The book of Numbers is often the least considered and least quoted of the many books of Scripture. Its title and its opening chapters, speaking of censuses and genealogies, give it an appearance of boredom; after all, who wants to read name after name along with all the tribal populations and positional order they needed to respect in their desert marches? And who would want to scrutinize all the measurements and details of the Tabernacle? Yet, this first impression is quickly dispelled once we enter the book and discover that Numbers is truly a blessing in disguise, a timeless and inspired document. It is the story of a people who have been redeemed and who are now on their way to a promised land, to a place of rest. Throughout this long journey, God was with them, through His unfailing provision and protection. Despite their unfaithfulness, His love never diminished. What is touching in this book is that we find Him suffering with His people; we see Him reaching out to them through all possible means. Sadly, despite all this effort, instead of getting closer to Him, the people slowly got so used to His daily miracles, they got so used to Him, they began to forget Him.

This is when the story becomes familiar. The Israelites’ long journey is at times so much like our own. While the book of Exodus gives the law and Leviticus teaches Israel concerning the fear of the Lord, Numbers is a training manual in how they were to apply the doctrines to their lives. Overall, the book of Numbers turns out to be a most practical and contemporary book of the Torah, emphasizing our journey of sanctification.

 

Rebellion

In the heart of the book of Numbers, there are two chapters that describe some of the most severe rebellious acts the children of Israel took against their God. These events are found in Numbers 16 and 17. The text reveals two things: That the heart of man, in the words of Jeremiah, is desperately wicked; Who can know it? (Jer. 17:8). But praise God, He knows it, and, armed with a divine patience, He averts another flood, another Sodom and Gomorrah, and saves the nation, one more time. These themes—the true condition of man’s heart and God’s tremendous patience—are covered in these two chapters, and at the end, they bring the believer to a greater appreciation of the gift of salvation.

Three times in these chapters, out of desperation and in deep prayer of intercession, Moses falls on his face (Num. 16:4, 22, 45b). Each time, he succeeds to avert divine judgment; yet in the end, he cannot stop it completely. Twice God asks Moses to move away because He is about to wipe out all the congregation (Num. 16:21, 45). However, like a great mediator, Moses stands his ground and prays.

The Israelites understood their leader could not avert the judgment for long. They saw that there would be consequences to their actions. In the conclusion of this account, they say, Surely we die, we perish, we all perish! Whoever even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD must die. Shall we all utterly die? (Num. 17:12b-13). Who was going to save them? Who can change the heart of man? Moses could not. He was at the end of his resources as a mediator. Still, the answer to the question “Shall we all utterly die?” is no! The Israelites would not die, nor shall we, for our God is too wonderful, too loving to allow such a thing!

Salvation itself is not far from this section. Yeshua is not far. It is all building up to a meeting with Him in chapter 21, the mighty chapter with the section on the bronze serpent. However, the ground has not been completely laid yet; these coming chapters bring out the unique biblical concept of salvation by faith only, and nothing added.

There is a practical aspect to be found in Numbers 16 and 17 as well, one that pertains to all believers. We see how sin, pride, and error can invade even a bright mind and make it believe some irrational things. In the account, Korah the Levite came to the faulty conclusion that everything changed. He thought the law had changed, he saw a new era of progress taking over, and he believed that Moses had become nothing but an opportunist. Worst of all, however, Korah assumed that God was on his side. Looking back, his faulty understanding of God’s Word is laughable and utterly sad—and so familiar as well.

And how could Dathan and Abiram believe Korah and follow him to their death? On this part, Numbers is very contemporary, for there are many today who likewise improvise. Priests, teachers, and theologians form their own groups or congregations. This is what Jude 1:11 calls the rebellion of Korah. Believers today need to recognize the rebellion around them, and in themselves as well, for they are not immune to this sin if they are not in the Word.

 

Let us see now how the Spirit inspired Moses to bring these deep truths to us today. Let us read the first three verses of Numbers 16:

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; 2 and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. 3 They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”

The original Hebrew text begins differently, and in so doing, it immediately reveals the main problem of the section. It starts with the word took. Took Korah, the son of Izahr . . . The logical question is: What did Korah take? One Jewish translation, the Schocken Bible,[1] is more to the point and says, Now there betook himself Korah. To “betake” is to cause oneself to go. It has to do with the self, the “I.”

Korah “betook” himself a lot of things: He took upon himself to challenge Moses and thus God’s established authority. He took upon himself pride and arrogance; and he was sure of himself, haughty, high and mighty, like a cult leader.

In the Hebrew, the word for “took” is leqah. It has more than one meaning and is therefore at times also translated as “to acquire by force” and “to teach.” In several passages, such as Job 11:4, it means “doctrine.” This last connotation, doctrine, is fitting for Korah and brings the problem to the forefront: Korah was teaching a foreign doctrine in the midst of Israel. This is why the Targum Neofiti translates the verse as “and they took counsel and divided.”[2] That is the root of this rebellion. New instructions and precepts which went against the Word of God were being spread, and this is one thing which practically every letter of the New Testament warns us against, for it is destructive.

The first word of this chapter sets the mood. There is a proud man who wants to change things for his own glory, and so he divides. Sin is often the result of a long road of preparation. Verse 1 tells us that Korah came from the tribe of Levi, while Dathan, Abiram, and On came from the tribe of Reuben. These were neighboring tribes, and it seems they were dissatisfied neighbors. For those of the tribe of Reuben, it is easy to speculate what may have caused the frustration. Perhaps these men could not come to grips with the fact that they had lost their first place; after all, Reuben was the eldest. Hence, these men should have been right at the entrance of the Tabernacle, right were Judah was. Is this what we are seeing here, an unresolved wound in the heart of some men? As for the sons of Korah, they should have been priests and not merely Levites. According to the genealogical records, Korah was the first cousin of Moses and Aaron. Why, then, is he only a Levite and not a priest? Furthermore, Moses appointed Elizaphan the son of Uzziel, another first cousin, as head of the Kohathites. This must have displeased Korah. Why didn’t Moses choose him?

Korah and the others could find all kinds of reasons to rebel, and it seems that for years, Korah allowed these resentments to fester in him. Anyone can find a multitude of reasons to feel victimized. Unresolved wounds lead to resentment, which diminishes and devours the self. It is negative, and at the end, it will convince you that you have been robbed of what is yours. Therefore, it is vital to pour ourselves out to God every single day, so that these feelings do not take over our minds and dampen our faith.

According to Numbers 16, the problem must have been in the making for a while. Korah and the others had the time to convince 250 men to join their ranks. Verse 2 calls them men of renown, literally men with a name, important ones. I don’t know if this is ironic or if Korah really succeeded in gathering important figures.

Verse 3 reveals an example of false theology and what I believe is Korah’s delusion. It says: for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Moses responds in verse 5, saying: The Lord will show who is His, and who is holy. In verse 7, he adds, the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the one who is holy. How did Korah come to conclude that the whole congregation of Israel is holy? What made him think that suddenly the people were godly and that peace and harmony had arrived? Many people believe this today, and many theological systems teach it: We are now holy, and we are going to change this world. That is Korah’s delusion.

We do not have to look far for an answer to these questions. Part of the answer may be found in chapter 15, which ends with the commandments of the tzitzit. There, God said that these tassels were to be worn in order that the people may remember and keep all of His commandments and be holy for Him (Num. 15:40). There is a possibility that Korah and his men assumed that because all of Israel wore the tzitzit, they were all holy.

Don’t we have this tendency to associate holiness with garments and objects—these things the prophets denounced over and over, for true faith is found in the heart and nowhere else? The Targum of Jonathan[3] brings out this truth in a very comical way. It says that when Korah and all the 250 men came to argue against Moses, they wore a tallit, or a mantle, entirely purple. This was the color which covered the Ark of the Covenant, the color of holiness. If the Targumic rendering is correct, it seems Korah and his men were saying, “See how thoroughly holy we are?” The Targum goes on to explain that all these men did was to argue against Moses about the color of the fringes.

Korah’s belief must have been in the making for a long time. Perhaps he remembered what God had said to the Israelites in Exodus 19:6: And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Over thirty times between Exodus and Deuteronomy, God repeated His commandment that Israel be holy. Now that the tassels were given as a pledge of holiness, Korah might have thought that a new era had begun and that all the congregation was holy. His faulty understanding of Scripture led him to make another mistake: He believed that he could bypass God’s established order. Moses recognized that this group of men had reached a high level of rebellion. He also recognized the potential danger Israel was in because of this development. But instead of arguing with Korah, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4). This is an expression of despair and of prayer.

What comes next is very captivating. Between verses 4 and 5, there seems to have been a conversation between Moses and God and a test was given to this group of men. It was a grace-filled test, one that purposed to bring Korah and the others to their senses. The verses read:

5 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 cause him to come near to Him. That one whom He chooses He will cause to come near to Him. 6 “Do this: Take censers, Korah and all your company; 7 “put fire in them and put incense in them before the LORD tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the LORD chooses is the holy one.”

The first words to Korah are tomorrow morning. Why does God not deal with Korah right away? The issues were pressing, the whole congregation was there observing. Why wait? This is where we see God’s patience. Even after the obvious, He still gives a chance. Patience is a divine quality. Korah and the others received some time to repent.

What would happen tomorrow concerning Korah and his company? God would reveal who He is and who is holy in His eyes. As it was with Haman, Korah mistakenly assumed it would be him. He would be the one the Lord declared holy. Sin and pride clouded his understanding.

Furthermore, God would give a test, one that uses what in modern terms is called reverse psychology. By definition, reverse psychology describes the attempt to motivate individuals to action by telling them to do the opposite of what is actually desired. We see this technic used in the Scriptures. In Judges 10, when the people of Israel were deeply involved in idolatry, God told them: I will deliver you no more . . . Go and cry unto the gods which you have chosen. Let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation (Judg. 10:13-14). God challenged the Israelites to be consistent in what they believed and ask their idols for help.

With Korah and his followers, He said, “You claim to be priests. So, act as one. Take a censer and put fire on it.”

Korah and his men should have known that this was a dangerous proposition. Only the priests were allowed to put fire on a censer. As previously mentioned, Korah was just a Levite, not a priest. He should have remembered that those who offered improper fire to the Lord died by the fire of the Lord. Two of Aaron’s sons did just that, and they recently were reminded of this event in Numbers 3:4: But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered strange fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai. What happened to Aaron’s sons would happen to Korah and the others.

It seems that one of them understood and ran away. In verse 1, On the son of Peleth was mentioned. In the subsequent verses, we do not hear of him anymore. It seems that he left the group of insurgents. The rabbis have a nice story concerning him in the Midrash Rabbah, an ancient commentary on the Torah. It indicates that On was saved through the device of his wife:

What did she do? She gave him wine to drink and made him drunk, and put him to bed. Then she sat down at the entrance, along with her daughter, and dishevelled her hair, so that any one who came for On her husband on seeing her turned back.[4]

The rabbis gave credit to On’s wife, who, like Zeresh and Abigail, gave good advice to their husbands and took matters into their own hands. We do not know if this Midrash (commentary on On) is true, but the fact is, the Bible does not mention On anymore, and it is surely because he understood. Perhaps the test was for his salvation.

And what about Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the other men? They were convinced they were right. The second part of verse 7, You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi, really belongs to the next verse. It seems that Moses uttered these words after he saw that the men were not moved at all by this test, and that they were about to take it. It is then that Moses tries to reason with them. In verses 9-10, he addresses the leader, Korah:

9 “Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; 10 “and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?

Moses tried to reason with Korah by reminding him of all the blessings of God in his life. He bade him to count his blessings instead of counting things he might have had. After all, Korah had the great privilege to serve in the very Tabernacle of God, something the greater majority of Israel did not have. But he wanted the priesthood; he wanted more. This is typical of pride and echoes the fall of Satan.

Verse 12 tells us how Dathan and Abiram responded to Moses: And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up! These words were spoken in defiance of Moses’ authority, and the men repeated them in verse 14. Dathan and Abiram “played smart,” using Moses’ words to Israel: go up to the land of milk and honey. They used the same expression as if to say, “Who do you think you are, Moses, that we should go up to you?”

They should have realized that God elected Moses as leader and that they were, in fact, going against God when they said, Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you should keep acting like a prince over us? (Num. 16:13). This sounds similar to the attack of Joseph’s brothers, who said to him, Shall you indeed reign over us? (Gen.37:8). Incidentally, Dathan and Abriam’s forefather, Reuben, was then leading the brothers. More importantly, the Jewish Messiah would one day be rejected with the same words: But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We will not have this man to reign over us.” (Lk. 19:14). Both Joseph and Moses were a type of the Messiah. What happened to them would also happen to the Messiah. Korah did not know he was prophesying against his will and against himself.

What we see happening in Israel here in Numbers 16 is something that is often repeated in the church when one or more people begin to challenge the set authorities. To those, the words of Paul that sum up what happened under Korah should be a warning: For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves (Rom. 13:1-2). This is the story of Korah and of all those who believe they are sent to challenge everyone and every teaching. The Spirit went out of His way to mention the names of many so that we may know them and be warned by their examples. In III John 9, we have Diotrephes, of whom it is said that he loved to have the preeminence among them and refused to have John come to his congregation. Another example is Alexander the coppersmith in II Timothy 4:14 who worked against Paul, like Korah against Moses. These men are a type of the antichrist, of whom it is said that he will oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God (II Thess. 2:4). Samuel was right when he said that For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (I Sam. 15:23), for it accomplishes the devil’s schemes. It destroys and divides.

Moses saw that no argument would change these people whose conscience was seared with a hot iron (I Tim.4:2). Then Moses was very angry, and said to the LORD, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them.” (Num. 16:15). Like David later, in the Psalms, Moses was angry on behalf of God. He was hurt for his God, and he asked that the Lord would not respect their offering. The Schocken Bible has an interesting rendering: Do not turn your face toward their grain-gift. This is more to the point, for the word “offering” here is minha, which in the book of Numbers is almost always translated as grain offering. The minha was offered to confirm a fellowship, a communion with God, and here Moses, seeing the heart of these people, asked God not to come close to them, as if he wanted to protect Him. Of course, God needs no protection, but we see the deep love Moses had for God.

Even in his anger, Moses was still very gentle. Notice that in verse 17 he told Korah and his men to each take his censer and put incense in it. He did not tell them to put fire in the censers, for he knew that this would seal their fate. Nevertheless, in verse 18, every man took his censer, put fire in it.

What follows is a difficult section, but at the same time it is a text filled with grace; here we are going to see the need of a savior, a divine one, like our Lord and Savior Yeshua. As Korah and the others defiantly put fire in their censers, they brought a judgment on the whole nation. God told Moses and Aaron, Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment (Num. 16:21). However, Moses and Aaron stayed on the same spot and prayed. They refused to separate themselves, and I am sure this pleased God, for their action was in the spirit of love and of dedication. It was a messiah-like action.

Their argumentation is seen in the next verse: O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with all the congregation? (Num. 16:22). The only other time the expression “the God of the spirits of all flesh” is used is in Numbers 27:16. One could paraphrase the term this way: “God, you know all people. You knew everyone even before the creation of this universe. Are you going to wipe out the whole people of Israel because a few rebelled against you?” This is the same argument Abraham brought to God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or more precisely on behalf of one man, his nephew Lot (Gen. 18:23). The question, then, is whether the fate of a whole people can be in the hands of just a few. Of course, the answer is no, and God agreed to punish only those who overtly sinned.

It is at this point that Moses went to the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and asked the people to separate themselves from such rebels:

23 So the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’” 25 Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.” (Num. 16:23-26)

The word tents in the Hebrew is singular. It is one tent, one dwelling, one teaching, one rebellion for all of them. Notice how Moses asks the rest of Israel to stay away from them: Get away from their tents. Depart now from the tents of these wicked men. Touch nothing of theirs. Korah was mistaken. Holiness is not contagious, but evil is. It will incite the worst in man, and so the Israelites were told, over and over again, to move away from it, to be sanctified, for this is the beginning of holiness.

The same advice is given in the New Testament: If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him (II John 10). The Apostle John does not speak about unbelievers here, but about those who come very close to God and refuse to submit to Him and are now trying to drag others with them.

As we have gotten to know Korah and his band and have seen how they proceeded to convince themselves and others to rebel, Moses’ advice to each one of us is this: Keep away from what is evil, what is rebellious, from what causes murmuring and defiles. In his great letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains how we can accomplish this:

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Eph. 4:8-9)

 

This article was first published in Ariel Magazine Fall 2017, Vol. 1, Number 24. It is republished on this website with permission from the publisher and copyr

[1] Schocken Bible: The Five Books of Moses (Everett Fox, 1995), Num. 16:1.

[2] Martin McNamara, et al., trans., The Aramaic Bible, Vol. 4, Targum Neofiti 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), Num. 16:1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Numbers Rabbah 18:20, Davka Corp, 1991-1997.

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