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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 16

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



The disappointment of Israel at his exclusion from the Promised Land when its very threshold had been gained, his shameful defeat in his godless march from Kadesh northward, the rayless gloom of his earthly future, destined by solemn decree of Jehovah to wander without hope and almost without God in the world, and the judicial destruction of the faithless spies, were calculated to engender in the sullen camp all manner of dark conspiracies and rebellions. Moses and Aaron, who had been faithful to Jehovah and were the organ of his rebuke of the faithless nation, are naturally the objects against which the pent up ill-will of many hearts will break out. For unbelievers, having cut themselves off from divine consolations, must be inconsolable when suddenly bereft of all their earthly expectations. Such are equally strangers to the grace of patience and submission to the allotments of Providence. Hence a gigantic insurrection is the natural sequel of the rejection from Canaan. It is the most important event recorded in the annals of the thirty-seven years, wandering in the wilderness. We have no other clew to the time and place than the statement in Deuteronomy 1:46, that Israel abode at Kadesh many days.


(1.) “The whole of this history is so sad, the judgment which followed it so terrible, finding no other parallel than that which in the New Testament Church overtook Ananias and Sapphira, and the rebellion itself is so frequently referred to in Scripture, that it requires more special consideration. The rebellion of Korah was of course an act of direct opposition to God. But this was not all. The principle expressed in their gainsaying (Numbers 16:3) ran counter to the whole design of the old covenant, and would, if carried out, have entirely subverted its typical character. It was, indeed, quite true that all Israel were holy and priests, yet not in virtue of their birth or national standing, but through the typical priesthood of Aaron, who ‘brought them nigh,’ and was their intermediary with God.

This priesthood depended, in the first place and mainly, on God’s appointment. ‘Him whom the Lord hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him;’ ‘he shall be holy.’ This appointment, irrespective of the natural fitness of the person, here came into consideration as essential to its typical nature. If otherwise the priesthood would have been a natural sequence, not a type, and it would have a rational rather than a divine institution. It was of the nature of a type that God should appoint the earthly emblem with which he would connect the spiritual reality. The moment Israel deviated in any detail, however small, they not only rebelled against God’s appointment, but destroyed the meaning of the whole by substituting the human and natural for the divine.” Edersheim.

(2.) This signal judgment struck the people with sudden awe, but it did not awaken that repentance which leads to newness of life. The impression made soon passed away, leaving only the feeling that a yoke of bondage had been forever fastened upon Israel in order to vindicate Moses and Aaron. They had no spiritual discernment nor gratitude. They showed an entire unfitness for inheriting the Land of Promise. Hence the justice of their exclusion.

Verse 1

1. Korah was a Levite of the family of the Kohathites, whose service was the transportation of the sacred furniture of the tabernacle. He was probably a first cousin of Moses and Aaron. See Exodus 6:18, and Numbers 4:18, note. The prince who stands next to the throne is most tempted to supplant the king.

Dathan and Abiram Reubenites of the family of Pallu. Numbers 26:8-9. On, also a Reubenite, is not mentioned again. The rabbinical tradition is, that he was prevailed upon by his wife to withdraw from his accomplices after Moses spoke with them. Josephus omits the name of On, but retains that of his father in the form of Phalous, thus identifying him with Pallu. Numbers 26:5, note. These may have felt sore because the birthright and headship of Israel had been taken away from their ancestor on account of his crime. See Numbers 2:3, note.

Took men In the original the verb “took” has no object. “There is an anakolouthon rather than an ellipsis, and not merely a copyist’s error in these words, ‘took and rose up against Moses with two hundred and fifty men,’ for they took two hundred and fifty men, that is, gained them over to the conspiracy, and rose up with them,” etc. Dr. A. Clarke forgets a plain principle of Hebrew syntax when he makes Dathan, etc., the objects and Korah the sole subject of “took” because it is singular. When the verb stands before several subjects it often agrees only with the first.

Verse 2

2. Two hundred and fifty princes The formidable nature of this revolt may be inferred from the great number of princes implicated therein. These must have had adherents enough among the common people to have constituted a majority. If these leaders had not been summarily overthrown the whole camp would have been swept into this wicked revolution.

Before Moses They organized a meeting before his eyes.

Princes Heads of the tribes, or of large divisions.

Famous Men of name. See chap. Numbers 1:16, notes. The movement assumed very large proportions, and evinced widespread disaffection through jealousy and disappointed ambition.

Verse 3

3. Against Moses and… Aaron The evident intent was to seize the government under a self-constituted high priest, and thus subvert the constitution established by Jehovah, under the popular plea of equal rights and of devotion to the service of God.

Too much upon you Literally, enough for you, ye have held the reins quite long enough. Ye must now vacate.

All… are holy The condition of true holiness obedience and covenant-keeping (Exodus 19:5) they had forgotten, and they supposed, as many Christians have done, that they were holy already because they were called a holy nation.

Verse 5

5. The Lord will show who are his This calm appeal to the decision of Jehovah strikingly contrasts with the ambition of the insurgents. The rendering of the Septuagint is, “The Lord knoweth who are his.” See 2 Timothy 2:19, note.

To come near unto him In the discharge of the priestly office.

Verse 6

6. Take you censers The burning of incense was one of the holier functions of the priesthood, because it brought the priest near to the immediate presence of God, the vail only separating between Him and the incense-offerer. Some years before this the revolters had a loud warning against rashness in offering incense, in the case of Nadab and Abihu. Leviticus 10:1-3, notes.

Verse 7

7. To-morrow This allows time for completing their priestly outfit.

Ye sons of Levi Korah probably had had a large following in his own tribe.

Verse 9

9. Separated you The Levites had been appointed over the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50) in the place of the firstborn sons. Numbers 3:11-13, note. Moses now appeals to their sense of gratitude for this mark of God’s favour.

Verse 10

10. Seek ye the priesthood also The sacred office will always be attractive to wicked men, not because they wish to draw nigh to God, but because they desire power over their fellow men. Protestantism, having no priest but Jesus Christ, is well guarded against this evil, especially where it is free from prelatical assumption.

Verse 11

11. Against the Lord To resist divinely constituted authority is to resist the Lord. Romans 13:2, note.

What is Aaron Doubtless Moses had been accused of nepotism in selecting the priestly family. The question implies that Aaron was blameless.

Verses 12-14

12-14. During the address to the insurgent Levites, the Reubenite leaders had withdrawn. These are now sent for to have an interview with Moses. Dreading his rebuke, they refuse to obey the summons of Moses, sending back their bitter taunts because he had failed to lead them into the land flowing with milk and honey, according to God’s promise. Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17. In bitter irony they apply this glowing description to Egypt.

Put out the eyes Literally, bore out the eyes of these men; that is, wilt thou utterly blind them as to thy purposes? Do you think that you can lead us about in leading-strings, as though stone blind?

Verse 15

15. Moses was very wroth Anger in the interest of truth and justice is a holy emotion which dwells in the bosom of God and of his Son. Psalms 7:11; Mark 3:5, note.

Respect not Accept not their offered incense.

Genesis 4:4.

Not taken one ass No tribute had been exacted such as kings lay upon their subjects. Their rebellion is entirely without justification.

Verse 16

16. Before the Lord At the door of the tabernacle. See Leviticus 1:3, and Numbers 16:18.

Thou and… Aaron As in Elijah’s controversy with the priests of Baal, the contestants stand side by side in the sight of all the people.

Verse 17

17. Two hundred and fifty censers It is probable that only one censer was used in the tabernacle, since it is spoken of as the (R.V., thy) censer. Numbers 16:46; Leviticus 16:12. As this rebellion was deliberately planned, there was time for each prince to make his censer. But Professor Bush suggests that they were among the utensils brought out of Egypt. This is improbable. Metallic ores abounded in the wilderness. See Introduction to Exodus, (2.)

Verse 18

18. Laid incense thereon They did not sprinkle blood, which was a priestly function, but they burned incense, because this was originally a prerogative of the high priest alone. But in the daily service of the second temple inferior priests, chosen by lot, burned incense each morning and evening. Luke 1:9, note. The fact that the insurgents assumed the most sacred function of Aaron is another proof of their revolutionary purpose.

Verse 19

19. Korah gathered all the congregation This is one of Colenso’s difficulties, the massing of more than a million of people before the narrow front of the tabernacle. See Numbers 1:18; Numbers 14:2; Numbers 14:7, notes. The insurrection evidently had a wide popular sympathy. It had infected the majority of Israel. The Seventy translate thus: “And Korah gathered all his congregation,” that is, his partisans.

The glory of the Lord A supernatural resplendence flashed forth from the pillar of cloud premonitory of a stroke of judgment. See Numbers 14:10; Numbers 20:6, notes.

Verse 21

21. Separate yourselves This command to withdraw themselves from the congregation was not obeyed, but through intercession the command was tacitly countermanded.

Consume them By assembling at the instigation of Korah this whole congregation had avowed their adherence to the rebels.

In a moment Here is an outflashing of justice untempered by mercy.

Verse 22

22. They fell upon their faces This posture denotes the earnestness of the intercession of these two men, against whom this vast conspiracy was directed. Here is an out-gleaming of that love which shone forth so gloriously from the cross of Jesus Christ, “Father, forgive them.”

The God of the spirits of all flesh The appeal is not to the God of the covenant, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because Israel is now temporarily outside of the covenant, but to God the Creator. “It is of little consequence whether these words are to be understood as relating to all the animal kingdom, or to the human race alone; because Moses simply prayed that as God was the Creator and Architect of the world he would not destroy the men whom he had created, but rather have mercy upon the works of his own hands.” Calvin.

One man sin Literally, shall the one man sin, that is, Korah, the ringleader of the conspiracy. A degree of culpability attached to all who countenanced the plot; but many were swept in by the current of wicked feeling, not from hostility to Moses and Aaron, but from too great weakness to resist the prevailing sentiment. For these Moses intercedes.

Verse 24

24. Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah The intercession was effectual. Israel is spared, but the authors and public actors in the rebellion must be destroyed. Some think that the tabernacle here mentioned was one which Korah and company had set up in opposition to the tabernacle proper.

Verse 25

25. Unto Dathan and Abiram These are supposed to have shrunk back from the tabernacle to their tents at the outflashing of the glory, while Korah, with brazen brow, proceeded to burn incense with the insurgent princes, and was consumed with them by “a fire from the Lord.” See Numbers 26:10, note.

The elders of Israel See Numbers 11:16, note.

Verse 26

26. Depart Voluntary association with sinners in order to save them is right, (Luke 15:2,) but where it is continued for other reasons it must be construed into sympathy with iniquity. See 2 Timothy 2:19. note.

Touch nothing of theirs They and all their possessions were under the ban, utterly devoted to destruction as accursed. Hence this prohibition, in order that the people by their standing aloof might solemnly protest against this wickedness and acknowledge the justice of the punishment inflicted on the rebels. See Leviticus 27:28; Joshua 7:13-15, notes.

Verse 27

27. Stood in the door of their tents Their attitude was not that of penitence, but of curiosity or defiance. Earnest prayer might have saved them even then, but men abandoned by the grieved Spirit of God cannot pray.

Their little children To these this sudden and awful death was not a punishment but a calamity. See Joshua 7:24, note. Little children are still perishing through the folly, brutality, and neglect of their parents. There is no mention here of the children of Korah, some of whom, if not all, escaped, (Numbers 26:11,) probably because they did not consent to their father’s crime.

Verse 28

28. Of mine own mind It was not from self-seeking that I took upon me the government, nor was Aaron or his family appointed to the priesthood merely out of private affection.

Verse 29

29. The common death Hebrew, as every man dies.

Verse 30

30. Make a new thing Hebrew, create a creation, that is, do a thing never done before. The crisis was momentous. The expression of Jehovah’s will must be decisive. An earthquake was probably not a new thing in the history of the world. Something different is demanded here.

Go down quick into the pit A providential calamity which discriminates between the righteous and the wicked and destroys the latter shows that the world is ruled by a power which frowns upon sin.

Quick R.V., “alive;” an old meaning of the word quick.

Verse 31

31. The ground clave asunder There may have been a natural cause for this event; but its occurrence according to prediction in vindication of God’s appointed priesthood and in vengeance upon his foes betokens the supernatural.

Verse 32

32. The earth opened her mouth A poetic impersonation characteristic of the Orientals.

Houses Not their tents, but their families. See Numbers 18:31; Exodus 12:3.

All the men that appertained unto Korah All his partisans That a portion at least of Korah’s family survived is expressly stated in Numbers 26:11. The prophet Samuel was his descendant, (1 Chronicles 6:22-28,) and so were some of David’s musicians, (Psalms 44-49, titles.) The adherents of Korah, his servants and retainers, with, possibly, the adult males of his family, perished in this judgment. The Hebrew word for appertained unto is in Exodus 32:26, translated “on the side of.”

Verse 33

33. Alive into the pit As the time for the clear revelation of the doctrine of future eternal rewards and punishments had not yet arrived, temporal judgments, sudden and awful, must be applied as motives to divine obedience. Sheol, the pit, is a word which is used sixty-five times in the Old Testament. In the A.V., it is translated “grave” thirty-one times, “hell” thirty-one times, and “pit” three times. Its widest meaning is the place of disembodied spirits. It here has the narrower meaning of the abode of the wicked, as the term hades has in Luke 16:23.

Verse 34

34. All Israel… fled By separating themselves from the tents of the doomed men at the command of Moses they had evinced some faith in the theocracy as administered by Moses. Now they instinctively flee from destruction.

Verse 35

35. A fire A stroke of lightning from the cloudy pillar.

Consumed the two hundred and fifty This occurred at the door of the tabernacle. If the earth had not swallowed up these, Aaron and his sons and the tabernacle itself would have been in jeopardy.

Verse 37

THE MEMORIAL CENSERS, Numbers 16:36-40.

37. Out of the burning From between the burning, that is, from the hands of the men that had been burned.

Scatter… the fire yonder That is, empty the censers of the burning coals in a distant place, and not on the holy altar.

Hallowed Because they had been brought before Jehovah, and hence when the rebels were slain their censers fell to him as articles under the anathema.

Verse 38

38. Sinners against their own souls Their sin had cost the forfeiture of their lives. For a covering of the great or brazen altar. Every thing offered before the Lord is holy. Hence every soul consecrated to God is to account itself henceforth as holy and accepted by him, for he receives all that is offered to him in faith. If a man believes that his vessel is impure he will not so carefully avoid pollution as he who knows that his vessel is holy.

Verse 40

40. A memorial, or warning against grasping after priestly prerogatives. It is the purpose of God to turn every man’s life to the best account. When, through a perverse use of his free agency, God cannot secure the wicked man’s well-being, he makes his punishment an instrument of good to others by deterring them from sin. Thus the humane society hangs a bell to the mast of the sunken ship for the admonition of other ships sailing through that perilous channel. Hence the purpose subserved by eternal punishment. “But those who have committed the most extreme injustice, and have become incurable through such crimes, serve as examples to others, and these are not benefited at all, as being incurable, but others are benefited by beholding them suffering forever the greatest punishments for their sins,being suspended in the prison of hades altogether as examples, a spectacle and warning to the unjust men who are continually arriving.” Plato in the Gorgias.

Verse 41


41. On the morrow all… murmured The spiritual stupidity and obstinacy of Israel on this occasion is truly astonishing. The divine judgments, which alarm believers and deter them from sin, only harden the impenitent. This is an example of the conduct of persons abandoned by the Holy Spirit, and given over to hardness of heart. For at Kadesh adult Israel passed the boundary between God’s mercy and his wrath. It is supposed that they wickedly attributed the awful judgment of the day before to some sort of magical incantation or mechanical contrivance on the part of Moses and Aaron. This is intimated in the charge ye have killed. Had they discerned the hand of Jehovah in the opening earth and consuming fire they could not have ascribed the destruction to a human cause. Men hopelessly hardened in heart are bereft of all power of moral discernment, putting good for evil and evil for good. Hence defiant rebels against Jehovah, who have been swallowed up in their sins, are impiously styled the people of the Lord. They charged upon their leaders the terrible judgment which had descended upon the insurgents; whereas, it was through the intercession of Moses that the whole congregation was not at once destroyed! It is evident that they were smitten with judicial blindness, incapacitating for correct judgments.

Verses 42-43

42, 43. Again a formidable rebellion lifts its head, and again the glory of the Lord shines forth as on the day before.

Verse 45

45. They fell upon their faces This was an act of heroic self-sacrifice equal to any in history. Only yesterday, after a similar command to the people to stand aloof from the tents of the chief rebels lest they perish with them, the yawning earth devoured the guilty. But now, in the face of a similar order, Moses and Aaron remain among the doomed people, in the attitude of most earnest intercession, determined to avert consuming wrath or perish in the attempt.

Verse 46

46. Fire… off the altar See Leviticus 6:13, note.

Put on incense The symbolism of incense is thus explained by Baehr: “Prayer among all Oriental nations signifies calling upon the name of God. The oldest prayers consisted in the mere enumeration of the several titles of God. The Scriptures place incense in close relationship to prayer, so that offering incense is synonymous with worship. Hence incense itself is a symbol of the name of God.” But to us it rather seems to be an emblem of that which makes prayer acceptable, the intercession of Christ. Revelation 8:3.

Atonement This is the only place where atonement is made without blood. But here the incense-offering, embodying the high priestly prayer, does not secure pardon, but only a reprieve; it shields the sinner from instant destruction and prolongs the forfeited lives of many adult Israelites. Thus the people were furnished with a practical proof of the power and operation of the true and divinely-appointed priesthood.

There is wrath gone out Since Moses and Aaron have been accused of killing the people, an invisible destroyer is sent forth into the camp whose work cannot be ascribed to any human origin. Now the hand of Jehovah only will be seen in sending and in staying the plague. Thus Moses and Aaron are vindicated.

Verse 47

47. Aaron… ran Here the spirit of forgiveness shines forth resplendently. Against these great leaders a double wrong had been done a conspiracy against their authority and a wicked slander of their fair fame. Numbers 16:41. Yet they both evince the most intense desire for the salvation of their enemies. The cloud of incense was a mute prayer symbolizing the priestly intercession that came between the divine wrath and the people, and by covering them arrests the plague.

Verse 48

48. Between the dead and the living The secret blast was moving along, like the angel of death, from one extremity of the camp to the other, destroying the people. At the line which ran between the living and the dead, Aaron heroically takes his stand in imminent peril of his own life.

The plague was stayed A notable instance of the efficiency of faith. Intercessory prayer seems not to have been made because all the arguments had been already exhausted. “He could not stake his life for the nation as at Horeb, (Exodus 32:32,) for the nation had rejected him. He could no longer plead 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. Numbers 14:20, etc.” Keil.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 16". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-16.html. 1874-1909.
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