Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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:XVI.
(1) Now Korah, the son of Izhar . . . —Some suppose that the copula before “Dathan and Abiram” should be omitted, and that the verse should be rendered thus: Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, took Dathan and Abiram, &c. The rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram is the only important event which is recorded in connection with the protracted wandering in the desert. The time and place of its occurrence cannot be positively determined. The circumstances out of which it appears to have arisen render it probable that it took place during one of the early years of the wanderings in the wilderness, either during the abode at Kadesh or subsequently to the departure from it. In favour of the supposition that the occurrence took place during the sojourn at Kadesh, it may be urged—(1) that the history of the Israelites between the first and the second encampments at Kadesh appears to be designedly regarded and treated as a blank; and (2) that during that interval they appear to have been dispersed over the face of the wilderness, whilst the narrative of the rebellion of Korah seems to assume the concentration of the people in one place. The whole of the narrative bears the clear impress of historical truth. The leaders of the rebellion, amongst whom Korah holds the most conspicuous place (comp. Numbers 16:1; Numbers 26:9; Jude 1:11), belonged to the tribes of Levi and Reuben. Korah, as the descendant of Izhar, the brother of Amram, who was the father (or. as some maintain, the more distant ancestor) of Moses and Aaron, may well be supposed to have been jealous of the peculiar prerogatives of the priestly family, and also of the leadership of Elizaphan, the son of Uzziel (Numbers 3:30), who appears to have been the youngest son of Kohath, whilst the name of Izhar stands next to that of Amram (Numbers 3:19). Dathan and Abiram, moreover, as the sons of Eliab, the son of Pallu, the son of Reuben (Numbers 26:5-9), who was the eldest son of Jacob, may, on like grounds, be supposed to have been discontented on account of the transference of the birthright, and the consequent loss of the leadership which had been possessed by their tribe, and which was now held by the tribe of Judah. It is possible that they may have regarded the priesthood also as amongst the prerogatives of the firstborn which should have descended to them. The proximity of the Kohathites to the Reubenites—for both were encamped on the south side of the Tabernacle—afforded opportunity for their common deliberations; and it has been inferred by some, from Numbers 16:24-27, that they had erected a tabernacle in rivalry with the Tabernacle of the Congregation. No further mention is made of the name of On, nor is he expressly included in the account of the final punishment.
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) And they rose up . . . —i.e., in rebellion.
Two hundred and fifty princes . . . —It has been inferred from Numbers 27:3, where it is stated that Zelophehad, the Manassite, did not take part in the rebellion, that these princes, or chief men of the congregation, belonged to the other tribes of Israel as well as that of Levi. They are called Korah’s company because he was their leader, and it is probable from Numbers 16:8 that a large number of them belonged to the tribe of Levi.
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 . . . —Or, enough for you (comp. Gen. 14:28), i.e., you have held the priesthood and the government long enough; or, Let it be enough for you to be numbered amongst the holy people without usurping dominion over them. It is evident from the whole tenour of the address that Korah laid claim to a universal priesthood on behalf of the people, designing probably to secure the chief place in that priesthood for himself.
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) And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company.—The words seem to have been addressed only to Korah and his company, not to Dathan and Abiram, who do not appear to have been present on this occasion. (See Numbers 16:12, where Moses is represented as sending for Dathan and Abiram.)
Even to-morrow.—Literally, In the morning. It may be that On and also the sons of Korah profited by this suspension of the judgment which was about to overtake those who persisted in their rebellion.
This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company;(6) Take you censers.—The offering of incense was the peculiar prerogative and the holiest function of the priesthood. The destruction of Nadab and Abihu ought to have served as a warning to Korah and his company not to provoke a similar exhibition of the Divine displeasure.
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) Ye take too much upon you . . . —Moses here adopts the language of Korah in Numbers 16:3. The meaning appears to be, as more fully explained in Numbers 16:9-10, that it ought to have sufficed Korah and the other Levites that they had been chosen from amongst their brethren to discharge the inferior offices of the sanctuary.
And he hath brought thee near to him, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also?(10) And seek ye the priesthood also?—The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan understand the reference to be to the high priesthood. As the other Levites who belonged to Korah’s company sought the priesthood, so Korah may have aimed at the high priesthood.
And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, We will not come up:(12) And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram . . . —If, as seems probable from Numbers 16:3, Dathan and Abiram had joined Korah and his company in the address to Moses which is contained in Numbers 16:3, they must have subsequently withdrawn themselves and retired to their own tents, from which they refused to go up at the bidding of Moses.
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) A land that floweth with milk and honey.—The description of the land of promise is here applied perversely and ironically to the land of 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) Moreover thou hast not brought us . . . —The words which the Lord had spoken to Moses (Exodus 3:8) concerning the deliverance from Egypt, and the bringing of the people into a land flowing with milk and honey, had been communicated by Aaron to the people (Exodus 4:30). Dathan and Abiram reproach Moses, as though he was responsible for their protracted sojourn in the wilderness.
Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?—Hebrew, those men. The same expression is employed in its literal signification in regard to Samson (Judges 16:21). It is probably used here in the same manner; or, it may be, to denote an alleged attempt on the part of Moses to blind the eyes of the people to the violation of promises solemnly made to them, and to impose upon them a law of blind obedience to his own arbitrary injunctions.
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) I have not taken one ass from them . . . —In answer to the accusation preferred against him in Numbers 16:13, Moses vindicates himself from the charge of oppression or extortion.
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.(17) Take every man his censer.—These censers may have been household vessels resembling censers, and available for the same purpose; or they may have been vessels which were used by the heads of houses, as priests, before the order of priesthood was restricted to the family of Aaron; or they may have been made by Korah and his company for their own use.
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) All the congregation.—It is evident from these words that there was a general disposition on the part of the people to favour the insurrection of Korah against Moses and Aaron.
Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.(21) Separate yourselves from among this congregation . . . —By their obedience to the summons of Korah the congregation generally, or at Yeast a large portion of it, had made themselves partakers in his sin, and had become obnoxious to the Divine wrath.
Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.(24) Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram—It is not easy to determine what is the meaning of the word mishkan (tabernacle) in this and in the 27th verse. The word, in the singular number, commonly denotes the tabernacle of the congregation—i.e., the boarded erection which was covered by the ohel, or tent. The word means simply a “dwelling-place,” and it may denote in this and in the 27th verse a rival tabernacle which had been erected by Korah and the other conspirators; or it may denote, in a collective sense, the tent of Korah, which may have been contumaciously pitched near that of the Reubenites, and also the tents of Dathan and Abiram, which were in proximity to those of the Kohathites, but further removed from the Tabernacle. The substitution of the word “tents” in Numbers 16:26, in which Moses delivers to the people the command contained in Numbers 16:24, seems to favour the latter of these explanations.
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) And Dathan and Abiram came out . . . —No mention is made of the position of Korah at this time, neither is any mention made of his sons, who, as we learn from Numbers 26:11, “died not” when the company of Korah died. His descendants are mentioned in 1Chronicles 6:22-38, and mention is made of “the sons of Korah” in the titles of eleven of the Psalms. Samuel the prophet and Heman the singer were of this family (1Chronicles 6:22; 1Chronicles 6:33).
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.(28) To do all these works.—i.e., to bring the people out of the land of Egypt, to exchange the first-born for the Levites, to consecrate Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, and generally to declare the will of the Lord to the people.
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) Make a new thing.—Literally, create a creation—i.e., do something hitherto unknown.
Into the pit.—Literally, into Sheol.
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.(32) And the earth opened her mouth . . . —Had this verse stood alone it might have been inferred that Korah and his family shared the fate of Dathan and Abiram and their families and households. in regard to the sons of Korah, however, there is direct evidence that they did not share in the punishment of Dathan and Abiram (see Note on Numbers 16:27): and in regard to Korah there is ground for the belief that he perished by fire with the 250 men who offered incense with him. It is true, indeed, that in Numbers 26:10 Korah is mentioned in conjunction with Dathan and Abiram (see Note in loc.); but in the other places in which reference is made to the conspiracy, the fate of the chief conspirators is separated. Thus, in Deuteronomy 11:6 we read only of what God did unto Dathan and Abiram and their households and tents; and in Psalm 106:17 we read that “The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the company of Abiram,” whilst in the following verse it is added that “The flame burned up the wicked.” If Korah’s tent remained in its appointed place amongst the Kohathites, it may reasonably be supposed that the chasm did not extend beyond the tents of Dathan and Abiram; or if Korah had pitched a tent for himself adjoining the tents of Dathan and Abiram, it may be inferred that those only of his household remained in it who shared in the conspiracy, and that his sons remained amongst the other Kohathites, or withdrew with the rest of the congregation at the command of Moses. It is most natural to suppose that Korah was at this time before the door of the Tabernacle, with the 250 men of his company who had presumed to offer incense, and that he shared their doom. Ibn Ezra observes that in the song of the Red Sea there is no mention made of the drowning of Pharaoh, but only of his chariots and hosts; whilst in Psalm 136:15 we read that Pharaoh and his host were overthrown in the Red Sea.
And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.(35) And there came out a fire from the Lord . . . —It was thus, as Bishop Wordsworth has observed, that “Korah and his company were punished by the same element as that by which they had sinned.”
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) Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron . . . —Aaron was shortly to be employed in an act of sacerdotal ministration and intercession, for which he would have become disqualified had he been ceremonially defiled by contact with things pertaining to the dead.
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) These sinners against their own souls.—i.e., men who have forfeited their lives by their sin.
Let them make them broad plates . . . —It was thus that the sacrilegious act of Korah and his company was made the occasion of a permanent warning against all similar profanation of holy things. The altar of burnt-offering had already a covering of brass; but, as the altar was made of wood, an additional covering afforded further security against the fire which was continually burning on it. The censers of Korah and his company were made of brass (Numbers 16:39). Those of Aaron and his sons are thought by some to have been made of silver, but there seems to be no sufficient authority for this supposition; and in Exodus 38:3, where the same Hebrew word is used, but which in the English version is rendered “firepans,” it is said that all the vessels of the altar were made of brass. In the time of Solomon the censers were made of gold (1Kings 7:50). That used by Aaron on the great day of atonement was of gold. (Comp. Hebrews 9:4; Revelation 8:3.)
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:(39) Wherewith they that were burnt had offered.—Or, which they who were burnt had brought nigh (i.e. unto the Lord).
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) To be a memorial unto the children of Israel.—The Apostle Jude warns Christians by the same example against the profanation of Divine ordinances (Numbers 16:11).
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) But on the morrow . . . —It is difficult to conceive of a more striking illustration of the depravity of the human heart than is afforded by this outbreak of the same spirit of rebellion which had been so signally punished on the preceding day.
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.(42) And, behold, the cloud covered it.—The cloud had probably been removed on the preceding day when the rebels were consumed, and was now again restored in order to encourage Moses and Aaron.
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) Take a censer.—Better, the censer. The reference appears to be to the golden censer of the high priest. Incense was an emblem of prayer, and a figure of the intercession and mediation of Christ. (See Psalm 141:2; Revelation 8:3-4.)
And go quickly.—Or, and carry it quickly.
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.(47) And ran into the midst of the congregation.—The whole occasion was an extraordinary one. On ordinary occasions incense might only be offered on the golden altar within the holy place in which the priests ministered.
And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed.(48) And he stood between the dead and the living . . . —Aaron was, in this respect, a striking type of Christ, who “hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour” (Ephesians 5:2).