Korah (Hebrew קֹ֔רַח, "bald") (d. 2515 AM/1490/89 BC)) was a Levite and Kohathite. Tragically, he aspired to an office above his chosen station, and when he could not have that office, he made a mutiny against his cousin Moses and died for it. The Divine punishment for this mutiny included the deaths of two leading confederates (Dathan and Abiram), 250 ranking followers, and 14,700 adherents. (Numbers 16 )
The Korah Mutiny is one of the least well-remembered events in the forty-year sojourn of the nation of Israel from Egypt to Canaan. Most laypeople rarely hear of it, though they hear much more often of the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the Golden Calf. Yet it is arguably more important even than the Golden Calf incident, and more dangerous. Almost five times as many people died over a two-day period marked by some of the most strikingly misguided behavior on record. In addition, it was a direct attack against the chain of command and could have resulted in its destruction.
Korah was the son of Izhar and grandson of Kohath. He was therefore a member of the clan that had the authority and responsibility for transporting the ark of the covenant and the other Tabernacle furnishings. Only the priesthood was more sensitive than this duty. As the deaths of Nadab and Abihu ought to have made clear, the penalty for improper performance of duty as a priest was death. Indeed the penalty for improper transport and handling of the Tabernacle furniture was also death.
But Korah was not satisfied. He wanted to act as a priest. To that end, he advanced what political science calls a populist argument. He argued that no person in Israel was any more holy than any other person, and therefore the reservation of the priesthood to Aaron and his sons was unfounded and uncalled-for. Korah directed his argument to Moses, in the belief that Moses had made the decision to establish the Aaronic priesthood to the exclusion of all other bloodlines. But his argument was clearly false, and his motive was self-aggrandizement, not a genuine concern for the welfare of the Israelites. Furthermore, this was a power struggle within the leadership, a far more dangerous source of trouble than a rebellion by an ordinary layman.
In Rabbinical literature, Korah was a wealthy man, a codiscoverer of one of the treasuries of Joseph in Egypt, and that the immediate provocation of the revolt was the selection of Elzaphan, son of Uzziel, as the Kohathites' captain. The Rabbinical literature also suggests that Korah's wife helped provoke him to his rash acts.
Korah gathered to him three confederates, who came, perhaps by no accident, from the tribe of Reuben. The Reubenites camped to the south of the Tabernacle and were thus the "neighbors" of the Kohathites. The particular Reubenites who joined Korah were Dathan, Abiram, and On. He also recruited two hundred fifty prominent Israelites, apparently chosen from all the tribes and not Levites only. Some commentators suggest that this is a sign that Moses and Aaron were not popular leaders, and that most good leaders do not remain popular for long.
From the beginning, Moses appealed to God and allowed God to direct him in answering Korah and his confederates. Moses answered Korah with a challenge. He ordered Korah and all his "company" to bring their censers and prepare to offer incense before God, and God would choose who was properly holy before Him. Moses was actually daring Korah and his men to do a thing that could result in their summary execution, similar to the execution of Nadab and Abihu.Moses then called on Korah and his Levite followers to regain the sense of perspective that they had clearly lost:
Hear now, you sons of Levi, is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of 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 to them; and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD; but as for Aaron, who is he that you grumble against him? Numbers 16:8-11 (NASB)
Moses was referring directly decision by God to reserve all duties of ministration to the Levites, rather than have the firstborn of all tribes participate in the priesthood. God had done this because the Levites, alone among the tribes, had stood by Moses in the Golden Calf incident a year earlier.
Moses also summoned Dathan and Abiram to the Tabernacle, but they refused, and in effect called Moses a confidence artist. This made Moses more indignant than ever, and he protested to God that he had never taken even a donkey from any of them, or caused them any harm. He also reminded Korah to have all his two hundred fifty followers present the next day, each with his censer, and Moses and Aaron would also offer incense with them.
The next day, Korah and his followers accepted Moses' challenge and offered the incense. Moses and Aaron did the same. Then God ordered Moses and Aaron to stand aside from the congregation, because God was going to destroy them all. Moses and Aaron both interceded for the congregation, suggesting that one man's sin shouldn't warrant the destruction of all the people. So God ordered Moses and Aaron to tell the congregation to withdraw from Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and all their followers, so that they would not suffer as they would. (The third Reubenite, On, had by then repented.) The people obeyed.
Moses then said that if God punished the mutineers with an unusual form of execution, the congregation would know positively that it was a divine punishment. The punishment certainly was unusual. A chasm opened in the ground on which Korah, Dathan, and Abiram stood, and they all fell in, with their households and their possessions. In addition, fire from God burned alive the two hundred fifty followers of Korah who had offered the incense. But God spared the sons of Korah, whose later descendants would redeem their memory. (Among those descendants was Judge Samuel.) In addition, several of Korah's descendants continued to serve as doorkeepers to the Temple of Jerusalem, a duty that was actually an extension of the Kohathite duties to transport the Tabernacle furnishings before they gained a permanent home.
God then told Moses to tell Eleazar, Aaron's eventual successor, to gather the censers of the 250 rebels, melt them down, beat the brass into thin plates, and use them to cover the altar, as a reminder to the people that Aaron and his descendants, and only Aaron and his descendants, were to burn the holy incense in the Tabernacle.
Second challenge and response
The next day after this, the people of Israel did an incredibly foolish thing. They blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their followers. Again God threatened to destroy them all, and this time God did not wait for a response. A plague struck the people, who began to die rapidly where they stood. So Moses ordered Aaron to prepare his censor and offer incense at once to make atonement for the congregation. Aaron stood between those who were already dead and those who were still alive, and the plague was stopped. 14,700 people died in this plague.
Aaron's rod that budded
The next day, God ordered Moses to gather a rod from each of the twelve tribes, with the name of Aaron on the Levite rod. Moses deposited these twelve rods in the Holy Place. Twenty-four hours later, Aaron's rod had budded and produced ripe almonds. Thereafter Aaron kept the rod in the Holy of Holies as a perpetual reminder to the people to stop grumbling about who had what place in the camp of Israel. (Numbers 17 )
New Testament remembrance
Critical discussion of the mutiny
Higher critics of the Bible often suggest that the Biblical narrative of the Korah Mutiny is actually a conflation of two different mutinies, one led by Korah alone and the other led by Dathan and Abiram. The second story, according to this theory, is a story of intertribal struggle, which the Reubenites lose, as Reuben himself lost his birthright after having an affair with Bilhah, one of his father's concubines.
Korah in fiction
Korah appears in the Cecil B. DeMille motion picture The Ten Commandments, that depicts the life of Moses and the Exodus of Israel. Remarkably, DeMille recasts Korah's role as distinctly minor. Furthermore, DeMille conflates the Korah Mutiny with the Golden Calf incident. The leader of the rebellion is not Korah at all, but Dathan. Korah is merely a stooge, somewhat akin to Jonathan the Levite who allows unscrupulous people to hire him as a priest in the years after the death of Joshua. Yet the ambition of Korah is the same: to be High Priest. The manner of death of Korah is also the same: he falls into a chasm that opens in the earth, this time at the base of Mount Sinai, next to the Golden Calf.
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, in the novel Left Behind: The Remnant, depict a mutinous incident occurring among the Petra evacuees that plays out in a fashion remarkably similar to that of the Korah Mutiny.
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