Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Rebellion of Korah's Company - Numbers 16:1-40(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 Num 14, whilst, according to Deu 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 Num 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.
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 Exo 6:18), and three Reubenites, viz., Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, of the Reubenitish family of Pallu (Num 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 (Num 16:1 and Num 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 Sa2 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 Num 16:2 into contradiction with Num 16:3, but they created an uproar before his eyes; and with this the expression in Num 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 Num 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. Num 1:16), "men of name" (שׁם אנשׁי, see Gen 6:4). The leader was Korah; and the rebels are called in consequence "Korah's company" (Num 16:5, Num 16:6; Num 26:9; Num 27:3). He laid claim to the high-priesthood, or at least to an equality with Aaron (Num 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.
רב־לכם, "enough for you!" (רב, as in Gen 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 (Exo 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" (Exo 19:5).
When Moses heard these words of the rebels, he fell upon his face, to complain of the matter to the Lord, as in Num 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 (Exo 28:1; Exo 29:1; Lev 8:12, Lev 8:30), and by which they became the persons "standing near to Him" (Lev 10:3), and were qualified to appear before Him in the sanctuary, and present to Him the sacrifices of the nation.
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 Num 16:7, Moses gives the rebels back their own words in Num 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 (Lev 10:1-3). Num 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 (Num 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 (Num 3:5., Num 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. Exo 16:7). Moses then (Num 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, Exo 4:30 compared with Num 3:7.). Wilt thou put out the eyes of these people?" i.e., wilt thou blind them as to thy doings and designs?
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. Gen 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. Sa1 12:3).
In conclusion, he summoned Korah and his associates once more, to present themselves the following day before Jehovah with censers and incense.
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 Num 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 Isa 64:8, is similar to this, though that is founded upon the special relation in which God stood to Israel.
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.
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 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 Num 18:31; Exo 12:3. "All the men belonging to Korah" were his servants; for, according to Num 26:11, his sons did not perish with him, but perpetuated his family (Num 26:58), to which the celebrated Korahite singers of David's time belonged (Ch1 6:18-22; Ch1 9:19).
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.
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 (Lev 10:2).
(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 (Num 16:39); and therefore, when the men who brought them were slain, they fell as banned articles to the Lord (Lev 27:28). "The censers of these sinners against their souls" (i.e., the men who have forfeited their lives through their sin: cf. Pro 20:2; Hab 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 Num 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 Num 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.
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 (Num 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.
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 (Num 9:18.; Exo 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 (Num 9:15; Exo 40:34), and that at the same time the glory of God burst forth from the dark cloud in a miraculous splendour.
Thereupon they both went into the court of (פּני אל, as in Lev 9:5) the tabernacle, and God commanded them to rise up (הרמּוּ, Niphal of רמם = 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 Num 16:21-22. This time, however, they could not avert the bursting forth of the wrathful judgment, as they had done the day before (Num 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 (Exo 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 (Num 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 Num 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).