Commentary on Numbers 16

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Now Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, who were Reubenites, took men 2 and rebelled against Moses, along with some of the Israelites, 250 leaders of the community, chosen from the assembly, famous men.

This rebellion could have taken place at any time during the wandering in the wilderness. Korah is a first cousin of Moses and Aaron (Ex 6:16-28). As a Kohathite he had the responsibility to transport the sacred furnishings of the tabernacle (Num 4:1-20). On son of Peleth is not mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 106:16-18 mentions Dathan and Abiram but not On). The 250 leaders of the community are from all Israel, not just the tribes of Levi and Reuben. Verses 17 and 35 seem to attach the 250 leaders more to Korah than to Dathan and Abiram.

3 And they assembled against Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, seeing that the whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the community of the LORD?”

The rebels correctly note that the whole community is holy (Ex 19:6; Num 15:40; Deut 7:6; 14:2) but incorrectly believe this should allow anyone (any Levite?) to enter the priesthood. Ironically the rebels accuse Moses and Aaron of exalting themselves when that is just what they are attempting to do.

4 When Moses heard it he fell down with his face to the ground.

Moses may be interceding with God or asking for instructions on how to deal with the rebels.

5 Then he said to Korah and to all his company, “In the morning the LORD will make known who are his, and who is holy. He will cause that person to approach him; the person he has chosen he will cause to approach him. 6 Do this, Korah, you and all your company: Take censers, 7 put fire in them, and set incense on them before the LORD tomorrow, and the man whom the LORD chooses will be holy. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!”

Offering incense was a basic and exclusively priestly task. If Korah and company are truly priests they should have no problem offering incense. The earlier deaths of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-2) made the risks of the improper offering of incense apparent to all. Note that Moses concludes his words using the same words Korah used against him: “You take too much upon yourselves” (v 3).

8 Moses said to Korah, “Listen now, you sons of Levi! 9 Does it seem too small a thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the community of Israel to bring you near to himself, to perform the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the community to minister to them? 10 He has brought you near and all your brothers, the sons of Levi, with you. Do you now seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore you and all your company have assembled together against the LORD! And Aaron — what is he that you murmur against him?”

Recall that the Levites camped around the tabernacle to separate it from the other tribes. They assisted in dismantling, carrying, and erecting the tabernacle. This privilege is not enough for them. The phrase “too small a thing” (v 8) means unimportant. The last clause of v 11 (“And Aaron — what is he that you murmur against him?”) is intended to say Korah and company are rebelling against the Lord, not Moses or Aaron, since neither put himself over the people.

12 Then Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of the land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness? Now do you want to make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land that flows with milk and honey, nor given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you think you can blind these men? We will not come up.”

As the subsequent verses show, Dathan and Abiram object to Moses’s leadership, not Aaron’s hold on the priesthood. In verse 9 Moses tries to comfort the Levites by saying, “does it seem too small a thing” that they have been given a subordinate but privileged role. Here Dathan and Abiram turn a similar phrase back on Moses. Their words belie a lack of faith in God’s promise to bring the people into the promised land. In verse 13 they refer to Egypt as “the land that flows with milk and honey”. Ironically the lack of progress to the promised land is due to rebellions such as that by Dathan and Abiram (14:29-34). The phrase “fields and vineyards” (v 14) describe wealth and prosperity. Dathan and Abiram accuse Moses of blinding the people to the actual facts of their situation.

15 Moses was very angry, and he said to the LORD, “Have no respect for their offering! I have not taken so much as one donkey from them, nor have I harmed any one of them!”

Moses attempts to vindicate himself before the Lord. The request of the Lord to “have no respect for their offering” is a request that they would have no part in the sacrifices that made access to the Lord possible. The phrase “I have not taken so much as one donkey from them, nor have I harmed any one of them” seems to be an idiomatic way of saying he had not taken tribute from the rebels nor exalted himself over them (1 Sam 8:16; 12:3).

16 Then Moses said to Korah, “You and all your company present yourselves before the LORD — you and they, and Aaron — tomorrow. 17 And each of you take his censer, put incense in it, and then each of you present his censer before the LORD: 250 censers, along with you, and Aaron — each of you with his censer.”

The challenge of verses 6-7 is reiterated here, but now Aaron is mentioned by name.

18 So everyone took his censer, put fire in it, and set incense on it, and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting, with Moses and Aaron.

If the rebels did not take fire from the altar (cf. 16:46) they may be guilty of offering unauthorized fire (Lev 10:2). But Milgrom believes we should not see a “loaded” test in this passage.

19 When Korah assembled the whole community against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting, then the glory of the LORD appeared to the whole community.

20 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron: 21 “Separate yourselves from among this community, that I may consume them in an instant.”

22 Then they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all people, will you be angry with the whole community when only one man sins?”

The “one man” is probably Korah. Moses and Aaron are asking God to only punish the rebels (cf. Gen 18:23-32).

23 So the LORD spoke to Moses: 24 “Tell the community: ‘Get away from around the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.'”

Korah, a Kohathite, lived on the southern side of the tabernacle. Dathan and Abiram, Reubenites, lived in an adjacent camp (2:16). The Hebrew miskan is singular despite being translated as “homes” in the NET. Verses 26-27 indicate the three did not live in one tent so it is not clear how we are to make sense of the singular miskan here.

25 Then Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel went after him.

That the elders of Israel followed Moses probably indicates he had some support from the leadership.

26 And he said to the community, “Move away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything they have, lest you be destroyed because of all their sins.”

27 So they got away from the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram on every side, and Dathan and Abiram came out and stationed themselves in the entrances of their tents with their wives, their children, and their toddlers.

There is also an ironic literary touch here: Dathan and Abiram have accused Moses of blinding the people’s eyes (v. 14); now with Dathan, Abiram, and their families in full view, all of Israel will behold their punishment.1

28 Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. 29 If these men die a natural death, or if they share the fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD does something entirely new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up along with all that they have, and they go down alive to the grave, then you will know that these men have despised the LORD!”

Both clauses of verse 29 refer to death from natural causes. Hebrew Sheol (“grave”, v 30) is the realm of the dead. Moses says that if his words come to pass then the Israelites will know these men have despised the Lord (v 30) instead of saying he (Moses) will be vindicated.

31 When he had finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open, 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, and all Korah’s men, and all their goods.

From 26:10–11 we learn that this means Korah and his servants: his sons are noted as having survived the tragedy and were the ancestors of some of the temple singers (1 Chr. 6:33ff.). The company of Korah offering their incense in the tabernacle are not included, for their death is mentioned separately (35).2

33 They and all that they had went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed over them. So they perished from among the community.

34 All the Israelites who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “What if the earth swallows us too?”

35 Then a fire went out from the LORD and devoured the 250 men who offered incense.

This is worded in the past perfect. (The noun precedes the verb in the Hebrew.) That is, this must be understood to have happened to Korah’s incense-burning group before the earthquake swallowed them along with Dathan’s and Abiram’s households.3

36 The LORD spoke to Moses:

37 “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pick up the censers out of the flame, for they are holy, and then scatter the coals of fire at a distance.

Eleazar is apparently sent into the midst of still burning material (“out of the flame”). As a result of being offered to God or by being touched by the divine fire the censers are holy (i.e., belong to God), despite being offered in an irregular manner. “The coals from the collected censers were scattered outside the camp so as to not render others impure by contact with the remnants of the dead.”4

38 As for the censers of these men who sinned at the cost of their lives, they must be made into hammered sheets for covering the altar, because they presented them before the LORD and sanctified them. They will become a sign to the Israelites.”

Since the altar of incense was plated with gold (Ex 30:3; 37:26), and it would be inappropriate to then plate it with bronze, we should understand this verse to be speaking of a cover for the altar of burnt offerings (Ex 27:1-8; 38:1-7). Ex 27:2 and 38:2 say this altar already had a bronze cover, so this cover may be an additional cover or a replacement for the first cover.

39 So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers presented by those who had been burned up, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar.

40 It was a memorial for the Israelites, that no outsider who is not a descendant of Aaron should approach to burn incense before the LORD, that he might not become like Korah and his company — just as the LORD had spoken by the authority of Moses.

This verse summarizes the lesson to be learned from the Korah narrative.

41 But on the next day the whole community of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the LORD’s people!”

Now the whole community, not just a subset of it, confronts Moses and Aaron instead of God. Moses and Aaron are accused of killing the Lord’s people as if they are on the opposite side from God.

42 When the community assembled against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting — and the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared.

43 Then Moses and Aaron stood before the tent of meeting.

44 The LORD spoke to Moses: 45 “Get away from this community, so that I can consume them in an instant!” But they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground.

God’s response is ironic: the people accuse Moses and Aaron of killing the Lord’s people and so the Lord threatens to kill His people Himself.

46 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take the censer, put burning coals from the altar in it, place incense on it, and go quickly into the assembly and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD — the plague has begun!”

Did God instruct Moses to take this action or was it Moses’s own attempt at a solution? It is unclear why this means was chosen in order to make atonement (as opposed to a blood sacrifice, for instance). Perhaps it was thought that since the original offense involved an improper incense offering a proper incense offering would remedy the situation. “The same incense that causes destruction when used by unauthorized persons averts destruction when used by authorized persons.”5 In this verse, “to make atonement” (kipper) means to avert the wrath of God.

47 So Aaron did as Moses commanded and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague was just beginning among the people. So he placed incense on the coals and made atonement for the people.

48 He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.

As high priest, Aaron would normally avoid all possible contact with the dead (Lev 21:11). He is willing to sacrifice his ritual purity for the people.

49 Now 14,700 people died in the plague, in addition to those who died in the event with Korah.

This number is just under 2.5% of the totals listed in 1:46 and 3:39.

50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and the plague was stopped.

Moses and Aaron save the people after being accused of killing the Lord’s people.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Milgrom 1990, 137 
  2. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2408-2410 
  3. Friedman 2001, 484-485 
  4. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 8005-8006 
  5. Milgrom 1990, 141 
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