In an earlier study, we saw how Aaron, led by his sister Miriam, challenged the authority of their brother, Moses, and this despite the fact God had shown in the clearest possible manner that Moses had been chosen as His agent in the deliverance of the children of Israel (cf. Ex. 3:10; 4:27). Throughout this painful episode, Moses remained silent, humbly leaving the initiative to his God.
An organized revolt
We might describe that incident as a mini-crisis, restricted to Moses and his immediate family. The crisis orchestrated by Korah, Dathan and Abiram was on a far greater scale. Originally they also had the support of On, a Reubenite (Num. 16:1). As nothing further is said about his participation in the conspiracy, he may have thought better and withdrawn his support.
Apart from the three prominent figures, there were 250 “leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men” (Num. 16:2 RSV). This was not a revolt by a discontented rabble but a movement which must have taken some time to organize. We need to note at this stage that, though the leaders came from two tribes, Levi and Reuben, the recruitment of the rebels had brought in representatives of other tribes. How many we cannot be certain, however later we find that the daughters of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, declare their father had no part in the revolt led by Korah (Num. 27:3). This must indicate Korah and associates had sought as wide a support as possible and implies some from other tribes followed their lead.
Grievances without foundation
Their grievances were directed against both Moses and Aaron: the two, so they said, had assumed positions of eminence which were totally unwarranted — was not all the congregation holy, “every one of them?” (Num. 16:3).
When one reflects upon the recent history of the Israelites, such words were utterly stupid. We think especially of the situation portrayed in Numbers 14 when the general attitude to Caleb and Joshua (Num.14:10) could have led to the Lord disinheriting the people and raising up a nation from the seed of Moses (Num.14:11-12). It was the utterly selfless intervention of Moses which saved the day (Num.14:13-19).
So we have another example of the fact that the rebel has scant respect for the truth.
Korah the leader
In all references to the revolt, the name of Korah appears first. He had unquestionably the prime responsibility, as is evidenced by the repeated references to “Korah and his company” (Num. 16:5,6,11, etc.). In Jude’s reference to the subversive movement, it is described as “Korah’s rebellion” (Jude v.11 RSV). We shall accordingly concentrate initially on Korah and his background.
We learn from Exodus 6:18, 20-21 that the sons of Kohath were Amram and Izhar, that Aaron and Moses were the sons Amram and Korah the son of Izhar. Thus Aaron and Moses were cousins of Korah and, as Kohath was their grandfather, they were all Kohathites. We must remember, too, that Miriam was also Korah’s cousin and he must have been fully aware of the consequences of her act of rebellion..
It has often been said that men and women do not learn from history. Clearly there are exceptions but Korah was not one of them.
What motivated this Levite to play so important a part in the major revolt associated with his name? It is surely in envy and personal ambition that we must find the explanation of his foolish and disastrous conduct. Moses reminds us of the nature of his ambition: “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them…And would you seek the priesthood also?” (Num. 16:8-10 RSV). Then Moses goes on to state, in view of the fact that all the arrangements associated with the tabernacle had been laid down by God, that the rebellion was really against the Lord God Himself (v.11).
Aaron was God’s appointment
It is apparent that Korah and his supporters were not content with the privileges bestowed upon them as servants of the tabernacle: they coveted the priesthood also. From the start, Aaron and his family had been singled out by God; Moses was told, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, to serve me as priests — Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar” (Ex. 28:1 RSV).
But such high privileges were not without their corresponding responsibilities. By the time with which we are concerned, Nadab and Abihu had paid a fearful price for being casual in their service as priests, for both had perished (Lev. 10:1-7). It would appear from the instruction which immediately follows this unfortunate episode that Nadab and Abihu had been drinking heavily before carrying out their duties as priests (see Lev. 10:8-11). We can see from Korah’s attitude to the divine arrangements, that he would never have been capable of worthily discharging priestly duties.
Moses greatly distressed
Faced by Korah and his company, Moses had no illusions about the gravity of the situation; he fell upon his face, a token, we would think, of his deep distress (Num. 16:4). Here now is a crisis far more serious than the one caused by Miriam’s imprudent behavior. In the presence of this large company of influential rebels, immediate action is called for. Moses echoes their own words: “You have gone too far!” (cf. verses 3 & 7 RSV).
Moses accordingly proposes that on the morrow Korah and his supporters should offer incense, a function reserved to the high priest (cf. Ex. 30:7-10). This will give the Lord God opportunity to show whom He has called to His service.
Having dealt with Korah, Moses now turns to Dathan and Abiram, Korah’s co-conspirators. An interesting “undesigned coincidence” is here noted by J.J. Blunt. He points out that in the layout of the camp around the tabernacle, the Kohathites and the Reubenites were encamped to the south (Num. 3:29; 2:10). They were thus neighbors and inevitably fraternized (see “Undesigned Coincidences,” The Christadelphian, 1965, p.70).
Another observation which is commonly made in connection with the participation of Dathan and Abiram is that they were Reubenites. Their progenitor was Jacob’s firstborn and they may well have resented the subordinate position which their tribe occupied in the nation’s affairs. While this is a possibility, we need to recognize it is not mentioned in the Numbers record. The circumstances in which Reuben had forfeited the birthright would be well known and they were a matter of shame (Gen. 49:3-4). Furthermore, to claim any form of tribal pre-eminence would appear to be contrary to the spirit of the revolt. Do not Korah, Dathan and Abiram claim that all the congregation is holy? We are doubtless on safer ground in seeing the alliance between Korah and the Reubenites as due to their proximity in the camp and to their shared grievances against Moses and Aaron.