Numbers 16 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Numbers 16
Pulpit Commentary
Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men:
Verse 1. - Now Korah... took men. וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח. The word "took" stands alone at the head of the sentence in the singular number. This does not by itself confine its reference to Korah, because it may be taken as repeated after each of the other names; at the same time, the construction suggests that in its original form Korah alone was mentioned, and that the other names were afterwards added in order to include them in the same statement. The ellipsis after "took" (if it be one) may be filled up by "men," as in the A.V. and in most versions, or by "counsel," as in the Jerusalem Targum. The Septuagint has in place of יִקַּח ἐλάλησε, representing apparently a different reading. Some commentators regard it as an anacoluthon for "took two hundred and fifty men... and rose up with them;" others, again, treat the "took" as a pleonasm, as in 2 Samuel 18:18 and elsewhere; but the change of number from וַיִּקַּח to וַיָּקוּטוּ makes it difficult. It seems best to say that the construction is broken and cannot be satisfactorily explained. Indeed there can be no question that the whole narrative, like the construction of the opening verses, is rely confused, and leaves on the mind the impression that it has been altered, not very skillfully, from its original form. The two parts of the tragedy, that concerning the company of Korah, and that concerning the Reubenites, although mingled in the narrative, do not adjust themselves in the mind, and the general effect is obscure. It is sufficient to point out here that no one can certainly tell what became of the ringleader himself, who was obviously the head and front of the whole business. Some are strenuously of opinion that he was swallowed up alive, others as strenuously that he was consumed with fire; but the simple fact is that his death is not recorded in this chapter at all, although he is assumed to have perished. The obscurity which hangs over this passage cannot be traced to any certain cause; the discrepancies and contradictions which have been discovered in it are clue to mistake or misrepresentation; nor can any evil motive be plausibly assigned for the interpolation (if it be such) of that part of the story which concerns the Reubenites. If, for some reason unknown to us, an original narrative of Korah's rebellion was enlarged so as to include the simultaneous mutiny of the Reubenites and their fate; and if, further, that enlargement was so unskillfully made as to leave considerable confusion in the narrative, wherein does that affect either its truth or its inspiration? The supernatural influence which watched over the production of the sacred narrative certainly did not interfere with any of those natural causes which affected its composition, its style, its clearness or obscurity. Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi. On the genealogy of the Levites see Exodus 6:16-22, and above on Numbers 3:17-19. It is generally supposed that some generations are passed over in these genealogies. Korah belonged to the same Kohathite sub-tribe as Moses and Aaron, and was related to them by some sort of cousinship; his father (or ancestor) Izhar was the younger brother of Amram and the elder brother of Uzziel, whose descendant Elizaphan had been made chief of the Kohathites. Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. Eliab himself was apparently the only son of Pallu, the second son of Reuben (Numbers 26:5, 8). If the word "son" is to be literally understood in all these cases, then Korah, Dathan, and Abiram would all be great-great-grandsons of Jacob himself. On, the son of Peleth. It is one of the strange obscurities of this narrative that On, who appears here as a ringleader, is never mentioned again either in this chapter or elsewhere. Sons of Reuben. Reubenites. The encampment of their tribe was on the south side of the tabernacle in the outer line (Numbers 2:10), while that of the Kohathites was on the same side in the inner line. Thus they were to some extent neighbours; but see below on verse 24.
And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown:
Verse 2. - And they rose up before Moses. It is suggested that the Reubenites were aggrieved because their father had been deprived of his birthright in favour of Judah, and that Korah was aggrieved because the Uzzielites had been preferred in the person of Elizaphan to the Izharites (chapter 3:30). These accusations have nothing whatever in the narrative to support them, and are suspicious because they are so easy and so sure to be made in such cases. In all ecclesiastical history the true reformer, as well as the heretic and the demagogue, has always been charged with being actuated by motives of disappointed ambition. Without these gratuitous suppositions there was quite enough to excite the anger and opposition of such discontented and insubordinate minds as are to be found in every community. With certain of the children of Israel. These were gathered front the tribes at large, as implied in the statement that Zelophehad a Manassite was not amongst them (Numbers 27:8). Famous in the congregation. Literally, "called men of the congregation." Septuagint, σύγκλητοι βουλῆς, representatives of the host in the great council (cf. chapter Numbers 1:16; 26:9).
And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?
Verse 3. - They gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. They had risen up before Moses, i.e., made a tumult in his presence, because they regarded him (and rightly) as the actual ruler of Israel in religious as well as in secular matters. At the same time, the attack of Korah and his company (with whom alone the narrative is really concerned here) was directed especially against the ecclesiastical rule which Moses exercised through his brother Aaron. Ye take too much upon you. רַב־לָכֶם, "much for you," probably in the sense of "enough for you" (cf. the use of רַב in Genesis 45:28), i.e., you have enjoyed power long enough; so the Targum Palestine. It may, however, be taken with the following כִּי as meaning, "let it suffice you that all the congregation," &c.; and so the Septuagint, ἐχέτω ὑμῖν ὅτι, κ.τ.λ. The Targum of Onkelos renders it in the same sense as the A.V. All the congregation are holy, every one of them. This was perfectly true, m a sense. There was a sanctity which pertained to Israel as a nation, in which all its members shared as distinguished from the nations around (Exodus 19:6; Leviticus 20:26); there was a priesthood which was inherent in all the sons of Israel, older and more indelible than that which was conferred on Aaron's line - a priesthood which, apart from special restrictions, or in exceptional circumstances, might and did assert itself in priestly acts (Exodus 24:5, and compare the cases of Samuel, Elijah, and others who offered sacrifice during the failure of the appointed priesthood). It Moses had taken the power to himself, or it he had (as they doubtless supposed) restricted active priestly functions to Aaron because he was his brother, and wholly under his influence, their contention would have been quite right. They erred, as most violent men do, not because they asserted what was false, but because they took for granted that the truth which they asserted was really inconsistent with the claims which they assailed. The congregation were all holy; the sons of Israel were all priests; that was true - but it was also true that by Divine command Israel could only exercise his corporate priesthood outwardly through the one family which God had set apart for that purpose. The same God who has lodged in the body certain faculties and powers for the benefit of the body, has decreed that those faculties and powers can only be exercised through certain determinate organs, the very specialization of which is both condition and result of a high organization. The congregation of the Lord. There are two words for congregation in this verse: קָהָל here, and עֵדָה before. The former seems to be used in the more solemn sense, but they are for the most part indistinguishable, and certainly cannot be assigned to different authors.
And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face:
And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even to morrow the LORD will shew who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him.
Verse 5. - He spake unto Korah. That Korah was the mainspring of the conspiracy is evident (cf. verse 22; Numbers 27:3; Jude 1:11 b). It may well be that his position as a prominent Levite and a relation of Moses gave him great influence with men of other tribes, and earned him a great name for disinterestedness and liberality in advocating the rights of all Israel, and in denouncing the exclusive claims and privileges by which he himself (as a Levite) was benefited. It is often assumed that Korah was secretly aiming at the high-priesthood, but of this, again, there is not a shadow of proof; his error was great enough, and his punishment sore enough, without casting upon him these unfounded accusations. It would be more in accordance with human nature if we supposed that Korah was in his way sincere; that he had really convinced himself, by dint of trying to convince others, that Moses and Aaron were usurpers; that he began his agitation without thought of advantage of himself; that, having gained a considerable following and much popular applause, the pride of leadership and the excitement of conflict led him on to the last extremity. The Lord will show who are his. אֶת־אַשֶׁר־לוּ, the meaning of which is defined by the following words, "whom he hath chosen." Moses refers the matter to the direct decision of the Lord; as that decision had originated the separate position of Aaron, that should also vindicate it.
This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company;
Verse 6. - Take you censers. מַחְתּות. Septuagint, πυρεῖα. Translated "fire-pails" in Exodus 27:3. From the number required, they must have been either household utensils used for carrying fire, or else they must have been made in some simple fashion for the occasion. The offering of incense was proposed by Moses as a test because it was a typically priestly function, to which the gravest importance was attached (Leviticus 10:1; Leviticus 16:12, 13), and because it was so very simply executed.
And put fire therein, and put incense in them before the LORD to morrow: and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.
Verse 7. - Ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi. רַב־לָכֶם, as in verse 3. The exact meaning of this tu quoque is not apparent. Perhaps he would say that if he and Aaron were usurpers, the whole tribe of Levi were usurpers too.
And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi:
Verse 8. - Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi. No son of Levi is mentioned in the narrative except Korah, and this address itself passes into the second person singular (verses 10, 11), as though Korah alone were personally guilty. It is possible enough that behind him was a considerable body of public opinion among the Levites more or less decidedly supporting him; but there is no need to impute any general disloyalty to them.
Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from 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 unto them?
Verse 9. - Seemeth it a small thing to you. Rather, "is it too little for you." חַמְעַט מִכֶּם.
And he hath brought thee near to him, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also?
For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the LORD: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?
Verse 11. - For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together. It does not follow that Korah was seeking an exclusive dignity for himself; or for his tribe. His "company" apparently included representative men from all the tribes, or at least from many (see on verse 2). They were seeking the priesthood because they affirmed it to be the common possession of all Israelites. Against the Lord. It was in his name that they appeared, and to some extent no doubt sincerely; but since they appeared to dispute an ordinance actually and historically made by God himself, it was indeed against him that they were gathered. And what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him? The construction is broken, as so often when we have the ipsissima verba of Moses, whose meekness did not enable him to speak calmly under provocation. The sentence runs, "For which cause thou and all thy company who arc gathered against the Lord, - and Aaron, who is he, that ye murmur against him?" It was easy to represent the position of Aaron in an invidious light, as though they were assailing some personal sacerdotal pretensions; but in truth he was only a poor servant of God doing what he was bid.
And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab: which said, We will not come up:
Verse 12. - And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram. The part really taken by these men in the agitation is very obscure. They were not of the two hundred and fifty, nor were they with them when they gathered together against Moses and Aaron - perhaps because they took no interest in ecclesiastical matters, and only resented the secular domination of Moses. Neither can we tell why Moses sent for them at this juncture, unless he suspected them of being in league with Korah (see below on verse 24). We will not come up, i.e., to the tabernacle, as being spiritually the culminating point of the camp.
Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?
Verse 13. - Is it a small thing. Rather, "is it too little," as in verse 9. A land that floweth with milk and honey. A description applying by right to the land of promise (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27), which they in their studied insolence applied to Egypt. Except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us. Literally, "that (כִּי) thou altogether lord it over us." The expression is strengthened in the original by the reduplication of the verb in the inf. abs., גַּם־הִשְׂתְּרֶר
Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.
Verse 14. - Moreover thou hast not brought us. According to the promises (they meant to say) by which he had induced them to leave their comfortable homes in Egypt (Exodus 4:30, 31). Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? i.e., wilt thou blind them to the utter failure of thy plans and promises? wilt thou throw dust in their eyes?
And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD, Respect not thou their offering: I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them.
Verse 15. - And Moses was very wroth. The bitter taunts of the Reubenites had just enough semblance of truth in them to make them very hard to bear, and especially the imputation of low personal ambition; but it is impossible to say that Moses did not err through anger. Respect not thou their offering. Cf. Genesis 4:4. It is not quite clear what offering Moses meant, since they do not seem to have wished to offer incense. Probably it was equivalent to saying, Do not thou accept them when they approach thee; for such approach was always by sacrifice (cf. Psalm 109:7). I have not taken one ass from them. Cf. 1 Samuel 12:3. The ass was the least valuable of the ordinary live stock of those days (cf. Exodus 20:17). The Septuagint has here οὐκ ἐπιθύμημα οὐδενὸς αὐτῶν εἴληφα, which is apparently an intentional paraphrase with a reference to the tenth commandment (οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις κ.τ.λ.). Neither have I hurt one of them. As absolute ruler he might have made himself very burdensome to all, and very terrible to his personal enemies. Compare Samuel's description of the Eastern autocrat (1 Samuel 8:11-17).
And Moses said unto Korah, Be thou and all thy company before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to morrow:
Verse 16. - And Moses said unto Korah. After the interchange of messages with the Reubenites, Moses repeats his injunctions to Korah to be ready on the morrow to put his claims to the test, adding that Aaron too should be there, that the Lord might judge between them.
And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; thou also, and Aaron, each of you his censer.
And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood in the door of the tabernacle of the congregation with Moses and Aaron.
Verse 18. - Stood in the door of the tabernacle, i.e., at the door of the court, so that they were visible from the space outside.
And Korah gathered all the congregation against them unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the congregation.
Verse 19. - And Korah gathered all the congregation against them. It does not follow that the whole congregation was actively or deliberately on Korah's side. But a movement ostensibly in behalf of the many as against the few is sure to enlist a general, if not a deep, sympathy; nor is it to be supposed that Moses and Aaron could escape a large amount of unpopularity under the grievous circumstances of the time. The thoughtless multitude would have hailed their downfall with real though short-lived satisfaction. The glory of the Lord appeared. As before (Numbers 14:10), filling the tabernacle probably, and flashing out before the eyes of all
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.
Verse 21. - That I may consume them in a moment. Literally, "and I will consume them." The same thing must be said of this as of Numbers 14:11, 12.
And they fell upon their faces, and said, O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?
Verse 22. - O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh. אֵל ךאלֹחֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָ־בָּשָׂר. The ruach is the spirit of life which the Creator has imparted unto perishable flesh, and made it live. In some sense it belongs to beasts as well as to men (Ecclesiastes 3:19, 21); but in the common use of the word men only are thought of, as having received it by a special communication of a higher order (Genesis 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:45). Moses, therefore, really appeals to God, as the Author and Giver of that imperishable life-principle which is lodged in the mortal flesh of all men, not to destroy the works of his own hands, the creatures made in his own image. Here we have in its germ that idea of the universal fatherhood of God which remained undeveloped in Jewish thought until Judaism itself expanded into Christianity (cf. Isaiah 63:16; Isaiah 64:8, 9; Acts 17:26, 29). Shall one man sin. Rather, "the one man (הָאִישׁ) hath sinned," i.e., Korah, who had misled all the rest.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Verse 23. - The Lord spake unto Moses. No direct answer was apparently vouchsafed to the remonstrance of Moses and Aaron, but it was tacitly allowed.
Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
Verse 24. - Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The word "tabernacle" (mishcan) is the same word which is so translated in verse 9, but not the same which is used in verses 18,19; it properly signifies "dwelling-place." It is certainly the natural conclusion, from the use of this expression here and in verse 27, that this mishcan was something different from the "tents" (אָהָלֵי) mentioned in verses 26, 27, and was some habitation common to the three rebels (see below on verse 31). The Septuagint, in order to avoid the difficulty, omits the names of Dathan and Abiram, and has only ἀπὸ τῆς συναγωγῆς Κορέ.
And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him.
And he spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins.
Verse 26. - Touch nothing of theirs. Because they, and all that belonged to them, were anathema, devoted to destruction. Compare the case of Achan (Joshua 7:1).
So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children.
Verse 27. - And Dathan and Abiram... stood in the door of their tents. To see what Moses would do. Nothing is said of Korah.
And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.
Verse 28. - Nor I have not done them of mine own mind. Literally, "that not of my heart", כִּיאּלֹא מִלִּבּי. Septuagint, ὅτι οὐκ ἀπ ἐμαυτου .
If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me.
Verse 29. - If they be visited after the visitation of all men. פָקַד is of somewhat doubtful meaning; it seems to answer to the ἐπίσκεψις and ἐπισκοπὴ of the Septuagint,, and to our "oversight," or "visitation" (German, heimsuchung. Thus it may mean practically the providence of God for good, i.e., in the way of protection, or for evil, i.e., in the way of judgment. In either sense providence showed itself in no ordinary form towards these men.
But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.
Verse 30. - Make a new thing. "Create a creation." בְּרִיאָה יִבְרָא. Into the pit. Rather, "into Sheol." שְׁאֹלָה. Septuagint, εἰς ἄδου. Sheol is not "the pit," but Hades, the place of departed spirits (Genesis 37:35; Genesis 42:38), which is regarded, according to the general instinct of mankind, as being "under the earth" (cf. Philippians 2:10 b; Revelation 5:13). They were to go down "quick" into Sheol, because they were still alive at the moment that they were lost to sight for ever.
And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them:
Verse 31. - The ground clave asunder that was under them. As it sometimes does during an earthquake. In this case, however, the event was predicted, and wholly supernatural. The sequence of the narrative would lead us to suppose that the earth opened beneath the tents of Dathan and Abiram in the camp of Reuben. It is difficult to think of the gulf as extending so far as to involve the tent of Korah in the Kohathite lines in the same destruction, while there is nothing to suggest the idea that the earth opened in more than one place. It is true that the camps of the Reubenites and of the Kohathites were more or less contiguous; but when it is remembered that there were 46,500 adult males in the former, and 8600 males in the latter, and that a broad space must have been left between the two lines of encampment, it is obviously improbable that Korah's tent was in a practical sense "near" to those of Dathan and Abiram, unless indeed he had purposely removed it in order to be under the protection of his Reubenite partisans. It is very observable that not a word is said here as to the fate of Korah himself. It is implied in verse 40 that he had perished, and it is apparently asserted in Numbers 26:10 that he was swallowed up with Dathan and Abiram (see the note there). On the other hand, Deuteronomy 11:6; Psalm 106:17 speak of the engulfing of the other two without any mention of Korah himself sharing their fate; and while "all the men that appertained unto Korah" perished, his own sons did not (Numbers 26:11). On these grounds it is held by most commentators that Korah died by fire among those who offered incense (verse 35). This, however, is untenable, because "the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense" are distinctly mentioned as having been his partisans (verse 2), and are always counted exclusive of Korah himself. On the whole, while it is certain that the narrative is very obscure, and the question very doubtful, it seems most agreeable to all the testimonies of Holy Scripture to conclude -

1. That Korah had left his own place, and had some sort of dwelling (mischan) either in common with Dathan and Abiram, or hard by their tents.

2. That the earth opened and swallowed up the mishcan, of Korah, and the tents of Dathan and Abiram.

3. That Korah's men (see next verse) and their property were swallowed up with his mishcan, and (as far as we can tell) Korah himself also. If this be correct, then the much disputed heading of the chapter in the A.V. will be right after all.
And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
Verse 32. - And their houses, i.e., their families, as in Numbers 18:13. And all the men that appertained unto Korah. Literally, "all the men who to Korah." Whether it means his dependants, or his special partisans, is uncertain: Perhaps some had clung to his fortunes in blind confidence when the rest gat up from his mishcan.
They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.
And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also.
Verse 34. - At the cry of them. לְקֹלָם, "at the noise of them;" at the mingled sound of their shrieks and of the natural convulsion amidst which they disappeared.
And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.
Verse 35. - There came out a fire from the Lord. The fire probably flashed out from the sanctuary with the destructive force of lightning. The two hundred and fifty men. These had remained swinging their censers before the gate of the tabernacle while Moses and (presumably) Korah himself had gone to the camp of Reuben.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed.
Verse 37. - Speak unto Eleazar. This is the first time that any special duty is assigned to Eleazar, who was destined to succeed to the high-priesthood. We may suppose that he was sent instead of his father because the duty of gathering up the censers could hardly have been carried out without incurring legal defilement by contact with the dead. Out of the burning. Or, "out of the burnt." Septuagint, ἐκ μέσου τῶν κατακεκαυμένων. From amongst the charred and smouldering corpses. Scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. The censers had been made holy even by that sacrilegious dedication, and must never revert to any common uses; for the same reason the live coals which still remained in them were to be emptied out in a separate place.
The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before the LORD, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel.
Verse 38. - These sinners against their own souls, בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם, "against their own lives." The thought is not that they had ruined their souls, but that they had forfeited their lives. The Pentateuch does not contemplate any consequences of sin beyond physical death. The same phrase occurs in Proverbs 20:2. For a covering of the altar. The altar of burnt incense. The censers were no doubt brazen pans, and when beaten out would form plates which could be affixed to the boards of which the frame of the altar was composed.
And Eleazar the priest took the brasen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar:
To be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the LORD; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the LORD said to him by the hand of Moses.
Verse 40. - That he be not as Korah. וְלֹא־יִחְיֶח. That he do not meet with the same fate as Korah.

But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD.
Verse 41. - Ye have killed the people of the Lord. They had in truth forfeited their own lives, and Moses and Aaron had no more part in their death than St. Peter had in the death of Ananias and Sapphira. But it was easy to represent the matter as a personal conflict between two parties, in which the one had triumphed by destroying the other. In speaking of Korah and his company as the "people of the Lord," they meant to say that their lives were as sacred as the lives of Moses and Aaron, and the crime of taking them as great; they did not know, or did not heed, that their own immunity was due to the intercession of those whom they thus charged with sacrilegious murder.
And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared.
Verse 42. - The cloud covered it. Not soaring above it, as usual, but lying close down upon it, to signify that the presence of the Lord had passed in some special sense into the tabernacle (see on Numbers 12:5, 10).
And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces.
Verse 45. - Get you up. הֵרֹמּוּ, from רָמַם. The command is substantially the same as that in verse 21. Since it was not obeyed, we must conclude (as before) that it was not intended to be obeyed. They fell on their faces. In horror and dismay. No doubt they would have interceded (as in verse 22), but that Moses perceived through some Divine intimation that wrath had gone forth, and that some more prevailing form of mediation than mere words must be sought.
And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the LORD; the plague is begun.
Verse 46. - Take a censer. Rather, "the censer," i.e., the proper censer of the high priest, which he used upon the great day of atonement (Leviticus 16:12), and which is said in Hebrews 9:4 to have been of gold, and to have been kept in the most holy place. It is not, however, mentioned amongst the sacred furniture in the Levitical books. And go quickly. הולֵך Rather, "take it quickly." And make an atonement for them. There was no precedent for making an incense offering alter this fashion, but it was on the analogy of the rite performed within the tabernacle on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16). Whether Moses received any intimation that the wroth might be thus averted, or whether it was the daring thought of a devoted heart when all else failed, it is impossible to say. As it had no precedent, so it never serous to have been repeated; nor is the name or idea of atonement anywhere else connected with the offering of incense apart from the shedding of blood.
And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people.
And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed.
Verse 48. - And he stood between the dead and the living. If this is to be understood literally, as seems most consistent with the character of the narrative, then the plague must have been strictly local in its character; striking down its victims in one quarter before passing on to another; only thus could it be arrested by the actual interposition of Aaron with the smoking censer. And the plague was stayed. Thus was given to the people the most striking and public proof of the saving efficacy of that mediatorial and intercessory office which they had been ready to invade and to reject. Thus also was it shown that what in profane hands was a savour of death unto death, became when rightly and lawfully used a savour of life unto life.
Now they that died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside them that died about the matter of Korah.
Verse 49. - Fourteen thousand and seven hundred. A very large number to have died in the course of a few minutes, as the narrative seems to imply. The plague was undoubtedly of a supernatural character, and cannot be considered as a pestilence or other natural visitation. Beside them that died about the matter of Korah. These were

(1) the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense,

(2) Dathan and Abiram, and their families,

(3) probably Korah himself,

(4) possibly some other partisans of Korah (see on verse 32), making in all about 300 souls.

Thus we get the round number of 15,000 as the total of those that perished on this occasion.
And Aaron returned unto Moses unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and the plague was stayed.
Verse 50. - And the plague was stayed. Not only temporarily, while Aaron stood between the dead and the living, but finally and effectually.

Courtesy of Open Bible