Numbers 16 (Part 1)

Let’s be honest, the book of Numbers can be a tough read. I don’t know anyone who would say otherwise. There are lengthy genealogies, codes of law, and stories of the people of Israel repeatedly rebelling against God and incurring his judgment. It’s not what many people would call “encouraging” or “uplifting” or things like that. And yet, as I often remind myself, Paul said that all Scripture is profitable for us. And today we get to read one of the accounts in the book of Numbers that, while it isn’t exactly a happy story…it’s at least interesting. In Numbers 16 we see the danger of being blinded by our own sinful desires, we see the importance of remembering that God is holy, we see a picture of Christ in the intercession of Moses for the people, and finally we see a glimpse of the judgment awaiting all who are outside of Christ on the last day. So, in the eight hundred or so words I have left, let’s walk through this chapter together.[1]


The Conspirators


The chapter opens by introducing us to three men: Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. There is a fourth man named On, but he disappears from the account immediately. Each of these men has a complaint against Moses and Aaron. Korah, we are told in verse 1, was “the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi.” So not only was Korah from the same tribe as Moses, but he was also from the same clan in that tribe. In fact, Korah was Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. Given what follows, I would imagine that there was some family tension going back a while. Korah is jealous of Aaron’s position as high priest. He breaks the 10th commandment and covets something that belongs to his neighbor.


Dathan and Abiram, on the other hand, were from the tribe of Reuben. Now, possibly they were angry that the tribe of Judah, rather than Reuben, had been given the pride of place in the layout of the camp. They resented the fact that their tribe, the tribe of the firstborn, was being snubbed by Moses. In other words, they had broken the 10th commandment too. These three men were able to gather together a group of 250 “chiefs of the congregation” against Moses and Aaron. Who were these men? Well, Matthew Henry argues that these men were “probably…first-born, or at least heads of families who, before the elevation of Aaron, had themselves ministered in holy things.”[2] What we have here is a group of people rebelling against the covenant God had made with them at Sinai. They are rising up to demand new terms, and they bring their complaint to Moses in verse 3.


The Complaint


The complaint they bring consists in two parts. First, they object to the priesthood being limited to Aaron and his sons. Second, they object to Moses’ leadership, which had consisted entirely of Moses delivering the word of God to them. So, first, the complain that Aaron has no right to exclusively hold the priesthood, saying in verse 3, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them.” What makes Aaron worthy of the priesthood more than anyone else? After all, weren’t they all God’s chosen people? Weren’t they all God’s royal priesthood and holy nation? Yet Matthew Henry points out, “Small reason they had to boast of the people’s purity, or of God’s favour, as the people had been so frequently and so lately polluted with sin, and were now under the marks of God’s displeasure, which should have made them thankful for priests to mediate between them and God; but instead of that, they envy them.”[3]


Then there was the complaint against Moses. In verse 13, the conspirators accuse Moses of wanting to make himself a “prince” over them, which is amazing, if you think about it, since back in Exodus Moses was begging God to send someone else to deliver the people. Then, amazingly, they accuse him of removing them from a land “flowing with milk and honey” so he could kill them in the wilderness. Just think for a second about the fact that these people called Egypt a land flowing with milk and honey. They were slaves in Egypt. They had cried out to God for deliverance from oppression in Egypt. Now they’re saying that Egypt was all they’d ever wanted.


Then they accuse Moses of wanting to kill them in the wilderness. Had they forgotten about the water from the rock when they were thirsty? Had they forgotten about the manna that fell from the sky every morning? Had they forgotten about the times that God had provided quail for them when they wanted meat? God was miraculously sustaining them in the wilderness, yet they accuse Moses of wanting them to die in the wilderness? None of these accusations make any sense.


And yet the most nonsensical of all would have to be their final accusation. They accuse Moses of lying to them, of promising them a land and never delivering on that promise. They say in verse 14, “Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards.” I think most of us can sympathize with Matthew Henry when his response to this is, “and pray whose fault was that? He had brought them to the borders of it, and was just ready, under God, to put them in possession of it; but they thrust it away from them, and shut the door against themselves; so that it was purely their own fault that they were not now in Canaan, and yet Moses must bear the blame.”[4]


The Response


Moses, for his part, leaves the matter entirely in God’s hands. He entrusts the outcome completely to God when he invites the complainants to bring incense before the Lord the next day to see who will be accepted by him. Then, in verses 8-11, Moses responds to the Levites complaint. He points out that God had set them apart from the rest of Israel in a special way. He had allowed them to draw near to him and assist in the service of the tabernacle. Why, then, did they covet the priesthood? “It was not long since the sons of Levi had bravely appeared on God’s side, in the matter of the golden calf, and got immortal honour by it; and shall those that were then the only innocents now be the leading criminals, and lose all the honour they had won?” The answer, unfortunately, is yes.


Then, Moses invites Dathan and Abiram to come and present their case, but they refuse. So, in verse 15, Moses once again entrusts the matter to God. In so doing, he asks God, “Do not respect their offering.” This wording is very similar to how Moses had described God’s attitude for Cain’s offering. It’s also interesting to note that Jude 11 links the two events together directly. Moses is making it clear that these men are in the wrong, and he’s praying that God would regard them as such.


Given that I have another two pages of notes, I’m going to have to come back to this tomorrow. For now, though, take a moment and meditate on how destructive the sin of coveting was to these 253 men. So often we think of coveting as a “victimless crime,” but it ruined these men’s lives. They convinced themselves that God had been unjust to them, then they rose in defiance against him, and by the end of the chapter they’re all dead. Now, thanks be to God, those of us who have broken the 10th commandment (all of us) can find forgiveness in Christ, but, at the same time, it is good for us to consider just how dangerous sin is, even the sin we would think was “no big deal.”[5] See you tomorrow for the rest of the story.

[1] Who am I kidding? I’ve never once made it under that thousand word limit…

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Complete and Unabridged in Six Volumes, vol. 1 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 498.

[3] Ibid. 498.

[4] Ibid. 500.

[5] I want to be very clear that I am not saying that the men in Numbers 16 couldn’t have found forgiveness in Christ. On the contrary, I believe that every individual in history who has been saved was saved by faith in Christ alone. In Numbers 16 they would have been trusting in the promise of Christ, whereas we trust in the proclamation of Christ, but we’re all still trusting in the same Savior. I just want to make sure that no one reads that and understands me to be saying that Old Testament saints were saved in a different way than we are. They were saved by Christ just as we are.