Numbers 16–18: No shortcuts to authority in God’s kingdom

The Torah reading קֹרַח Korakh/Korach is a study in what it means to rebel against God and opens a window into the destructive power of antichrist.

Korach’s genealogy

Korach’s not a young man. The “bald” man is a contemporary of Aaron and Moses. He was old enough to have children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Korach’s entire family line was not wiped out as a consequence of his rebellion, only those who supported his rebellion were killed along with him. How do we know this? His descendants wrote some of the Psalms recorded in scripture.

Korach was a Levite of the Kohathite clan. Kohath, was the first born of Levi and Kohath’s first born was Amram, the father of Miriam, Aaron and Moses. Korach is a younger son of Kohath.

Korach was the great-grandson of Levi and Moses and Aaron’s first cousin.

The Kohathite clan received the task of caring for the ark and the vessels of the sanctuary. Their camp was on the south side of the tabernacle, very close to the most holy place.

A crisis in leadership

The tribes of Gad, Reuben and Simeon also camped on the south side of the camp.

There were also three Reubenites who joined Korach’s rebellion:

  • Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab
  • On the son of Peleth

On, the son of Peleth is not mentioned again after Numbers 16:1, so there is a strong possibility that On backed out of the rebellion early on and didn’t suffer the judgement the rest of the rebels suffered.

This rebellion is just coming off the heels of the false reports by the 10 faithless spies and their aborted attempt to take the Promised Land without God’s blessing.

They have heard God’s judgment that they were going to wander in the wilderness for 38 more years and die in the wilderness.

The morale of the people of this at this point was very low, and many of them, I’m sure, blamed Aaron and Moses for their failure to enter the Promised Land rather than themselves. Aaron and Moses were supposed to get them into the Promised Land and as far as the rebels were concerned, Moses and Aaron were to blame.

Dathan and Abiram were not looking forward to wasting the next 38-40 years of their lives wandering aimlessly in the wilderness waiting to simply die. All they have to look forward to is death, really.

Dathan and Abiram, in particular, who were sons of Reuben, Jacob’s first born son, saw this as a political opportunity to take control of the people of Israel away from Aaron and Moses for themselves. They are taking advantage of the people’s great dissatisfaction with their current predicament.

They are fomenting rebellion and revolution. Then Korach comes along.

“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. 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?’” (Numbers 16:2–3 NASB)

Who is holy?

Korach is claiming that all the people of Israel are inherently holy because God’s tabernacle is in their midst. Do you see a problem with that? Is holiness a national trait or an individual characteristic? It’s an individual trait.

Moses was the most humble person on the earth. He was a leader but he did not exalt himself, Moses exalted God throughout his entire ministry, except for one time. Moses and Aaron do not take glory for themselves.

If Moses is the most humble person on the earth, Korach is the polar opposite, he is the most prideful and puffed up. Korach is telling the people how “great” and “holy” they are, buttering them up. Moses’ instinct every time his leadership was attacked was to go to God first.

Instead of looking at their own faults, how their own fears prevented them from entering the promised land, they blamed Moses and Aaron for their failure.

The people of Israel failed, not only on a collective basis but on an individual level as well. Only Caleb and Joshua were faithful enough and righteous enough from that generation to enter the Promised Land.

Putting the rebels to the test

Moses has a very interesting response to Korach’s provocation.

“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face; 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.’” (Numbers 16:4–5 NASB)

Moses says there are two groups God will sort out, and there are two tasks they will do.

  • Who are His own?
  • Who is holy?

The incense censers are part of the first task. Aaron used to have four sons. Two of them died when they offered “strange fire” on their incense censers before the LORD (Leviticus 10), which only Aaron was supposed to do. Remember that immediately after Aaron’s two sons died, God gave two corrections:

  • No alcohol
  • Only Aaron was allowed to offer incense inside the holiest section of the tabernacle.

All of Israel is fully aware of what happened to Aaron’s two sons, just six months before. They know the risk involved. They are dealing with life and death now. If they make a mistake, God will kill the one He doesn’t want. They were literally playing with fire.

God has told them multiple times what are His own, including the first born. They also know that the tribe of Levi was a substitute for the first born of Israel. They also know that of all the people of Levi, Aaron was the one that God designated as the holy one.

The test that Moses gave them to determine which tribe was the holy tribe was the test of Aaron’s budding staff, which we will read about in Numbers 17. Each tribe brought a staff. Aaron’s staff represented the tribe of Levi.

Moses also called out Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab of Reuben but they refused.

Korach and the 250 Levites were not after Moses’ job, they are after Aaron’s job. What did Aaron ever do to them? Nothing.

What makes an offering acceptable to God is what is in the heart of the person making the offering. The hearts of Korach and the 250 Levites may have been obeying the instruction but they weren’t there to worship Him, but to try to steal Aaron’s job.

Dathan and Abiram were the ones who were aiming for Moses’ job. They weren’t trying to be priests so the incense test was of no relevance to them. They don’t want to give honor to Moses by obeying his summons.

Dathan and Abiram don’t care about holiness, but power and leadership. They blamed Moses for the fact that they had failed to enter the Promised Land of “milk and honey” after bringing them out of Egypt.

How do you get leadership? You disrespect the current leader and get the people to agree with you.

None of the rebels died a natural death. The families of Dathan, Abiram and Korach were swallowed up supernaturally and buried alive while Korach himself and the 250 Levites with their incense were burned up, as Aaron’s two sons had been just six months earlier.

“’Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad. As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did present them before the LORD and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel.’ So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered, and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD; so that he will not become like Korah and his company — just as the LORD had spoken to him through Moses.” (Numbers 16:37–40 NASB)

Even though the motive of Korach and the 250 Levites was faulty, God considered the censers holy objects. What made the incense censers holy was the death of the 250 men who offered them. Their true offering was themselves, their own blood. Their deaths, by God’s fire, made those pans holy. This is a shadow of Messiah.

God can manipulate fire in strange ways. After all, remember God was able to set a bush on fire without consuming it.

The people are even more traumatized by all this death.

“But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’S people.”” (Numbers 16:41 NASB)

They didn’t want to believe their own eyes. They refused to accept the consequences of their actions. It was the Lord who killed the rebels, not Aaron and Moses. They would rather blame Aaron and Moses for their own failure. They are refusing to bow to God’s will and accept the consequences of their actions.

When the people of Israel believed the false report of the 10 spies, the consequence is that God judged them by making them wander in the wilderness for 40 years, based on the 40 days the spies were in the promised land.

If the people continue to follow Aaron and Moses, they will have to wander for 40 years but they don’t feel it is in their best interest to do that. They believe that it is in their best interest to find another leader, another priesthood, find someone else who won’t give them 40 years in the wilderness. They wanted to find another strong leader who will lead them where they wanted to go, which was back to Egypt.

They are in complete denial. Moses had already told them that anyone 20 years or older would die in the wilderness over the course of the next 40 years. Every head of household knew that they were not going to ever see the promised land. They want anything except the 40 years.

The people are actually accusing Aaron and Moses of being murderers. This angers God even more.

“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!’” (Numbers 16:46 NASB)

This must have been a fast acting plague. Moses tells Aaron to run towards the death, towards the destruction. Aaron stood between life and death to stop the plague, to stop the death.

“Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.” (Numbers 16:47–50 NASB)

Aaron didn’t carry blood with him, but incense. On the Day of Atonement, both blood and incense are offered for atonement.

How is God going to make sure that all of those 20 and older would die within 40 years in the wilderness? The average lifespan of people at this time is about 100-120 years.

Think about someone was 21 years old at this time. He should have a good 80-100 years ahead of him before old age takes him to the grave but God has decreed that all of them will die within the next 40 years, so he is looking at dying by the age of 60 or 61.

That is where the plagues, serpents, etc. come in. These are the tools God used to make sure the wandering only took 40 years rather than 80 years.

Those who are under 20 at this time will be 60 years old at the most when they enter the Promised Land, still young enough to enjoy it. God is being merciful to the children of the rebellious generation. He will give them a place in the Promised Land.

“Then the sons of Israel spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Behold, we perish, we are dying, we are all dying! Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, must die. Are we to perish completely?’” (Numbers 17:12–13 NASB)

Now, from this point on, the people know their roles, their place. The Levites, replaced the first born of all of Israel, in working for the Lord. All the first born, even those born after they left Egypt, were bought with the blood of the first born of Egypt.

This entire process is a shadow of Messiah. From the time they left Egypt to the time of Messiah, the first-born were redeemed in the way God taught them through Moses.

Korach didn’t really fear God. Korach was more concerned with what he wanted than what God wanted. He coveted a job that didn’t belong to him. Korach was telling God that He made a mistake. When we covet something, we are telling God that He made a mistake.

Banner Photo: Incense Burner from  Eastern Iran (11th-12th century AD). Photo by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (

Summary: Tammy.




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