Numbers 16 (Part 2)

Yesterday, we began walking through Numbers 16 together. Given the length of that chapter, I ended up having to break it up into two separate posts to hopefully make it easier to digest. I do want to clear up one possible misunderstanding I could have invited due to sloppy wording on my part. I said, “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.” I want to be very clear that I was 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.


With that said, let’s pick up where we left off yesterday. Yesterday we talked about the conspirators, the complaint, and the response. Today we’ll see the showdown, the intercession and judgment, and Israel’s continued obstinance. You would think that, given everything that’s about to happen, the people would have been driven to repentance, but they weren’t. May we all pray for soft hearts, quick to repent when we’ve done wrong. For if our hearts are hard, the damage they do can sometimes be devastating.


The Showdown


So, we pick up the account in verse 16, where Moses says to Korah, “Be present, you and all your company, before the LORD, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow. And let every one of you take his censer and put incense on it, and every one of you bring before the LORD his censer, 250 censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.” Korah, for his part, accepts this challenge in verses 18-19. In fact, not only did Korah and the 250 men who were with him go with their incense to the tent of meeting, but verse 19 says, “Korah assembled all the congregation against [Moses and Aaron] at the entrance of the tent of meeting.”


How quickly the congregation turned on Moses! And remember, Moses made it clear in verse 11 that this really wasn’t about him. And it really wasn’t about Aaron. These people had risen up in rebellion against God. Moses said, “It is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together.” What started with a couple hundred people has now spread so that the entire congregation is standing on the side of the rebels. Korah, I’m sure, was convinced that he was about to triumph. After all, the people were with him. His band of conspirators were resolute in their mission. Now they were going to the final showdown, and everyone would see the great pretender, Moses, fall before Korah. Of course, that’s not how it happened. Here’s how Matthew Henry describes what was actually happening,


Now to attend the solemn trial, and to be witness of the issue, one would have thought Moses should have gathered the congregation against the rebels, but it seems Korah gathered them against Moses (v. 19), which intimates that a great part of the congregation sided with Korah, were at his beck, and wished him success, and that Korah’s hopes were very high of carrying the point against Aaron; for, had he suspected the event, he would not have coveted to make the trial thus public: but little did he think that he was now calling the congregation together to be the witnesses of his own confusion! Note, Proud and ambitious men, while they are projecting their own advancement, often prove to have been hurrying on their own shameful fall.[1]


It’s worth noting, at this point, how foolish Korah was for accepting this challenge in the first place. Moses had reasoned with him, he had been called to repentance, yet he still obstinately clung to his belief that he would “win” in the end. Korah was playing a very dangerous game, going to the tabernacle to offer incense when God had not asked him to do so. Perhaps Moses had thought it would be obvious what would happen to him if he did, and so gave the challenge as a way to show Korah his need for repentance. Korah would have been there for the events in Leviticus 10. He would have seen what happened to Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who offered “unauthorized fire” to the Lord. Moses is challenging him to do the very same thing, and yet it never occurs to Korah that he will suffer the same judgment that they did.  Again, Matthew Henry comments,


If he had not had a very great stock of impudence, he could not have carried on the matter thus far. Had not he lately seen Nadab and Abihu, the consecrated priests, struck dead for daring to offer incense with unhallowed fire? and could he and his accomplices expect to fare any better in offering incense with unhallowed hands? Yet, to confront Moses and Aaron, in the height of his pride he thus bids defiance to Heaven, and pretends to demand the divine acceptance without a divine warrant; thus wretchedly is the heart hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.[2]


Unfortunately for Korah, he didn’t see what was happening. Sin blinded him to the point that he willingly and audaciously committed the same act that, as he himself had witnessed, was the very thing for which his cousins were struck down by the Lord. In verse 19, then, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation.” And the verdict God hands down is simple, to the point, and unmistakably clear. God was so angered by the conduct of Korah and his companions that he tells Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.”


Intercession and Judgment


Yet Moses would not abandon the people of Israel. In a beautiful picture of what Christ has done for us, Moses and Aaron intercede on behalf of the people, the same people who had assembled against them. The text tells us “they fell on their faces” before God. What a contrast this is with Korah’s presumption. Korah brazenly stormed the tabernacle with all the hubris of a rebel usurper, all the while claiming to be the aggrieved party. Meanwhile Moses and Aaron, who had been rightly called to their offices by God himself, came before God with humility, reverence, and awe.


Notice also upon what basis they plead for the people. They don’t ask God to relent from his anger because the people deserve it. They don’t make promises that the people’s conduct will change in the future. They plead with God on the basis of his goodness and his justice, saying, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” Moses and Aaron weren’t making deals with God for mercy. They were prostrate before him begging for mercy solely on the basis of who he is.


And God heard their prayer. He relented from consuming the people in a moment, now simply telling the people “Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. I should take a moment to note that we as Reformed Christians do not believe that God changed his mind, as though Moses made a good enough argument to dissuade God from doing something foolish. Rather, we understand that God has ordained prayer as the means by which mercy may be obtained. Just that statement is probably enough for its own article, but for now please understand that God did not change his mind here. He acted in accordance with his nature, just like Moses and Aaron had requested.


Now, when Moses publishes the warning to get away from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, the people listen. Yet it’s interesting that the three conspirators do not. They still hold obstinately to their rebellion. You’d think that God having handed down sentence, and it only being due to Moses’ intercession that all the people weren’t consumed in a moment, that Korah, Dathan, and Abiram would reconsider their actions. But, once again, sin had blinded them to all common sense.


Moses then proclaims to all the people, “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. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD.” That’s quite a claim to make, and it’s also exactly what happened. “As soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods.” There you have it. No one could now question that Moses had been sent by God, right?




Verse 41 tells us that, amazingly and unfortunately, indeed they could. “But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the LORD.’” Such unbelief boggles the mind. The people had heard God’s voice saying he would consume them in a moment. They had heard Moses intercede for them. They had heard Moses’ proclamation that they men would be swallowed up alive into Sheol (the Hebrew word for “the grave” or “the realm of the dead”), and they had seen it happen just as Moses had said. “Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and wonder, O earth! Was there very such an instance of the incurable corruption of sinners?”[3]


Moses and Aaron must again intercede for the people, but this time there’s not a case to be made for mercy. Earlier, Moses and Aaron had made roughly the same argument that Abraham had made in Genesis 18:25, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!” This time Moses has to send Aaron to offer incense on behalf of the people and halt the wrath of God. In the end 14,700 people were killed by the plague before Aaron made atonement for them. At the end of the chapter we see Aaron standing between the dead and the living, the surrounding carnage a visible manifestation of the reality of sin.




I’ll keep this section brief, but I want to take a moment and reflect on some takeaways from Numbers 16. We already touched on one yesterday when we noted that coveting was the sin at the heart of Korah’s rebellion. If you ever think that the 10th commandment is “no big deal,” just remember that over fourteen thousand people died in this chapter, all because three men coveted. Second, I think we need to take a moment and think about all the warning signs these men should have seen throughout the chapter. Moses is praying that God would treat them like he had Cain. The “test” to see if God would accept them was the very thing that got Nadab and Abihu put to death. God spoke and told all the people to get away from these men so that none of those who were innocent would be swept away with them. Not only did Korah, Dathan, and Abiram not repent, the people still took their side when all was said and done. This is why God’s word tells us “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Your own understanding will make you think that nothing could go wrong when literally every indication is that things are going to end horribly if you stay on your current path.


Finally, though, let us remember that our Savior daily intercedes for us the way Moses and Aaron interceded for the people of Israel. He has a better case than they did. They said, “shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” But Christ says, “Father, these are mine. I have paid the penalty for their sins. There’s no condemnation for them any longer.” Christ also has a better sacrifice than we find in Numbers 16. Aaron offered incense for the people, but Christ offered up himself to redeem us from the curse and make us new creations in him. Thanks be to God!

[1] 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), 501.

[2] Ibid. 500-501.

[3] Ibid. 504