LEADERSHIP ENVY STIRS UP UNJUSTIFIED ATTACKS THAT BRING DOWN THE HAMMER OF CATASTROPHIC DIVINE JUDGMENT
Defying God’s appointed leadership reflects a fatal lack of fear of the Lord. Here we see the arrogance of those who attack Moses and Aaron with a spirit of leadership envy. They cast false accusations and impugn the motives and validity of their leaders. Instead of being content with their appointed ministry roles, they drum up a conspiracy of complainers and rebels and push self-promotion. Their disloyalty seriously disrupts the unity of the community and has devastating consequences on their families.
Raymond Brown: The serious offences described in this story powerfully illustrate the sinister effects of sin. The four dimensions of this offence continue to be relevant in our not-so-different world: disobedience, discontent, disloyalty and disruption.
Iain Duguid: Distrust of those who are in charge is a widespread phenomenon. It is easy to stir up dissension against those in authority, especially when life is difficult and progress is slow. The fans of professional sports teams with losing records often want the managers fired. Aspiring politicians regularly harp on economic difficulties as they attempt to unseat the incumbent. Sometimes the criticism goes deeper and seeks to overturn the existing order completely and replace it with a new and different authority structure. There are indeed times when a change in personnel or the system is justified. Many such revolts, however, are generated by the wrong motivations and aimed at the wrong targets.
Numbers 16 shows us just such a revolt against the leadership in Israel. It was a revolt that combined together two distinct groups of people. On the one hand there was a group made up of Korah and the Levites, while on the other were Dathan and Abiram, who were Reubenites, along with 250 chiefs of the community (vv. 1 , 2). Each of these groups had its own distinct target within the authority structures of Israel. Korah and the Levites challenged the religious leadership of Aaron, while Dathan and Abiram with their followers assaulted the civil leadership of Moses. It is not perhaps coincidental that these two groups rebelled together because the Kohathite Levites, from whom Korah came, camped to the south of the tabernacle, on the same side as the Reubenites (2:10 ; 3:29). We could therefore call this incident “The Southside Rebellion.”
Gordon Keddie: If we are not spiritually content – that is, in our hearts – then discontented frustration will always fill the gap between our actual situation and our view of where we think we should be.
I. (:1-3) LEADERSHIP ENVY — REBELLION CONSPIRACY DIRECTED AGAINST GOD AND HIS APPOINTED LEADERS
A. (:1-2) The Conspiracy
1. (:1) Leaders of the Conspiracy
“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 action,”
Gordon Wenham: According to 2:10ff. and 3:29, both Reubenites and the Kohathites were to encamp on the south side of the tabernacle. The proximity of their tents explains their mutual involvement and their common fate.
Roy Gane: The fact that the verb “took” (Qal of lqḥ) in verse 1 has no object has disturbed interpreters for centuries. What does Korah take, along with his associates? The text does not say. However, each instance of the same verb in the rest of the story has one or more censers as its object (16:6, 17, 18, 39, 46, 47). The last occurrence (16:47) has Aaron’s censer as the contextually implied object, but the word for “censer” is not expressed, just as “took” has no object in verse 1. So it appears that the lack in verse 1 is an intentional literary strategy to get the reader/listener thinking about what Korah wants to take, which we find out later is the censer of Aaron that represents his high priestly function.
Iain Duguid: The rebellion in Numbers 16 is exactly that—a frontal assault on the order established by God at the time of the census. That becomes clear when you look more closely at those taking part. The ranks of those rebelling are drawn from the first of the Levites to be counted, the Kohathites (4:1–3), the first of the people to be counted—the Reubenites (1:20, 21), and those who were doing the counting—the leaders of the community (neśîê hāēdâ; 4:34). What is particularly striking about this group is that the rebellion does not come from the lowest rungs of Israelite society but from the higher rungs. Bearing in mind that status around the tabernacle goes downward as you travel clockwise, from east to south to west to north, it is noteworthy that this is not a northside but a southside rebellion. It is not those at the bottom of the heap who rebel against God’s order but those who are close to the top and who think they ought themselves to be at the top. This marks an escalation from the earlier grumbling that originated among the marginal riff-raff (11:4): now grumbling has infected the center of the camp.
2. (:2) Lieutenants of the Conspiracy
“and they rose up before Moses, together with some of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown.”
B. (:3) The Complaint = Self-Exaltation
“And they assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’”
Peter Wallace: Moses points out that Korah and his company have missed the point of chapter 15. The tassels on their garments do not demonstrate that Israel is holy. The tassels on their garments are to remind Israel to be holy! “So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.” (15:40) If you are in rebellion against God, then you are not holy, no matter how many tassels you wear!!
Raymond Brown: here is an example of misapplied Scripture. The grumblers told Moses that the whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them (3). Moses would have agreed with his accusers. One of the purposes of the blue tassels on the people’s garments was to encourage holiness of life. If, reminded by the tassels, they obeyed the Lord’s commands, they would be ‘consecrated’ or holy (15:40) to the Lord: the same word as that used by the grumblers here. All the Lord’s people were meant to be holy (3), ‘separated’ to the Lord, with its inevitable corollary that they were ‘separated’ from the things that grieved their God, spoilt their lives, corrupted their neighbours and damaged their witness.
Iain Duguid: This fact further highlights the deceptive agenda in Korah’s speech. As a southsider, part of the leading clan of the Levites, he didn’t really want all social order eliminated: he would actually have had more to lose than most Israelites from such an egalitarian leveling. While declaring all Israelites equally sacred before the Lord, what he really wanted was access for himself to the group that would be above the rest, the priesthood (16:10). Likewise, the Reubenites held a privileged place in the Israelite community; yet that was not enough for them. It still rankled them that their premier place as firstborn of Jacob’s sons had been stripped away because of Reuben’s sins. Like the pigs in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, the southsiders wanted a society in which everyone was equal, with some people (themselves) being “more equal” than others.
Dennis Cole: The common assertion of this mutinous assembly of leaders against Moses and against Aaron was, “You have gone too far!” (rab-lākem) or literally, “You have [too] much!” Milgrom describes this proclamation of the holiness of the entire congregation as “a clever application of the command to ‘be holy’ ” that is found at the conclusion of the previous cycle. The Israelites had been instructed to wear garment tassels as a reminder of their covenant relationship to the Lord, so they might keep his commandments and live holy lives before God and the world. In addition Yahweh had said at Sinai that the children of Israel were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). But those words were based on the faithful obedience to the covenant stipulations and not an unconditional promise. The rejection of the Promised Land in the previous cycle was evidence enough of the people’s forsaking of the special covenant relationship it was to have enjoyed. The group furthermore asserted that Moses and Aaron were self-appointed rather than divinely ordained, an accusation far more true of those registering the complaint. But whereas sanctification in 15:40 was related to the people’s obedience to all God’s commands over against their seeking to fulfill their own lusts and desires, their rebelliousness had blinded them to their own lack of holiness. As a result this congregation of rebels who rose up in unison would die together, for the earth would soon consume them.
II. (:4-19) LEADERSHIP CONFRONTATION — RESPONSE OF MOSES SETS UP THE ULTIMATE LEADERSHIP CONFRONTATION
A. (:4-11) Dealing with the Complaint of Korah
1. (:4) Renouncing Self Trust and Self Defense
“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face;”
The natural reaction would be to go toe-to-toe with your adversary and stand up for the validity and authority of your leadership as it is challenged. Moses, the meekest of all men, reacts in opposite fashion. Instead of defending himself, he casts himself on his face before His God.
Timothy Ashley: The probability is that here, as in ch. 14, motives of intercession and obeisance before God are present. Moses also undoubtedly needed instruction from Yahweh on how to deal with this crisis. The text does not say how long Moses is prostrate, but when he rises, he has two replies to make, the first to the specific charge raised by Korah and the second to the motive behind it.
2. (:5) Reality Test = Let the Lord Make the Choice
“and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself.’”
3. (:6-7) Rash Behavior = You Have Crossed the Line
“Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company, 7 and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the LORD tomorrow; and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!”
Gordon Wenham: Moses proposes that all who claim such a holy status should demonstrate it by undertaking a priestly task, the offering of incense. Since two of Aaron’s sons had died for offering fire which the Lord had not commanded (Lev. 10:1–2) Korah’s alacrity in submitting to this test is striking. This will show who is holy and whom the Lord has chosen (6–7).
4. (:8-10) Root Problem = Leadership Envy
a. (:8-10a) You Should Appreciate Your Ministry Opportunities
“Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you sons of Levi, 9 is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; 10 and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you?’”
Gordon Wenham: Moses then points out that the Levites are greatly privileged: The God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself (9). The Levites camped next to the tabernacle separating it off from the other tribes. What is more they had the duty of doing service in the tabernacle, that is dismantling, carrying and erecting the tabernacle. Though Moses does not make the point here, the Kohathites, of whom Korah was one, had the task of carrying the most sacred objects such as the ark (4:1–20). They were next in rank to the priests. But they want the priesthood itself.
b. (:10b) You Should Not Strive to Usurp Other Ministry Functions
“And are you seeking for the priesthood also?”
Raymond Brown: Here is an example also of an envious spirit. Not content with the important subsidiary roles the Lord had assigned to them, these Levites were trying to get the priesthood too (10). The fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa described envy as ‘that congenital malady in the nature of man’. ‘Envy banished us from Paradise, turned Cain into a ruthless murderer and made young Joseph a slave. Envy … sends the dart against Moses, but it does not reach the height where Moses was’.
Warren Wiersbe: the most important place in the Christian life is the place of God’s choice, the place He’s prepared for us and prepared us to fill. The important thing isn’t status but faithfulness, doing the work God wants us to do. Every member of the church, the body of Christ, has a spiritual gift to be used for serving others, and therefore every member is important to God and to the church (1 Cor. 12:14-18).
5. (:11) Rebellion is Actually Directed Against the Lord
“Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD; but as for Aaron, who is he that you grumble against him?”
Timothy Ashley: The meaning is that in rebelling against the priesthood, Korah is not really rebelling against Aaron, but against Yahweh himself, since Aaron did not put himself over the people, nor did Moses. It was Almighty God who ordained things to be so, and disregarding the Aaronic priesthood is rebellion against him.
Dennis Cole: Moses’ second address to Korah confronts the Levites among the rebellious lot. He strikes at the heart of the matter, pointing to the Levites’ desire for position, power, and prestige instead of being satisfied with the special role God had granted them previously. The Levites had been set apart (hibdîl) from the other tribes to perform the service of the tabernacle and to be a special possession of the Lord (Num 8:14). Moses asks Korah rhetorically if this special appointment was so insignificant a function that he felt he should aspire to a higher position, which highlights the fact that Korah was acting out of selfish ambition rather than holy intentions. Ultimately, Korah’s company of Levites, Reubenites, and others had joined forces not against Moses and Aaron but against God himself, who had delineated the various appointments to position and responsibility for the Aaronic priests and the Levite assistants. God had “brought them near”—given them the privileged access to the tabernacle in their special services—but they desired to seize control of the priesthood.
J. Ligon Duncan: Moses is stunned by their open and arrogant rejection of the rule of God. Understand that this passage is not fundamentally about a challenge to human leadership. You know this is not the passage that the pastor gets to stand up and say, ‘Now if you ever disagree with me, you just watch out!’ Something much bigger than this is going on, because it is not ultimately Moses and Aaron who are being challenged here: it is God who’s being challenged, because God appointed Moses and Aaron, and God was bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt, and God was the one who appointed the priests (the sons of Aaron) as the ones who would minister before Him. So it’s not ultimately Moses or Aaron or the priests who are being challenged. It’s not ultimately human leadership that’s on the line. It’s God’s leadership that’s on the line here.
B. (:12-15) Dealing with the Complaint of Dathan and Abiram
1. (:12a) The Summons
“Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab;”
2. (:12b-14) The Refusal
a. (:12b) Defiant Response
“but they said, ‘We will not come up.’”
b. (:13-14) Deflecting Accusations
1) (:13) Accusation of Endangering the Flock and Lording it Over the Flock
“Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us?”
2) (:14a) Accusation of Deception and False Promises
“Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men?”
Gordon Wenham: The Reubenites’ complaint is more traditional: they object to the divine programme of journeying to Canaan via the wilderness. Egypt, they say, was a real land of milk and honey, and Moses is incapable of bringing us to Canaan, which he says is a land of milk and honey (13–14; cf. 14:1–9).
Iain Duguid: They asked, “Will you put out the eyes of these men?” (v. 14), which is an idiomatic way of saying, “Can you make us blind to the realities we see around us?” In other words, “You may have tricked everyone else into blindly following you, but we see clearly what you have done.” They were arguing that Moses had deliberately deceived the people for his own ends.
c. (:14b) Defiant Response
“We will not come up!”
3. (:15) The Angry Appeal to the Lord
“Then Moses became very angry and said to the LORD,
‘Do not regard their offering! I have not taken a single donkey from them,
nor have I done harm to any of them.’”
Timothy Ashley: This was evidently some kind of idiomatic statement that meant that one party had not taken tribute from another nor exalted himself over another.
Roy Gane: Moses has put up with a lot in the past, but the outrageous defamations hurled at him by Dathan and Abiram turn him into an anti-intercessor (16:15). This is the only place where the Pentateuch says that Moses was “very angry.”
C. (:16-19A) DEALING WITH THE LOGISTICS OF THE CONFRONTATION
1. (:16-17) Man Up
“And Moses said to Korah, ‘You and all your company be present before the LORD tomorrow, both you and they along with Aaron. 17 And each of you take his firepan and put incense on it, and each of you bring his censer before the LORD, two hundred and fifty firepans; also you and Aaron shall each bring his firepan.’”
2. (:18) Mano a Mano
“So they each took his own censer and put fire on it, and laid incense on it; and they stood at the doorway of the tent of meeting, with Moses and Aaron.”
3. (:19a) Multitude in Support
“Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them
at the doorway of the tent of meeting.”
D. (:19b) DEAL BREAKER = PRESENCE OF THE GLORY OF THE LORD
“And the glory of the LORD appeared to all the congregation.”
Warren Wiersbe: The next morning, Korah and his followers showed up with their censers and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance of the tabernacle, while Dathan and Abiram stood with their families at the doors of their tents o the south side of the tabernacle.
III. (:20-30) LITMUS TEST — PREPARATION FOR DIVINE JUDGMENT TO SETTLE THE CONFRONTATION
A. (:20-22) Intercession of Moses and Aaron
1. (:20-21) Anger of the Lord – Ready to Destroy the Entire Congregation
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 21 ‘Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.’”
Peter Wallace: The issue in this chapter has been separation. In v9, Moses had said, is not enough that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation? (Numbers 8:14 had used the same word to speak of the separation of the Levites to their service of the tabernacle). But now the LORD says to Moses and Aaron – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.”
2. (:22) Argument of Moses and Aaron – Limit the Scope of Judgment
“But they fell on their faces, and said, ‘O God, Thou God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, wilt Thou be angry with the entire congregation?’”
Dennis Cole: This form of address in Moses’ prayer emphasizes that God is the creator, giver, sustainer, and sovereign Lord over all flesh, especially the humanity whose lives were suspended over the fulcrum of life and death due to their sinful actions (cf. Isa 42:5; Zech 12:1). Moses’ subsequent plea therefore was an appeal to God’s mercy, longsuffering, pardoning grace, and forgiveness (cf. Num 14:17–20).
B. (:23-30) Imminent Judgment Warning
1. (:23-24) Divine Command to Issue the Warning
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 ‘Speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.’”
2. (:25-30) Declaration of Imminent Judgment
a. (:25-27) Keep a Safe Distance
“Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, 26 and he spoke to the congregation, saying, ‘Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be swept away in all their sin.’ 27 So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones.”
b. (:28-30) Know that my Leadership Authority is from the Lord
“And Moses said, ‘By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. 29 If these men die the death of all men, or if they suffer the fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.’”
Roy Gane: In the Bible only God can create (brʾ). Ironically, this present unprecedented miracle of creation will be for destruction.
IV. (:31-35) LAST WORD — CATASTROPHIC DIVINE JUDGMENT SILENCES THE REBELLION
A. (:31-34) Seismic Swallowing – Unprecedented Catastrophe
1. (:31-32) Targeted Unprecedented Catastrophe
“Then it came about as he finished speaking all these words,
that the ground that was under them split open;
and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up,
and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah, with their possessions.”
Dennis Cole: Though Korah’s name is not mentioned here in the judgment, the second census informs us that his fate was the same as that of Dathan and Abiram (26:10).
Num. 26:11 is an indication that this judgment did not include everyone in all of their households.
Eugene Merrill: The fact that the wives and children of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were included in the awful judgment of God (vv. 27, 32) illustrates again the Old Testament principle of family solidarity and the collective punishment if not guilt of the offspring of those who sin against God (Ex. 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Josh. 7:16-26).
2. (:33) Terminal Unprecedented Catastrophe
“So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol;
and the earth closed over them,
and they perished from the midst of the assembly.”
3. (:34) Terrifying Unprecedented Catastrophe
“And all Israel who were around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth may swallow us up!’”
B. (:35) Consuming Fire
“Fire also came forth from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.”
Gordon Wenham: Finally, almost as an afterthought, the death of Korah’s supporters is mentioned. The writer felt no need to elaborate. If Aaron’s sons perished for offering incense that was not commanded (Lev. 10:1–2), how much less likely to escape were the followers of Korah, who were not even priests (cf. Jude 11).
Iain Duguid: If the swallowing alive of Dathan and Abiram and their families was visible disproof of their claim that the Lord was either dead or irrelevant, then the fire from the tabernacle that consumed Korah’s 250 priestly pretenders was visible disproof of Korah’s claim of priestly equality (v. 35). He had said that all Israel was holy and could safely approach the Lord; yet when the claim was tested, it was found false. Only those whom God had chosen could approach him safely; all others would die, just as he had warned them earlier (3:10, 38). The remains of the bronze censers with which they had tried to offer incense were hammered into an overlay for the altar of sacrifice as a permanent reminder of this state of affairs (v. 39). Only the one whom God had chosen could draw near to him. There is no truth in the claim that all roads lead to God. Apart from the one he has chosen, all roads lead to a consuming fire.
Ronald Allen: The 250 men were then devoured by fire (perhaps lightning); the smell of their incense would not be able to cover that of their stinking, burning flesh.
Gordon Keddie: The punishment fitted the crime in each case. Dathan and Abiram had unjustly complained that Moses intended to kill them in the desert. For their unbelief, the desert opened up and swallowed them. Korah and his 250 aspired to the Aaronic priesthood and were consumed in their presumption by the fire of God (16:31-35; Leviticus 10:1-2; Jude 11). Sin, like Moloch, consumes here children. Specific sins have specific consequences. Spiritual death begets eternal death.