Numbers 16:1-50

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The chapter we are about to read opens a section of four chapters all of which concern the priesthood and its work. In these chapters both the centrality and the indispensability of the priesthood are established by narrative and by law. [Wenham, 133] One scholar even claims that “a complete theology of priesthood” may be found in these chapters. [de Vaulx in Wenham, 134] Assuming that these events happened shortly after the events at Kadesh, the people, now condemned to die in the wilderness but still lacking any of the insight that true faith would supply, are demoralized. In that state they are all the more ready to listen to a demagogue who proposes to overthrow their leadership and fashion a new plan for the nation. [Milgrom, 129]

Text Comment

The Reubenites were encamped directly beneath the Kohathites on the south side of the sanctuary, so they were neighbors. [Milgrom, 340] One commentator entitles the chapter, “The Southside Rebellion.” [Duguid, 199]

As has often been said, every heretic has his texts. The tassels that Israelites were to wear indicated that the entire community was to be holy. They were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Yahweh himself had said so! But these facts became a pretext for denying the special role the Lord had assigned to the house of Aaron. As is always the case, this group of malcontents had leaders. Without the leaders nothing much would have happened. Some people would have grumbled but that would have been that. With leadership however, a serious rebellion broke out against the authority of Moses and Aaron.

As will become clear in v. 10, the complaint of Korah is really against Aaron and the reservation of the priesthood to him and his family. The Reubenite men had a different complaint and it was directed against Moses in particular.

Moses fell on his face presumably to seek an answer from the Lord.

The background of Moses’ challenge is the death previously of two of Aaron’s sons for offering unauthorized incense (Lev. 10:1-2). Korah’s willingness to take up Moses’ challenge (v. 18) is indication enough of his lack of any spiritual insight.

Korah was a Kohathite, the family of the Levitical tribe that was entrusted with the care and transportation of the most sacred furniture of the sanctuary. But that was not enough. Interestingly, when Moses was attacked personally, he left his defense to the Lord; but when Aaron was attacked Moses rose to his defense. That is a good example for us to follow: defend others, not ourselves.

An open defiance of Moses’ authority.

In their recollection Egypt had become a land flowing with milk and honey! Sinner’s recollection of the past I have found through the years is very selective and it is usually the misery their sins brought upon them that they tend to forget.

Dathan and Abiram were Reubenites and do not appear to have wanted priestly roles or, remembering the fate of Aaron’s two sons, did not want to risk their lives by following Korah in asserting a right to the priesthood. But they piggy-backed on Korah’s complaint their own unhappiness with Moses’ leadership. Usually in petty rebellions there are various complaints and people feel aggrieved for different reasons.

There is an idiom here translated differently by different scholars. Perhaps a better translation than “gouge out the eyes”, which doesn’t make a great deal of sense here, is “hoodwink” or “pull the wool over the eyes.” [Milgrom, 134]

In other words, Korah will be given the opportunity to test his claim that he has as much right to be a priest as Aaron.

Korah is confident. He gathered his followers in expectation of his vindication! The man was a complete fool.

Once again the Lord cues Moses and Aaron and they intercede for the people. The Lord relents and, as a result, only Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their families would be punished. As in the case of the ten spies or scouts, immediate punishment was reserved for those directly involved.

It seems clear that many, if not most Israelites did not support this rebellion.

The Lord’s dramatic intervention in some unprecedented way would prove that it was the Lord and not Moses himself who established the law of the priesthood and who brought Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

Korah’s household and his men included at least some of his servants but not all of his sons. We know this because at least one of Korah’s sons survived to become the ancestor of some of the temple singers in David’s day (1 Chron. 6:33, 37). We read in 26:11 that the line of Korah was not extinguished.

The plating of the altar would be a constant reminder to the Israelites of what happened when she ignored Yahweh’s commandments regarding her worship. The tassels were a positive reminder, the plating of the altar a negative one.

Spiritual lessons cannot be learned by unspiritual people! The Israelites began almost immediately to grumble again against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, no matter Yahweh’s dramatic vindication of both of them. And they blamed the two men again even after the dramatic demonstration that it was the Lord who had been defied and the Lord who had executed the rebels.

Again Moses and Aaron intercede for the people in answer to the Lord’s declaring that he intended to destroy them.

The fact that the incense was offered outside the sanctuary indicates that it was an emergency measure devised on the spot. Aaron could offer incense even without regard to the ordinary rules of offering incense; Korah couldn’t offer incense even in strict conformity to those rules. Aaron also stood among the dead, something he should not normally have done. It is more evidence – of which there is plenty – that the regulations regarding Israel’s worship were for the blessing and benefit of the people. The law was made for man, not man for the law! Regulations could be suspended if the people’s benefit required it as we saw earlier with the date of the Passover (9:9-11).

Once more the authority of Aaron’s priesthood was vindicated and its importance for the life of the people demonstrated.

I not infrequently get responses to my messages. People will write an appreciative note or email me a question. Sometimes they will express disagreement with something I said. But rarely do I get a note suggesting how I might handle a text in a forthcoming sermon. In fact, I can’t remember ever getting such advice until the other day when one of you sent the following:


It has been some 27 years since I first darkened the door of [this] church, and in that time I am quite certain that I have never attempted to suggest how you should handle any given passage. With this in mind, I hope you will indulge me by entertaining the following suggestion: I think that any message on Numbers 16 delivered in the United States should either be entitled, “The Failure of the Priesthood of All Believers,” or, “The Priesthood of All Believers: What it Isn’t.”

As you know, in many American church circles, 1 Peter 2:9 has been invoked to facilitate all sorts of nonsense that parallels the cultural ideal of rugged independence. I come out of baptistic and independent church circles where this verse has been used to develop practices such as having all adult Sunday school classes sit in a circle, so that no one can claim to be the leader or teacher of that class. (After all, we’re all Christians, so all of our opinions on spiritual matters are equally valid.) This has led, of course, to that great spiritual practice that I refer to as the Pooling of Ignorance. Think of how much richer the Sermon on the Mount would have been if Jesus had allowed the disciples to contribute to its content. Now that would be a message worth following!

By the way, if you don’t like this suggestion, please make sure that my censer gets placed somewhere nice. After all, you’re the priest, and I’m not.

Now, I will say nothing about the identity of the writer except to say that he has also provided the congregation with a detailed and increasingly popular schedule for reading the Bible through in a year. But he shall remain nameless.

The fact is Craig (oops!) is exactly right as to the theme of this material as is proved by the fact that it belongs with succeeding paragraphs and chapters devoted to the same theme: the centrality and the indispensability of the priesthood. Now, to be sure, that theme could be developed in any number of different ways. We could discuss precisely why the priesthood was given the special place it was in the economy of God. We could discuss the similarities and differences between the OT and NT priesthood. Or we could examine, as Craig suggested, the relationship between the general priesthood and the special priesthood, the very question that Korah raised in v. 3, that the Lord emphasized in his response to the rebellion, and which many continue to raise in the new epoch: why should one man have such authority in the church when all of God’s people are priests and prophets; when, as the Scripture says, all have been taught by the Lord?

Let me remind you briefly of some points I have made many times before. Insofar as the Aaronic priesthood was a type or enacted prophesy of Jesus Christ, it has passed away. Insofar as it was simply the OT form of the ministry of Word, worship, and sacrament, it continues largely unchanged into the new epoch. Formal changes have been made, of course – priests are no longer drawn from a particular family line – but the work is by and large the same and is to be done in by and large the same way. As to the work that was done by priests in the OT and is to be done by ministers in the NT there is little difference. In function, OT priests and NT ministers occupy the same office.

We tend to associate the title “priest” with a distinctly OT form of ministry (and fault the Roman Catholics for continuing to use the term), but these are the facts. 1) The English word “priest” is simply a transliteration – through old and middle English – of the Greek word “presbyter,” the ordinary New Testament word for “elder.” There is nothing at all wrong with using the word “priest” to designate a Christian minister. He is called a priest (presbyter) in the New Testament and is said to have the calling of a priest (Romans 15:16). 2) Both in the OT and the NT the obligations of this office are the same: the superintendence of worship and the preaching of the Word (Acts 6:4). We don’t often think of OT priests as preachers but there are several places in the OT where it is said explicitly that they were and several places where we see priests preaching (Deut. 33:10; 2:6; Ezra 8:4-8). And 3) both in the OT and the NT there were both a general and a special priesthood. That is, all believers were priests of a kind – responsible for their relationship with God, called to offer themselves to God, etc. – and yet there was at the same time an official priesthood with specific responsibilities that could not be undertaken by ordinary believers. Many people say – I’ve heard many people say – that “now, in the NT all believers are priests,” suggesting that the priesthood of all believers is a new development and that in this way the NT is different from the OT. Presumably these people think that in the OT only Aaron’s sons were priests. It is frankly an absurd conclusion to draw! They somehow forget that it is in Exodus 19 that the Lord first said that his people Israel were a kingdom of priests and that when Peter speaks about all Christians being priests, he is quoting Exodus 19, for goodness sake. The priesthood of all believers is an ancient truth; it is manifestly not a development peculiar to the new epoch!

Efforts to diminish or even eliminate the office of priest or minister in the church such as you had with the Quakers in the 17th century, the Plymouth Brethren movement in the 19th century or have today in the Emergent Church movement of our early 21st century – almost always based on some assertion of the priesthood of all believers – are simply unbiblical. There has always been a general priesthood but there has always been and is in the NT a special priesthood as well: an ordained office responsible for the preaching of the Word of God and the superintendence of the worship of God’s people.

The Bible teaches us from the beginning that authority structures are vital to the welfare of God’s people and the influence of the kingdom of God in the world. As it is in the family so it is in the family of God. As it is in the state, so it is in the government of the church. The Bible is a book full of priests and prophets, apostles and elders and often teaches us the importance of those offices. In many places and in many different ways we are instructed “to obey [our] leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over [us] as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” [Heb. 13:17]

In fact, it is more than that. In a thousand ways the church and kingdom of God is not a society built on any egalitarian principle. Its sociology is rather that of ordered, even hierarchical community. There is something in this that must be related to reality as it reflects the very nature of God himself because there is such an ordered community even among the angels and even before they fell. We have archangels and angels in a perfect society just as we will have rulers of ten cities and rulers of one city in the re-created human society of heaven. Rule and submission belong to the nature of perfect life, like it or not. I have often thought of the fact that the Lord Jesus in his perfect wisdom not only selected twelve men out of the much larger body of his disciples in which to invest a special authority – surely there were other men who struggled with the fact that they had been left out of that favored group – and among those twelve men there were three who formed a distinct inner circle. It was these three men only who were privileged to go to the top of the mountain in Galilee and see the Lord transfigured; these three alone went with him further into the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal. We know that the other disciples sometimes resented the special attention the Lord paid to those three men. We American evangelicals might well think, “that wasn’t fair. The Lord should have paid the same attention to everyone.” Well, don’t make Korah’s mistake and begin to complain about the Lord’s arrangements. He is the Lord! Whatever his arrangements may be for the life of his people we are cheerfully to submit to them, trust his goodness, and give him glory.

Of course, that will always be easier to do if those who have been given special responsibilities in the kingdom of God, such as priests, are priests and leaders such as they are taught to be in Holy Scripture. Three times in this chapter we read that Moses fell on his face before the Lord. Korah never did that. Korah never thought to do any such thing. But Moses was always doing it: humbling himself before the Lord, consulting the Lord for his direction, and then responding in obedience. No one who craves prestige, such as Korah did, should seek leadership in the household of God for the Lord is going to expect that person to be on his face as much as he is on his feet!

I’ve often wondered what kind of preacher Aaron was. Moses knew he was no great shakes as a public speaker. Interestingly Paul admits the same about himself. He was no R.C. Sproul! Perhaps Aaron was a better orator, but I suspect there were other priests and Levites who were better preachers. It always seems to be the Lord’s way. Knowing human nature, I guarantee you that there were even pious Israelites who would prefer to attend a service at the tabernacle that was conducted by one particular priest. They thought he conducted the service particularly well and they thought he was the best preacher among all the priests they had heard. No doubt some, even perhaps after struggling within themselves as they heard the sermon, nevertheless left the sanctuary service thinking, “I could have preached a better sermon than that!” But that fact doesn’t make someone a priest.

There is no way to get round this. It has always been this way and will always be this way. Different men have different measures of the gifts of the ministry. It is not at all unlikely that Aaron’s gifts, even his personality, contributed something to Korah’s spirit of grievance. I find it easy to believe that Korah may have found it easy to convince others to complain with him precisely because it was not obvious why Aaron should have been given such a unique authority among the people of God. But such questions, such considerations are not as important as this: the priest, if he is truly God’s man and does his work in faithfulness to the Lord, is God’s gift to God’s people and by the receptiveness with which they receive his ministry they honor and glorify God. That is the point of this history; the emphatic point. What happened to Korah and his fellow grumblers is the timeless demonstration of how the Lord stands behind his priesthood as his chosen means to bless and to keep his people!

We tend to think that the Christian life, a holy life pleasing to God, demands our doing certain things and refraining from doing other things, all of which is certainly true. We are less likely to think of a holy life as a matter of submission to authority in the church because the Lord himself established that authority. We don’t usually think of submission to the officers of Christ’s church as a key demonstration of our faith in him, but it is. We think, and rightly so, that we are responsible for our lives before God – that we are priests in other words – but the fact is other priests are also responsible for them and accepting that fact is an act of submission to God, an act of faith. Obviously that faith and obedience are part of what is required of believers and, as all true obedience, it must be offered willingly and cheerfully. We have this lengthy account of Korah’s rebellion to remind us that this too is what it means to be holy. It isn’t the first thing or the second or perhaps even the third in living a holy life, but it isn’t the last either!