In Exodus 3, over a year before, God had designated Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, with Aaron as his assistant. In Exodus 28:1, God then designated Aaron and his sons to be the priests. Each time Israel got upset they threatened to replace or even kill Moses and Aaron and choose a different leader who would be more in tune with their ideas.
“Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men: And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown: 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)
Machieavelli, a Florentine politician between 1469 and 1527 AD. stated that corrupt people always seek power. Being famous for his scheming and dishonest manipulation, he was undoubtedly judging based on what he knew he would do. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On made a similar accusation about Moses and Aaron, that they were seizing power for themselves. The had gathered a following of about two hundred fifty other leaders to support their attempt to replace Moses and Aaron. Their claim was that every person was just as holy and godly as Moses and Aaron, and that they were just setting themselves up as superior. False promises of democracy have enabled some of the worst tyrants of history to seize power and destroy the very equality they promised to deliver.
“And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face: And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even to morrow the LORD will show 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.” (Numbers 16:4-7)
Having seen the results of previous rebellions, Moses was worried what would happen this time. Rather than calling for a vote of confidence or an election, Moses prayed then suggested they allow God to demonstrate his choice. After all, he was the one who made the rules they claimed to be following. Korah and his followers were to take incense burners and inscense to offer just as Aaron and his sons did. The ones God accepted would be the the holy ones. Moses charged they were doing exactly what they claimed he was doing, claiming authority they didn’t have.
“And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi: 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 thy 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 what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” (Numbers 16:8-11)
As a Kohath Levite, Korah was one of the few qualified to transport and care for the furniture in the Tabernacle, but he considered the manual labor beneath him. He wanted to be the priest as well. In doing so, they were rebelling against God’s direction, although they were directing the attack against Aaron.
“And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, 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.” (Numbers 16;12-14)
Dathan and Abiram refused to even meet with Moses, blaming him for being where they were and claiming that he was just trying to make himself king over them. If they showed up he’d just do some fake miracle to convince the people it was God’s will and keep on without delivering his promises. In effect, they said that the miracles God had done were just tricks by Moses to blind the people to his power grab.
“And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD, Respect not thou their offering: I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them.” (Numbers 16:15)
Moses was hurt and offended by their comments, and asked the Lord to ignore their offerings because he had not cheated them in any way.
“And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow: And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each of you his censer.
And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood in the door of the tabernacle of the congregation with Moses and Aaron. And Korah gathered all the congregation against them unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the congregation.” (Numbers 16:16-19)
Both Aaron’ and his sons and Korah and his followers were directed to bring their censers and incense and to gather by the Tabernacle. Korah made a special effort to get the people to stand with him in opposition to Moses and Aaron.
“And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.
And they fell upon their faces, and said, O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?” (Numbers 16:20-22)
God threatened to destroy the entire crowd for choosing to follow and support Korah and his group, but Moses and Aaron interceded on the innocent’s behalf, because most of them were just following along without considering whether it was right or wrong.
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins.
So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children.” (Numbers 16:23-27)
God instructed that all who were not an active part were to separate themselves from the ringleaders. The people were forced to make a decision as to how committed they were to Korah’s leadership. The majority separated themselves, leaving those who were actively engaged in the rebellion.
“And Moses said, 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 visitation 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.
And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.” (Numbers 16:28-33)
Now Moses explained what sign God would give of his displeasure at their rebellion. The ones who were usurping authority would be killed in a miraculous fashion, with the earth opening up and swallowing them up, while those who were not usurping authority would live a normal life. Sure enough, Korah and his followers, and their families and belongings were swallowed up in a huge crack or sinkhole in the earth. Afterward the hole closed back up, leaving nothing.
“And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also.” (Numbers 16:34)
When Lot was dragged out of Sodom, He insisted on just going to the neighboring town of Zoar because he didn’t want to leave. Only after he saw the destruction of the rest of the cities was he willing to completely separate himself. When the people saw what happened to the ringleaders of the rebellion, they fled, finally understanding the danger.
“And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.” (Numbers 16:35)
The ringleaders of the rebellion had been swallowed up by the earth, but those who had chosen to follow and support them were burned up even as they attempted to offer incense to the Lord. They had put their own emotions and their leaders ahead of God’s commands. They were responsible for their own actions.