Parsha: Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)

by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970

Populist Pretense

Korach קֹרַח Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Korach, and covers Numbers chapters 16-18. It is named after the infamous leader of a failed rebellion against Moses and Aaron – one which ended catastrophically. Korah and his two co-conspirators, Dat’an and Aviram, gathered 250 leading men, and challenged Moses and Aaron for leadership over Israel. They accused Moses of exalting himself and insisted that all Israelites were holy and should be allowed to be priests. I seem to recall that Moses hadn’t wanted the job in the first place. Do you remember how he made all kinds of excuses with God why he was the wrong guy? Let me also point out that at this point Moses is over 80 years old! I ask you… who needs such problems?

The pretense for the rebellion occurred in chapter 15. A man had been judged and put to death for having violated the Shabbat. So here in Numbers 16, Korah says to Moses, “You have gone far enough!” and would have us believe he was indignant over the execution of the Sabbath-breaker, and that he was merely seeking equal spiritual opportunity for all Israelites. Perhaps Korah had grown resentful over God’s exclusive appointment of the Cohaneem as priests (he not being one of them). What is more certain is that he was rejecting Moses’ leadership, which was tantamount to rejecting God who called and commissioned Moses. But notice that Korah presents his challenge in such a way as to have you believe he’s a real “man of the people”.

Are we really supposed to believe that he and his friends assembled 250 of the most highly-esteemed men of the nation that quickly? Or do you think he had been “working the phones” as it were, to rally others behind him? In my experience it takes considerable time and effort to build alliances and coalitions. I cannot prove it, but it seems to me that Korah coveted Moses’ position and had been lying in wait for just the right time to stage his coup. I suggest this was raw personal ambition masquerading as spirituality. Jude 11-16 seems to confirm Korah’s wicked intentions. In essence, Korah was mimicking Satan who in ancient times had gathered his own following to launch a coup.

Moses tells Korah and Co., “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His and who is holy and who He chooses to bring near to Himself”. He instructs them to bring firepans, censers and incense to the Tent of Meeting the following day. If you think about it, the challenge was a live-or-die proposition. You see, in spite of Korah’s argument that all Israel was holy and ought to be permitted to offer incense, only the priests were permitted by God to do so. Korah was not a priest. Thus Moses was saying, in effect, to Korah, “This thesis of yours – are you prepared to stake your life on it?”

The next morning, Korah and the 250 men showed up with their censers, but Dat’an and Aviram refused the summons. Korah and his contingent lit their censers and put incense on it. What do you think happened next? God sent forth fire and slew those 250 men. And what of Korah, Dat’an and Aviram? At God’s order, Moses warned the entire congregation to step back and move away from their three tents. Moses told the people,

If these men and their families die a natural death, then you’ll know that God didn’t send me. But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens… and swallows them up… and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.

No sooner did the words leave Moses’ lips, than the earth split open right where those three men’s tents were, and these men and their families and their belongings plunged into the earth and it immediately closed back up. The people were terrified! But their fear quickly turned to resentment. The very next day the congregation rose up and assembled against Moses and Aaron again and blamed them for the death of the 253 people. The glory of the LORD appeared and God warned Moses and Aaron to move away from the people, but instead Moses instructed Aaron to bring fire from the altar and light incense and make atonement for the people. Meanwhile, 14,700 people (presumably those who rose up as a mob against them) were struck with a plague and died. But the intercession of Moses and Aaron stayed the wrath of God and Israel was spared.

In chapter 17, God commands that a leader from each of the other eleven tribes bring a rod with their name etched on it, and come to the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s name was etched on the rod belonging to Levi. The rods were subsequently deposited in the Tent, and God said, “The rod of the man whom I choose will sprout.” The next day, when the rods were brought back out, Aaron’s rod had sprouted – not just leaves, but buds, blossoms and ripe almonds! Thus we were to know that Aaron and his descendants were God’s choice as priests to draw near to Him. That rod eventually was placed in the Ark of the Covenant as a perpetual reminder to the nation.

Lessons we’re to learn from this:

  • If this seems harsh, bear in mind that this was the very generation that witnessed His miracles as they were delivered from Egypt. We are even more responsible, since we have an even greater revelation!
  • Holiness (separation) is God-ordained. He makes choices about who is to be in office and who is to mediate, who is to lead, and who the Messiah will be, and He doesn’t do it in committee. He doesn’t need our consultation. Ours is to honor His choices and, in so doing, honor Him. Conversely, there is a terrible price to pay for disdaining God’s chosen mediator. Messiah Yeshua is His ultimate choice!
  • We need to get as far away as possible from religious charlatans, those motivated by money or personal ambition for power, and especially those who come on false pretenses. Back away from their tents! You do not want to share their fate!

Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Korach קֹרַח‎. Other transliteration: Korah