Numbers 16

The Word Made Fresh

1A man named Korah, who was the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, joined with three Reubenites – Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and another man named On, who was the son of Peleth. 2They gathered two hundred fifty well-known men who were leaders among the Israelites, and together they confronted Moses. 3They said to Moses and Aaron, “Who do you think you are? Every single one of us is set apart, and the LORD is with us all. What makes you think you are more important than the rest of us?”

4Moses was crestfallen. 5He said to Korah and the others, “Very well. Tomorrow morning the LORD will reveal who is set apart and who belongs to the LORD. That person will be invited to come near the LORD. 6So tomorrow, Korah, you and your followers bring firepots. 7Put incense in them and light them and place them before the LORD. The one the LORD chooses is the one who is set apart. You Levites have gone too far.”

8And Moses said to Korah the Levite, 9“Aren’t you Levites satisfied that the LORD has set you apart from all the other Israelites and allowed you to come near to do the LORD’s work at the sanctuary and to stand before the others to serve them? 10The LORD has permitted you to approach with your brother Levites, but you also want to be anointed as priests? 11You and your followers have gathered together against the LORD – you’re not just complaining about Aaron!”

12Moses summoned Eliab’s sons, Dathan and Abiram, but they refused to come. They said, 13“You brought us out of a land where there was plenty of food and other resources just to leave us dead in the desert! And you expect us to let you lord it over us? 14It is obvious that you have not brought us to a land of abundance. You are not giving us fields and vineyards. Do you think we are blind? No. We will not come.”

15Moses was furious. He said to the LORD, “Do not accept their sacrifices. I have not taken even a single donkey from them and I have never done any of them harm.”

16Then he said to Korah, “Bring your followers to appear before the LORD tomorrow – you, your followers, and Aaron. 17Each one of you is to bring his fire pot with incense and place your fire pots before the LORD, all two hundred fifty of them, plus Aaron’s.”

18So they did. Each one of them brought a fire pot, lit them, laid incense on them, and stood at the entrance of the meeting tent with Moses and Aaron. 19Korah brought them all to the meeting tent and arrayed them against Moses and Aaron, and the shining light of the LORD appeared to all of them.

20Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 21“Stand apart from this crowd so I can do away with them quickly.”

22But Moses and Aaron fell to their knees before the LORD. They said, “Oh God, you are the God of the soul of every human being! Must you be angry with all of them because of the mistake of one person?”

23The LORD said to Moses, 24“Tell them to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. 25So Moses stood up and confronted Dathan and Abiram, followed by the elders of Israel. 26He warned all the people, “Get away from the tents of these wicked men! Don’t touch anything that belongs to them or you will be destroyed along with them!” 27All the people moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrance of their tents along with their wives and families.

28Then Moses announced, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to lead you. It wasn’t my idea. 29If these men die a natural death, like what usually happens, then I was not sent by the LORD. 30But if the LORD does something unheard of and opens the earth’s mouth to swallow them whole, them and everything that belongs to them, then you will know for certain that these men have defied the LORD.”

31No sooner had Moses spoken when the ground split apart 32as if the earth was opening its mouth, and the men and their families and all their belongings were swallowed up along with Korah and all his family and belongings. 33They were swallowed alive into Sheol, the bowels of the earth, and the ground closed over them. 34All the others began to run, afraid they would be swallowed, too. 35Then fire shot out from the LORD and immolated all two hundred fifty men holding their fire pots.

36Then the LORD said to Moses, 37“Tell the priest Eleazar, son of Aaron, to gather up the fire pots from their remains and scatter the coals away from the camp. The fire pots are set apart for sacred use 38even though they were held by sinners who rebelled at the cost of their lives. Have the firepots beaten flat and overlay the altar with them because they were presented to me and are set apart. Let them be a reminder to all the Israelites.”

39So Eleazar the priest gathered the fire pots and had them beaten flat to overlay the altar 40and remind the Israelites that no lay person (those who are not descended from Aaron the priest) should attempt to offer incense before the LORD; else they will suffer the same fate as Korah and his allies.

41However, the very next day the Israelites began to complain to Moses and Aaron. “You caused the death of the LORD’s people!” they said. 42While they were gathered before Moses and Aaron they turned toward the meeting tent, and the cloud came down on it and the shining light of the LORD appeared in it. 43So Moses and Aaron went to the entrance of the tent 44and the LORD spoke to Moses and said, 45“Step away from these people so I can put an end to them now.”

Moses and Aaron fell face down before the LORD. 46Moses said to Aaron, “Take a fire pot, light it from the altar and put incense in it, then bring it before the people and beg the LORD to forgive them – the plague has already begun!”

47Aaron did what Moses said. He took the fire pot and ran out among the people, but the plague had already come upon them. He put the incense on the firepot as a plea for the LORD to forgive them. 48He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. 49Fourteen thousand seven hundred people died in the plague, besides those who had died with Korah.

50When the plague had ended, Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the meeting tent.

Commentary

1-7: Another leadership crisis for Moses! This one is better organized with four primary leaders and 250 prominent men already recruited to join the mutiny. Korah, a Levite of the Kohathite division (one of the three divisions of Levites) teams up with three Reubenites – Dathan, Abiram and On. (On, for some curious reason, is never mentioned again.) The tribe of Reuben, you will recall, has been displaced in prominence by the tribe of Judah in the arrangement of the camp as listed in chapter 2. Perhaps this explains part of their disenchantment with Moses. They confront Moses and say, “You have gone too far. All of us are just as holy as you!” Moses responds, “No, you have gone too far!” Moses tells them to come back the next day and bring lighted fire pots.

8-11: Moses responds to the crisis by facing them separately. First, he confronts Korah directly and upbraids him for not appreciating the duties for which he and the other Kohathites have been assigned and accuses him of seeking the priesthood for himself, thus challenging Aaron’s authority.

12-14: Then he summons Dathan and Abiram, but they refuse to come. They accuse Moses of not doing what he promised he would do. They’re not blind, they say, and it’s obvious that they are not in a land with abundant resources (“flowing with milk and honey”). They have a point.

15-19: Moses is getting angrier and angrier, but it is interesting that he finds it necessary to defend himself to the LORD. He repeats his command to Korah to bring fire pots and incense to the meeting tent on the morrow. The next day the 250 (we assume) gather with their fire pots as Moses has ordered.

20-22: God tells Moses and Aaron that the people are going to be destroyed and orders them to step aside. Moses and Aaron beg God to have mercy and not punish the whole congregation.

23-30: God relents and orders them instead to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (On is not mentioned after verse 1). Dathan and Abiram are not present, of course, so Moses goes to their tents and tells the people to stand back. Dathan and Abiram and their families stand in front of their tents and Moses announces that if the ground opens up and swallows them that will be God’s sign that their challenge to his leadership is an offense to God.

31-35: The ground opens up and they fall to their deaths. Their 250 followers, standing there with their burning incense pots, are burned up in a fire.

36-40: Their censers are gathered and hammered into a covering for the altar to serve as a reminder that only the descendants of Aaron can serve as priests.

41-50: The next day the people form an angry mob and confront Moses and Aaron. A cloud covers the tent of meeting; God is angry and orders Moses and Aaron to step away so the whole lot of them can be destroyed. Moses quickly orders Aaron to make atonement for the people by burning incense in their midst, but before Aaron can do so a plague kills 14,700. The event demonstrates again that only Aaron and his descendants can serve as priests and mediators between God and the people.

Takeaway

Testing and challenging Moses only makes him stronger because he submits to God’s authority. Remember that the next time you’re tested or challenged.