In this chapter, we see the melding of two separate rebellions: That of Korah the Levite fighting for more cultic privileges, and that of Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, questioning Moses’ leadership. As a result, the narrative bounces back and forth a bit and it can be a little confusing.

The leader of the Levite rebellion is Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi.

The Reubenite rebellion is a bit tougher to figure out. I think that the leaders are Dathan and Abiram, brothers, sons of Eliab, son of Reuben – and that they were also joined by On, son of Peleth, son of Reuben. But On is never mentioned again. So then I thought of the possibility that Dathan and Abiram are not brothers, that Dathan is the son of Eliab and Abiram the son of On. I don’t think that’s really supported, though, and I can’t find anyone online who agrees with that interpretation. So I think that On was just cobbled in.

Rebel arguments

Since there are two rebellions, there are two major complaints. From Korah and the Levites:

All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord? (v.3)

We saw a hint of this in Numbers 11, where Moses delegates some of his prophetic duties. Joshua, not understanding what was going on, interpreted the prophesying by people other than Moses as a threat to Moses’ authority. In that instance, Moses defends himself by wishing that God would “put his spirit upon them” (Num. 11:29) but, sadly, it isn’t so and he (and his inner circle) must bear the burden alone. Here, Korah seems to be challenging this idea from a different angle.

Having been raised a Quaker (sort of), Korah’s arguments resonate for me theologically. How interesting, then, to see God’s reaction.

As Collins points out in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, we saw in Numbers 8 the description of a harmonious relationship between the Aaronide priests and the Levites (p.77), but this story gives us a hint at the discontent that must have cropped up at least occasionally. Numbers 16 is all about the Aaronide re-assertion of dominance.

Then there are the Reubenites. Their complaint is as follows:

Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? (v.13)

First of all, up until now, “land of milk and honey” has always been used to describe the promised land, yet the Reubenite use of it to describe Egypt here emphasises just how awful their wilderness experiences have been. Not only that, but God’s just announced that all of these people are going to die in the wilderness, that they will never again have a stable home or livelihood which, slaves though they apparently were, they at least had in Egypt.

And to add insult to injury, Moses has seemingly crowned himself their king, and all who desire self-governance (which was kinda the point of leaving Egypt, no?) so far have been killed in rather horrible ways.

I really can’t help but be sympathetic to the arguments here.

Moses’ arguments

Moses asks of the Levites: Isn’t it enough that you get to service the tabernacle and minister to the congregation? Of course, this misses the point. Taken at face value, neither the Levites nor the Reubenites are complaining that they, personally, don’t have more power, but rather that Moses and Aaron have too much. Turning it into a greed thing is, frankly, really reminiscent of what Fox News does with opinions they don’t agree with.

Even if he’s right, even if Korah, Dathan, and Abiram really are concerned only with their own personal greed, their stated complaint is still a valid one, and Moses fails to address it.

Moses’ only defence is that he hasn’t taken his position for himself, but rather that it has been thrust upon him by God:

Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. (v.28).

True, Moses has been shown to protest the responsibility a few times – notably with the delegation of elders in Numbers 11 and his original reticence in Exodus 3. But the zeal with which God comes to the defence of any who question Moses’ authority (such as Numbers 12) should certainly be concerning to anyone.

That God is in support of this elitist power structure is hardly comforting.

The test

Moses proposes a test to show who has God’s backing. The Levites and Aaron are all to bring their censers – lit and prepared – to the tent of meeting the next day. There’s no real rules for this test, they just have to show up.

And they do.

Moses and Korah, by Brother Maciej, 1466

Moses and Korah, by Brother Maciej, 1466

And God whispers to Moses and Aaron that they should stand apart from the rest of the Hebrew people so that they aren’t killed along with the rest. But the people overhear him and they freak out: “Shall one man sin, and wilt thou be angry with all the congregation?” (v.22).

For once, God chooses to listen to someone other than Moses and revises his plan. Instead, he tells Moses to tell the congregation to stand away from the homes of the rebels.

Then the earth opens up and swallows “their households and all the men that belong to Korath” (v.32). That would include “their wives, their sons, and their little ones” (v.27). Two hundred and fifty “people” in all, plus their families.

As Owen Ball and David Wong put it: “God listened carefully to their complaints, weighed their points, then made the earth eat them alive.”

They are described as having gone “down alive into Sheol” (v.30).

This is the third time we get a reference to Sheol, by the way. The first two, in Genesis 37 and Genesis 44, are both in the context of Jacob/Israel mourning for his son Joseph and saying that he will have to go to Sheol in sorrow (the second time in fear that Benjamin has also died). Several translations have replaced sheol with “grave.”

According to Victor Matthews in Manners & Customs of the Bible, explains that Sheol is a land of the dead inhabited by both the good – as we see in the case of Jacob/Israel – and the evil – as we see here (p.70).

The greater rebellion

God then tells Moses to tell Eleazar (Aaron’s son) to collect the censers the Levite rebels had brought and to hammer them into plate coverings for the altar. They’ve been offered before God, making them holy, so this is a convenient (and non-sacrilegious) way of reusing the metal. Added bonus, they can serve as a warning that “no one who is not a priest, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become as Korah and as his company” (v.40).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people aren’t particularly happy with the heavy-handed control tactics God seems fond of using and, the next day, the people are complaining again, this time that Moses and Aaron have “killed the people of the Lord” (v.41).

But God just doesn’t seem to get that people don’t respond well to “do as I say or I’ll kill you all” rule, so he comes down and tells Moses and Aaron to stand apart from the people so that they don’t get hit when he kills them all.

Moses tells Aaron to get his censer and carry it into the congregation, making atonement for them. Already, the people are dying of the plague, but it abates when Aaron comes with the censer. In the end, 14,700 people died, not counting the original 250 who were with Korah.

I’ll hazard to guess that this plague story was appended to the Korah rebellion because of the common feature of the censers.

Not a single ass was given

Earlier in the story, when the rebels were presenting their case, Moses turns to God and says:

Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one ass from them, and I have not harmed one of them. (v.15)

I would have assumed that the offering bit would have referred to the incense in the censers, except that it comes right after the part where Moses tells Dathan and Abiram to be there or be square and they refuse. It could, instead, be a jump back to Korah, in which case the brother of one of the competitors is telling the judge not to let the other guys win, which… yeah.

The ass bit probably refers to bribery. According to the information on Biblehub, it would be customary to present one’s leader with a horse to ride. Saying that he hasn’t taken an ass from them would be a way of saying “I haven’t taken so much as a penny in bribes.”

But why would he say that he hasn’t harmed them? Unless he’s trying to prove that he’s being fair and hand’s off-y, so the ball’s totally in God’s court to decide what to do with them?

I really don’t know, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of commentary on this bit. Any bright ideas?