Korah’s Rebellion

Series on Numbers (chapter 16)

“Now 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, and 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” (16:1, 2).


Confrontation and argumentation do not fit my psychological profile. I will patiently stand for truth and contend with anyone for the principles of righteousness; but I try to avoid conflict as much as possible. I think all of us want to avoid this type of confrontation. When someone, either publicly or privately, gets face to face with us in argumentation and debate, it makes for an uncomfortable situation, especially if we feel personally challenged. Yet, confrontation happens, and when it does, we need to learn from the experience. God shares with us a confrontation in Numbers that involved Moses and Aaron, God’s chosen leaders. Moses, having been described as a meek individual, became the center of this confrontation. Examining this event will help us to deal with the same problem should it arise in our lives.

I. The source of the rebellion

The Scriptures introduce us to Korah, a Levite (16:1). He is a man already charged with part of the work in Israel. Being a Levite, he had charge of part of the tabernacle. He was considered a holy person, separated for God’s service. Being a Levite, he was, in fact, a distant relative of Moses and Aaron. We are also introduced to three other Israelites who will soon join in a conspiracy against God’s appointed leadership. Dathan, Abiram, and On are Reubenites (16:1). On is not mentioned again in this event. Perhaps, as a plot began to form, he withdrew from the conspiracy. When we recall the way that God had ordered the camp of Israel to be set up, we will remember that the Reubenites were camped next to the Levites. We also recall that Reuben was the first-born of the sons of Jacob and should have had, by birthright, the leadership of all twelve tribes. However, God had bypassed Reuben and had given the seed line to Judah. God had also given the Levites charge of His holy things and had given Moses and Aaron, also Levites, the leadership of the entire nation. Caleb, from Judah, and Joshua, from Ephraim, had been spared because they were faithful spies and only they would see the Promised Land. The leadership, which was now in Moses’ hands, would be passed on to Joshua. Thus, Reuben and his descendants had no significant part in Israel. The Reubenites had cause, in their minds, for complaining bitterly over their bypassed rights.

We are also introduced to 250 “leaders” of Israel (16:2). These men are not mentioned by name, but apparently they had influence and power among the people. They may have been some of the captains over the thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Whoever they were, it seems they were a fair representation of all of the tribes of Israel. But, significantly, they also represented the malcontents of the congregation. The confrontation began against Moses and Aaron until finally the whole congregation of Israel was assembled (16:19).

II. The solemnity of the complaint

In leading this rebellion against Moses and Aaron, Korah announced a doctrine or principle (16:3). It seems that this principle is a common thread. Every movement has been founded on the ideas or doctrine of a leader. Adolph Hitler built Germany on the doctrine of the superiority of the Arian nation and stirred up hatred against other races, especially against the Jews. Korah built his movement on an oracle of truth that Jehovah Himself had proclaimed. In Exodus 19:6 God had said, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Korah used this text as a pretext for rebellion, stating that no equality and fraternity existed in Israel. He accused Moses and Aaron of taking on the privileges of leadership and priesthood and these were the inalienable rights of every Israelite. All were holy in God’s sight. He and those who followed him failed to see the inconsistency of their own doctrine. God’s principle of holiness did not match Korah’s doctrine. When Moses challenged them to let God choose who was holy and who was not, Moses gave God’s position (16:6, 7). It was only by a separated tribe and holy priests serving their fellow Israelites that the rest of the nation could be considered as holy. Unless the high priest stood, as it were, on “higher ground” as God’s holy man, then all of the other worshipers could not be cleansed and made holy. The same principle applied for Moses. If everyone were equal as a leader, then where was the fellowship? Who was left to take direction if all gave orders?

III. The settlement of the complaint

Moses did not settle the dispute by human means. He did not engage in argumentation and debate. He did not draw up sides and go to war over the power struggle for leadership (cf. Ephesians 6:10). God must settle disputes that are in His realm. Truth will always win out. God would demonstrate by a sign whom He had chosen. God punishes only the guilty (16:24, 27-35). Korah’s tent must have been in close proximity to Dathan and Abiram, for when God opened the earth, they all perished together (Deuteronomy 11:6). However, other texts say that Korah’s sons were not part of the conspiracy and did not perish with him (Numbers 26:11; Deuteronomy 24:16). In 1 Chronicles 6:33-38 some of the descendants of Korah were among those “sweet singers of Israel.” God, therefore, demonstrated His fairness, consistency, and holiness in only punishing the guilty. The 250 other conspirators were burned at their post of duty as had happened to Nadab and Abihu when they had brought strange fire before the Lord. God would not allow anything they touched to be used in priestly service again (16:36-38). Their censers were hammered into plating for the altar as a sign of God’s holiness. Everyone from that point on who looked at the altar would remember what had happened. It would make their approach to God even more reverent and cautious than before.

IV. The significance for us

First, we see that rebellion is deceptive in nature. The Psalmist captured this thought as he described the nature of being caught up in a cause (Psalms 1:1-6). Three stages lead to a rebellion. The first stage is being caught up in a cause without checking out the facts. “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, . . .” (Psalms 1:1a). When one does not weigh the evidence presented or check out the facts and compare both sides of an issue, it becomes easy to be caught up in the excitement of the moment. The second stage is when one becomes associated with the rebellion. “Nor stand in the path of sinners, . . .” (Psalms 1:1b). Those 250 nameless leaders were cunningly used by Korah (16:3) to deliver the doctrine of complaint against Moses and Aaron. Rebellious leaders often use anonymity to hide themselves from exposure. The following article cites a current example that all of those in the church would do well to heed.

Good church members have names!

“For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you” (1 Cor. 1:11).

There are situations requiring concerned members going to elders/preachers/leaders. Read our text. Good church members count. But they do have names. Too many go to the preacher or the elders under this guise, however, for anonymous members. Good church members have names; “Billy Goats” do not! They are not good members, or they would not be using you to do their dirty work. If they cannot go to the elders or the preacher, then why did they send you? Christianity and anonymity do not mix! How can you defend yourself against someone who “ain’t there”? Why do we protect anonymous folks to the price of elders? This is a copout! You are never sent with a positive purpose — it is always to murmur, stop, “be agin it.” What is the reason given? Is it for an objective evaluation? NO! The only reason given is: “Some good anonymous members don’t like it.” So elders are undermined, good works stopped — and all in the name of good members! One final observation — The “errand boy” always states this is not his position — he usually is hiding behind “good members.” If you are for or against it — at least be honest and say so. Don’t hide behind anonymity! Paul named his sources! Why should leaders be held accountable to nameless members? Either bring their names or do not go.

-Charles Hodge

If one stays in a rebellious group long enough, he will become one of the ringleaders. “ . . . nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” (Psalms 1:1c). The one who starts on the outside of the circle soon becomes one of the experts for the cause being led. Have you noticed this pattern among those who become unfaithful to the Lord’s church? They may have dropped out because of discouragement, inattention, etc. — much of which may have been partly our fault for not caring for one another. For a while they may try to be anonymous and may even feel guilty. As time goes by, they become bitter and cynical. When a visit is made, they become the expert on all that is wrong with the church. They have become the church critic.

The second lesson we learn from this rebellion is we are reminded of the nature of the kingdom and our place in it. The disciples of our Lord decided that they wanted to occupy places of lordship and not servantship (Mark 9:33-35). Jesus reminded them that His kingdom was one of servantship and not like worldly organizations. We have perhaps lost the kingdom nature of the church by using the organizational term “church” too loosely. A kingdom has only one king. The King of the kingdom is Jesus Christ. Peter warned that servant leadership could lead to “lording it over the flock” (Acts 20:28; cf. 1 Peter 5:8). Conversely, just as a kingdom needs leadership it also needs fellowship. When Paul described the servant leaders of the church (1 Timothy 3:1f.), he indicated that it was a “work.” But working leaders must have followers for their work to be effective. Korah had a servant part but wanted more. Satan had a servant part but wanted more. We, too, have been given a servant part. Can we learn to be satisfied with what God has given us to be and do, whether it be a leader or follower?


Israel could not be a holy nation or a productive people until they submitted themselves to God’s leadership. His plan for that leadership was through Moses and Aaron.

As the Israel of God today, we cannot be holy and productive if we are not continually submitting ourselves to Jesus and to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Submission to each other and having the heart of a servant begins with our submission to God. Which side do you find yourselves standing with, God’s or someone else’s? It is costly to be on the wrong side. Korah serves as an example.