In Numbers 16, we had not one, not two, but three instances of face-falling. Even for the Old Testament, that’s rather a lot of face-falling.

So what does it even mean to fall on one’s face?

So far, I’ve counted seven instances of people falling on their faces (alone or in groups, in a sort of collective ostridge herd impersonation):

Genesis 17:3: Abraham sees God and falls on his face. (Respect/awe)

Genesis 17:17: God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child. Abraham falls on his face and laughs. (Awe of God’s power? Or laughing so hard that he doubled over?)

Leviticus 9:24: The Hebrews see God consuming their sacrifice, and they fall on their faces. (Awe, or possibly disgust at some really awful table manners)

Numbers 14:5: The Hebrew assembly is threatening to kill Moses and Aaron, who then fall on their faces. (Fear – but of a mob, not of God)

Numbers 16:4: Moses hears Korah’s complaint and falls on his face. (Shock at what he’s just heard or, possibly, fear of God’s reaction when he finds out)

Numbers 16:22: God threatens to kill everyone and the people fall on their faces while delivering their entreaty to spare them. (Fear, possibly a sign of respect while addressing God)

Numbers 16:45: God tells Moses and Aaron that he will kill the people, so they fall on their faces before Moses tells Aaron how to save the people. (Awe)

Jokes aside, in the vast majority of these cases, “fall on his face” seems to describe simple prostration. But there are instances where it’s not quite so clear – namely, Moses falling on his face before Korah in Numbers 16:4 and Moses and Aaron falling on their faces before the congregation in Numbers 14:5.

In both of these special cases, the argument could be made that they are pre-emptively prostrating themselves in anticipation of God’s reaction, since the context makes it clear that Moses and Aaron aren’t submitting themselves before the people.

EDIT: The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible has a list of every instance of people falling on their faces. You can peruse it here.