Numbers 16 (CEV)
Korah, Dathan, and Abiram Lead a Rebellion
“The fourth book of the Torah, which we know by the title Book of Numbers or, in Hebrew, Bemidbar (“in the wilderness”) might also be called the book of quarrels. It tells of recurring arguments and rebellions by the Israelites against Moses and God. The most serious of these is the rebellion of Korah, a cousin of Moses and Aaron who questioned their leadership of the nation.”
–Rabbi Lewis Warshauer
1-2Korah son of Izhar was a Levite from the Kohathite clan. One day he called together Dathan, Abiram, and On from the Reuben tribe, and the four of them decided to rebel against Moses. So they asked two hundred fifty respected Israelite leaders for their support, and together they went to Moses 3and Aaron and said, ” Why do you think you’re so much better than anyone else? We’re part of the LORD’s holy people, and he’s with all of us. What makes you think you’re the only ones in charge?”
Korah was not content with what the Lord had called him to do in serving with the other Levites of the family of Kohath. (The Kohathites had the most exalted duty among the Levites; their charge was to carry the most holy things of the temple.) He accused Moses of pride and exclusionary leadership.
4When Moses heard this, he knelt down to pray. 5Then he said to Korah and his followers: Tomorrow morning the LORD will show us the person he has chosen to be his priest, and that man will faithfully serve him.
Psalm 75:6-7 (NIV)
No one from the east or the west
or from the desert can exalt a man.
But it is God who judges:
He brings one down, he exalts another.
These verses were first brought to my attention many years ago when I was newly married to an Army officer. The wife of a sergeant-major shared this passage with me when my husband had not received the promotion he had been hoping for. She assured me that a sovereign God knows best. As it turned out, my husband received his promotion the following year and was sent to a plum assignment that hadn’t been open the previous year; the delay was truly a blessing for his career. So for promotions, and elections, and retributions, let God be the judge. We pray, “Thy will be done.”
6-7Korah, now here is what you and your followers must do: Get some fire pans, fill them with coals and incense, and place them near the sacred tent. And the man the LORD chooses will be his priest. Korah, this time you Levites have gone too far! 8-9You know that the God of Israel has chosen you Levites from all Israel to serve him by being in charge of the sacred tent and by helping the community to worship in the proper way. What more do you want? 10The LORD has given you a special responsibility, and now, Korah, you think you should also be his priest. 11You and your followers have rebelled against the LORD, not against Aaron.
After praying to God and receiving a sense of direction, Moses did not doubt the outcome of the test. He knew that God would prove him right and Korah wrong. Therefore, Moses was unafraid to put it to the test.
12Then Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, but they sent back this message: ” We won’t come! 13It’s bad enough that you took us from our rich farmland in Egypt to let us die here in the desert. Now you also want to boss us around! 14You keep promising us rich farmlands with fertile fields and vineyards–but where are they? Stop trying to trick these people. No, we won’t come to see you.”
Oh, my! Such arrogance! They color their past, remembering slavery in Egypt as a comfortable life in a land flowing with milk and honey. They accused Moses of being a mini-Pharaoh. They claim Moses and Aaron have an ulterior motive against the people. They show no respect for their leaders or for the truth of their situation.
15Moses was very angry and said to the LORD, ” Don’t listen to these men! I haven’t done anything wrong to them. I haven’t taken as much as a donkey.”
16Then he said to Korah, ” Tomorrow you and your followers must go with Aaron to the LORD’s sacred tent. 17Each of you take along your fire pan with incense in it and offer the incense to the LORD.”
First one side gets mad. Then the other side gets angry in return. They decide to meet for a showdown, settle it once and for all. Really! This story is starting to sound like Gunfight at the OK Corral!
18The next day the men placed incense and coals in their fire pans and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the sacred tent. 19Meanwhile, Korah had convinced the rest of the Israelites to rebel against their two leaders.
Humanly speaking, the odds were not good. It was Moses and Aaron stand alone against all the congregation. Yet God would make this choice, and not popular opinion.
When that happened, the LORD appeared in all his glory 20and said to Moses and Aaron, 21” Get away from the rest of the Israelites so I can kill them right now!”
22But the two men bowed down and prayed, ” Our God, you gave these people life. Why would you punish everyone here when only one man has sinned?”
James 5:16 (KJV)
The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
23The LORD answered Moses, 24” Tell the people to stay away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”
25Moses walked over to Dathan and Abiram, and the other leaders of Israel followed.
This was glorious! God had appointed elders back in Numbers 10:16-30, in response to another attack on Moses’ leadership. There, the elders were to be men with the same spirit and vision as Moses, men to help him bear the burden, men to stand with Moses. Here they did exactly what God appointed them to do.
26Then Moses warned the people, ” Get away from the tents of these sinful men! Don’t touch anything that belongs to them or you’ll be wiped out.” 27So everyone moved away from those tents, except Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their families.
28Moses said to the crowd, ” The LORD has chosen me and told me to do these things–it wasn’t my idea. And here’s how you will know: 29If these men die a natural death, it means the LORD hasn’t chosen me. 30But suppose the LORD does something that has never been done before. For example, what if a huge crack appears in the ground, and these men and their families fall into it and are buried alive, together with everything they own? Then you will know they have turned their backs on the LORD!”
31As soon as Moses said this, the ground under the men opened up 32-33and swallowed them alive, together with their families and everything they owned. Then the ground closed back up, and they were gone.
Psalm 106:16-17 (ESV)
When men in the camp were jealous of Moses
and Aaron, the holy one of the LORD,
the earth opened and swallowed up Dathan,
and covered the company of Abiram . . .
34The rest of the Israelites heard their screams, so they ran off, shouting, ” We don’t want that to happen to us!”
35Suddenly the LORD sent a fire that burned up the two hundred fifty men who had offered incense to him.
Psalm 106:18 (ESV)
. . . Fire also broke out in their company;
the flame burned up the wicked.
36Then the LORD said to Moses, 37” Tell Aaron’s son Eleazar to take the fire pans from the smoldering fire and scatter the coals. The pans are now sacred, 38because they were used for offering incense to me. Have them hammered into a thin layer of bronze as a covering for the altar. Those men died because of their sin, and now their fire pans will become a warning for the rest of the community.”
39Eleazar collected the pans and had them hammered into a thin layer of bronze as a covering for the altar, 40just as the LORD had told Moses. The pans were a warning to the Israelites that only Aaron’s descendants would be allowed to offer incense to the LORD. Anyone else who tried would be punished like Korah and his followers.
The true priests took the censors of the 250 deceased imposters from their charred remains and hammered them into bronze sheets for the altar as a memorial of the folly of a self-proclaimed priest.
–notes from The NIV Study Bible
The Israelites Rebel and Are Punished
41The next day the people of Israel again complained against Moses and Aaron, ” The two of you killed some of the LORD’s people!”
Absurd! When the earth opens up and swallows more than 250 people, it is evidently the hand of God, not of Moses.
42As the people crowded around them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the sacred tent, and the LORD appeared in his glory in the cloud covering the tent. 43So Moses and Aaron walked to the front of the tent, 44where the LORD said to them, 45” Stand back! I am going to wipe out these Israelites once and for all.”
They immediately bowed down and prayed. 46Then Moses told Aaron, ” Grab your fire pan and fill it with hot coals from the altar. Put incense in it, then quickly take it to where the people are and offer it to the LORD, so they can be forgiven. The LORD is very angry, and people have already started dying!”
47-48Aaron did exactly what he had been told. He ran over to the crowd of people and stood between the dead bodies and the people who were still alive. He placed the incense on the pan, then offered it to the LORD and asked him to forgive the people’s sin.
A censer filled with burning incense was used to stop the plague. Incense is a picture of prayer in the Bible (as in Revelation 8:3-4), because the sweet-smelling smoke of incense ascends to heaven as our prayers would. This was a dramatic picture of Aaron, as high priest, interceding for God’s people.
The disease immediately stopped spreading, and no one else died from it. 49But fourteen thousand seven hundred Israelites were dead, not counting those who had died with Korah and his followers.
50Aaron walked back and stood with Moses at the sacred tent.
So much rebellion and unfaithfulness in recent chapters. It makes me grateful for all the people who have stood firm in the Lord to show me the right way — parents, Sunday School teachers, pastors, Bible Study leaders, authors, friends, and the list goes on. As you listen HERE to Steve Green singing “Find Us Faithful,” spend a moment counting up the faithful witnesses in your life!