them into the promised land of what need was there to follow him? And if he was discredited so was Aaron and his High Priesthood. So their thoughts would run. And they would begin to question the whole basis of their society. It was probably on the basis of this dissatisfaction of the people that two sets of people began to plot against Moses, Korah and the Levites on the one hand, who coveted promotion to the priesthood and control of holy things, and Dathan and Abiram with their fellow Reubenites on the other, who had political power in mind.
This resulted in these Levites and Reubenites, who both had their camps on the south side of the Dwellingplace, coming together and deciding to take advantage of the disgruntlement of the people in order to advance themselves, probably having in view the taking of control over Israel and the High Priesthood.
There were clearly two groups involved, Korah the Levite, Moses’ distant cousin, along with fellow ‘sons of Levi’ (Numbers 16:8; Numbers 16:10), who enjoyed the special privileges of the Dwellingplace, and who was very ambitious and whose main aim was to seek the full priesthood (Numbers 16:10), and Dathan, Abiram and On, three prominent Reubenites, with their ‘families’, whose aim was probably a coup so that they could seize political power. These were united in their opposition to Moses, probably with a joint plan that would benefit both. Korah would replace Aaron as High Priest, the other three would replace Moses. In those days both religious and secular implications had to be considered in any coup. Moses could not be deposed while Aaron was still there. And that meant discrediting his unique status. Thus the uniting of two such opposing parties was to be expected.
We note that there were ‘two hundred and fifty princes, men of renown’ backing Korah, all seemingly Levites, for Moses speaks constantly of ‘you sons of Levi’. As two hundred and fifty Isaiah 5 x 5 x 10, the covenant number doubly intensified, it may simply be intended to reflect the ‘holy’ nature of the group rather than being a literal head count. This was rebellion by a covenant group at the very heart of the covenant.
The first thing that they did was to come together in ‘an assembly’ to officially challenge Moses and Aaron. The initial tack they took was to challenge Moses on religious grounds. For they knew that if they were to be successful they would have to undermine the religious positions of Moses and Aaron. So while Dathan and Abiram were probably the most dangerous conspirators from a secular point of view, they were happy to leave the initial onslaught to Korah and use him as a front man. That is probably why his name came first in verse 1. It was he who would be in the best position to lay a religious foundation for the rebellion and thus carry the people with them.
His argument was subtle. It was that, as all knew, Yahweh had declared all the people to be holy (Exodus 19:5-6). This had especially come home even more recently in the fact that their new tassels declared that they were ‘holy to Yahweh’ (Numbers 15:40). Thus if all were holy, and even enjoyed a special uniform declaring them to be so, surely all could enter the Holy Place. After all Moses had constantly stressed that ‘Yahweh was among them’ (compare Numbers 14:14; Exodus 29:45-46; Leviticus 26:12). Thus they wanted to know, in that case, by what right Moses and Aaron had lifted themselves above ‘the assembly of Yahweh’ as though they were especially holy? Why had they kept it as a family thing? Were not all the people holy?
In a situation like this we are only given the gist of the argument and there was probably much argued about this matter which we are not told, but it was clear what their aim was. They wanted entry into the priesthood.
Dathan and Abiram sat quietly by and said nothing. This was not their territory. They were scheming something much more revolutionary. But that could await the recognition by Israel of their allies as members of the sacred priesthood. The fact that they were the real final danger comes out in that in the event it was to be their wider families who were all destroyed. In the case of Korah and his Levites it was only the men themselves.
At this point Moses clearly sought a break in order to consult Yahweh, and he fell on his face before Him and sought His will (Numbers 16:4). Yahweh then instructed him on what to do and he acted accordingly. So they wanted to break into the priesthood in spite of Yahweh’s clear instructions? Well, they would not be denied their opportunity, as long as they were prepared to face the consequences.
So Moses called in Korah and his band of Levites (the 250) and instructed them that if they wished to put in a claim to be priests they should come the next day, each with a censer in his hand, and burn incense before Yahweh. But he warned them that Yahweh would then demonstrate who was holy and would cause those whom He chose to come near to Him (Numbers 16:5). Then he made a plea to them that if they would only consider the matter, they would recognise that they were already highly favoured. Had not Yahweh separated them from the congregation of Israel for holy service with regard to His Dwellingplace, and allowed them to come nearer to Him than any other tribe in Israel? Did they then really wish to seek the priesthood as well? We may presume that he reminded them of what the instruction that he had received from Yahweh said, and reminded them of what had happened to Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1)
Korah and his band of Levites seem to have gone back to their tents well satisfied. It seemed to them that their scheme was working. They would appear in the morning as he had said, with their censers in their hands. They did not consider the fact which Moses had drawn attention to, that if they saw themselves as being holier’ than the ordinary people, how could their side then use ‘equal holiness’ as a test of whether they should be involved in the priesthood? Having been given great privilege, and accepted it, they had testified to the fact that some of Yahweh’s holy people could be higher in holiness status than others. Thus their action was inconsistent with the status that they accepted.
Having temporarily satisfied Korah and the Levites, Moses then turned his attention to Dathan and Abiram, the Reubenites, who had not been involved in that side of things. They seemingly had different motives. They were not ‘sons of Levi’. They had no ambitions for priesthood. They had rather taken the opportunity of Korah’s dispute in order to introduce their own differences and possibly gain power in other ways, and as the aftermath demonstrates, they were gathering a host with a view to a coup. They were after all members of the ‘firstborn’ tribe. Thus when, after they returned to their tents after the initial meeting, Moses sent for them so that he could talk further with them, they were in no mood to go. They spurned his orders from then on. No they would not obey him. Who did he think he was? On what grounds did he claim to be a Prince over them? (Numbers 16:13). They would not come up to the Tent of meeting to meet with him. They no longer accepted his authority. After all how did they know that it was not a trick, and that once they arrived they would not be assaulted and blinded? This was a practise of some overlords against rebellious leaders (compare Samson in Judges 16:21; Zedekiah in 2 Kings 25:7). Their reply was an act of open rebellion. It was treason. They were rejecting covenant responsibility and Moses’ leadership (which Korah had not done), which was why Moses probably saw them as the most dangerous.
The fact that the Kohathites and the Reubenites were both encamped on the south side of the camp, partly explains how they had got together. But the full possible impact of the rebellion was clear next day from the fact that Korah was able to call together ‘the whole congregation’ to gather at the Dwellingplace (Numbers 16:19). It had become a mass movement which to some extent involved the whole of the people, not just a small minority, although Moses does distinguish between their guilt and the guilt of the leaders of the rebellion (Numbers 16:22). But the people had come in order to discover what it was all about, and to find out what the result would be, not necessarily to side with Korah.
So when Korah came with his men and their censers, ready to offer incense to Yahweh before the Tent of meeting, the whole congregation was present to witness the event. All, that is, apart from the rebels (Numbers 16:19 with Numbers 16:34).
All those with censers then put fire in them and put their incense into the censers, and at this point the glory of Yahweh appeared to all. Korah and his men were probably delighted. It would appear to them that Yahweh was accepting their offering! He had not struck them down. But Yahweh then spoke to Moses and Aaron and warned them to get away from the congregation as He intended to destroy them all.
However, Moses pointed out that the congregation had not really done anything wrong, and that only the guilty should be punished, and as a result of their intercession Yahweh, speaking anthropomorphically, backed off. He then instructed him to inform the people that they were to get away from ‘the dwellingplace of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’, that is from the area on the south side of the Tent of meeting where they lived. Korah would be in the camp of the Kohathites while Dathan and Abiram were in the camp of Reuben, both on the south side. In other words the congregation were to demonstrate their lack of support for the rebels, by keeping them at a distance and avoiding their tents.
Moses then, clearly at Yahweh’s instructions as comes out in what he later said, took the elders, who proved loyal to him, and approached the camp of Reuben (Numbers 16:25). Then he called on the members of the congregation who had gathered there to depart and get as far away as possible from the rebels, and not even touch any of their possessions. It was a declaration that the rebels were unclean in Yahweh’s eyes. And the congregation obediently did what he said. Moses would have felt quietly contented. He knew that he was gaining back the control that seemed to have been lost. Then Dathan and Abiram came out to the door of their tents supported in their display of defiance by their wives and children, and at Moses’ word the ground opened up and swallowed them. So the rebellion was over.
But only those who ‘appertained to Korah’, that is who were involved with him in the rebellion, were consumed. They had committed treason as a solid body and received the punishment for treason. (This in fact possibly included Korah who may have raced ahead to warn them that Moses was coming, although his death is nowhere mentioned here, but see Numbers 26:8-10 which is the only place which mentions his death. That is, however, also ambiguous). At this the people who had been watching at some distance fled, lest they too be caught up in the catastrophe. And fire also came down from heaven and smote those who were offering incense on their censers It should be noted that the sons of Korah are not said to have been involved in these activities. They in fact were later declared to be alive (Numbers 26:11; Numbers 26:58).
However the mood of the people was such that they were angry at this slaughter of ‘their brothers’. They had not been present at the hostile assembly, nor had they known about the Reubenites’ defiance of Moses. What had happened seemed unnecessary and fuelled their already fierce resentment of Moses. So they gathered together against Moses and Aaron. Yahweh had been right about their mood after all.
Things might have become dangerous, but Yahweh struck the people with a plague where they stood, and it was only the intervention of Aaron at Moses’ command in making atonement for them through his censer that prevented the whole people being destroyed. The contrast between his burning incense and bringing relief to the people contrasted vividly with those who had died for burning incense in their censers. Aaron’s position was firmly established. And that in fact is the main point of the whole narrative.
The significance of Numbers 16:1 to Numbers 17:13 can be looked at from two angles, a). Who has the right to offer incense to Yahweh, and b). Who has the right to enter the Sanctuary? These were the questions that were being mainly dealt with. We race to look at the history. The writer’s great concern was the theology.
a). Who Has The Right To Offer Incense Fire Before Yahweh?
This is evidenced by the rebellion of the Levite Korah and the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram, and its aftermath (Numbers 16)). It is divided into two sections:
i). The Competition between Aaron and Korah and his band of Levites (Numbers 16:1-21).
a Korah and his co-conspirators dispute the positions of Moses and Aaron as those uniquely approved of Yahweh (Numbers 16:1-3).
b The Challenge of the Censers, to burn incense before Yahweh (Numbers 16:4-7).
c Moses Charge against Korah and his band of Levites that they seek to go beyond their status over against Aaron (Numbers 16:8-11).
d Korah’s Reubenite followers refuse to respond to Moses’ plea to them (Numbers 16:12-14).
d Moses prays that Yahweh will refute them (Numbers 16:15).
c Moses calls on Korah and his band of Levites to respond to his challenge and test their status in contrast with Aaron (Numbers 16:16-17).
b All carry out the Challenge of the Censers and burn incense at the door of the Tent of meeting and in the presence of the gathered congregation (Numbers 16:18-19).
a Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the congregation of Israel as those uniquely approved of Yahweh (Numbers 16:20-21).
ii). God’s Judgment on Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and on the People (Numbers 16:22-50).
a Moses prays that Yahweh will spare the congregation of Israel (Numbers 16:22)
b Yahweh commands the people to depart from Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:23-27)
c The Pit swallows up the Reubenite followers of Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:28-34).
d Fire consumes the offerers of the incense (Numbers 16:35).
d The metal of the false censers of those sinners to be used to cover the altar (Numbers 16:36-40).
c The congregation blame Moses and Aaron for the pit of death (Numbers 16:41-43)
b Yahweh’s threat against the people (Numbers 16:44-45)
a At Moses’ word Aaron stays the plague from the people by offering incense on his censer (Numbers 16:46-50)
Korah and His Co-conspirators Dispute the Positions of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1-3).
‘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,’
Korah is mentioned first because he acted as the front man, and it was his aim that illustrated the point that the writer is concerned to get over. It is because he was connected with the tribe of Levi, and made claims on that basis, that his fuller genealogy is given. He was a Kohathite, and a distant cousin of Moses and Aaron. Thus he shared in the important task of bearing the sacred furniture of the Dwellingplace, including the sacred Ark. He should have known better than to dispute the priesthood. His sons are not said to have joined with him in the dispute.
Dathan and Abiram were closely related, being sons of Eliab. On was the son of Peleth, but he disappears from the story immediately. He was probably mentioned so as to make up a threesome, emphasising the completeness of the rebellion of the Reubenites. All three were of the tribe of Reuben. Thus they played no part in the question of the censers and the priesthood. They had a deeper motive.
It was in fact very much common sense for Dathan and Abiram, in planning their coup, to recognise that they had to consider the religious aspect. They had two obstacles to deal with, Moses the overall leader and Aaron who provided the support of the cult. No rebellion could be successful which did not succeed in both fields. Furthermore, by allowing the ambitious Korah to act as front man they could present themselves as simply wanting to honour Yahweh and see fair play. The account brings their duplicity out well.
“Took men.” The Hebrew text lacks ‘men’ which is read in. It could equally be translated ‘took up a position of treason’ or ‘took action’. Compare 2 Samuel 18:18 for a similar construction. We could more accurately translate, ‘took and rose up’.
“With certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, called to the assembly, men of renown.” With them they had ‘two hundred and fifty’ influential men of high standing. In view of the fact that large numbers were probably not used arithmetically, but were used as adjective in order to give an impression, the ‘two hundred and fifty’ probably simply means a large group strongly involved in the covenant. 5 x 5 x 10 is five doubly intensified, and 5 is the number of the covenant.
The first impression is also that these were influential men from all the tribes (‘of the children of Israel’), but in what follows Moses addresses them as ‘you sons of Levi’ (Numbers 16:7-8) and speaks of ‘your (thy) brothers, the sons of Levi’. So either (1) they were all Levites, or (2) Moses is calling them such because they were following Korah in seeking to act like sons of Levi, or (3) the phrase ‘sons of Levi’ has in mind the leaders of the two hundred and fifty who were sons of Levi and were putting forth the case for all of them. Why not then call them the sons (followers) of Korah? It may be because he was using the phrase sarcastically, “you who put yourselves forward as ‘sons of Levi’.” Some see the weight as being on the side of the suggestion that they were all Levites, and it may be that as Moses was aware that the actual sons of Korah were not involved in the dispute, he did not wish to give a wrong impression and malign innocent people. If the second view is considered correct ‘band of Israelites’ should be seen as the strict interpretation of a sarcastic ‘sons of Levi’.
‘And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much on you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Yahweh is among them. Why then do you lift yourselves up above the assembly of Yahweh?” ’
The four leaders appear to have called together an assembly in order to meet with Moses in order to level their accusations. This would probably be at the Dwellingplace, at which assemblies usually took place. And there they attacked Moses and Aaron with the claim that they were making too much of themselves.
Their argument, probably the idea of the Levite Korah, argued that as all Israelites, ‘every one of them’, were holy (Exodus 19:5-6), and now even wore tassels which declared that they were holy (Numbers 15:40), and as Yahweh was among them as a people (compare Numbers 14:14; Exodus 29:45-46; Leviticus 26:12), Moses and Aaron had no ground for claiming special holiness and ‘lifting themselves up above the assembly of Israel’. This argument was only carried through by Korah and his ‘sons of Levi’. Thus it would appear that as far as Dathan and Abiram were concerned it was only a ploy. But to the others it was deadly serious.
Moses recognised that they were intending to trespass on holy things and was distraught. He knew only too well the consequences of such behaviour. It was not he and Aaron who had done the lifting up but Yahweh. And the Levites should have known that, for while their status was lower than that of the priests, they did have a holy status that was above that of the other tribes. But he was also aware of the hostility of the Reubenites, and that this was not just a technical argument. Thus he recognised that he needed to confer with a higher authority. He no doubt told them that he would consult Yahweh, and went into the Holy Place where the Voice spoke to him from the mercy seat (Numbers 7:89). And there he fell on his face before Yahweh.
The Challenge of the Censers (Numbers 16:4-7).
‘And when Moses heard it, he fell on his face,’
It is unlikely that this means in the assembly, and as at this point Dathan and Abiram with their Reubenite followers withdrew (Numbers 16:12) it suggests that he went into the tent of meeting in order to do so. Falling on the face was an act of total submission. We are left to recognise that Yahweh spoke to him, for the next we hear is of the message that he brought back to them.
‘And he spoke to Korah and to all his company, saying, “In the morning Yahweh will show who are his, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to him, even he whom he will choose will he cause to come near to him.” ’
He came back and gave his reply to Korah and the two hundred and fifty princes, for apparently Dathan and Abiram had retired to their tents in the camp of Reuben. They were willing to leave the first positive action in Korah’s hands.
In his reply he assured them that on the very next day Yahweh would demonstrate who were His, and who were holy, ‘and will cause the ones whom He chose to come near to him’. That should have given them pause for thought, but they were too taken up with their ambitions to consider the possible consequences. They coveted the position of the Aaronic priests.
“Do this. Take for yourselves censers, Korah, and all his company, and put fire in them, and put incense on them before Yahweh tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom Yahweh chooses, he shall be holy. You take too much on you, you sons of Levi.”
The test would be simple. Korah and his two hundred and fifty were to take censers for themselves next day, and put fire in them, and then put incense on it to burn ‘before Yahweh’, that is, in the courtyard to the Dwellingplace. Then they would discover whom Yahweh saw as holy. Those chosen by Yahweh would be seen to be holy. And all knew from past experience what happened to those who acted in this way when they were not chosen, and were not holy enough.
“You take too much on you, you sons of Levi.” Compare the charge made against him in Numbers 16:3. He warned the Levites quite firmly of the danger of what they were doing, and that it was they who were taking too much on themselves. They ought to recognise the danger of what they were doing. After all it was not for nothing that they had been appointed guardians of the Dwellingplace. The stress that the writer is seeking to get over comes over quite clearly.
The choice of the censer was a sensible one. It meant that none of the furniture in the Dwellingplace would be tampered with. But it was also the means of the most intimate approach to God. He was challenging these men to recognise what they were doing. Approaching Yahweh in this way was no light matter.
“Sons of Levi” may refer to all the two hundred and fifty, either because they were so, or sarcastically because that was what they were attempting to become. Or it may refer to a group of Levites who were leaders, with Korah, in the attempt to promulgate the participation of the two hundred and fifty.
Moses Charge against Korah (Numbers 16:8-11).
‘And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi, does it seem but a small thing to you, that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of Yahweh, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, and that he has brought you (thee) near, and all your brethren the sons of Levi with you? and do you seek the priesthood also?” ’
Moses now added a further warning to them and especially to their leader. It was not too late to withdraw. Let Korah consider this on behalf of his followers. Did they consider the privileged position that they had been given to do the service of the Dwellingplace of Yahweh, and to act as ministers to the congregation, to be a small thing? He was well aware that they did not. Let them remember that God had separated them from the congregation of Israel for special service, and had brought them near to Himself, by allowing them to camp around the Dwellingplace as its guardians, and to enter the courtyard of the Dwellingplace to fulfil their functions. That was a huge privilege. No other tribe of Israel had such access to that holy place. And this was not only true for him, but for all who were truly sons of Levi. If they then saw their position as privileged, because they had been chosen and ‘made holy’ in preparation for it, would they not recognise that in seeking to act as priests they were stepping outside their calling. They were well aware that Yahweh Himself had chosen the sons of Aaron. Would they then seek that priesthood for themselves contrary to Yahweh’s express desire? Let them think about it, and beware.
Again the writer is stressing his central point. The overall rebellion he treats as secondary.
“All your brethren the sons of Levi with you?” The whole tribe of Levites is in mind here as having the Levite privileges, as against the few who were in the rebellion.
“Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against Yahweh, and Aaron, what is he that you murmur against him?”
And it was in the seeking of the priesthood which was at Yahweh’s disposal that they had gathered together ‘against Yahweh and against Aaron’. Let them consider that their action was in the face of Yahweh’s direct commandment. It put them ‘against Yahweh’. After all, what was Aaron that they should murmur against him? He was only doing what Yahweh had commanded him. He and they were in the same position. They each ought to do what Yahweh chose them for, and what He had set them apart for, and commanded them to do.
It would seem at this point that Korah and his band of Levites were satisfied with the offer and were ready to retire to their tents in the Levite camp ready for the morning. They disregarded his warning. Moses’ warnings had simply passed over their heads because they were gripped by covetousness. But Moses recognised that he had only dealt with half the problem.
He then turned his attention to the Reubenites who had previously withdrawn. He recognised that they would not be satisfied with such a test. They were more concerned with gaining leadership of the confederacy than with becoming priests. It was necessary somehow to pacify them and deal with their fellow-rebels.
Dathan and Abiram Refuse to Respond to Moses’ Summons (Numbers 16:12-14).
‘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 you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must necessarily make yourself also a prince over us?” ’
So Moses, aware of what Yahweh had said too him, then sent for Dathan and Abiram so that he could discuss matter further with them. They were seen as the master minds in the rebellion. But they refused to come, in itself an act of rebellion. The message that they sent back emphasised their treason. They saw Moses as someone who with his false promises had brought them out ‘from a land of milk and honey’, so as to kill them in the wilderness. It was in this sarcastic way that they described Egypt. With such cynicism did they describe what he had accomplished. This reflected how deeply they felt about the fact that they were doomed to wander in the wilderness until all were dead. They were never to enjoy the promises that had been given, and they considered that what they had was worse than what they had had in Egypt, the horror of which had now lessened in their minds. And having done this to them he now wanted to be accepted as Prince over them? But they had accepted him as Prince because he had promised them such good things. Now that those good things had failed they no longer considered him to be their Prince. They did not want him as prince over them. They rejected his claims to authority.
“Is it a small thing --?” Compare Numbers 16:9. The writer depicts Dathan and Abiram as in some sense aping Moses. But Moses was concerned about Yahweh’s privilege given to His servants, Dathan and Abiram were concerned about the benefits the people had failed to receive. Moses looked heavenwards, Dathan and Abiram looked earthwards.
“Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.”
For the fact was that Moses had not brought them into the land of milk and honey that he had promised them. He had not given them the inheritance of fields and vineyards that he had so vividly described. In their eyes he had clearly failed. And now they were doomed to wander in the wilderness. They did not consider that the problem lay in their own failure. Such people always blame someone else.
“Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” ‘These men’ may refer to their messengers, or to their fellow-conspirators, Korah and his band of Levites. The implication was that Moses intended evil towards them, and would act viciously towards them. They did not realise how he was trying to save then from the consequences of their folly. What fools men can be. They forgot what had happened to those who had opposed Moses in Egypt, even to Pharaoh himself. ‘Will you put out the eyes of these men?’ It was common practise in those days to maim captured leaders in some way so that they could never again be a threat. See Judges 1:6-7; Judges 16:21; 2 Kings 25:7).
Their speech also is put in chiastic form (in the Hebrew).
We will not come up.
From a land of milk and honey.
To a land of milk and honey.
Not brought us.
We will not come up.
Moses Prays that Yahweh Will Refute Them (Numbers 16:15)
‘And Moses was very angry, and said to Yahweh, “Do not you respect their offering. I have not taken one ass from them, nor have I hurt one of them.” ’
Moses was very angry at their reply and the position that they were taking up, and he cried to Yahweh not to accept anything that they brought as an offering to Him. He was calling on Yahweh to reject them and not recognise them as people of the covenant. For he pointed out that they had rebelled against his authority and that it was not because of anything that he had done. He had not even taken one ass from them. He had not hurt a single one of them. The implication was that this was all happening because of what Yahweh had commanded him.
“I have not taken one ass from them.” Kings rode on asses when they rode in triumph (compare 1 Kings 1:33; Zechariah 9:9), which their subjects would often be called on to provide. Perhaps Moses was indicating that he had never tried to lord it over them.
Moses Calls on Korah to Respond to His Challenge (Numbers 16:16-17).
‘And Moses said to Korah, “Be you and all your company before Yahweh, you, and they, and Aaron, tomorrow.” ’
Moses then turned his attention back to the Levite conspirators, and bade Korah with all his band of Levites to come to the Dwellingplace in the morning, into the courtyard ‘before Yahweh’. They were to be there along with Aaron so that a proper test of their acceptability with Yahweh could be determined. He would deal with the others later.
“And take you every man his censer, and put incense on them, and bring you before Yahweh every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers. You also, and Aaron, each his censer.”
And they were to take every man his censer and put incense on them, and bring it before Yahweh, a censer for every man in his band (compare Numbers 16:6-7). And Aaron would be there too with his censer. Even as we read the words a chill fills our hearts. We all know the folly of what they were about to do. We know even without reading on that there could be only one conclusion. They were rebelling against Yahweh’s strict instructions, and coming into His presence in doing it. It would be sin with a high hand.
All Carry Out the Challenge of the Censers and Burn Incense in Them (Numbers 16:18-19).
‘And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense on them, and stood at the door of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron.’
And next morning they did exactly that. They all came, every man with his censer, and stood with Moses and Aaron, and put fire in their censers and laid incense on them. And in such gross disobedience to Yahweh they stood at the door of the Tent of meeting.
‘And Korah assembled all the congregation against them to the door of the tent of meeting, and the glory of Yahweh appeared to all the congregation.’
But they were not there alone. Surrounding the Dwellingplace were the whole congregation of Israel, apart from the rebels. Korah had called for them all to come, and they had responded. It demonstrated that their hearts were at least partly with him. They too were sore at being sentenced to die in the wilderness.
Then the glory of Yahweh appeared in the Sanctuary, seen by all the congregation. At first the Levites, aware that they were still alive and that in spite of the fact that Yahweh had come, probably saw it as a triumph. Yahweh had not struck them down! The congregation might well have felt the same. Nothing spectacular was seemingly to happen here.
Moses and Aaron to Separate Themselves From the Congregation of Israel (Numbers 16:20-21).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,’
But then Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron, and His words revealed His anger at the disobedience of the Levites and the concurrence of the people. Here the phrase is not, as often, a general statement indicating a new section containing the words of Moses, but is simply a part of the narrative.
“Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.”
He told Moses and Aaron that they must remove themselves from among the people, for He intended to destroy them all. He knew their hearts, and that instead of blaming themselves for the consequence of their unbelief which had barred them from the land, they were blaming Yahweh Himself and His true servants. Not one of them was worthy to remain alive.
These words conclude the first part of the narrative, but lead on immediately into the second part. They are pregnant with significance. At this point Yahweh brings out not only the rebellion of those in open conflict with Moses and Aaron, but also the rebellion in the hearts of all the people, which will manifest itself openly later.
Moses and Aaron Pray that Yahweh Will Spare the Congregation of Israel (Numbers 16:22).
‘And they fell on their faces, and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?”
At His words Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before Yahweh. All the antagonism and argument had been directed against them, but their hearts were full of compassion for the people. They recognised the justice of God in acting against the blasphemers with their censers, but they themselves saw the people as not to blame. (They were later to learn how wrong they were (Numbers 16:41)).
They asked Yahweh if He thought that it was right to blame the many for the few. Was He not the God of the spirits of all flesh? Did not all the life within (the ‘spirit’) belong to Him? Had He not created them and given them life? Would He then destroy life unnecessarily? Surely He would not destroy the many for the one? He was the life-giver, not the life-taker.
Yahweh Commands the People to Depart from Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:23-27).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’
And Yahweh, in response to their prayer, through Moses offered the people a chance.
“Speak to the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the dwellingplace of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”
They were to tell the congregation to ‘get up from about the dwellingplace of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’. That is, they were to cease their gathering to them and instead ostracise them. Korah dwelt in the camp of the Kohathites, Dathan and Abiram in the camp of Reuben, both to the south side of the Dwellingplace of Yahweh. Thus ‘the dwelling place of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’ referred to the area of ground occupied on the south side of the Dwellingplace by both camps. If they wished to survive the people were to demonstrate their loyalty to Moses and Aaron by deserting those camps where they had been previously revealing their support for the action against Moses.
“The dwelling place of Korah, Dathan and Abiram” is in strict contrast with the Dwellingplace of Yahweh (Numbers 16:9). The people must choose whose dwellingplace they will honour. To accept the dwellingplace of the rebels as they lurked in their tents would be to renounce Yahweh.
‘And Moses rose up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him.’
Then Moses left the Dwellingplace and made for the camp of Reuben to face up with the rebels. He alone knew what Yahweh planned to do. ‘And the elders of Israel followed him’. Possibly belatedly they were demonstrating their support. Or they may simply have been following in order to see the outcome of the confrontation. None of them would have had the least suspicion of what was about to happen.
‘And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.” ’
Moses found there many supporters of the rebels. So he begged them to go and leave the area of the tents of the rebels. He warned them not to touch anything that was theirs. This ominous warning was immediately understood. To touch the possessions of the dead would render a man unclean. Thus Dathan and Abiram were as good as dead. What was more, by such familiarity, they would identify themselves with the rebels and would share their fate. They would be consumed in all their sins.
‘So they got themselves away from the dwellingplace 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 their sons, and their little ones.’
The events had helped to focus their minds. They remembered what had happened to those who had opposed Moses in Egypt. So they hurriedly removed themselves from the vicinity of the tents of the rebels. They no longer wanted to be identified with them.
“They got themselves away from the dwellingplace of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side.” The area where the Reubenites and the Korathites had their tents became deserted. Their support among the people simply dwindled away. When it came to it the people did not have the heart to outface Yahweh. The speed of their response indicated again that slave-like attitude that had caused their failure to enter the land.
Then Dathan and Abiram came out of their tents with their whole families. They were making a show of strength. The point in the description is in order to stress that both they and their households were all of one mind. All were rebels. All opposed Moses, and challenged Yahweh. All were guilty and shared the corporate guilt. It was not an act of contrition but an act of defiance. But they were no doubt put out to discover that most of their supporters had melted away.
The Pit Swallows Up the Reubenite Followers of Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:28-34).
‘And Moses said, “By this you shall know that Yahweh has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men, then Yahweh has not sent me.”
Moses wasted no time on the rebels. He addressed the waiting crowds. By this they would know that what was about to happen was not of his choice or of his doing, but was the choice of Yahweh Who had sent him. If these men died an ordinary death, even though it be by plague or lightning, then Yahweh had not sent him. He was staking his whole reputation on Yahweh’s promises. It was like standing before Pharaoh again. The point he was stressing was that he himself intended to do nothing to them. He was leaving them in the hands of Yahweh. This would then demonstrate whose side Yahweh was on.
“But if Yahweh make a new thing, and the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all who appertain to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall understand that these men have despised Yahweh.”
But if a new thing happened, and the ground opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with all who were following them in their rebellion, so that they went down alive into the underworld, the world of the dead, then all must recognise that these men had despised Yahweh.
He pictured the earth as being like a great monster whose mouth opened wide in order to devour (compare Isaiah 5:14). This was Yahweh’s earth, which He had created. If it opened its mouth on His behalf it could be due to no one but Him. And it would reveal that the judgment was His.
“If Yahweh make a new thing.” Or literally, ‘if Yahweh creates a creation’. Stress is put on the fact that this is Yahweh’s direct and novel action.
“Sheol.” The usual word for the world of the dead to which men descended when they were placed in their graves. It was the grave world of shadows from which none ever returned. Yahweh even controlled that grave world.
‘And it came about that, as he made an end of speaking all these words, the ground divided asunder that was under them, and the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who appertained to Korah, and all their goods.’
No sooner had Moses spoken then the earth suddenly caved in around where the tents of Dathan and Abiram, and their families, were. It ‘opened its mouth and swallowed them up’, taking in all who ‘appertained to Korah’, that is all who were a part of the rebellion, together with all their goods.
‘So they, and all who appertained to them, went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed on them, and they perished from among the assembly.’
Thus all in the camp who were connected with them in the rebellion went down alive into Sheol (compare the vivid picture in Isaiah 14:9). ‘And the earth closed up.’ They had been buried alive and had just disappeared. Not a trace was to be seen. They perished from among the assembly. They were Israelites no more. God’s mouth had, as it were, swallowed them without trace.
As Yahweh regularly used magnified natural disasters in His judgments (as in Egypt) we may probably see that the tents of Dathan and Abiram and their followers had been pitched on a kewir, a hardened mud-flat which had developed over boggy ground. Such are often found in this area. As with the Reed Sea deliverance the main miracle was in it caving in at the right time. It has been suggested that a severe thunderstorm occurred, which soaked the ground causing the mud-flat to soften and give way, with lightning striking the 250 men with the censers.
‘And all Israel who were round about them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up.” ’
A great cry of fear and terror went up from the rebels as they realised in those brief moments exactly what was happening, and it was such a terrible cry that the people around fled. They were fearful less it also happen to them, and the earth swallow them up. The impact of what happened was huge, and the echo of the cry continued in their hearts (Numbers 16:41).
Fire Consumes the Offerers of the Incense (16:35).
‘And fire came forth from Yahweh, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men who offered the incense.’
Then fire came down from heaven and devoured the band of Levites who were offering incense. Compare Leviticus 10:2. This seems to have been the especial fate for offering incense wrongly. The thought may have been as a reaction to the desecration of what was holy, the fire of judgment, or as a means of purifying the place where they had been, the fire of cleansing (compare Isaiah 4:4 where both are in mind). The text is not specific on whether this happened at the same time. That was irrelevant. What mattered was that Yahweh had vindicated the Aaronic priesthood.
As Korah had been offering the incense with them it is possible that he was included. Interestingly we are nowhere told what happened specifically to Korah. Numbers 26:10 tells us that he died at the same time but is ambiguous about exactly how. The concentration here was on Dathan and Abiram. This would seem to confirm that they and their Reubenite supporters had been the greater overall threat, and he but the front man with individual ambitions, shared by the band of Levites gathered with him. As his sons survived (Numbers 26:11) his whole family do not appear to have been involved. It would also seem to confirm that Korah was consumed with the idea of the priesthood for himself rather than overall rebellion.
We must assume that the non-mention of Korah was deliberate, however he died. The point being made is that he was now a non-man, a non-mentionable, his name had been blotted out of Israel. It was left to all to recognise that he either perished along with his band of Levites, or with his fellow-conspirators (Numbers 26:8-10).
Whether the fire was a thunderbolt or a particularly ferocious result of lightning strikes is left to us to surmise. But whichever it was, it was both particular with regard to its victims and cumulative in its effect.
The Metal of the Censers to be Used to Cover the Altar (Numbers 16:36-40).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’
“Speak to Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and you scatter 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 Yahweh, therefore they are holy; and they shall be a sign to the children of Israel.”
Having been used in the worship of Yahweh, even by such false ‘priests’, the censers and the fire in them were holy. They could not just be tossed away or destroyed. They had been offered before Yahweh and were therefore ‘holy’. But nor could they again be used. So they were told that they must scatter the burning ashes ‘yonder’ (on the brazen altar?), and that Eleazar must take the censers of the men who had given their own lives in order to use them, and make of them beaten plates which could be used as a covering for the altar. The word used for ‘plates’ regularly means ‘snares’. Whenever men looked on them in future they would remember what had happened to the men who had been ensnared by evil and had tried to supplant the Aaronic priesthood. They would be a ‘sign’ to the children of Israel of the legitimacy of that priesthood.
This is not an explanation of how the altar first received a brazen covering. It could never have operated without one. But we are not told how far Bezalel had overlaid it with bronze (Exodus 38:2). These were now additional, attached to the outside of the altar so that they could be a memorial of what had happened.
‘And Eleazar the priest took the brazen censers, which those who were burnt had offered, and they beat them out for a covering of the altar, to be a memorial to the children of Israel, to the end that no stranger, who is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to burn incense before Yahweh, that he be not as Korah, and as his company, as Yahweh spoke to him by Moses.’
Then Eleazar did as Yahweh commanded. He took the brazen censers which had been offered to Yahweh by those who had been consumed with fire, and ‘they’ (the priests or possibly the Levites) beat them for a covering for the altar. They were to be a memorial to the children of Israel, a warning, that no stranger, that is, no non-Aaronide, should come near to burn incense before Yahweh. For were they to do so they would end up like Korah and his band of Levites as Yahweh had spoken to Moses.
Here then we have the import to which the whole account has built up, that the sanctuary was the exclusive province of the sons of Aaron.
The whole account is a warning against rebelling against Yahweh’s true servants, and against using false methods in order to approach God. For now there is only one way of access, through our great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we can approach in no other way.
The Congregation Blame Moses and Aaron for the Fire and Pit (Numbers 16:41-43).
‘But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of Yahweh.” ’
As would be expected the incidents of that day were the talking point of the camp. It may well be that the rebels had given the people new hope, even if it was probably groundless, and thus what had happened angered them. It had been one thing for Moses and Aaron to devastate Pharaoh and Egypt, quite another when they used their strange powers to attack the people of Yahweh. They felt that a part of them had been cut off. Many would not forget the dreadful sight of the pit opening up and the fire coming from heaven.
So the next day the camp was seething with anger and discontent. And they charged Moses and Aaron with killing ‘the people of Yahweh’. They had seemingly been convinced by the claims made by Korah. Here, they believed, were holy men whom Moses and Aaron had chosen to destroy. This reveals how deeply the rebels had seized the hearts of the people, and how much Moses and Aaron had lost face as a result of the debacle of the invasion of the land.
‘And it came about that, when the congregation was assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they looked toward the tent of meeting, and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of Yahweh appeared.’
As a result they gathered together around the Dwellingplace where they were planning to have it out with Moses and Aaron. But as they looked towards the Tent of meeting they saw the cloud descend and cover it and the appearance of the glory of Yahweh. It would remind them of what had happened days before (Numbers 16:19), which had resulted in all that they were complaining about. They should have taken warning that when this happened at times when Moses and Aaron were being castigated, it was a sign of worse to come. Instead of being the welcome sight that it would have been when they were at peace with God and His chosen servants, it was a warning of what could lie ahead.
‘And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting.’
Then Moses and Aaron appeared, and came to the front of the Tent of meeting. They were ready to face any threat that might appear.
Yahweh’s Threat Against the People (Numbers 16:44-45).
But in fact the threat came from Yahweh. In a sense this whole interlude of the rebellion was an important one. The disillusionment of the people after the failure to enter the land, and the cancellation of their prospects for doing so, was such that there had to be an emphatic response which brought them to their senses. Otherwise the future would have been bleak indeed. It had required a threefold threat of their total destruction (Numbers 16:21; Numbers 16:34; Numbers 16:45)
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’
Yahweh again spoke to Moses and his words were clearly recorded.
“Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces.’
The message was one of doom. Moses and Aaron were to get themselves safely away from the congregation so that Yahweh could punish them for their attitude. As with Dathan and Abiram it would all happen ‘in a moment’. Having given them a second chance He was no longer willing to continue to spare them.
We must recognise in this that Yahweh was not being continually frustrated but was both proving the faithfulness and effectiveness of Moses and Aaron to the people, and at the same time demonstrating where the people would be (or would not be) without them. He wanted it to be clear to the people that the only reason why they were allowed to survive was because of His mercy and because of the faithfulness and intercession of His chosen servants whom He had appointed.
Once again the intrepid couple threw themselves on their faces before Yahweh and begged for His mercy.
At Moses’ Word Aaron Stays the Plague by Offering Incense on His Censer (Numbers 16:46-50).
The purpose in what followed was to demonstrate that Aaron with his censer was a totally different thing from the rebels with their censers. Aaron’s pleas were effective because he was the rightful intermediary for the people. In a sense he was the people. Theirs had been unsuccessful because they were frauds.
‘And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire in it from off the altar, and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation, and make atonement for them, for there is wrath gone out from Yahweh. The plague is begun.” ’
Moses had already been made aware that Yahweh’s judgment had begun and that a deadly plague was spreading through the people. There was no time for intercession. The judgment was already at work and spreading rapidly. He recognised that there was only one hope. He turned to Aaron and commanded him to take his censer, put fire in it from the altar, from the burning coals that had received so much of the offerings of Israel (compare Isaiah 6:6), and then to burn incense on it. He was to do it with all speed. Then he was to race among the Israelites, making atonement for them, as the incense ascended as intercession for mercy to Yahweh, burning in the coals from the altar which had regularly burned offerings, and offered by the one who stood for the whole people. All had to be hurry. For Yahweh’s holy justice and aversion to sin was being revealed and the deadly plague had already begun.
‘And Aaron took as Moses spoke, 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.’
Aaron instantly obeyed. He ran into the midst of ‘the assembly’ and even as he did so was aware of people dying around him. So putting the incense on to the coals in his censer he made atonement for the people. The incense smoke, and the smoke from the coals, rose upwards and as Yahweh looked down on His chosen representative offering atonement for the people His holy justice was appeased. Because of the multiplicity of offerings that had been slain and had been offered on the altar, and because of the intercession of His chosen servants, and in this case especially His High Priest, He was enabled to righteously forgive.
‘And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed.’
And there Aaron stood between the dead and the living. The dead were gone, seemingly drawing others after them, but he brought hope and protection to the living. Death was driven back. As a holy intercessor he prevented death from reaching more of the people. Now all would know without any doubt who was the chosen of Yahweh, and who had the sole right to offer incense on behalf of the people.
One day Another would even more effectively stand between the dead and the living as He hung on a cross, and a greater plague would be stayed, for His death would be sufficient for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Indeed He would hold the keys of Sheol and of death, opening them and releasing all who were His (Revelation 1:18).
‘Now those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, besides those who died about the matter of Korah.’
And the number who died from that plague, on top of those who had died in the matter of Korah, was fourteen ’eleph and seven ‘hundreds’. If ever there was a symbolic number this was it. Fourteen was twice seven indicating the revelation of the divine choice and perfection in judgment and the doubling of the reception of the punishment for sin (compare Isaiah 40:1). This was then followed by seven intensified indicating the divine perfection of the judgment demanded. We are probably to translate, 14 leaders and the equivalent of seven military units (or fourteen families, the equivalent of seven military units).
‘And Aaron returned to Moses to the door of the tent of meeting, and the plague was stayed.’
Having done his duty Aaron returned to Moses to the door of the Tent of meeting and the plague ceased. Hopefully the people would now settle down and return to normality. While this whole incident is not dated, the highly charged state that it reveals the people to have been in seems to indicate that it could not have been long after their great disappointment about the land.
The lessons for us are clear. They are that we recognise the importance of doing God’s work in God’s way, that we honour those whom He honours, and that we do not rebel against His chosen leaders who prove themselves worthy of Him, and whom He authenticates by the power of their ministry. The lessons are that we do not seek to trespass on things that are not God’s will for us, but accept from His hand what He is willing to give us. They are that we remember that He is holy, and that we should walk carefully and reverently before Him, always recognising His great holiness, for though greatly privileged we must never take God for granted.
From this we also learn of One Who can, as it were, come among us and offer up the incense of intercession and atonement on our behalf, ever living to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 16". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany