Numbers 16 - Korah's Rebellion
A. The battle lines are drawn: Korah and his followers oppose Moses' leadership.
1. (1-3) The accusation against Moses and Aaron.
a. This rebellion, like all, has a leader and followers; this leader is Korah, descended from Kohath. Both Moses and Korah were descended from Kohath, but by different sons (Moses through Amram [Numbers 26:58-59], and Korah through Izhar).
i. The Kohathites had the most exalted duty among the Levites; their charge was to carry the most holy things of the temple, after Aaron and his sons had covered them with the specially prepared coverings (Numbers 4:15).
ii. The name Korah means "baldness." Old baldy was going to give Moses a tough time!
b. Korah was not content with what the Lord had called him to do in serving with the other Levites of the family of Kohath; he accuses Moses of rank pride and exclusionary leadership.
i. It is significant this accusation was made publicly, in front of two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation . . . men of renown. Men like Korah are always playing to an audience, always trying to draw a following after themselves - after Moses has already gathered the nation and led them this far, of course!
c. Korah is clever in his attack; he first proclaims You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Korah acts as if he is representing the people, and fighting for their interests, when in fact he desires a following and a position for himself.
i. "Moses, you shouldn't be the leader. Let everyone be a leader. God can speak to everyone." Rebels and divisive persons have always used such words for their cause.
ii. Significantly, Korah proclaims the holiness of the people (all the congregation is holy) and regards strong leadership as unnecessary (You take too much . . .) at the very time when the nation was not holy and desperately needed strong leadership! Korah, like many rebels and divisive persons, completely misreads the state of the "flock" - because he is not a true shepherd!
d. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the congregation of the Lord? Korah accuses Moses (and Aaron) of pride and self-seeking; as if Moses had aspired for his position, as if God had not called him, and as if Moses did in fact see himself as above the congregation!
e. On a human level, Korah was successful: Two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown followed him. The "Korahs" of the ministry are difficult enough to deal with, but the people who follow them - the two hundred and fifty leaders . . . representatives . . . men of renown - who lack the discernment to oppose the "Korahs" are even more painful.
2. (4-11) The response of Moses to Korah and his company.
a. First, Moses prays: When Moses heard it, he fell on his face. What did Moses pray? No doubt, he asked God if his critics were right; He asked God what should be done in the situation; He asked God to spare the nation, and allow that these divisive men bring no permanent harm to the people of God.
b. After prayer (for how long, we don't know), Moses has a sense of God's direction for this crisis: He issues a challenge whereby Korah and his followers will come before the Lord, and Moses and Aaron come also - so the Lord will choose His leaders.
i. Though, Moses is not in doubt about the outcome: You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi! Moses knew God would prove Korah wrong and him right, and so was unafraid to put it to the test.
c. Finally, Moses confronts Korah and his followers, rebuking the pride and self-seeking prompting their challenge.
i. Even if Korah was right, is this the way to approach it? Is a "power play" like this the way to remove a leader like Moses? The method of Korah (accusation, intimidation, the gathering of a rival following) reveals his rebellious, divisive heart.
3. (12-14) Dathan and Abiram speak for the rebels.
a. Dathan and Abiram were co-conspirators with Korah (16:1); they will not even meet with Moses, nor answer his challenge, choosing to accuse Moses instead!
b. Dathan and Abiram color the past: Out of a land of milk and honey. What? Egypt, a land of milk and honey? For slaves? Rebels and divisive folk commonly create a past of their own preference, a past that puts leaders like Moses in the worst possible light.
c. Dathan and Abiram assign an evil heart to Moses: To kill us in the wilderness. Of course! They have discovered the plot of Moses and Aaron - to lead the nation into the wilderness and then kill them! What foolishness! Yet rebels and divisive folk will assign every evil intention to the heart of leaders like Moses.
d. Dathan and Abiram refuse to acknowledge growth in Moses: That you should keep acting like a prince over us. Moses was indeed at one time a prince, a self-confident man who thought he could deliver and lead Israel with his own hand. God had broken him of that with forty years of leading another man's flock in the wilderness - yet now Dathan and Abiram throw it back in his face, as if God had never dealt with Moses in these areas.
e. Dathan and Abiram have unfair expectation of Moses: You have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey. This was true, and at least some of the blame must lay at the feet of Moses, for agreeing to the demand of the people to send spies into the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1:19-23). Yet, was it really Moses' fault? Would Korah have done better?
i. It is unbelievably easy for the Korahs of this world to sit back and say, "If I was leading the nation at Kadesh Barnea, I would have done thus and so." But Korah was not leading the nation, and men of his type rarely do. God rarely puts the Monday-morning quarterbacks, the backseat drivers, in positions of real leadership - except as a chastisement, to show them just how difficult leadership really is - and that perfect leadership, like perfect anything, is impossible.
ii. Leaders should expect to be held to a higher standard; but it is patently unfair to hold a leader to a perfect standard.
f. Dathan and Abiram consider themselves under no authority. We will not come up! says it loud and clear: "Moses, we have no respect for your authority. We will listen to God, but not to you. Your word means nothing to us." They simply will not submit!
g. Did Dathan and Abiram speak for all of the two hundred and fifty leaders, representatives, and men of renown? Perhaps not, but none of those two hundred and fifty are heard to raise an opposing voice to their harsh accusations.
i. Some of the two hundred and fifty thought that maybe Dathan and Abiram were going a little far; but where was their courage to speak up? Why did they let Moses be accused this way with no one to defend him?
ii. It is easy to stand back and say, "well, I won't take sides. I can be friends to both groups." But in this circumstance, as well as with many a modern "Korah," silence is taken as agreement. If a godly man or woman - especially a leader - is being falsely accused, and you say nothing, you have sinned, because your silence is received as agreement.
4. (15-19a) Moses restates his challenge.
a. After the words of Dathan and Abiram, Moses is angry - very angry. He knows he has done nothing to deserve such an accusation, and he does the right thing - he leaves the situation to God.
i. Remember that Moses was, after all, a man of political power; it was certainly within his capability to have Korah and his followers (like Dathan and Abiram) arrested and/or executed; but he leaves the situation to God.
ii. Sometimes people are offended that a man like Moses would be angry with men like Dathan and Abiram; they think a gentle, easy love is the proper response. Such thinking is understandable, but wrong: Shepherds are gentle with wayward sheep who might injure themselves, but they are passionately against wolves who would injure the flock.
b. Moses can also rest in his clean conscience before God; I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them shows Moses was a man of integrity and service to the people.
i. This reminds us of Paul's testimony before the Ephesian elders in Acts 20: Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God . . . I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel . . . I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak (Acts 20:26-27, 33, 35). There is something glorious about a clean conscience when troubled by rebellious and divisive persons!
c. The challenge specified: The gathering with censers of incense before the door of the tabernacle.
i. Why the censers with fire and incense? A censer is a metal pot used to burn incense, and they were used in the priestly worship of God. Since Korah and his companions are questioning Moses and Aaron's right to lead the nation and conduct the priesthood, each group will come to the Lord as worshipping priests - and God will show which group He will accept.
ii. Moses was making the rebels take the position they desired - the position of priest. Often the best judgment on the divisive and rebellious is the let them lead!
iii. Humanly speaking, the odds are not good: Moses and Aaron stand alone against all the congregation - but God will make the choice, not popular opinion!
B. God affirms Moses' leadership over the nation of Israel.
1. (19b-21) God announces judgment on the rebels.
a. Separate yourselves: It is as if God says, "Moses and Aaron, will you please move away? I'm going to destroy all these rebels in an instant, and I don't want you to get hurt."
b. God's choice was immediately evident; sometimes this is not the case when God deals with modern "Korahs" and their followers.
2. (22) The intercession of Moses and Aaron for Korah and the rebels.
a. What amazing love! Undoubtedly, one of God's reasons for allowing such a painful event in the life of Moses was that God wanted to see such love drawn out of Moses - only the prayer of Moses and Aaron can spare the lives of these men who have tried to bring them down! Such love for the undeserving shows that Moses and Aaron are growing in love, and being transformed into the image of Jesus - before Jesus ever walked the earth!
i. Again, the importance of prayer is emphasized: No prayer, and the rebellious congregation is destroyed. It's that simple. Moses' prayer was essential.
b. Shall one man sin: Moses and Aaron saw right through it - though many were involved (at least more than two hundred and fifty), one man was at the center of it all - Korah. His sin, his drawing of a group after himself, is the cause of all this mess.
3. (23-35) God's judgment on the rebels.
a. The elders of Israel followed him: How 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 - and here they are, doing exactly what God appointed them to do!
b. Moses, in response to God's command to get away from the tents of the leaders of the rebellion (Korah, Dathan, and Abiram), pleads with the people to separate themselves from the divisive persons - lest you should be consumed in all their sins.
i. The same attitude should be among God's people today - stay away from divisive, argumentative, contentious people in the body of Christ. Get away! You don't want to be close to them if God should deal with them.
ii. This, of course, is what many will not do, under the guise of "friendship" or "Christian love" or "fellowship." If this is the case, you had better choose your friends more carefully. A divisive, contentious man will influence you! You will be consumed in their sins!
iii. Instead, heed the clear command of the New Testament: Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11) Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17-18)
iv. Remember a divisive, contentious person will never claim to be divisive and contentious - they always consider their work a noble cause. Use some discernment! Look at what they are doing, not just at what they are saying.
c. By this you shall know: God gave Moses supernatural insight to know some special judgment (a new thing) was going to come upon Korah, Dathan, and Abiram - the earth would swallow them up, as evidence these men have rejected the Lord.
d. This was just the way Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were destroyed - along with their families.
i. We may be uneasy seeing the families destroyed also, but it clearly shows that the families of the rebellious, divisive, contentious people suffer also - often greatly.
e. A fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men: God had judgment reserved for those who walked in agreement with Korah, though not as horrific as the judgment Korah himself received. Their worship was not received!
4. (36-40) A bronze covering for the altar.
a. The censers were beaten flat and used to cover the main altar of sacrifice; they were preserved because even though Korah and his followers were worshipping wrongly, they were worshipping the right God.
i. "Can you imagine the scene? True priests are picking among the bodies, charred flesh, stench, smoke, smoldering embers, and twisted parts. They are to make a count. There were 250 censers; not one is to be lost. Each one is recorded, each one cleansed, each one holy." (Allen)
ii. In the end, each one of the two hundred and fifty was identified completely with Korah. Perhaps that wasn't how they meant it. "Well, I don't agree with everything Korah says, but he's got some good points." But to God, all those distinctions were lost. All the censers are hammered together, and collectively titled: Korah and his companions.
b. But the fire was to be scattered away; it was a strange fire - not acceptable to the Lord at all.
c. The censers were thus memorialized, and an important reminder: God appoints His leaders, and no one should be a divisive rebel like Korah.
i. What then, should be done with ungodly leadership? If possible, remove yourself from it without becoming rebellious and divisive. If it isn't possible, leave it up to God to deal with it, as David allowed God to deal with Saul, instead of taking matters into his own hands.
d. In the Hebrew edition of the Old Testament, Numbers 16:36 begins a new chapter, chapter 17.
C. The people murmur against Moses and Aaron.
1. (41) The accusation is made: You have killed the people of the Lord.
a. Poor Moses! He no doubt hoped that all the trouble was over when the rebels were judged, but now he must deal with those who are sympathetic to the divisive people, and feel sorry for them.
b. Their accusation against Moses is absurd; how did Moses kill them? It was evident that it was the hand of God, not of Moses!
2. (42-45) The threat of judgment on the children of Israel for their sympathy for Korah.
a. God reacts the same way towards the sympathizers as He did towards Korah and his company: These people deserve to be judged!
b. It is no light thing to sympathize with a divisive, contentious person. God takes it seriously, and so should we.
3. (46-50) Aaron's intercession stops the plague of judgment upon the children of Israel.
a. God had promised judgment in Numbers 16:45 (that I may consume them in a moment), so Moses tells Aaron, as the high priest over God's people, to immediately offer incense to "cover" the congregation.
b. Moses and Aaron might have had an interest in letting God consume all those who sympathized with those who rebelled against their leadership; instead, out of love, they try to stop the plague.
i. Do we think Korah or his group would have shown the same mercy to Moses? No doubt, they would have passively said, "well God, go ahead and give them what they deserve. I knew they had it coming to them!" Korah and the complainers didn't have the shepherd's heart for Israel that Moses and Aaron did.
c. Why was a censer with burning incense 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 is a dramatic picture of Aaron, as high priest, interceding for God's people.
d. Aaron ran into the midst of the congregation; his sense of urgency is characteristic of true intercession.
e. And he stood between the dead and the living, so the plague was stopped: The plague stopped where Aaron prayed! Intercessors do the same today; they stand between the dead and the living, beseeching God's mercy, preserving and promoting life with their prayer.
i. To stand between the dead and the living speaks of how serious the matter of prayer is; it is no casual pursuit, no fatalistic exercise in self-improvement. Prayer moves the hand of God, and moves it to stop death and to give life!
ii. When was the last time we prayed as if life and death depended upon it?
f. Those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred: This is a great number, but not compared to the consuming of the whole nation! The generation of unbelief is perishing in the wilderness, so a new generation of faith and boldness can be raised up to take the Promised Land.
g. Most importantly, Aaron the high priest's work here is a picture of our high priest Jesus, and his work on our behalf.
i. We were guilty sinners deserving judgment, we were rightly plagued, our Savior was sent on His mission, He was unjustly accused and attacked, He prayed on our behalf, He "ran" to save us, He stood between death and life for us, and He is the only chance for salvation, being the dividing line between death and life.
ii. "Aaron wisely puts himself in the pathway of the plague. It came on, cutting down all before it, and there stood Aaron the interposer with arms outstretched and censer swinging towards the heaven, interposing himself between the darts of death and the people. 'If there be darts that must fly," he seemed to say, "let them pierce me; or let the incense shield both me and the people.'" (Spurgeon) There is nothing that can save the soul of man except Jesus Christ standing between that soul and the judgment of God.
iii. "If Aaron the high priest, with his censer and incense, could disarm the wrath of an insulted, angry Deity, so that a guilty people, who deserved nothing but destruction, should be spared; how much more effectual may we expect the great atonement to be which was made by the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom Aaron was only the type! The sacrifices of living animals pointed out the death of Christ on the cross; the incense, his intercession. Through his death salvation is purchased for the world; by his intercession the offending children of men are spared." (Clarke)