The Rebellion of Korah (Cain, Balaam, and Korah – Part 4)

(This post is part of a series—you can find parts one, two, and three here.)

After the Israelites refused to go up and conquer the Promised Land, God sentenced them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. The current, unfaithful generation was going to die off; the next generation would have the opportunity to claim the promises their parents had rejected.

And that’s the backdrop for Korah’s rebellion.

We’re first introduced to Korah as “Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi” (Numbers 16:1). Now, if you’re like me, whenever you read anything that even remotely sounds like a genealogy, your eyes glaze over and you have to fight the urge to pass out. But this is important. We’ll come back to it in a minute.

Korah shows up with Dathan, Abiram, and 250 other men to tell Moses and Aaron, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3)

There’s a lot to unpack in just those two sentences. But first, let’s grab some context.

Before Israel turned its back on the Promised Land—God assigned special duties to the tribe of Levi. Levi—the actual son of Jacob, not the tribe—had three sons: Kohath, Gershon, and Merari. Each of those three lines—the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites—were in charge of a different aspect of God’s tabernacle.

The Merarites physically took apart and reassembled the tabernacle every time the camp of Israel moved (Numbers 4:29-33). But before they could do that, the Gershonites had to come in and take care of all the coverings, curtains, and screens of the tabernacle (Numbers 4:21-28). And before they could do that, the Kohathites had to remove all the holy things—the ark of the covenant, the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the golden altar of incense (Numbers 4:4-20).

But before they could do that, the sons of Aaron had to come in and cover up all the holy things. These objects resided in the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies—locations that only the priests and the high priest were allowed to go. The duty of priesthood belonged exclusively to Aaron and his sons. God reiterates that if the priests don’t cover the holy things—if the sons of Kohath touch or even look at one of the holy things, they will die (Numbers 4:15, 20).

Remember the genealogy earlier? Korah was “the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath.” He was a Kohathite. His job—the job God had assigned to him—was helping to carry the holy things from location to location. But he wasn’t allowed to touch or even look at them. That was someone else’s job. He was a Levite, but not a priest.

Let’s look at Korah’s lineage a little closer. The son of Izhar, the son of Kohath. Keep that in mind as we look at—you guessed it—more genealogies! Remember, there were three sons of Levi—Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Let’s zoom in on Kohath for a second, because Korah was a Kohathite. “The sons of Kohath were Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel” (Exodus 6:18).

Okay. We know Korah was a son of Izhar, which makes Amram, Hebron, and Uzziel his uncles. The important thing to note here is that there is no way to make “Uncle Uzziel” roll off the tongue.

…The other important thing comes two verses later: “Now Amram took for himself Jochebed, his father’s sister, as wife [that’s super gross and we’re not going to think too much about it] and she bore him Aaron and Moses” (Exodus 6:20).

Cousins. Aaron and Moses were Korah’s cousins.

They were right beside each other on the family tree. And yet Moses was the one who got to live like a prince in Egypt. Moses was the one who got to tell Israel what to do and when to do it. And Aaron was the one who got to be the high priest. Aaron’s family got to go inside the holy place and see the holy things.

Korah, the cousin, was stuck outside.

That must have gnawed at him. And after Israel’s failed invasion of the Promised Land—after he discovered he would be hauling the holy things around the wilderness until he died—he decided to challenge Moses and Aaron.

Remember what he said when he confronted his cousins? “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?

In other words: “Moses, Aaron, any one of us could be doing your jobs. You’re not so very special. The rest of us deserve a turn at the helm, too.”

Remember, there were 250 men with Korah. That’s a big group on its own, but these weren’t just a random group of angry people. They were “leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:2).

How did they all happen to be there? What brought them together at that same moment in time?

It wasn’t a coincidence. And I guarantee it wasn’t something they decided on five minutes before approaching Moses and Aaron. Two hundred and fifty leaders—this was organized. There were conversations. And complaints. Remember, the word for rebellion in Jude means a “speaking against”—and there was a lot of that. How long were these men grumbling, complaining, simmering in frustration before they made their grab for power?

Moses replies, “You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi! … Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (Numbers 16:7, 9-10).

He’s saying, “Hey, whoa, you’re forgetting that you actually have something incredibly special here, and you’re taking it for granted, trying to grab what you think is the next rung of the ladder.

Then he offers some perspective: “Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD” (Numbers 16:11).

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram weren’t factoring God into this equation. They saw Moses and Aaron as men who had taken control of their own accord, who had seized power so they could tell everyone else what to do.

Dathan and Abiram accuse Moses more directly: “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you should keep acting like a prince over us? Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men?” (Numbers 16:13-14).

It’s your fault, Moses. You dragged us out of Egypt, where things were absolutely wonderful, so you could be in charge. And you have failed to give us the land you promised us.

Again. The audacity. The sheer audacity of everything about that.

Understanding the rebellion of Korah

We won’t spend much time looking at what happens next, except to say that God makes it very clear that He is the one who makes these decisions. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are swallowed by the earth (Numbers 16:32), and the 250 leaders are incinerated by fire (Numbers 16:35).

And the whole congregation learns an important lesson and no one ever challenges Moses ever again.

Oh no wait, no they don’t. The congregation doesn’t learn anything, because the next day—the very next day“all the congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the LORD'” (Numbers 16:41).

There’s another plague. 14,700 people die. Moses and Aaron have to beg God—on two separate occasions (Numbers 16:20-22, 43-45)—not to destroy the entire nation of Israel and start over with Moses. The roots of the rebellion of Korah ran deep.

But where did it start?

The rebellion—the speaking-against, the gainsaying—of Korah begins when we challenge God by deciding that we know better.

Korah didn’t believe he was challenging God. He thought he was challenging a man. But by challenging God’s decisions and refusing to yield, he sealed his fate—and perished.

Cultivating a better attitude

So who should we be instead? Moses? Moses is a great role model, but the whole rebellion stemmed from Korah wanting to fill Moses’s shoes.

No, when we’re trying to avoid Korah’s tragic ending, we should instead aim to be like the sons of Korah.

Hope you didn’t think we were done with the genealogies, because we’re not. But we’re just going to look at a footnote this time. During the second census of Israel, there’s a note about how Dathan, Abiram, and Korah were swallowed by the earth—and then this passing comment: “Nevertheless the children of Korah did not die” (Numbers 26:11).

Korah’s line continued on. We don’t hear much about them, and I would argue that’s the point. Unlike Korah, they did their job. For generations, they did the job God had given them, without making a scene, without complaining, quietly and in the background.

They do show up from time to time, though. When David sets up the temple, we’re introduced to some of the musicians who served there. This is my last genealogy for today, I promise: “of the sons of the Kohathites were Heman the singer” (1 Chronicles 6:33). We get a huge chunk of family tree here, but at the tail end of it, we get this nugget of information: tracing back Heman’s lineage, we come to “the son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel” (1 Chronicles 6:37-38).

Heman was a son, a descendant, of Korah. And if you look closely, you’ll also see that he was also the grandson of Samuel—the last judge of Israel (1 Chronicles 6:33). Korah wasn’t happy with his position, but God used others in that same position to do important things in Israel.

The sons of Korah are responsible for at least 11 of our psalms, and there’s one that I find particularly beautiful once we know the backstory:

How lovely is Your tabernacle,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, even faints
For the courts of the LORD;
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. …

For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

(Psalm 84:1-2, 10)

That’s such a beautiful sentiment: “I would trade a thousand days—roughly 3 years of my life—for a single day serving as a doorkeeper in the house of God.”

The sons of Korah understood that it’s not always about what job you’re capable of doing—it’s about what job you’ve been given by God. The Kohathites could have done the Merarites job, and the sons of Aaron could have done the Gershonites job. We don’t always know why God puts us—or doesn’t put us—in certain positions, but the sons of Korah trusted that God had given them their job for a reason.

When we trust God with that, we can lean into whatever role He gives us, and ask ourselves, “What’s the most good I can do within the boundaries God has given me?”

What mattered to the sons of Korah—what needs to matter to us—is using every opportunity at our disposal to serve at and dwell in the courts of the living God.

Putting it all together: the way, the error, and the rebellion

Let’s recap.

Cain murdered his brother out of anger. The way of Cain is marked by rejecting responsibility and continually seeing ourselves as victim.

Balaam sabotaged an entire nation out of greed. The error of Balaam is marked by searching for loopholes to get around God’s instructions.

Korah challenged God out of pride and arrogance. The rebellion of Korah is marked by challenging God’s decisions and deciding we know best.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Anger, greed, pride. Rejecting responsibility, searching for loopholes, challenging God. That’s not just the path of Cain, Balaam, and Korah. That’s the path of Satan the devil. It’s not wonder Jude spoke so strongly against it, and it’s no wonder we need to be on guard against it.

The danger of this road is that it’s so easy to travel in small steps. A little anger. A little greed. A little pride. But it builds and builds and builds. We walk, we rush, we perish.

Instead, we need to make the conscious effort to walk a different path—the one walked by Abel, Balaam’s donkey, and the sons of Korah. When we trust God to guide us, we end up with a very different outcome.

Now, I mentioned that Jude isn’t a very encouraging or uplifting letter. And I’m guessing that by delving into this verse, most of these blogs haven’t felt particularly encouraging or uplifting either.

But what I love about Jude is the ending.

As he concludes his epistle, Jude offers encouragement to his readers: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1:20-21).

You don’t have to walk where Cain walked.

You don’t have to rush where Balaam rushed.

And you don’t have to perish where Korah perished.

If we are willing to contend earnestly for the faith that God delivered to us, to build ourselves up on that most holy faith, we have a far better future ahead of us.

Jude closes with these words, and I will too:

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling,
And to present you faultless
Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy,
To God our Savior,
Who alone is wise,
Be glory and majesty,
Dominion and power,
Both now and forever.
Amen.

(Jude 1:24-25)

Until next time,
Jeremy

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