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“Now Korah,….Dathan and Abiram…rose up before Moses with certain of the children of Israel:

And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?

Numbers 16:1-3

During the wilderness journey, there were many in Israel who were children of God in name but not at heart. This became ever increasingly evident. Through the months and years the great and marvelous works of God were multiplied one upon the other. In fact, the very continued existence of such a great nation in that arid, barren land was an astounding miracle in itself. But this did not mean that the respect and gratitude of the people increased accordingly. Rather it was their indifference, discontentment, and rebellion that increased. In Israel there was a hardened core of reprobate men, and this was the natural reaction of their hearts to the greater revelations of the Lord.

It was not long after Israel was turned back from the borders of Canaan that another rebellion arose in the camp. Four of Israel’s malcontents had found sympathy in each other for their mutual complaint. They were Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On. Together they were agreed that they had good reason to complain, for they felt that they had not received the position and recognition in Israel that they deserved. The most outspoken and the leader of them was Korah, a Levite of the family of Kohath. As such he took part in some of the most important functions of the tabernacle. It was an important position in itself. But, as is so often the case, a little taste of honor begat the desire for more. He looked upon Moses and Aaron and could see no reason why their still higher positions should not be his. And the feeling of Dathan, Abiram, and On was much the same. They were of the tribe of Reuben. They could not forget that Reuben had been the oldest son of Jacob, and they thought it quite unjust that the highest positions in the nation had been given to Levi and Judah. Sharing their dissatisfaction together, the four men soon became very bitter. Neither did they find it difficult to kindle the same feeling in others. No less than two hundred and fifty of the princes of the nation were soon gathered to their cause. It was the working of sinful pride. Men never find it difficult to feel bitterly discontent with the place that the Lord has given them. A little taste of glory so easily whets the appetite for more and a bitter discontentment when it is not immediately obtained. On this the devil thrives. Of these men it appears that only On came to an understanding of the wickedness of their movement and forsook it in repentance.

These men, each prompted by his own personal ambitions, were united in one primary goal. They had to remove Moses and Aaron from their positions of political and religious authority. Moreover, their attempt to do this had to be more than just a personal attack. Israel was a religious nation, and any action of such great importance would have to have a religious justification. But for men as determined as they were, this was not hard to find. They laid hold upon the promise of God given at Mt. Sinai, “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” Their reasoning was simple. Because all of God’s people were priests, it was presumptuous for Moses and Aaron to set themselves above the rest. It was an implied denial of the Word of God. What these men failed to consider was not only that Moses served as mediator between Israel and God upon the people’s own request, but even more that both Moses and Aaron were appointed to their positions by the same God who had spoken this promise. But the men were not interested in understanding the will of God; they wanted only to justify their own sinful desires. Thus they came to Moses and Aaron and laid down their accusation, “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?”

Moses had learned through long experience how to cope with rebellious people. He knew better than to answer them in a heat of anger, or to engage them in an extended debate. First he bowed before the Lord in prayer, and then he rose to answer Korah and his company. “Even to morrow the LORD will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him. This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company; and put fire therein, and put incense in them before the LORD to morrow: and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.” With this Moses put them to the test. If it were true that all the people were holy without exception and regardless of their spiritual attitude of the heart, and if it were so that such an innate holiness of the people held precedence over all of the rest of the Word of God, then all had a perfect right to take the holy censers of the priest and stand before the face of God. But if this were not true, their action would be a terrible presumption which would surely bring down upon them the wrath of God. Through this test it would be made known who were truly holy before the Lord. But Moses warned them, “Ye take too much upon you.”

Neither did Moses allow his warning to rest with that. He separated out the leaders of the movement according to their individual responsibility and warned them personally. First he spoke to Korah who as a Levite already served in the tabernacle of God and therefore had the best reason to understand the seriousness of their claim. He warned him, “Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them? And he hath brought thee near to him, and all the brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also? For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the LORD: and who is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” But Korah was determined and would not listen.

Next Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram who were Reubenites and whose sin therefore was of a different motive. But the men felt their inability to defend themselves before Moses and sent the answer back, “We will not come up: is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us? Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.” Not knowing how to defend their new claim, they fell back upon all of the old, personal accusations against Moses: in taking them from Egypt he had taken them from a good land; for the sake of his own glory he was willing to sacrifice the lives of the people; he had not and never would bring them into the promised land; and with his words he only blinded the eyes of the people, and therefore they would not come to talk to him personally. Dathan and Abiram had set for themselves a goal of sin, and they would give no one the opportunity to try to defer them from it. Out of love for their personal ambitions, they forsook all love for God, for His Word, for His people, and for truth.

Troubled by the hardness of the men, Moses once again called them all together to re-emphasize the seriousness of the test to which they would be put on the morrow. To them he said again, “Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow: and take every man his tenser, and put incense in them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his tenser; two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each of you his tenser.” In a nation that had tasted so often of the terrible judgment of God, it would have been expected that they would think twice before performing an act of such presumption. But the men were determined to follow through every implication of their sinful claim.

Morning came and found Korah, Dathan, and Abiram with their two hundred and fifty followers gathered before the tabernacle. In their hands were the holy censers which were ordained only for use by the priests. Near by stood the people of the nation waiting with mixed feelings to behold the outcome of this latest attempt to take over the leadership of the nation.

First God spoke to Moses and Aaron. “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” In this He assured them once again that they as typical mediators were all that stood between the nation and destruction. They were not only the leaders of the nation; as types of Christ they were the nation’s saviors. In faithfulness to their calling, they fell on their faces before God and prayed in Israel’s behalf, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?” Their prayer was not for the hardened wicked but for the true congregation of the Lord. God heard their prayer, and there could be no doubt of the validity of their offices.

The time had come for the test. The men had presumed to appear in the presence of God with the holy censers of the priesthood in their hands, and now the Lord would speak as to whether they were received or not. Moses turned to the congregation and spoke, “Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of their’s, lest ye be consumed in all their sins.” Defensively and defiantly, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram had withdrawn to their own tents. Warned by the words of Moses, the people did not dare to follow until the three tents stood out as islands in the sea of people. By the tents stood the three men with their families, except for the children of Korah who being older had rejected the cause of their father. Once again Moses spoke to the congregation, “Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitations of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me. But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.”

For a moment there was a terrible silence, and then there came the sound of the earth tearing asunder. Before the eyes of the people, three great pits opened up to swallow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and all that they possessed. The judgment of the Lord had spoken.

In utter fright the mass of people turned and ran. Their sympathies with the men had been all too great. With burning consciences they feared “lest the earth swallow us up also.”

But even as they ran, the judgment of God spoke yet once more. The fire of the Lord swept down and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who had joined cause in the rebellion.

Still one more thing remained to be done. The two hundred and fifty golden censers which the men had used were gathered at the command of God. They were hallowed instruments, and from their gold were made plates of gold to cover the altars of the tabernacle. It was a memorial to the people of the judgment of God upon those who presume to be holy of themselves apart from the Word and commandments of God. Even in those early days the error of Pelagius would not be endured.

—B.W.