Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XVII

Korah, Dathan and Abiram

Read Numbers XVI.

§ 1. Causes of the Rebellion

W E have read of the stern punishment on Israelites for their rebellion at Kadesh. What punishment? Now, do you think they were sorry or penitent? I don't, and I think this story to-day shows it. I think they were like sullen children punished for a fault, who were afraid to do more than sulk in silence with black looks and angry hearts. They were angry at Moses and Aaron, and, I suppose, at Joshua and Caleb. I'm afraid, even at God. At least a great number were. Are boys and girls sometimes like that when punished? And it was this sullen anger that gave opportunity for the other evil passions that found vent in this rebellion of Korah.

Let us see if we can understand this rebellion. What two tribes engaged in it? Why these two, do you think? The men of Levi were proud and elated at the recent praise given them for their action about Golden Calf. What action? And proud also that they were specially called to be the clergy of the nation. And Reuben? Remember Reuben was the eldest son, and probably the Reubenite men were very jealous that he had lost his birthright, and that their tribe had not got chief place and had to yield to Judah. There is also an interesting reason why these two tribes would be likely to join in conspiracy. What? Not easy to find it, but see Numbers ii. 16, 17, and Numbers x. 18-21 (Kohathites). These two tribes always marched next each other.

So the first thing we see is that the cause of the rebellion was the evil passions of the conspirators—Selfishness, Presumption, Sullenness, Discontent. Instead of taking God's rebuke humbly and trying to be good and yielding to God's law for the government of the camp, they began to think about themselves and their grievances, and that they had been hardly treated—that they were just as good as any one else—or better—and that their neighbours did not set on them at all the high value which they deserved. Did you ever feel like that? I suppose Korah wanted to be high priest himself instead of Aaron, and that Dathan and Abiram thought they could rule better than Moses. And I dare say the 250 princes thought they were fit for higher positions and greater distinctions. In most cases I should hesitate to assume these evil motives. It is wrong to do so without reason. We should be slow in judging men's motives. But when I see the attitude of these men who knew all about God's laws and God's appointing of Moses and Aaron, I cannot attribute to them any higher motives than these. So they began to grow disobedient and insolent and troublesome in the camp. And for some time before the outbreak Moses could notice the black looks and the scoffing taunts and the grumbling, forced obedience to his orders. And this thing grew and grew till it became upsetting to all discipline and dangerous to the whole camp. The Reubenites would not see why Moses, who did not belong to the tribe of the eldest son, should rule them. The Levites would not see why Aaron, who was but a Levite like themselves, should be at their head. "Why should these two brothers usurp authority over Israel? Are not we just as good as they? Are not all the Lord's people holy as well as they?" So they talked. A nice lot they  were to talk of being holy, with all their past and their present conduct! I suppose they referred to God's speaking of the whole nation as a "holy nation" (Exodus xix. 6). But see there what God said should make them a holy nation. What? Were they doing that? Very far from it. Thus the rebellion grew and grew underground without open rupture. But at last it reached great dimensions. How great? (See v.  2.) When 250 princes and leaders were in it, it certainly was a serious matter. But I suspect it was even worse than it looks. In vv.  24, 27, I read of the "Tabernacle" of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and the Hebrew word is that commonly used of the Tabernacle of the Congregation (see notes). Quite possibly they had dared to set up a rival Tabernacle!

§ 2. Its Wickedness and Danger

Now try if you can see exactly (1) the wickedness, (2) the danger of this rebellion. 1st.—Why was it so wicked? Because Moses and Aaron had not  usurped or taken to themselves their authority. Who had appointed them? God Himself, who also appointed these other Levites to serve Him in their lower positions, and these Reubenites and these 250 princes each to the duties allotted to him. You see God was really their King, and the people knew it very well, and knew that all the offices in the nation were the different ways of serving God. Therefore, their rebellion, as Moses told them, was not against him, but against God's arrangements (vv.  28-31).

Suppose in the American army and navy two brothers were appointed Commander-in-Chief and Admiral. Suppose 250 army and navy officers began to be mutinous and mock at their authority, and say, "We are just as good as you and we know as much, and we have as good a right to be chiefs and we will not obey you." What do you think they would reply? "You may be as good and as wise and as clever as we, but the President has put us in these positions, and we must uphold them at any risk. It is his affair. Go and complain to him if you like, and tell him how foolish he was to appoint us. But meantime obey orders, or take the consequences." What do you think the President and the Government would do to these rebels if they persisted? It would be clearly a rebelling, not against those chiefs, but against the President and would be terribly punished. So you see the wickedness of the attitude of Korah's company—rebellion against God.

But now see the grave danger  of it. Suppose these American officers thus to mutiny, what would become of rule and discipline in the army and navy? It would be destroyed, and America would be at the mercy of any invader. Ought the Government allow such danger to exist? But suppose this should occur when a foreign army was invading America, and that there were hostile forces all around ready to spring on our army at the first chance, what would become then of the mutinous officers? A short shrift indeed. I think the commander-in-chief would march them all out some fine morning, with a blank wall behind them and files of soldiers ready in front to shoot them down at a moment when the word was given. Would that be wrong or cruel? Would it not be better to shoot 250 obstinate rebels than to risk the ruin of the whole nation?

Now this was the position in Israel. If the firm hand of authority and discipline was once removed, these two millions of people would become not a nation but a mob, free to do what they liked, ready to fly at each other's throats, and so there would be an end of God's plans for Israel. And besides this, all around them were fierce tribes of Amalekites and Midianites waiting to spring on them at any opportunity. So you can easily see the seriousness of this outbreak.

§ 3. The Challenge of Moses

Now let us follow the story. Picture this formidable procession with 250 famous princes and men of renown marching to Moses' tent, and a great crowd watching behind, half-frightened, half-sympathetic. Moses comes out of his tent to listen to their complaints. Not a very pleasant people to have to listen to. Insolent and insubordinate, they challenge him to his teeth. "Ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi." What is their charge against Moses and Aaron? (v.  3). Does Moses vindicate or defend himself? (vv.  4, 5). No. He falls on his face in prayer and then leaves it to God to vindicate him. "To-morrow God will show who are His and who is holy."

Fancy any one thinking Moses was self-seeking and usurping authority for his own purposes! He who had prayed for them—"God forgive the people, and if not, blot me out of Thy book." It must have hurt him deeply. Yet he was sure God would not think it or misunderstand him, and that contented him. So it should be with us when falsely charged. God knows. Christ will not misunderstand.

Show how he pointed out that God had given to these men their duties as He had given Moses his, and that their rebellion was against God, not against him and Aaron. I think he wanted to get the whole body of the conspirators together to discuss things with them. He had only Korah and his friends present, so he sent orders to the other princes, Dathan and Abiram, to attend. What was their reply? Flat disobedience, and insult added to it (vv.  12-15). No discipline could be kept up, no camp could hold together if the commander were to be thus treated. So there was nothing for it but to fling down his challenge to the rebels and call upon God to vindicate his position. "Be thou and all thy company before the Lord," he says to Korah, "thou, and they, and Aaron, to-morrow. To-morrow the Lord shall judge between us."

§ 4. How God Judged the Rebels

The morrow is come. The great Testing Day to tell if Moses or the rebels shall be supreme in the nation. Make in your minds the picture that I see. The huge camp of Israel stretching along the hillside. In the midst of it I see a great open space, an open valley crowded with thousands and thousands of excited people, gazing eagerly up the slope before them. Gaze up with them. There, on the south side of the Tabernacle, is the camp of Reuben, marked by the standards of the tribe, and in the front of it the two white princes' tents of Dathan and Abiram. In front to the right I see the tall tent of Moses, and opposite it, in the open, the coloured curtains of the Tabernacle, with the sun blazing brightly on its roof of scarlet ramskins. Something else, too, the sun is blazing on. A crowd of men in white in the front of the Tabernacle, holding in their hands what seem bright brazen shields. You know these. Korah and his company of white-robed Levites, carrying their brazen censers.

That is the picture on which the host of people is gazing. They are wrought to a high pitch of excitement and suspense. What is going to happen? Moses has challenged the test of a miracle. He has appealed to Jehovah. The rebels have responded by standing daringly in their places. Now what would happen next?

I wonder if Moses had any doubt about the result. I don't think he had. Keep your eyes still on the hillside in front. I see the old chief come forth from his tent, and the people almost cease breathing in their suspense. Dathan and Abiram have not stood forward with Korah. They are standing sullenly at the door of their tents, with a crowd of followers round them. But they are not to escape thus. Straight to the rebel tents the leader walks, and warns their half-frightened followers to withdraw. Then, after his stern glance has swept over Reubenites and Levites, he turns solemnly to the crowd below. "If these men die the common death of all men, then the Lord hath not sent me." The faces of the crowd are white with excitement. For a moment there is a great solemn, awful hush—then a rumbling as of thunder—a rocking and quaking of the ground—a wild shrieking of terror—a flash of white blinding light from the Tabernacle, and lo! when the people could look again, the whole ground on the hill slope had cleft asunder and swallowed the two white tents, and across in the open the men with the brazen censers lay charred and dead upon the ground, blasted by that quick flash from the Tabernacle behind them!

§ 5. Lessons

1. Are some of you troubled about the wives and little children swallowed up with the obstinate rebels in their ruin? Do you think it seemed a bit hard on them? Don't be afraid to think out fearlessly about it. Be very reverent and humble in judging. But don't be afraid to think and inquire. It is probably the conscience and the tenderness that God has given you, and the belief you have as to what God would do, that is prompting such thoughts. At any rate, they are better spoken out than kept in. I do not know enough to answer your thoughts. But I know enough to keep myself undisturbed. I know that God is more merciful than I am—that these women and children had not passed to their final destiny, but only to the great Waiting Life beyond the grave, where they are as much in God's sight and in God's care as they were here. Why should we be afraid to trust them with God? "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Aye and more than right for them and for all.

2. Take care lest you fall into the spirit of such sins—sullenness, self-seeking, discontent, thinking yourself better than those in higher positions than yourself, and wishing to discredit them and make little of them. There are two ways of trying to get equal with those above us—(1) trying to pull them down; (2) a nobler way, trying to rouse ourselves up. But there is a nobler way still—Thinking more about your work than your position. Letting God settle your position for you, and "doing your duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call you."

3. There is another lesson that needs in our day to be taught very distinctly, and yet very cautiously, lest it should be wrongly taught. God forbid that there should be self-conceit or arrogance between one body of Christians and another. But we must not blink plain facts where our Lord's interests are concerned. Just as in the old Jewish days, when God called a nation to accomplish great purposes, so in our day. Our Lord certainly appointed a visible Church on earth to accomplish a great purpose. The chief work of His life was the training of its leaders and starting it on its course. He certainly willed that it should remain one and unbroken. It has not done so. It is not our place to apportion the blame. Sometimes it was some of the truest, noblest souls that in their perplexity made divisions, thinking it was their duty. Sometimes the evil came from men's self-will and their failure to understand each other. It is not for us to judge. But we must see the evil, and see the weakness caused by this setting up of rival "Tabernacles of God" through the land. Try to sympathise and join in the efforts of holy men of all denominations who are trying to put this evil right—that our Lord's great prayer may be fulfilled, "That they all may be one," (i.e. outwardly one as well as inwardly, for He adds) "that the World may know  that Thou hast sent Me." (John xvii. 21).


V.  1. Korah, son of Izhar, brother of Amram, was Moses' and Aaron's relative, and was evidently jealous of the position which they had received. On is not mentioned again—perhaps he withdrew from the conspiracy before the catastrophe.

V.  14, Wilt thou put out the eyes?  i.e. "Are you trying to blind us to what you are doing?"

Vv.  19, 21, "All the congregation." This shows how the mutiny had grown, and that the people were largely sharing in its spirit.

Vv.  24, 27. Tabernacle: the Hebrew word is mishkan,  and usually denotes the Tabernacle, i.e. the inner Tabernacle under its tent. It may possibly only mean the tent or dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (see v.  26). But some commentators think it means a rival Tabernacle set up by the rebels.

V.  32. It would seem that Korah was not with Dathan and Abiram, but probably was destroyed with the men burned up at the Tabernacle door. This is further probable from the statement in ch. xxvi. 11. Here we learn that Korah's children "died not" like those of Dathan and Abiram (see also Psalm cvi. 17).

Questions for Lesson XVII

Who said, "Ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi"?

Who were Korah, Dathan and Abiram?

What was the cause of their rebellion?

Show the danger of such a rebellion, say, in the American army.

How did Moses meet them?

What was their punishment?

If some one said that God was cruel in letting these families also be destroyed, could you say anything in reply?

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