Rebels Without a Cause

15 And Moses was very angry and said to the Lord, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.”

16 And Moses said to Korah, “Be present, you and all your company, before the Lord, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow. 17 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.” 18 So every man took his censer and put fire in them and laid incense on them and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. 19 Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation.

20 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 21 “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” 22 And they fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” 23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Say to the congregation, Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”

25 Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.” 27 So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones. 28 And Moses said, “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. 29 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. 30 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.”

31 And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. 32 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. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” 35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. Numbers 16:15-35 ESV

Moses displays a range of emotions in this story. First, he was shocked by the accusations of Korah and his companions. After their initial confrontation Moses literally “fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4) in dismay. But then, he rallied and challenged their audacity to question his leadership and questioned their misguided refusal to accept God’s will for their lives. They were unwilling to remain in their God-ordained roles and demanded more. And their attitude floored Moses.

But he rallied and proposed a test. He told the malcontents to gather at the tabernacle and bring incense to burn before the Lord. But they refused.

“We will not come up. 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?” – Numbers 16:12-13 ESV

Once again, these prideful men attacked Moses and accused him of leadership malpractice. They declared their unwillingness to obey his commands because he had failed to do what he had promised to do. He had been unsuccessful in gaining them entrance into the land of promise. According to them, their wilderness wanderings were all his fault.

“…you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” – Numbers 16:14 ESV

This time, Moses responded in anger and voiced his feelings to God. He declared his innocence and pleaded for God to refuse their sacrifices. He had done nothing to deserve their harsh treatment and offended that these men would treat him with such ingratitude and distrust. But Moses rallied yet again. One more time, he challenged Korah and his wanna-be priests to come to the tabernacle with their incense burners.

“You and all your followers must come here tomorrow and present yourselves before the Lord. Aaron will also be here. You and each of your 250 followers must prepare an incense burner and put incense on it, so you can all present them before the Lord. Aaron will also bring his incense burner.” – Numbers 16:16-17 NLT

This time, Korah and his 250 co-conspirators agreed to the challenge and showed up at the tabernacle with their incense burners and fire in hand. It was intended to be a showdown, and the odds were not in Moses’ favor. It was Korah and his 250 followers standing against Aaron. And Moses had made it clear that this was going to be a test to determine who was right and who was wrong.

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The Lord will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence.” – Numbers 16:5 NLT

And God showed up, only to find that Korah had turned the entire congregation against Moses and Aaron. He had spent the evening spreading rumors and riling up the rest of the community.

Meanwhile, Korah had stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance. – Numbers 16:19 NLT

So, when the Almighty appeared and saw the host standing before the tabernacle, He told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the entire congregation because He was going to destroy them all. He was furious and expressed His intentions to wipe out Korah and everyone who had dared to side with him.

“Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” – Numbers 16:21 NLT

But amazingly, Moses and Aaron stepped in and pleaded with God to show mercy.

“O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” – Numbers 16:22 NLT

They blamed the whole affair on one person: Korah. He alone was responsible for fomenting unrest among the other leaders and the congregation. And they begged God not to punish the many for the sins of a few.

As a result of the intercession of Moses and Aaron, God instructed them to separate the people from the rest of the rebels. And Moses did as God commanded.

“Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” So all the people stood back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. – Numbers 16:26-27 NLT

As the people stood back and watched. Moses declared the conditions of the test that was about to take place. God was going to determine who was in the right.

“This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things that I have done—for I have not done them on my own. If these men die a natural death, or if nothing unusual happens, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord does something entirely new and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all their belongings, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have shown contempt for the Lord.” – Numbers 16:28-30 NLT

Imagine the scene as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram stood with their burning censers in hand and their families gathered around them. Then the judgment of God fell. In a miraculous display of His power and righteous indignation, God caused the ground to open up and swallow alive every single one of the guilty individuals who had dared to question His wisdom and challenge Moses’ leadership.

The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. – Numbers 16:33 NLT

It was a shocking and disturbing scene. And, amazingly, the 250 leaders who had aligned themselves with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, were forced to witness the whole affair. They stood there with their censers in hand as their former leaders disappeared from sight. And as the rest of the congregation fled the scene in fear, a fire descended from heaven and consumed the 250. The small fires of their incense burners were no match for the purging fire of God. Their offerings of incense were anything but a sweet aroma to the Lord. He had judged their hearts, declared them guilty of sedition, and punished them accordingly.

God had cleansed the camp. He had purged His people of the sin that had begun to spread throughout their midst. And, in doing so, He had clearly restated His unwavering approval of Moses and Aaron as His appointed leaders. There was to no longer be any question as to who was in charge. And the people had been given a stark reminder that rebellion of any kind was ultimately an attack on God’s sovereignty. Moses and Aaron acted on His behalf. Any attempt to question or overthrow their rule was a direct attack on the will of God. These men were His representatives and they were to be obeyed – at all costs.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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