Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary
Rebellion of Korah's Company - Numbers 16:1-40(Numbers 17:1-5)
The sedition of Korah and his company, with the renewed sanction of the Aaronic priesthood on the part of God which it occasioned, is the only important occurrence recorded in connection with the thirty-seven years' wandering in the wilderness. The time and place are not recorded. The fact that the departure from Kadesh is not mentioned in Numbers 14, whilst, according to Deuteronomy 1:46, Israel remained there many days, is not sufficient to warrant the conclusion that it took place in Kadesh. The departure from Kadesh is not mentioned even after the rebellion of Korah; and yet we read, in Numbers 20:1, that the whole congregation came again into the desert of Zin to kadesh at the beginning of the fortieth year, and therefore must previously have gone away. All that can be laid down as probable is, that it occurred in one of the earliest of the thirty-seven years of punishment, though we have no firm ground even for this conjecture.
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:The authors of the rebellion were Korah the Levite, a descendant of the Kohathite Izhar, who was a brother of Amram, an ancestor (not the father) of Aaron and Moses (see at Exodus 6:18), and three Reubenites, viz., Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, of the Reubenitish family of Pallu (Numbers 26:8-9), and On, the son of Peleth, a Reubenite, not mentioned again. The last of these (On) is not referred to again in the further course of this event, either because he played altogether a subordinate part in the affair, or because he had drawn back before the conspiracy came to a head. The persons named took (יקּח), i.e., gained over to their plan, or persuaded to join them, 250 distinguished men of the other tribes, and rose up with them against Moses and Aaron. On the construction ויּקוּמוּ...ויּקּה (Numbers 16:1 and Numbers 16:2), Gesenius correctly observes in his Thesaurus (p. 760), "There is an anakolouthon rather than an ellipsis, and not merely a copyist's error, in these words, 'and Korah,...and Dathan and Abiram, took and rose up against Moses with 250 men,' for they took 250 men, and rose up with them against Moses," etc. He also points to the analogous construction in 2 Samuel 18:18. Consequently there is no necessity either to force a meaning upon לקח, which is altogether foreign to it, or to attempt an emendation of the text. "They rose up before Moses:" this does not mean, "they stood up in front of his tent," as Knobel explains it, for the purpose of bringing Numbers 16:2 into contradiction with Numbers 16:3, but they created an uproar before his eyes; and with this the expression in Numbers 16:3, "and they gathered themselves together against Moses and Aaron," may be very simply and easily combined. The 250 men of the children of Israel who joined the rebels no doubt belonged to the other tribes, as is indirectly implied in the statement in Numbers 27:3, that Zelophehad the Manassite was not in the company of Korah. These men were "princes of the congregation," i.e., heads of the tribes, or of large divisions of the tribes, "called men of the congregation," i.e., members of the council of the nation which administered the affairs of the congregation (cf. Numbers 1:16), "men of name" (שׁם אנשׁי, see Genesis 6:4). The leader was Korah; and the rebels are called in consequence "Korah's company" (Numbers 16:5, Numbers 16:6; Numbers 26:9; Numbers 27:3). He laid claim to the high-priesthood, or at least to an equality with Aaron (Numbers 16:17). Among his associates were the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, who, no doubt, were unable to get over the fact that the birthright had been taken away from their ancestor, and with it the headship of the house of Israel (i.e., of the whole nation). Apparently their present intention was to seize upon the government of the nation under a self-elected high priest, and to force Moses and Aaron out of the post assigned to them by God, - that is to say, to overthrow the constitution which God had given to His people.
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:
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?רב־לכם, "enough for you!" (רב, as in Genesis 45:28), they said to Moses and Aaron, i.e., "let the past suffice you" (Knobel); ye have held the priesthood and the government quite long enough. It must now come to an end; "for the whole congregation, all of them (i.e., all the members of the nation), are holy, and Jehovah is in the midst of them. Wherefore lift ye yourselves above the congregation of Jehovah?" The distinction between עדה and קהל is the following: עדה signifies conventus, the congregation according to its natural organization; קהל signifies convocatio, the congregation according to its divine calling and theocratic purpose. The use of the two words in the same verse upsets the theory that יהוה עדת belongs to the style of the original work, and יהוה קהל to that of the Jehovist. The rebels appeal to the calling of all Israel to be the holy nation of Jehovah (Exodus 19:5-6), and infer from this the equal right of all to hold the priesthood, "leaving entirely out of sight, as blind selfishness is accustomed to do, the transition of the universal priesthood into the special mediatorial office and priesthood of Moses and Aaron, which had their foundation in fact" (Baumgarten); or altogether overlooking the fact that God Himself had chosen Moses and Aaron, and appointed them as mediators between Himself and the congregation, to educate the sinful nation into a holy nation, and train it to the fulfilment of its proper vocation. The rebels, on the contrary, thought that they were holy already, because God had called them to be a holy nation, and in their carnal self-righteousness forgot the condition attached to their calling, "If ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant" (Exodus 19:5).
And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face:When Moses heard these words of the rebels, he fell upon his face, to complain of the matter to the Lord, as in Numbers 14:5. He then said to Korah and his company, "To-morrow Jehovah will show who is His and holy, and will let him come near to Him, and he whom He chooseth will draw near to Him." The meaning of לו אשׁר is evident from בּו יבחר אשׁר. He is Jehovah's, whom He chooses, so that He belongs to Him with his whole life. The reference is to the priestly rank, to which God had chosen Aaron and his sons out of the whole nation, and sanctified them by a special consecration (Exodus 28:1; Exodus 29:1; Leviticus 8:12, Leviticus 8:30), and by which they became the persons "standing near to Him" (Leviticus 10:3), and were qualified to appear before Him in the sanctuary, and present to Him the sacrifices of the nation.
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.
This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company;To leave the decision of this to the Lord, Korah and his company, who laid claim to this prerogative, were to take censers, and bring lighted incense before Jehovah. He whom the Lord should choose was to be the sanctified one. This was to satisfy them. With the expression רב־לכם in Numbers 16:7, Moses gives the rebels back their own words in Numbers 16:3. The divine decision was connected with the offering of incense, because this was the holiest function of the priestly service, which brought the priest into the immediate presence of God, and in connection with which Jehovah had already shown to the whole congregation how He sanctified Himself, by a penal judgment on those who took this office upon themselves without a divine call (Leviticus 10:1-3). Numbers 16:8. He then set before them the wickedness of their enterprise, to lead them to search themselves, and avert the judgment which threatened them. In doing this, he made a distinction between Korah the Levite, and Dathan and Abiram the Reubenites, according to the difference in the motives which prompted their rebellion, and the claims which they asserted. He first of all (Numbers 16:8-11) reminded Korah the Levite of the way in which God had distinguished his tribe, by separating the Levites from the rest of the congregation, to attend to the service of the sanctuary (Numbers 3:5., Numbers 8:6.), and asked him, "Is this too little for you? The God of Israel (this epithet is used emphatically for Jehovah) has brought thee near to Himself, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee, and ye strive after the priesthood also. Therefore...thou and thy company, who have leagued themselves against Jehovah:...and Aaron, what is he, that he murmur against him?" These last words, as an expression of wrath, are elliptical, or rather an aposiopesis, and are to be filled up in the following manner: "Therefore,...as Jehovah has distinguished you in this manner,...what do ye want? Ye rebel against Jehovah! why do ye murmur against Aaron? He has not seized upon the priesthood of his own accord, but Jehovah has called him to it, and he is only a feeble servant of God" (cf. Exodus 16:7). Moses then (Numbers 16:12-14) sent for Dathan and Abiram, who, as is tacitly assumed, had gone back to their tents during the warning given to Korah. But they replied, "We shall not come up." עלה, to go up, is used either with reference to the tabernacle, as being in a spiritual sense the culminating point of the entire camp, or with reference to appearance before Moses, the head and ruler of the nation. "Is it too little that thou hast brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey (they apply this expression in bitter irony to Egypt), to kill us in the wilderness (deliver us up to death), that thou wilt be always playing the lord over us?" The idea of continuance, which is implied in the inf. abs., השׂתּרר, from שׂרר, to exalt one's self as ruler (Ges. 131, 36), is here still further intensified by גּם. "Moreover, thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us fields and vineyards for an inheritance (i.e., thou hast not kept thy promise, Exodus 4:30 compared with Numbers 3:7.). Wilt thou put out the eyes of these people?" i.e., wilt thou blind them as to thy doings and designs?
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.
And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi:
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?
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?
And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, We will not come up:
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?
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.
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.Moses was so disturbed by these scornful reproaches, that he entreated the Lord, with an assertion of his own unselfishness, not to have respect to their gift, i.e., not to accept the sacrifice which they should bring (cf. Genesis 4:4). "I have not taken one ass from them, nor done harm to one of them," i.e., I have not treated them as a ruler, who demands tribute of his subjects, and oppresses them (cf. 1 Samuel 12:3).
And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow:In conclusion, he summoned Korah and his associates once more, to present themselves the following day before Jehovah with censers and incense.
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.The next day the rebels presented themselves with censers before the tabernacle, along with Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation also assembled there at the instigation of Korah. The Lord then interposed in judgment. Appearing in His glory to the whole congregation (just as in Numbers 14:10), He said to Moses and Aaron, "Separate yourselves from this congregation; I will destroy them in a moment." By assembling in front of the tabernacle, the whole congregation had made common cause with the rebels. God threatened them, therefore, with sudden destruction. But the two men of God, who ere so despised by the rebellious faction, fell on their faces, interceding with God, and praying, "God, Thou God of the spirits of all flesh! this one man (i.e., Korah, the author of the conspiracy) hath sinned, and wilt Thou be wrathful with all the congregation?" i.e., let Thine anger fall upon the whole congregation. The Creator and Preserver of all beings, who has given and still gives life and breath to all flesh, is God of the spirits of all flesh. As the author of the spirit of life in all perishable flesh, God cannot destroy His own creatures in wrath; this would be opposed to His own paternal love and mercy. In this epithet, as applied to God, therefore, Moses appeals "to the universal blessing of creation. It is of little consequence whether these words are to be understood as relating to all the animal kingdom, or to the human race alone; because Moses simply prayed, that as God was the creator and architect of the world, He would not destroy the men whom He had created, but rather have mercy upon the works of His own hands" (Calvin). The intercession of the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 64:8, is similar to this, though that is founded upon the special relation in which God stood to Israel.
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.
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
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?
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,Jehovah then instructed Moses, that the congregation was to remove away (עלה, to get up and away) from about the dwelling-place of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and, as we may supply from the context, the congregation fell back from Korah's tent, whilst Dathan and Abiram, possibly at the very first appearance of the divine glory, drew back into their tents. Moses therefore betook himself to the tents of Dathan and Abiram, with the elders following him, and there also commanded the congregation to depart from the tents of these wicked men, and not touch anything they possessed, that they might not be swept away in all their sins.
Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him.
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.
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.The congregation obeyed; but Dathan and Abiram came and placed themselves in front of the tents, along with their wives and children, to see what Moses would do. Moses then announced the sentence: "By this shall he know that Jehovah hath sent me to do all these works, that not out of my own heart (i.e., that I do not act of my own accord). If these men die like all men (i.e., if these wicked men die a natural death like other men), and the oversight of all men take place over them (i.e., if the same providence watches over them as over all other men, and preserves them from sudden death), Jehovah hath not sent me. But if Jehovah create a creation (בריאה בּרא, i.e., work an extraordinary miracle), and the earth open its mouth and swallow them up, with all that belongs to them, so that they go down alive into hell, ye shall perceive that these men have despised Jehovah."
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.
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 immediately the earth clave asunder, and swallowed them up, with their families and all their possessions, and closed above them, so that they perished without a trace from the congregation. אתם refers to the three ringleaders. "Their houses;" i.e., their families, not their tents, as in Numbers 18:31; Exodus 12:3. "All the men belonging to Korah" were his servants; for, according to Numbers 26:11, his sons did not perish with him, but perpetuated his family (Numbers 26:58), to which the celebrated Korahite singers of David's time belonged (1 Chronicles 6:18-22; 1 Chronicles 9:19).
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.This fearful destruction of the ringleaders, through which Jehovah glorified Moses afresh as His servant in a miraculous way, filled all the Israelites round about with such terror, that they fled לקלם, "at their noise," i.e., at the commotion with which the wicked men went down into the abyss which opened beneath their feet, lest, as they said, the earth should swallow them up also.
And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.The other 250 rebels, who were probably still in front of the tabernacle, were then destroyed by fire which proceeded from Jehovah, as Nadab and Abihu had been before (Leviticus 10:2).
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,(Or Numbers 17:1-5). After the destruction of the sinners, the Lord commanded that Eleazar should take up the censers "from between the burning," i.e., from the midst of the men that had been burned, and scatter the fire (the burning coals in the pans) far away, that it might not be used any more. "For they (the censers) are holy;" that is to say, they had become holy through being brought before Jehovah (Numbers 16:39); and therefore, when the men who brought them were slain, they fell as banned articles to the Lord (Leviticus 27:28). "The censers of these sinners against their souls" (i.e., the men who have forfeited their lives through their sin: cf. Proverbs 20:2; Habakkuk 2:10), "let them make into broad plates for a covering to the altar" (of burnt-offering). Through this application of them they became a sign, or, according to Numbers 16:39, a memorial to all who drew near to the sanctuary, which was to remind them continually of this judgment of God, and warn the congregation of grasping at the priestly prerogatives. The words, יהיה ולא, in Numbers 16:40, introduce the predicate in the form of an apodosis to the subject, which is written absolutely, and consists of an entire sentence. היה with כּ signifies, "to experience the same fate as" another.
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.
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.
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.
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.Punishment of the Murmuring Congregation. - The judgment upon the company of Korah had filled the people round about with terror and dismay, but it had produced no change of heart in the congregation that had risen up against its leaders. The next morning the whole congregation began to murmur against Moses and Aaron, and to charge them with having slain the people of Jehovah. They referred to Korah and his company, but especially to the 250 chiefs of renown, whom they regarded as the kernel of the nation, and called "the people of Jehovah." They would have made Moses and Aaron responsible for their death, because in their opinion it was they who had brought the judgment upon their leaders; whereas it was through the intercession of Moses (Numbers 16:22) that the whole congregation was saved from the destruction which threatened it. To such an extent does the folly of the proud heart of man proceed, and the obduracy of a race already exposed to the judgment of God.
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.When the congregation assembled together, Moses and Aaron turned to the tabernacle, and saw how the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. As the cloud rested continually above the tabernacle during the time of encampment (Numbers 9:18.; Exodus 40:38), we must suppose that at this time the cloud covered it in a fuller and much more conspicuous sense, just as it had done when the tabernacle was first erected (Numbers 9:15; Exodus 40:34), and that at the same time the glory of God burst forth from the dark cloud in a miraculous splendour.
And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation.Thereupon they both went into the court of (פּני אל, as in Leviticus 9:5) the tabernacle, and God commanded them to rise up (הרמּוּ, Niphal of רמם equals רוּם; see Ges. 65, Anm. 5) out of this congregation, which He would immediately destroy. But they fell upon their faces in prayer, as in Numbers 16:21-22. This time, however, they could not avert the bursting forth of the wrathful judgment, as they had done the day before (Numbers 16:22). The plague had already commenced, when Moses told Aaron to take the censer quickly into the midst of the congregation, with coals and incense (הולך, imper. Hiph.), to make expiation for it with an incense-offering. And when this was done, and Aaron placed himself between the dead and the living, the plague, which had already destroyed 14,700 men, was stayed. The plague consisted apparently of a sudden death, as in the case of a pestilence raging with extreme violence, though we cannot regard it as an actual pestilence.
The means resorted to by Moses to stay the plague showed afresh how the faithful servant of God bore the rescue of his people upon his heart. All the motives which he had hitherto pleaded, in his repeated intercession that this evil congregation might be spared, were now exhausted. He could not stake his life for the nation, as at Horeb (Exodus 32:32), for the nation had rejected him. He could no longer appeal to the honour of Jehovah among the heathen, seeing that the Lord, even when sentencing the rebellious race to fall in the desert, had assured him that the whole earth should be filled with His glory (Numbers 14:20.). Still less could he pray to God that He would not be wrathful with all for the sake of one or a few sinners, as in Numbers 16:22, seeing that the whole congregation had taken part with the rebels. In this condition of things there was but one way left of averting the threatened destruction of the whole nation, namely, to adopt the means which the Lord Himself had given to His congregation, in the high-priestly office, to wipe away their sins, and recover the divine grace which they had forfeited through sin, - viz., the offering of incense which embodied the high-priestly prayer, and the strength and operation of which were not dependent upon the sincerity and earnestness of subjective faith, but had a firm and immovable foundation in the objective force of the divine appointment. This was the means adopted by the faithful servant of the Lord, and the judgment of wrath was averted in its course; the plague was averted. - The effectual operation of the incense-offering of the high priest also served to furnish the people with a practical proof of the power and operation of the true and divinely appointed priesthood. "The priesthood which the company of Korah had so wickedly usurped, had brought down death and destruction upon himself, through his offering of incense; but the divinely appointed priesthood of Aaron averted death and destruction from the whole congregation when incense was offered by him, and stayed the well-merited judgment, which had broken forth upon it" (Kurtz).
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.
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.
And Aaron returned unto Moses unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the plague was stayed.