Reflections on the Sin of Korah

In Numbers 16 we read about a man by the name of Korah, who along with some men from the tribe of Reuben, accused Moses of exalting himself in Israel. “They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3) It adds an interesting twist to the story when we realize that this Korah was Moses’ cousin. Their fathers were brothers. 

The charge that Korah brought against Moses and Aaron had to do with the greater access to God they enjoyed with respect to officiating in the tabernacle. Only they and Aaron’s sons were allowed to serve as priests. Because of this Korah accused them of “exalting themselves above the assembly of the Lord,” claiming that “all in the congregation are holy, every one of them.” Psalm 106 says, “Men in the camp were jealous of Moses and Aaron, the holy one of the Lord” (Psalm 106:16).

Two things might be said in response to this. First, Korah overlooked the fact that this prerogative was not something that Moses and Aaron claimed for themselves on their own initiative, but something that was given to them by God. As the writer of Hebrews says, “No one takes this honor [of the priesthood] for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (Heb. 5:4). The priesthood was a divine arrangement. Therefore, in finding fault with Moses about this, Korah was finding fault with God.

Second, Korah himself enjoyed a highly privileged position. Not only was he from the tribe of Levi, thus possessing the right to share in the privileges of that tribe’s unique calling (Num. 1:50-54; 18:1-7, 21-32), but he was also from the clan of Kohath, and as such had greater access to God than the two other clans of Levi (Gershon and Merari). The clan of Kohath had been given the great honor of caring for the holiest items of the tabernacle in Israel’s march through the wilderness (3:31-32; 4:4-20; cf. 7:9). Korah, in fact, had everything but the priesthood. But this was not enough for him. As long as there was something to be had that was off limits to him, he would not be satisfied, especially if someone else was given access to it. Korah challenged Moses on the point of fairness. “It’s not fair that you have something I don’t have!” He was true egalitarian.

Dathan and Abriam, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, joined Korah in his rebellion. They were from the tribe of Reuben (16:1). Reuben camped to the south of the sanctuary, the same side as Korah and the Kohathites (cf. 2:10-11; 3:29). Thus, Korah and his associates and the men of Reuben would have had “ample opportunity to commiserate” with each other in their grievances against Moses.[1]

The men of Reuben may have had an additional objection to the ordering of Israelite society. They may have objected to the fact that their tribe had not been given the traditional right of the firstborn (Gen. 49:3-4).

Moses, however, upheld God’s right to appoint whomever he pleased to the priestly office, and likewise to deny that honor to whomever he pleased.

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him… You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” (16:4, 7)

Moses turns the charge around. It was not he who had gone too far, but Korah.

Hear now, you sons of Levi:  is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and stand before the congregation to minister to them, and that he has brought you near him and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? (vv. 8-10)

Korah was ungrateful for the high honor the Lord had been pleased to confer upon him. He considered it “too small a thing” and grasped for more than what God was pleased to give.[2] This is very instructive. It could be said to be the essence of all sin. Consider Adam and Eve. They had been blessed beyond measure:  created in the image of God, called into his fellowship, enjoying the delights of Paradise. One thing only was prohibited to them—eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They could eat from all the other trees in the garden except from it. And this is where the devil focused his attention. He aroused their discontent so that they overstepped their bounds and reached for a position which God had denied to them. 

This was the great sin of the king of Babylon, too, who said, “I will ascend to heaven; I will sit on the mount of the assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-14).

Jealousy is an insidious evil which can manifest itself both personally and politically. (Think Socialism/Marxism/Progressivism). Envy of the success or privilege of others is base, although it has the advantage of appearing virtuous when indulged in in the name of fairness or equality.

We should do our best, with God’s help, to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness and contentment for all the good we enjoy, even if it is not as abundant as we might wish (Phil. 4:12) or as abundant as what others enjoy. Rather than being jealous of their good fortune, we should rejoice with them in it (Rom. 12:15). Not everyone is called to be rich. Not everyone is called to positions of great influence. God distributes his gifts as he sees fit (1 Cor. 12:4-6).  

For not from the east or from the west
      and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
      putting down one and lifting up another (Ps. 75:6-7)

This is not an excuse for passivity but rather a call to beware of envy and to seek contentment in God’s providence. 

[1] Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers in NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), p. 303
[2] Later Uzziah would fall into the same transgression. Though he had the great honor of being king, he was discontent that he did not also possess the priesthood and suffered the terrible consequences of his envy (2 Chron. 26:16-21).


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