Portraits: Korah

Not all characters recorded in scripture exemplify or positively reinforce Godly behavior. Obviously, that is by design, for as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, describing events in the history of Israel,

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. – 1 Corinthians 10.6

God intends for us to learn from the events of the past – both the good and the bad. And so in this series of portraits, sometimes we need to look at the portraits of those who made serious mistakes, and a just (and sometimes harsh) response from God. Korah fits that bill.

Leadership is difficult. In the kingdom of God it is done for God, not man. And it is primarily accomplished – in every realm – most effectively by example, not autocratic power. The story of the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16 is a textbook study of what motivates rebellion, how God responds, and how we can address it.

Seeds of Rebellion

What would cause a man like Korah to rise up in opposition to Moses? Korah, some of his friends, and about 250 “chiefs of the congregation” rose up against Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16.1-2) They apparently did not think this equated to rising up against God. This was quite an unfortunate miscalculation on their part. It was apparently a product of a feeling of rebellion among the people (read Numbers 14.1-4), who were beginning to regret having left Egypt when their circumstances seemed difficult. And so Korah and his motley band became the face of discontentment. They were unwilling to accept their role, having become dissatisfied with the circumstances of their lives that God chose. Perhaps this flowed from an anger at the pronouncement of the death of their generation for disbelief of the spies (that is the context of Number 14).

James writes of this kind of jealousy and discontentment in the New Testament,

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. – James 3.14-16

Envy and jealousy are the seeds of rebellion. And so Korah used his relationship with these princes to sway the majority of the people to voice their dissatisfaction with Moses and Aaron (and by extension, God).

Rebellious Language

Discontented people are not bound by honor or integrity. Korah and his band spoke contemptibly about God’s chosen leaders.

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?’Numbers 16.3

An appeal to democratic equality has great appeal to men. Everyone wants things to be fair, equitable, on the up-and-up. This is grounded, of course, in the belief of self-sufficiency – a false notion that ensnares us all at times.

And then there was the criticism of Dathan and Abiram (two Reubenites who had joined Korah):

And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, ‘We will not come up. 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 must also make yourself 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? We will not come up.’ – Numbers 16.12-14

Their personal performance review of Moses and Aaron came up lacking, in their opinion. Those who are jealous of leaders often distort reality – and unsuspectingly show contempt for God’s endorsement and promises. What all these men forgot was that God was instructing Moses and Aaron, so their criticism was actually leveled against God, something it is doubtful they would have engaged in if there had been any self-awareness on their part. But the charms of sin cloud the mind.

God’s Response to Rebellion

Moses saw what was coming, “When Moses heard it, he fell on his face.” (v.4)  He was not sorry these people were rebelling against him, he was sorry they were rejecting God, because God was their only hope of entering the promised land.

Moses established, essentially, a contest to see whom God would choose. Surely it must have made Korah’s blood run cold. He had not intended to challenge God – he had intended to challenge and usurp the authority of Moses. But he, like we sometimes, did not understand that God’s authority rests with those who are obedient to Him. The contest would have all parties bring their censers of incense to a meeting place the next day. The judge would be God:

In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him.” (v.5)

It was a challenge to Korah: ‘Come and take charge, make your case to God to be leader. And let’s see who He chooses.’ Moses was willing to let God answer the question: it was not arrogance, it was humble willingness to let God choose. Moses was not afraid that God would choose Korah – because Moses knew God would choose whom He would choose, and that is what Moses wanted.


The next day the entire assembly came to watch what would happen at the tent of meeting. All brought their censers and put fire in them. And then God spoke to Moses – after an initial impulse to punish the entire nation – and separated those who were holy from those in rebellion:

Say to the congregation, ‘Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.'” (v.24)

In reading, the tension is palpable. Moses warned the people to move away from those in rebellion:

Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.” (v.26)

And then… at the prediction of Moses that God would “create something new” to demonstrate His judgment (v.30)… the ground opened up and swallowed Korah and his followers. And you’d think such an event would imprint on the minds of the witnesses a lesson they’d never forget. Until the next day.

But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron,..” (v.41)

We human beings can be remarkably stupid.

What can we learn? First, that discontentment comes from misplaced affections. Our heart must be right. (Deuteronomy 6.4-5, Matthew 6.21)

Second, discontentment leads to destruction. Not just within a body of saints, but in almost any venue. Discontentment leads to bitterness, and as James noted, “disorder and every vile practice.” Our focus must be fixed. (Matthew 6.33, Luke 12.15)

Third, discontentment leads to anger and divisiveness among God’s people. We must also seek, find, and accept the roles God has for us in His kingdom. Our focus must be on what is of utmost importance:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Colossians 3.1-3

The proper focus denies self-trust, and relies on God. As Solomon, a man who tried virtually everything to identify the meaning of life, put it:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding… do not be wise in your own eyes. – Proverbs 3.5,7

May grace reign in your lives through righteousness.

– Bo Couchman