Today’s passage records the third great rebellion which took place in the wilderness. The first one — in chapter 12 — was when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses, because they believed they were equal to him and anything he could do, they could do as well. The second rebellion was the one we read about recently in chapters 13 and 14 when the people listened, not to the word of the Lord, but to the word of the spies who said the Promised Land was no good. And so, the people talked about choosing another leader to lead them back to Egypt.
And so, we come today to the third great rebellion when Korah and others stood against Moses their leader and Aaron their High Priest. But the Lord vindicated his chosen leaders; and he punished those who rebelled against them. Korah possessed what the writer to the Hebrews calls a sinful, unbelieving heart; and he stands for all those who refuse to submit to the Lord Jesus Christ who is our Great King and High Priest. And just as the Lord vindicated Moses and Aaron, so he vindicated the Lord Jesus by raising him from the dead and raising him to heaven.
Verses 1 to 3
Let’s turn to the passage. And we’re told in verses 1 and 2 that these men rose up against Moses. The first man named is Korah. We’re told that he’s a Levite and one of the Koha-thites. You’ll remember that the Levites were chosen by God to assist the priests in the Tabernacle. And the Kohathites were given responsibility for looking after and transporting the most holy things in the Tabernacle: things like the ark of the covenant and the table of presence and the lampstand; all the objects which were kept in the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle. It was a very important responsibility, but it seems it was not enough for Korah and he wanted to become a priest like Aaron.
Notice also that Korah was the son of Izhar. Izhar was the brother of Amram who was the father of Aaron and Moses. In other words, Moses and Aaron and Korah were cousins. So, this rebellion was partly a family dispute.
But Korah did not work alone. There were also three men from the tribe of Reuben: Dathan and Abiram and On. On is not mentioned again in this chapter, so we don’t know what happened to him, but we hear more about the other two. Reuben, of course, was Jacob’s firstborn son; and therefore the Reubenites could have expected that they would lead the other tribes of Israel. However, the leadership of the tribes was taken from Reuben because he had slept with Bilhah, one of his father’s concubines. It’s possible that the Reubenites resented this; and now Dathan and Abiram were only too willing to support Korah in his rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
We’re told in verse 2 that another 250 men joined them in their rebellion. And according to verse 3 they came to Moses and Aaron and said:
You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly.
Their argument is this: every Israelite is holy. And that’s true: being holy means being set apart; and of all the nations of the world, the Lord had chosen them and had set the Israelites apart to belong to him. So, every Israelite is holy. In that case, Korah argued, Moses and Aaron are wrong to set themselves up as leaders. Since, they’re all holy, then they’re all equal. So, who gave you the right to rule over the rest of us?
Of course, Moses and Aaron did not set themselves up as leaders; the Lord appointed them. While the Lord chose the Israelites and made them his holy people, he still had the right to choose whomever he wanted to lead the people. And so, he called Moses to lead the people; and he chose Aaron to be his High Priest. God who is sovereign can do as he pleases and he gives to one person one responsibility; and to another person another responsibility. And since we’re his servants, we should submit to his will for us. However, Korah and the others could not accept it.
Verses 4 to 11
In verse 4 we read how Moses fell face down whenever he heard this. It’s unlikely that he’s falling down in submission to Korah or in despair. It’s more likely he’s falling down before the Lord to seek his help.
He then proposed a test or a trial. The next day, Korah and his followers are to take censers — metal dishes — and put fire and incense in them to offer before the Lord. The Lord will then make clear whom he has chosen.
But Moses also issued a warning to Korah in verses 8 to 11. He reminded him of God’s kindness to the Levites in choosing them to serve in the Tabernacle. The Lord had been good to them, giving them this special responsibility. But instead of being satisfied with that, they wanted more: they wanted to be priests. And so, Moses warned Korah in verse 11 that he’s rebelling, not against Aaron — because who is Aaron after all? No, he’s rebelling against the Lord. And that’s a very serious thing, isn’t it? So, he warned Korah; but it becomes clear that Korah will not listen.
Verses 12 to 15
However, before we get to that, the focus of the passage switches to Dathan and Abiram. We read how Moses summoned them, but they refused to come and meet Moses. Instead they sent him a message in which they complained that Moses had brought them up out of a land flowing with milk and honey. They’re referring to Egypt, regarding it now as if it were the Promised Land. So, instead of longing to enter the real Promised Land, they longed to return to Egypt, the land of their slavery. Furthermore, Dathan and Abiram accused Moses of bringing them out of Egypt in order to kill them in the wilderness. So, they were saying that Moses was not a good leader, but an evil leader who wanted to destroy them. And instead of giving them an inheritance of fields and vineyards, it seemed to them that Moses has failed them. And right in the middle of their message is perhaps their biggest complaint: Moses wanted to lord it over them. Just as the Pharisees and others did not want the Lord Jesus to rule over them, so these men complained that they did not want Moses to rule over them.
In verse 15 Moses pleaded his innocence before the Lord: he had never taken anything from them or wronged them in any way. In other words, though the Lord had made them their leader, he has not abused his authority, but he served them faithfully and for their good.
Verses 16 to 34
In verse 16 Moses turned his attention back to Korah and referred again to the coming trial. And when the time of the trial arrived, we read in verse 19 that the glorycloud of the Lord appeared and the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the assembly. Moses and Aaron immediately interceded on behalf of the people; and they asked the Lord why should all of the people suffer because of Korah’s sin? And the Lord heard them and commanded that the people should move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.
And then, in verses 28 to 30 Moses announced how the Lord would make known that he had chosen Moses. If Korah, Dathan and Abiram died a normal death, then that will be a sign for the people that God has not sent Moses. However, if the Lord did something new so that the earth opened up and swallowed Korah, Dathan and Abiram, so that they went down alive into the grave, then that will be a sign for the people that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.
And look at verse 31 where it tells us that as soon as Moses finished speaking, the ground under them split apart and swallowed them with their households and possessions, so that they went down into the grave alive, together with everything they owned. And the ground closed over them and they perished. And the rest of the people were terrified; and fire came out from the Lord and destroyed the 250 men who sided with Korah.
And in this way, the Lord vindicated Moses and Aaron; and he destroyed those men who possessed a sinful, unbelieving heart and who turned from the Lord and who longed in their hearts to return to the land of slavery.
Verses 35 to 40
In the remaining verses we read how the Lord commanded Aaron’s son to collect the censers and to hammer them into sheets; then he was to overlay the altar with them. And so, they became a visible reminder for the people that no one but a descendant of Aaron should serve before the Lord in the Tabernacle. If any other person tried to take the place of the priest, they would become like Korah and his followers.
Well, Korah and his followers stand for all those in every generation who refuse to submit to the Lord Jesus Christ who is our Great King and High Priest. Indeed, they stand for all of us, because all of us possess a sinful, unbelieving heart until the Lord comes in his grace and mercy and gives us a new heart. Until the Lord comes into our lives, we are like Korah and his followers who complained about the Lord’s anointed leaders; and we are like the chief priests and elders and teachers of the people who complained about the Lord Jesus and who challenged his right to rule over them. And even after the Lord graciously comes and changes us and gives us a new heart to love and obey him, we are still prone to rebel against Christ the King. Instead of submitting to him in all things, we find ourselves saying ‘no’ to him; and resenting his authority to rule over us.
And so, lest we become like Korah and his followers, we must turn to the Lord every day and ask for his help to love him as we should and to obey him as we should. We should plead with him for the help of his Spirit to make us holy, so that we will become more and more willing and able to do his will here on earth, while we make our way to the true Promised Land of Eternal Life.
Furthermore, the judgment of Korah and his followers points forward to the future day of judgment, when Christ the King comes again to judge the living and the dead. And on that day, all who never repented and who never sought the Lord’s forgiveness, but who remained rebels all their lives will be punished by the Lord for their sin and unbelief. And so, this chapter is a warning to all to repent and believe in Christ the Saviour, because whoever repents and believes will be saved and not condemned when Christ comes again.
And this chapter reminds us why we should give thanks to God, because the judgment that fell on Korah and his followers ought to fall on us, because — like them — we are sinners who rebel against the Lord. Like them, we should be condemned. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ the Saviour bore the punishment we deserve. He died for sinners, and went down to the grave, so that all who believe in him will be forgiven by God. And so, we should give thanks to God for him.
Then, just as the Lord vindicated Moses and Aaron, so he vindicated the Lord Jesus. The chief priests, the teachers of the law, the elders, the crowds of people, Pilate and the Roman soldiers joined together to put the Lord Jesus to death. They did not believe in him and they did not want him to rule over them. And so, they killed him as a blasphemer. But by raising him from the dead, the Lord God Almighty vindicated him so that it became clear that everything he ever said was true and he truly is God’s Anointed King. Just as God vindicated Moses and Aaron, so he vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead.
And finally, in today’s passage we saw how Moses and Aaron interceded for the people so that they were not destroyed along with Korah and his followers. Moses and Aaron therefore point us to Christ who was exalted to heaven where he appears before the Father as our Great High Priest to intercede for us. Though we are guilty sinners who deserve to be condemned and punished, the Lord Jesus intercedes for us so that we are not destroyed, but pardoned by God. And so, we should give thanks to God for Christ our High Priest, who is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.