Numbers 16
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Chapters 16–18

The rebellion of Dathan and Abiram. The self-assertion of Korah and his followers, and the status and rights of the Levites

In chs. Numbers 1:47-54; Numbers 1:3-4; Numbers 1:8 the separation of the Levites for divine service, and their duties, have been described. But their privileged position is now emphasized by two narratives—the self-assertion of Korah (ch. 16) and the blossoming of Aaron’s staff as representative of the tribe of Levi (ch. 17). And the rank and dues of priests and Levites respectively are detailed (ch. 18).

But ch. 16 contains a fusion of more than one narrative. Notice that while Dathan and Abiram with their followers were swallowed up in the earth (Numbers 16:31-34), Korah’s 250 princes were burnt with fire (Numbers 16:35). Again, after addressing Korah and his company (Numbers 16:5-11) Moses has still to send for Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:12). And lastly in Numbers 27:3 Korah alone is referred to, and in Deuteronomy 11:6, Psalm 106:17 Dathan and Abiram alone are mentioned as being swallowed up.

Thus the story of Dathan and Abiram was originally quite distinct from that of Korah; and, as characteristics of language and expression shew, the former is from J E and the latter from P . In combining them, the compiler has joined Korah’s name with those of Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16:1; Numbers 16:24; Numbers 16:27 a, and has added Numbers 16:32 b, but has done nothing else to fuse the two narratives. Ch. 16 should therefore be read as follows:

J E Numbers 16:1 (partly), Numbers 16:2 a, Numbers 16:12-15; Num 16:25-34.

P Numbers 16:1 (partly), Numbers 16:2 b – Numbers 16:11; Num 16:16-24; Num 16:35-50.

It will then be seen that the action of Dathan and Abiram was one of rebellion against Moses’ authority as leader and sheikh of the community. They refused to come when he sent for them (Numbers 16:12), and complained that he had made himself a prince over them (Numbers 16:13). Korah’s action, on the other hand, was an ecclesiastical offence; he maintained that the tribe of the Levites was not more sacred than all the other tribes of Israel; and of this ch. 17 is the sequel.

But a further difficulty here presents itself. There are certain verses inserted in the narrative which are written from quite a different point of view; they deal with the superiority of the priests to the Levites. These verses are 8–11, 16, 17, 36–40, and the genealogy of Korah from Levi in Numbers 16:1. Korah and his followers are here represented as Levites who wrongly claim the privileges of priests, while in the rest of the chapter they are laymen who wrongly claim the privileges of the Levites (see on Numbers 27:3). The verses must belong to a time when Levites had become inferior to the priests who were descended in a direct line from Aaron.

Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men:
Numbers 16:1. and Dathan and Abiram] These words are from the opening of the J E narrative, and the verb which belongs to them is ‘rose up’ in Numbers 16:2.

and On, the son of Peleth] The name On does not appear again in the narrative, or anywhere else in the O.T. In Numbers 26:8 f. Dathan and Abiram are called sons of Eliab the son of Pallu. If Peleth is a corruption of Pallu, ‘and On’ (ואון)1 [Note: Before the final ן came into use the letter נ would be easily written for ב, and the letters י and ו are frequently interchanged.] may have arisen from an accidental repetition of יאב, the last three consonants of Eliab; in which case the words should run the sons of Eliab the son of Pallu, sons of Reuben.

took men] In the Heb. the object of the verb is absent, and it is unlikely that ‘men’ is the right word to be supplied. Perhaps read ויקם for ויקח, ‘and Korah rose up,’ in which case the beginning of the Korah narrative corresponds to the beginning of the other narrative.

And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown:
2. called to the assembly] Selected from the congregation to meet in assembly. LXX. σύνκλητοι βουλῆς explains that they met to give counsel.

And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?
3. Ye take too much upon you] lit. Enough for you! ‘Your overweening claims have gone far enough!’

And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face:
And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even to morrow the LORD will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him.
5. the Lord will shew who are his] LXX. ἔγνω ὁ Θεὸς τοὺς ὄντας αὐτοῦ (‘God knoweth those who are his’) is quoted in 2 Timothy 2:19, with the substitution of Κύριος for Θεός.

and will cause him &c.] R.V. marg. is less probable.

This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company;
6. censers] fire-pans. So R.V. in Exodus 27:3. An instrument for carrying burning coals. These fire-pans were not the sacred utensils of the Tabernacle, which would never be taken out of the Tabernacle precincts, but the private property of the 250 men; see on Numbers 16:37.

6, 7. Korah and his followers are challenged to test their claim to equality with the Levites (represented by Moses and Aaron) by undergoing a species of ordeal, viz. to perform a sacred priestly function and see what will happen.

And put fire therein, and put incense in them before the LORD to morrow: and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.
7. Enough! ye sons of Levi] These words cannot be addressed to Korah’s company, since they are laymen who are objecting to the claims of the Levites. They must be addressed by Korah’s company to Moses and Aaron, and have fallen out of their right place, which was probably at the end of Numbers 16:3. Their defiance thus begins and ends with the same words, as in the case of Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:12; Numbers 16:14).

And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi:
8–11. In these verses Korah’s company, represented as Levites, claim the privileges of the priesthood (see prelim. note to the chapter).

Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from 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 unto them?
9. seemeth it but a small thing unto you] is it too small a thing for you. Korah’s company already possessed the great privilege of being separated from the other tribes for divine service; and with that they ought to be satisfied.

And he hath brought thee near to him, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also?
For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the LORD: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?
11. and Aaron, what is he &c.] i.e. What has he done to cause your murmuring? God, and not Aaron, is responsible for the superiority in which the priests stand to the Levites; cf. Exodus 16:8 b.

And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, We will not come up:
12. Moses sent to call] Some tribal dispute or difficulty had probably occurred which required the leader’s intervention; and when Moses sent for the persons concerned, they took the opportunity to start a rebellion against him, by refusing to answer the summons.

We will not come up] For ‘come up’ used of going to a superior or a judge cf. Genesis 46:31, Deuteronomy 25:7, Jdg 4:5.

12–15. The civil rebellion of Dathan and Abiram against Moses’ leadership.

Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?
13. out of a land flowing with milk and honey] The expression which Moses had applied to Canaan in persuading the people to escape from slavery (Exodus 3:17) is applied by the rebels ironically to Egypt.

Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.
14. wilt thou bore out the eyes of these men?] A strong figure which means, metaphorically, to blind them by false promises. Gray (Numb. p. 200) compares the English expression ‘to throw dust in the eyes.’

And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD, Respect not thou their offering: I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them.
15. their offering] This refers, apparently, ‘to the sacrifice which every Israelite might offer for his household and may be compared with Genesis 4:4 f.… The writer is not thinking of any special priesthood, but simply takes it for granted that Yahwè, whose favour was always sought by sacrifice, will not accept the offering of rebels against just authority’ (Addis).

And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow:
16–19. Korah and his company accept Moses’ challenge.

16, 17 are a repetition of Numbers 16:6-7, and were probably inserted together with Numbers 16:8-11; Numbers 16:36-40.

And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each of you his censer.
And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood in the door of the tabernacle of the congregation with Moses and Aaron.
And Korah gathered all the congregation against them unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the congregation.
19. Korah assembled all the congregation] He was upholding the claims of the whole of Israel against the Levites, so he brought them to witness the test.

against them] This perhaps implies that all Israel as a whole favoured Korah; and this would explain God’s words in Numbers 16:21.

And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
20–24. Jehovah threatens to destroy the whole congregation; but at Moses’ intercession He relents, and commands them to depart from the Tabernacle, leaving Korah and his company to be destroyed.

Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.
And they fell upon their faces, and said, O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?
22. the God of the spirits of all flesh] The God who made and sustains the life of every human being. In early days Jehovah was thought of as the particular deity of Israel alone. But by the time of the priestly writer the nation had long advanced to the deeper and truer conception of monotheism.

shall one man sin] i.e. Korah. The words very clearly imply that Dathan and Abiram do not belong to the narrative.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
24. the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram] This strange expression, which recurs in Numbers 16:27, has resulted from the combination of the narratives. The test is arranged at the door of the sacred Tent of Jehovah (Numbers 16:18-19), and all the congregation are assembled there. The word ‘tabernacle’ (mishkân) is never used of ordinary human dwellings1 [Note: Except in the plural in one poetical passage, Numbers 24:5.] . And the singular here would imply that Korah, Dathan, and Abiram all lived in the same tent, which is negatived by Numbers 16:26. The original reading must either have been simply ‘the tabernacle’ or more probably the tabernacle of Jehovah.

And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him.
25–34. The destruction of Dathan and Abiram.

And he spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins.
26. lest ye be swept away in all their sins] Perhaps an allusion to the form of death which awaited them. In Numbers 16:21 ‘consume’ represents a different Heb. word.

So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children.
27. the tabernacle of Korah &c.] Read the tabernacle of Jehovah. See on Numbers 16:24.

And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.
If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me.
But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.
30. into the pit] into Sheol, the place of departed human beings. It was thought of as lying beneath the earth, or deep within it.

We are probably to think of the catastrophe as taking place in the form of an earthquake; or possibly the tradition may have grown up as a popular explanation of some deep fissure or chasm in the rocks.

32b. and all the men … their goods] This half verse is the work of the compiler who combined the narratives. Korah’s company of adherents (‘the men that appertained unto K.’) were not swallowed up in the earth; they died afterwards by fire (Numbers 16:35).

And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them:
And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.
And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also.
And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.
35. The sin of Korah’s company was the same as that of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2), and their punishment was the same. ‘The gainsaying of Korah’ is referred to as a typical sin in Judges 11.

36–40 [Heb. 17:1–15]. The fire-pans were made into a covering of the altar, as a memorial of the incident. As Numbers 16:40 shews, this section is written from the later point of view found in Numbers 16:8-11; Numbers 16:16-17. The writer who inserted them took the test of the fire-pans as proving the superiority of priests to Levites, not of Levites to laymen. (In the Heb. Bible Numbers 16:36 forms the beginning of ch. 17)

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed.
37. out of the burning] From the heap of burnt corpses.

for they are holy] These words probably belong to the next verse (see n. there). The fire-pans had previously been the private property of the 250 princes (see on Numbers 16:6); but when they had once been employed for a sacred purpose, and had been in contact with sacred incense, they had acquired (according to a very wide-spread Semitic notion) a new quality of sacredness, which made it dangerous and wrong to use them in future for secular purposes. For this Semitic idea cf. Numbers 19:21; Ezekiel 44:19; Ezekiel 46:20; Leviticus 6:27; Haggai 2:12 f.; Isaiah 45:5; and see art. ‘Holiness’ in DB. ii.

The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before the LORD, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel.
38. (om. even) the fire-pans of these sinners at the cost of their lives] R.V. marg. is an explanation of the R.V. But the latter is grammatically doubtful. LXX. has ὅτι ἡγίασαν τὰ πυρεῖα κ.τ.λ. (‘because they made holy the fire-pans’ &c.). Perhaps we should read ‘for the fire-pans of these sinners have become holy at the cost &c.’ Some have seen an allusion to these words in Hebrews 12:3, ‘such contradiction of sinners against themselves’ (Westcott and Hort’s text).

for a covering of the altar] This must be the altar of burnt-offering, since the altar of incense was covered with gold, not with brass or bronze (Exodus 30:3; Exodus 37:26). But according to Exodus 27:2; Exodus 38:2, the altar of burnt-offering was already covered with bronze at its original manufacture at Sinai. The passage is another indication that the priestly writings are not all from one pen, but contain divergent traditions and date from different periods.

And Eleazar the priest took the brasen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar:
To be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the LORD; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the LORD said to him by the hand of Moses.
40. which is not of the seed of Aaron] i.e. a priest, and not a Levite as Korah was (see note before Numbers 16:37).

But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD.
41–50. The people murmured at the death of Korah’s company, and were punished by a plague, which ceased when Aaron made atonement with incense.

In contrast to the action of the princes, the offering of incense by a duly qualified person is accepted by Jehovah.

And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared.
And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces.
And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the LORD; the plague is begun.
46. make atonement for them] The offering of incense was an unusual way of making atonement; the shedding of blood was generally required. But since the sin had been the burning of incense, the means for its atonement was similar. Cf. the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:6-9). A converse application of the same principle is seen in the laws of retaliation—‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’

there is wrath gone out] lit. the wrath has gone out. The divine wrath is thought of almost as an emanation; it has, so to speak, an existence independent of Jehovah, as soon as it proceeds from Him. Cf. 2 Chronicles 19:2, where, however, ‘wrath’ is without the article.

And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people.
And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed.
Now they that died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside them that died about the matter of Korah.
49. them that died about the matter of Korah] i.e. the 250 princes. It should be noticed that the death of Korah himself is nowhere related in the chapter, Numbers 16:24; Numbers 16:27 a might seem to imply that Korah was about to be swallowed up in the earth with Dathan and Abiram; and this supposition is adopted by the writer of Numbers 26:10. But apart from the critical reasons for distinguishing the narratives, and for reading ‘the tabernacle of Jehovah’ in Numbers 16:24; Numbers 16:27, it would be very strange that Korah should have been separated from his adherents in their punishment. In the fusing of the two stories by the compiler, a statement of the personal fate of Korah fell out of the chapter.

And Aaron returned unto Moses unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the plague was stayed.
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