Korah & Company

Numbers 16 describes how a group of prominent Israelite men, led by a Levite named Korah, contested the leadership of Moses and Aaron and laid claim to the priesthood. It wasn’t an armed uprising, but it was rebellion just the same. And since “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4), we need to learn the lessons of that rebellion. The spirit of contempt that motivated Korah and company is alive and well today.

Contempt for Leaders

Korah and the others charged (falsely) that Moses and Aaron had arrogantly assumed power, had not delivered on their promises, and were keeping the people in the dark to maintain control (see verses 3,13,14). It was a formal show of contempt for the authority of God’s appointed prophet (Moses) and priest (Aaron).

Are we tempted to criticize those in authority just because they’re in authority? Consider our attitude toward elders in the local church. Some people feel the need to criticize these men for no other reason than their being in a position of leadership. Overseers who do their God-given task of watching over souls have sometimes been wrongly accused of prying, harassment, or “lording it over the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Instead of adopting a reflexive “Us vs. Them” attitude, let’s give our elders respect and cooperation (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

Jude, warning of evil men who “turn the grace of God into lewdness,” said they had “perished in the rebellion of Korah” (verses 4,11). How so? They “reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries [lit. ‘that which is praiseworthy’]” and are “grumblers, complainers” (verses 8,16). Beware: the path of contempt for authority follows in the footsteps of Korah, where we should fear to tread.

Contempt for God-given Roles

The men involved in this uprising were hardly a bunch of nobodies. Levites like Korah were assigned special work, and the others were “leaders of the congregation, chosen…men of renown” (verse 2). But they were not satisfied with the positions God had given them; they wanted the roles He had given to Moses and Aaron.

Korah argued that all the Israelites were holy, so why should Moses and Aaron get to be in charge (verse 3)? Hadn’t God said that all Israel would be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6)? To Korah, this justified doing away with God’s arrangement of the priesthood. But that promise in Exodus 19 was conditioned on Israel’s obeying God’s voice—which includes what He said about the priesthood! God’s declaration that all the people were holy did not mean they could disregard the respective roles He had given them.

I see a parallel to this in the modern debate over women’s roles in the church and the family. Korah misapplied God’s statement that all the people were holy to argue for an “open” priesthood. Likewise, some misapply Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) to argue against any distinction between men’s and women’s roles. But, like Korah, they ignore the very words of God Himself. He has given husbands the duty of leadership in the home, and He has placed limits on what women can do in the public functions of the church (Ephesians 5:22ff; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11f). This doesn’t mean that God values men and women differently; it just means they have different roles to fill. When we reject those God-given distinctions, we drink deeply of the spirit of Korah’s rebellion.

Contempt for God’s Will

Moses said to Korah, “It is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?” (verse 11). Even when he announced the punishment of these rebels, Moses stressed that it was God’s doing, not his own (verse 28). Although Korah and company didn’t see it this way, their challenge really was not against Moses or Aaron. It was against God Himself.

There’s a lesson here on respecting God’s silence. The Lord had said that those of the family of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi, would serve as priests (Exodus 28:1). He didn’t say, “Thou shalt not have a priest from Reuben, or Simeon, or Judah, etc.” But by specifying who was to serve, He ruled out all others. Korah’s chief associates, Dathan, Abiram, and On, came from the tribe of Reuben (verse 1). The 250 “leaders of the congregation” who joined them were probably from all the various tribes. And Korah himself, though a Levite, did not meet God’s qualifications for priesthood. The author of Hebrews confirms that God’s silence about the other tribes meant that no one from among them could serve as priest under the Mosaic Law—not even Jesus Himself (Hebrews 7:13-14). Korah’s rebellion put this matter to the test and proved it! The incident shows that when God specifies what He wants, we are not at liberty to improvise.

When we show contempt for those God has appointed to lead us, when we envy the roles He has given to others instead of joyfully filling our own, we are actually rebelling against God. That should be the last thing any disciple would want to do.

The Consequences of Rebellion

Korah’s rebellion had tragic results. The ringleaders and their families were swallowed by the earth and perished (verses 31-33). The others who had joined them were consumed by fire (verse 35). And when the people objected, a plague from God killed nearly 15,000 (verses 41ff). It was a costly lesson in the foolishness of rejecting God’s plan. And it stands as a reminder to us that rebellion against Him carries a heavy price.