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(MT versing)
Korah's Rebellion Rebellion Against Moses and Aaron Revolts Against Moses The Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram The Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram
16:1-3 16:1-3 16:1-11 16:1-3 16:1-3
16:4-7 16:4-11 16:4-7 16:4-7
16:8-11 16:8-11 16:8-11
16:12-14 16:12-14 16:12-14 16:12-14 16:12-15
16:15-19 16:15-19 16:15-19 16:15 The Punishment
16:16-21 16:16-19
16:20-22 16:20-30 16:20-22 16:20-24
16:23-24 16:23-30 16:23-24
16:25-30 16:25-27a 16:25-27a
16:27b-30 16:27b-30
16:31-35 16:31-35 16:31-35 16:31-34 16:31-32
16:35 16:35
The Fire Pans
16:36-40 16:36-40 16:36-40 16:36-40
Murmuring and Plague Murmuring of the People Aaron Saves the People
16:41-50 16:41-45 16:41-50 16:41-45a

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


  1. Although the text does not specifically mention the motives for the rebellion, one is tempted to see jealousy as the primary factor (cf. Num. 11:2).

  2. Korah, a member of the family of Levites who had the unique responsibility of carrying the furniture of the Tabernacle, wanted to share leadership with Aaron (cf. Num. 16:8-10). This shows the tension between the priests and the Levites, all descendants of Levi.

  3. Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob, seemingly wanted to have a share of the preeminence he had lost.

  4. The rebellion was somewhat more widely spread than just the family of Korah and three of the sons of Reuben. We see that there were over 250 leaders of the different tribes who were involved in this particular rebellion. This shows the extent of the unrest and lack of confidence among the people of God. See Josephus, Antiq, 4.2.1-4; 4.3.1-4.

  5. What bothers me personally about OT accounts such as this is whether these people who challenged Moses' and Aaron's leadership are excluded from heaven or just taken early. Going to Sheol at death (i.e., into the earth; see SPECIAL TOPIC: SHEOL) is the lot of all humans since Genesis 3. See SPECIAL TOPIC: APOSTASY.


1Now 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 action, 2and they rose up before Moses, together with some of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown. 3They assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?"

16:1 "Korah. . ." The full family tree of Korah can be seen in Exod. 6:16-25. Korah and Reuben camped on the south side of the Tabernacle. This physical proximity may be involved in the explanation of why these two tribes rebelled together.

▣ "On the son of Peleth" It is interesting that three of the descendants of Reuben are mentioned in this verse. However, On is only mentioned in this verse (cf. Num. 26:4-11).

16:2 "two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown" This shows other tribal leaders were also involved in the rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron, and not just the rabble of Num. 11:4. It is ironic that these men, chosen by their peers, were not chosen by God (i.e., 1 Sam. 16:7-10).

NASB, NKJV, LXX, Peshitta  "men of renown"
NRSV  "well-known men"
TEV  "well known leaders"
NJB, JPSOA  "men of repute"
REB  "men of good standing"

The term (BDB 1027, KB 1548, D, #4) basically means "name." Here it denotes

  1. men of standing or reputation, Ruth 4:11
  2. men who continue the family name, Gen. 9:14; 25:6-7
  3. powerful, Gen. 6:4

In this context they were tribal leaders.

16:3 "You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst" This sounds like a really good argument. It sounds like one that I have made in interpreting Eph. 4:11-12. It does assert a half-truth. It seems that although all of Israel was a kingdom of priests (cf. Exod. 19:5-6), God chose special leaders out of this group to lead His people. There is a dialectical tension between all of God's people being priests and God choosing certain leaders among them.

▣ "are holy" Israel is "holy" (see SPECIAL TOPIC: HOLY) because of their covenant relationship to the "holy" Deity. All things connected to YHWH take on a sacredness. This is both a possession and a godliness (see SPECIAL TOPIC: SANCTIFICATION).

▣ "the Lord is in their midst" The people are basing their argument about being holy on the presence of the Lord in their camp (cf. Lev. 20:12; Num. 5:3; 35:34).

4When Moses heard this, he fell on his face; 5and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, "Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself. 6Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company, 7and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the Lord tomorrow; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!"

16:4 Moses recognized the extent of the rebellion (cf. Num. 14:5). This is just another in a series questioning YHWH.

16:5 "even the one whom He will choose" God's choice—not man's is the key. The irony between Num. 16:2 and 5 is obvious.

16:6-7 "Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company. . ." Moses proposed an ultimate test. All of these men would have remembered what happened to Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, when they approached the Lord with strange fire in their censers. This group would have their day in court but it would be a life-giving confrontation.

Numbers 16:6 and 7 have a series of IMPERATIVES to Korah and his company.

  1. do this ‒ BDB 793, KB 889, Qal
  2. take censers ‒ BDB 542, KB 534, Qal
  3. put fire in them ‒ BDB 678, KB 733, Qal
  4. lay incense upon them ‒ BDB 962, KB 1321, Qal

    There are two more in Num. 16:16-17.

  5. present before the Lord ‒ BDB 224, KB 243, Qal
  6. each of you take his firepan ‒ BDB 542, KB 534, Qal

8Then Moses said to Korah, "Hear now, you sons of Levi, 9is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; 10and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also? 11Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the Lord; but as for Aaron, who is he that you grumble against him?"

16:8-10 This is the only clue to the psychological motivation of Korah.

16:11 "gathered together against the Lord" It is interesting that as these people rebelled against YHWH's rules they were rebelling against Him. We need to hear that today! There must be a balance in our day between the faithful following of God-given leaders and God-given leaders being more led by God and not by themselves.

12Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; but they said, "We will not come up. 13Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? 14Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!"

16:12-14 "Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab" These non-Levite families of Reuben refused to respond to Moses' summons to come to the same meeting where he confronted Korah.

Their reasons are as follows:

  1. they accused Moses of taking them out of the land of milk and honey, referring to Egypt
  2. they are all going to die by warfare in the wilderness
  3. they did not have the Promised Land allocation
  4. Moses was "lording it over them" (this is an intensified form; INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and an IMPERFECT VERB, both Hithpael)

My, what a lapse of memory they had since the days of hard taskmasters in Egypt! Really, they were not confronting Moses, but God, in His plan and provisions.

16:13 "Is it not enough" This is a sarcastic, rhetorical question of rebellion (cf. Num. 16:9,13; Josh. 27:17; Isa. 7:13; Ezek. 16:20; 34:18)

▣ "but you would also lord it over us" This is an Hithpael INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and an Hithpael IMPERFECT VERB from the same root, BDB 979, KB 1362, which makes it an emphatic question. It may be alluding to

  1. Moses as the only leader of Israel
  2. Moses' previous status in Pharaoh's court (i.e., "prince")
NASB, NKJV, NRSV, Peshitta  "put out the eyes"
TEV  "trying to deceive us"
NJB, REB  "hood-wink"
JPSOA  "gouge out. . .eyes"
LXX  "cut out the eyes"

The Hebrew VERB (BDB 669, KB 722, Piel IMPERFECT) basically means "to bore out," "pick out" (cf. Pro. 30:17), or "gouge out" (cf. Jdgs. 16:21). Here, it is imagery for tricking someone about something. They are challenging the integrity and motives of Moses, YHWH's chosen leader.

15Then Moses became very angry and said to the Lord, "Do not regard their offering! I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I done harm to any of them." 16Moses said to Korah, "You and all your company be present before the Lord tomorrow, both you and they along with Aaron. 17Each of you take his firepan and put incense on it, and each of you bring his censer before the Lord, two hundred and fifty firepans; also you and Aaron shall each bring his firepan." 18So they each took his own censer and put fire on it, and laid incense on it; and they stood at the doorway of the tent of meeting, with Moses and Aaron. 19Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation.

16:15 Moses has had it with these people.

  1. he became very angry
  2. do not regard their offering (i.e., the censers, vv. 6-7)
  3. he claims he has not taken a single donkey
  4. he has not harmed any of them in any way (this is similar to Samuel's response in 1 Sam. 22:3 and Nehemiah's response in Nehemiah 5)

16:17 "two hundred and fifty firepans" There were special firepans for the priests but there would not have been this many. Obviously these were firepans which were used at home or they were made especially for this occasion. Notice these non-priests were to approach YHWH's Tabernacle as if they were. Surely they remembered Nadab and Abihu of Leviticus 10.

16:19 "the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation" See notes at Num. 14:10; 16:42; 20:6.

This represented the personal presence of YHWH.

For "glory" see SPECIAL TOPIC: GLORY (kabod).


20Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 21"Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly." 22But they fell on their faces and said, "O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?"

16:21 "Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly" Again, this seems to be another test of Moses (cf. Exod. 32:9,10; Num. 14:11,12; 16:45). YHWH really was attempting to start over with Moses, as He had with Noah and Abraham.

The VERB "separate" (BDB 95, KB 110, Niphal IMPERATIVE) basically means "to separate," "to divide," or "to set apart." The NOUN form is used in v. 16 of the Levites being set apart to the service of the Tabernacle (cf. Num. 8:14; 23:13). Also note:

  1. to set apart the people of Israel to YHWH, Lev. 20:24,26
  2. to set apart some Levites for the music ministry, 1 Chr. 25:1
  3. separate mercenaries from service, 2 Chr. 25:10
  4. to designate people to bury the dead, Ezek. 39:14
  5. here (cf. v. 45), it means to "get away from" those about to be judged by YHWH (i.e., the whole people of God); in v. 24, the same concept is expressed by "get back from. . ."

16:22 "God of the spirits of all flesh" This is a word play on the Hebrew word ruah (BDB 924, cf. Num. 27:16), which can mean "wind," "breath," or "spirit." It seems to be an allusion to Gen. 2:7. See Special Topics: SPIRIT IN THE BIBLE and MONOTHEISM.

▣ "when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation" It is obvious from the earlier parts of the OT that corporate responsibility is emphasized (i.e., Adam's sin, Genesis 3; Achan's sin, Joshua 7). However, in verses such as this, one begins to see an ancient form of individualism being manifested. Compare Jer. 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 18 for a continuing emphasis on individual responsibility (cf. Matt. 10:32; John 1:12; 3:16; Rom. 10:9-13).

23Then theLord spoke to Moses, saying, 24"Speak to the congregation, saying, 'Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.'"

25Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, 26and he spoke to the congregation, saying, "Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin." 27So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones. 28Moses said, "By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. 29If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. 30But if the Lord brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the Lord."

16:26 "touch nothing that belongs to them" Apparently these men were treated as Jericho will be later in the sense of herem (see SPECIAL TOPIC: CURSE IN THE OT) or "holy war" as that which is uniquely dedicated to God. It becomes so holy that it cannot be used by humans.

16:22-29 These verses record Moses' words about the coming judgment on the rebels and their families.

He asserts that if they die a natural death, then he has not been sent by YHWH.

He also asserts that this judgment is not something he wanted (v. 28). Judgment is always a tragedy! YHWH is a gracious God but He is also a "holy" and "righteous" God. There are consequences to rebellion and disobedience. See the Special Topics:

  2. HOLY

16:28 "this is not my doing" Literally, "not from my heart." The exodus and the events that followed were not at Moses' direction and surely not a plan by him to grab power over Israel.

16:30 "the Lord brings about an entirely new thing. . .descend alive into Sheol" Moses prophesies a test (like Aaron's rod of Numbers 17). He says that if these men die a natural death, then he is not a prophet and God has not chosen him, but if the earth opens up and uniquely swallows this group (i.e., a personification of Num. 26:10; Deut. 11:6; Ps. 106:16-18, cf. Exod. 15:12), then God has confirmed Moses' and Aaron's leadership. The ancient Hebrews believed that the earth contained the dead because that is where they placed their dead (see SPECIAL TOPIC: WHERE ARE THE DEAD?). This is not a scientific explanation but is simply a metaphor of description (i.e., phenomenological language), which is common in the OT.

There is some confusion about how Korah died. Was Korah with this group of Reubenites or was he one of those who offered fire before the Lord in the Tabernacle? It seems, from Num. 26:11-12, that Korah left the two hundred and fifty in the Tabernacle and went to stand with the sons of Reuben and was, thereby, swallowed up along with them, as was his family.

NASB  "brings about an entirely new thing"
NKJV, NRSV  "creates"
TEV, JPSOA  "does something unheard of"
NJB  "does something utterly new"
REB  "works a miracle"
LXX  "show forth by an omen"
Peshitta  "make a new thing"

This is the Hebrew VERB bara (BDB 135, KB 153, Qal IMPERFECT accompanied by its NOUN). The VERB is used in Gen. 1:1 (a Qal PERFECT). It is used only of Divine activity. However, here, it is not "out of nothing" (i.e., ex nihilo) but something never done before using existing natural features.

I personally am not sure that Genesis specifically asserts creation out of nothing. Remember, Genesis 1-2 is an abbreviated summary of YHWH's activity over time. It asserts the "who" and "why," not the "how" and "when" of creation. See full notes online at Genesis 1-2. See Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2 ed., pp. 394-397, and NIDOTTE, vol. 1, pp. 728-234.

31As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open; 32and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions. 33So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34All Israel who were around them fled at their outcry, for they said, "The earth may swallow us up!" 35Fire also came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.

16:34-35 Here we see that all the rebellious leaders of Korah's group who wanted to be priests were killed instantaneously by fire (see SPECIAL TOPIC: FIRE). This is similar to what occurred in Leviticus 10.

There is some ambiguity here because of the use of the number "two hundred and fifty." Some say it refers to the tribal leaders of v. 2, while others say it refers to two hundred members of Korah's own family who wanted to be priests.

For a good discussion on "Judgment" see Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pp. 470-474.

36Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 37"Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad. 38As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did present them before the Lord and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel." 39So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered, and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, 40as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should com near to burn incense before the Lord; so that he will not become like Korah and his company—just as the Lord had spoken to him through Moses.

16:36-40 The MT starts chapter 17 at v. 36 (cf. NJB versing). The firepans of the rebel Levites were to be kept because they were holy. They became a new bronze (cf. Exod. 27:3) covering for the sacrificial altar. This would be a sign for the children of Israel. God's acts of judgment were meant to teach later generations. They had to be recorded as accurately as His acts of grace (cf. Num. 17:10). See Special Topics:


41But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, "You are the ones who have caused the death of the Lord's people." 42It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45"Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly." Then they fell on their faces. 46Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun!" 47Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. 49But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. 50Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.

16:41 "all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron" One would think that the actions of God, His judgment against those who rebelled, would preclude the people of God from grumbling so soon. Unfortunately, it did not! Fallen human nature is pervasive and recurrent.

16:46 "the plague has begun" Here is a dramatic example of the intermediary effectiveness of Aaron, God's special choice as priest. Aaron stood between the plague and the tribes of Israel who were still alive and effectively placated the wrath of God. This is the only account in all the Pentateuch where offering incense acted in the sense of atonement. Another unusual text is Num. 31:50, where the Israelites made an offering of gold jewelry to make atonement. Usually it required a blood sacrifice.

Notice the number of IMPERATIVES.

  1. take your censer ‒ BDB 542, KB 534, Qal IMPERATIVE
  2. put fire in it ‒ BDB 678, KB 733, Qal IMPERATIVE
  3. lay incense on it ‒ BDB 962, KB 1321, Qal IMPERATIVE
  4. bring it quickly ‒ BDB 229, KB 246, Hiphil IMPERATIVE
  5. make atonement ‒ BDB 497, KB 493, Piel IMPERATIVE; see SPECIAL TOPIC: ATONEMENT

Normally, Moses intercedes for Israel but in this case, Aaron offers a sacrifice of incense (only here in the OT) to stay YHWH's hand of judgment.

This had to happen quickly (i.e., "Aaron ran," v. 47). Normally, priests had to avoid the dead but here Aaron ran to the demarcation between the living and the dead.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. How are the family of Levites from Kohath in contact with a family of the tribe of Reuben?
  2. Are all Israelites "holy"? If so, how?
  3. How are Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16 related?
  4. What did Korah want?
  5. What did the family of Reubenites want?
  6. How is Num. 16:22 related to Ezekiel 18?
  7. Define "Sheol."
  8. How does the concept of "Hebrew corporality" affect the families of the rebels?
  9. Why were the censers holy?
  10. What is unique about Num. 16:46?

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