By Mark Mayberry
The rebellion of Korah, recorded in Numbers 16, occurred while Israel was camped in the wilderness of Paran (Num. 10:11-13; 12:16; 13:1-3).
PARAN was a wilderness region in the central part of the Sinai Peninsula (see Map 2, C-1). Although the boundaries of this desert region are somewhat obscure, it probably bordered the Arabah and the Gulf of Aqaba on the east. The modern Wadi Feiran in central Sinai preserves the ancient name.
Paran is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Chedorlaomer, one of the four kings who attacked Sodom, conquered as far as “El Paran, which is by the wilderness” (Gen. 14:6). After Hagar was driven from Abraham’s household (Gen. 21:21), she fled to this wilderness with her son Ishmael. The Israelites crossed Paran during their Exodus from Egypt (Num. 10:12; 12:16), and Moses dispatched spies from Paran to explore the land of Canaan (Num. 13:3). After their mission, these spies returned “unto the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh” (Num. 13:26).
Much later, after the death of Samuel, David fled to Paran (1 Sam. 25:1). After revolting from King Solomon, Hadad went through Paran on his flight to Egypt (1 Kin. 11:18).
KORAH was the Levite who, along with Dathan, Abiram, and On of the tribe of Reuben, led a revolt against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:1-49). Korah was the son of Izhar and a first cousin of Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:21). He was equal in rank with Aaron within the tribe of Levi.
Korah apparently was jealous that Aaron held the position of high priest. The Reubenites were the descendants of Jacob’s oldest son. They thought the responsibility for leading Israel should rest with their tribe rather than the Levites. The four ringleaders gathered 250 leaders of the congregation, publicly charging Moses and Aaron with abusing their power. They claimed that all members of the congregation should have equal access to the Lord.
Moses placed the dispute in the hands of the Lord, directing Korah and his company to bring containers of incense as an offering to the Lord. Korah complied with this and went with his congregation to the door of the tabernacle where the Lord appeared, threatening to “consume them in a moment” (Num. 16:21). Moses and Aaron interceded, saving the nation of Israel from destruction. The decision of leadership was again placed before the Lord as Moses instructed the congregation to “depart from the tents of these wicked men” (Num. 16:26). The decision in favor of Moses was dramatized as “the earth opened its mouth” and swallowed all the men of Korah (Num. 16:32).
Apparently some of the descendants of Korah survived to become ministers of music in the tabernacle during the time of David (1 Chr. 6:31-37).
DATHAN was a chief of the tribe of Reuben who, along with Korah and others, tried to overthrow Moses and Aaron (Num. 16; Deut. 11:6; Ps. 106:17). He and his conspirators and their households were swallowed up by the earth (Num. 16:31-33).
ABIRAM was a son of Eliab, a Reubenite, who joined in the rebellion of Korah and conspired against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. He died in an earthquake, which served as a fitting judgment for his sin (Num. 16:1-33).
ON was a son of Peleth, of the tribe of Reuben (Num. 16:1). On joined Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in a rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
As firstborn, Reuben should have received a double-portion of his father’s inheritance and become the leader of his brethren (Deut. 21:17). However, he forfeited such honors because he committed fornication with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22; 49:1-4).
In like manner, Simeon and Levi were condemned for their “cruelty” and “wrath,” and foretold that their descendants would be divided and scattered (Gen. 49:5-7; cf. Gen 34). The allotment of Simeon lay within the region of Judah, and the sons of Levi were scattered among the 12 tribes of Judah.
The rebels assembled together against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3; cf. Exod. 19:5-6). Note their accusations and assumptions: Are not we all equal? It is unfair for you to exalt yourselves above the assembly. In other words, fairness trumps divine restrictions.
Remonstrance & Rebuttal
In self-defense, Moses said, “Tomorrow God will show who is His, and who is holy, and who He has chosen. Bring your censers w/ fire and incense, and let us see who God has chosen. God has chosen you to minister in the tabernacle, do you seek the priesthood also?” (Num. 16:4–11).
Divine Wrath & Revelation
The assignment of leadership roles and priestly responsibility belonged to God. God chose Moses and Aaron to lead the congregation out of Egypt and through the wilderness. God chose the tribe of Levi to serve as priests. Note the irony: Levi, who earlier violated the concept of a covenant would be responsible for teaching Israel and maintaining the covenant. He who showed no mercy would become an instrument of mercy, serving as mediator between God and man.
In punishment, God caused the earth to open and swallow up Korah and his followers (Num. 16:31-40).
Source: R. F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, R. K. Harrison, eds. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995).