Numbers 16

The Rebellion of Korah

There are three main movements in the story of ch. 16. The first is the rebellion itself (vv. 1–19). The second is the judgment (vv. 20–35). Third is the atonement for the rebels (vv. 36–50). The whole chapter is a marvelous account of a massive rebellion against the leaders that concludes with reconciliation. For further study see G. Hort, “The Death of Qorah,” ABR 7 (1959): 2-26; and J. Liver, “Korah, Dathan and Abiram,” Studies in the Bible (ScrHier 8), 189–217.
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,
The MT reading is plural (“the sons of Reuben”); the Smr and LXX have the singular (“the son of Reuben”).
took men
In the Hebrew text there is no object for the verb “took.” The translation presented above supplies the word “men.” However, it is possible that the MT has suffered damage here. The LXX has “and he spoke.” The Syriac and Targum have “and he was divided.” The editor of BHS suggests that perhaps the MT should be emended to “and he arose.”
and rebelled against Moses, along with some of the Israelites, 250 leaders
Heb “princes” (so KJV, ASV).
of the community, chosen from the assembly,
These men must have been counselors or judges of some kind.
famous men.
Heb “men of name,” or “men of renown.”
And they assembled against Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “You take too much upon yourselves,
The meaning of רַב־לָכֶם (rab-lakhem) is something like “you have assumed far too much authority.” It simply means “much to you,” perhaps “you have gone to far,” or “you are overreaching yourselves” (M. Noth, Numbers [OTL], 123). He is objecting to the exclusiveness of the system that Moses has been introducing.
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?”

When Moses heard it he fell down with his face to the ground.
Heb “fell on his face.”
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
Heb “him.”
to approach him; the person he has chosen he will cause to approach him.
Do this, Korah, you and all your company:
Heb “his congregation” or “his community.” The expression is unusual, but what it signifies is that Korah had set up a rival “Israel” with himself as leader.
Take censers,
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!” Moses said to Korah, “Listen now, you sons of Levi! 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 verb is the Piel perfect. There is no imperfect tense before this, which makes the construction a little difficult. If the vav (ו) is classified as a consecutive, then the form would stand alone as an equivalent to the imperfect, and rendered as a modal nuance such as “would you [now] seek,” or as a progressive imperfect, “are you seeking.” This latter nuance can be obtained by treating it as a regular perfect tense, with an instantaneous nuance: “do you [now] seek.”
Moses discerned correctly the real motivation for the rebellion. Korah wanted to be the high priest because he saw how much power there was in the spiritual leadership in Israel. He wanted something like a general election with himself as the candidate and his supporters promoting him. The great privilege of being a Levite and serving in the sanctuary was not enough for him – the status did not satisfy him. Korah gave no rebuttal. The test would be one of ministering with incense. This would bring them into direct proximity with the Lord. If God honored Korah as a ministering priest, then it would be settled. But Moses accuses them of rebellion against the Lord, because the Lord had chosen Aaron to be the priest.
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?”
The question indicates that they had been murmuring against Aaron, that is, expressing disloyalty and challenging his leadership. But it is actually against the Lord that they had been murmuring because the Lord had put Aaron in that position.
12 Then Moses summoned
Heb “Moses sent to summon.” The verb קָרָא (qara’) followed by the lamed (ל) preposition does not mean “call to” but “summon.” This is a command performance; for them to appear would be to submit to Moses’ authority. This they will not do.
Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up.
The imperfect tense נַעֲלֶה (naaleh) expresses their unwillingness to report: “we are not willing,” or “we will not.” The verb means “to go up.” It is used in the sense of appearing before an authority or a superior (see, e.g., Gen 46:31; Deut 25:7; Judg 4:5).
13 Is it a small thing
The question is rhetorical. It was not a small thing to them – it was a big thing.
that you have brought us up out of the land that flows with milk and honey,
The modern scholar who merely sees these words as belonging to an earlier tradition about going up to the land of Canaan that flows with milk and honey misses the irony here. What is happening is that the text is showing how twisted the thinking of the rebels is. They have turned things completely around. Egypt was the land flowing with milk and honey, not Canaan where they will die. The words of rebellion are seldom original, and always twisted.
to kill us in the wilderness? Now do you want to make yourself a prince
The verb הִשְׂתָּרֵר (histarer) is the Hitpael infinitive absolute that emphasizes the preceding תִשְׂתָּרֵר (tistarer), the Hitpael imperfect tense (both forms having metathesis). The verb means “to rule; to act like a prince; to make oneself a prince.” This is the only occurrence of the reflexive for this verb. The exact nuance is difficult to translate into English. But they are accusing Moses of seizing princely power for himself, perhaps making a sarcastic reference to his former status in Egypt. The rebels here are telling Moses that they had discerned his scheme, and so he could not “hoodwink” them (cf. NEB).
over us?
14 Moreover,
Here אַף (’af) has the sense of “in addition.” It is not a common use.
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
Heb “will you bore out the eyes of these men?” The question is “Will you continue to mislead them?” (or “hoodwink” them). In Deut 16:19 it is used for taking a bribe; something like that kind of deception is intended here. They are simply stating that Moses is a deceiver who is misleading the people with false promises.
these men? We will not come up.”

15  Moses was very angry, and he said to the Lord, “Have no respect
The verb means “to turn toward”; it is a figurative expression that means “to pay attention to” or “to have regard for.” So this is a prayer against Dathan and Abiram.
for their offering! I have not taken so much as one donkey from them, nor have I harmed any one of them!”

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
Heb “and take, a man, his censer.”
take his censer, put
This verb and the following one are both perfect tenses with vav (ו) consecutives. Following the imperative they carry the same force, but in sequence.
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.”
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. 19 When
This clause is clearly foundational for the clause that follows, the appearance of the Lord; therefore it should be subordinated to the next as a temporal clause (one preterite followed by another preterite may be so subordinated).
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.

The Judgment on the Rebels

20  The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 21 “Separate yourselves
The verb is הִבָּדְלוּ (hibbadelu), the Niphal imperative of בָּדַל (badal). This is the same word that was just used when Moses reminded the Levites that they had been separated from the community to serve the Lord.
from among this community,
The group of people siding with Korah is meant, and not the entire community of the people of Israel. They are an assembly of rebels, their “community” consisting in their common plot.
that I may consume them in an instant.”
22 Then they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground
It is Moses and Aaron who prostrate themselves; they have the good of the people at heart.
and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all people,
The expression “the God of the spirits of all humanity [flesh]” is somewhat difficult. The Hebrew text says אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר (’elohey harukhot lekhol-basar). This expression occurs in Num 27:16 again. It also occurs in some postbiblical texts, a fact which has prompted some scholars to conclude that it is a late addition. The words clearly show that Moses is interceding for the congregation. The appeal in the verse is that it is better for one man to die for the whole nation than the whole nation for one man (see also John 11:50).
will you be angry with the whole community when only one man sins?”
The verb is the Qal imperfect יֶחֱטָא (yekheta’); it refers to the sinful rebellion of Korah, but Moses is stating something of a principle: “One man sins, and will you be angry….” A past tense translation would assume that this is a preterite use of the imperfect (without vav [ו] consecutive).


23  So the Lord spoke to Moses: 24 “Tell the community: ‘Get away
The motif of “going up” is still present; here the Hebrew text says “go up” (the Niphal imperative – “go up yourselves”) from their tents, meaning, move away from them.
from around the homes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’”
25 Then Moses got up
Heb “rose up.”
and went to Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel went after him.
26 And he said to the community, “Move away from the tents of these wicked
The word רָשָׁע (rasha’) has the sense of a guilty criminal. The word “wicked” sometimes gives the wrong connotation. These men were opposing the Lord, and so were condemned as criminals – they were guilty. The idea of “wickedness” therefore applies in that sense.
men, and do not touch anything they have, lest you be destroyed because
The preposition bet (בְּ) in this line is causal – “on account of their sins.”
of all their sins.”
The impression is that the people did not hear what the Lord said to Moses, but only what Moses said to the people as a result. They saw the brilliant cloud, and perhaps heard the sound of his voice, but the relaying of the instructions indicates they did not hear the actual instruction from the Lord himself.
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
The verb נִצָּבִים (nitsavim) suggests a defiant stance, for the word is often used in the sense of taking a stand for or against something. It can also be somewhat neutral, having the sense of positioning oneself for a purpose.
in the entrances of their tents with their wives, their children, and their toddlers.
28 Then Moses said, “This is how
Heb “in this.”
you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will.
The Hebrew text simply has כִּי־לֹא מִלִּבִּי (ki-lo millibbi, “for not from my heart”). The heart is the center of the will, the place decisions are made (see H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament). Moses is saying that the things he has done have not come “from the will of man” so to speak – and certainly not from some secret desire on his part to seize power.
29 If these men die a natural death,
Heb “if like the death of every man they die.”
or if they share the fate
The noun is פְּקֻדָּה (pequddah, “appointment, visitation”). The expression refers to a natural death, parallel to the first expression.
of all men, then the Lord has not sent me.
30 But if the Lord does something entirely new,
The verb בָּרָא (bara’) is normally translated “create” in the Bible. More specifically it means to fashion or make or do something new and fresh. Here the verb is joined with its cognate accusative to underscore that this will be so different everyone will know it is of God.
and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up
The figures are personifications. But they vividly describe the catastrophe to follow – which was very much like a mouth swallowing them.
along with all that they have, and they
The word is “life” or “lifetime”; it certainly means their lives – they themselves. But the presence of this word suggest more. It is an accusative specifying the state of the subject – they will go down alive to Sheol.
go down alive to the grave,
The word “Sheol” in the Bible can be used four different ways: the grave, the realm of the departed [wicked] spirits or Hell, death in general, or a place of extreme danger (one that will lead to the grave if God does not intervene). The usage here is certainly the first, and very likely the second as well. A translation of “pit” would not be inappropriate. Since they will go down there alive, it is likely that they will sense the deprivation and the separation from the land above. See H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament; N. J. Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Netherworld in the Old Testament (BibOr 21), 21–23; and A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, especially ch. 3.
then you will know that these men have despised the Lord!”

31  When he had finished
The initial temporal clause is standard: It begins with the temporal indicator “and it was,” followed here by the Piel infinitive construct with the preposition and the subjective genitive suffix. “And it happened when he finished.”
speaking
The infinitive construct with the preposition lamed (ל) functions here as the direct object of the preceding infinitive. It tells what he finished.
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. 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
Heb “all Israel.”
who were around them fled at their cry,
Heb “voice.”
for they said, “What if
Heb “lest.”
the earth swallows us too?”
35 Then a fire
For a discussion of the fire of the Lord, see J. C. H. Laughlin, “The Strange Fire of Nadab and Abihu,” JBL 95 (1976): 559-65.
went out from the Lord and devoured the 250 men who offered incense.

The Atonement for the Rebellion

36  [Heb. 17:1]
Beginning with 16:36, the verse numbers through 17:13 in the English Bible differ from the verse numbers in the Hebrew text (BHS), with 16:36 ET = 17:1 HT, 16:37 ET = 17:2 HT, 17:1 ET = 17:16 HT, etc., through 17:13 ET = 17:28 HT. With 18:1 the verse numbers in the ET and HT are again the same. But in the English chap. 17 there are two parts: Aaron’s rod budding (1–9), and the rod preserved as a memorial (10–13). Both sections begin with the same formula.
The Lord spoke to Moses:
37 “Tell
Heb “say to.”
Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pick up
The verb is the jussive with a vav (ו) coming after the imperative; it may be subordinated to form a purpose clause (“that he may pick up”) or the object of the imperative.
the censers out of the flame, for they are holy, and then scatter the coals of fire
The Hebrew text just has “fire,” but it would be hard to conceive of this action apart from the idea of coals of fire.
at a distance.
38 As for the censers of these men who sinned at the cost of their lives,
The expression is “in/by/against their life.” That they sinned against their life means that they brought ruin to themselves.
they must be made
The form is the perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive. But there is no expressed subject for “and they shall make them,” and so it may be treated as a passive (“they shall [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.”
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
Heb “from the seed 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
Heb “hand.”
of Moses.
41 But on the next day the whole community of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the Lord’s people!”
The whole congregation here is trying to project its guilt on Moses and Aaron. It was they and their rebellion that brought about the deaths, not Moses and Aaron. The Lord had punished the sinners. The fact that the leaders had organized a rebellion against the Lord was forgotten by these people. The point here is that the Israelites had learned nothing of spiritual value from the event.
42 When the community assembled
The temporal clause is constructed with the temporal indicator (“and it was”) followed by the Niphal infinitive construct and preposition.
against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting – and
The verse uses וְהִנֵּה (vehinneh, “and behold”). This is the deictic particle – it is used to point things out, suddenly calling attention to them, as if the reader were there. The people turned to look toward the tent – and there is the cloud!
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.
Heb “they fell on their faces.”
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!” 47 So Aaron did
Heb “took.”
as Moses commanded
Or “had spoken” (NASB); NRSV “had ordered.”
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. 49 Now 14,700 people died in the plague, in addition to those who died in the event with Korah. 50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and the plague was stopped.

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