The participants in this rebellion were Korah who was a Levite, Dathan, Abiram and On who were Reubenites and 250 other Israelites, who were well-known community leaders.
They were angry at Moses for Lording it over them and told him that every one of them was holy to God, not just Aaron and Moses. Dathan and Abiram went further; They accused Moses of bringing them out of a land flowing with milk and Honey (Egypt) to kill them in the desert. They said he had not led them into Canaan or giving them land and vineyards like he promised. In short, the crime these men committed was insubordination to the leaders God had chosen.
Moses proposed a test: They would all fill censers with incense and go before God in the morning and God would choose who was holy to him. The rebels all gathered in front of the tent of meeting with their censers except Dathan and Abiram, who remained at home. When they gathered, God told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the Israelites so he could wipe them out.
Moses, ever the intercessor, pleaded with God, saying that not all the Israelites had sinned and asking him not to be angry with all of them. God relented and told Moses to tell the people to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. He did so, telling them that the ground would open up and swallow the men, because they had been contemptible towards God.
The next scene makes me think of an execution. Dathan and Abiram were standing outside their tents with their wives, children and ‘little ones’. The ground opened up and swallowed them and everything the belonged to them. Fire came from God and killed the 250 men who were offering incense to God.
The next day, the people, who still hadn’t learned their lesson, gathered together against Moses, grumbling and accusing him of killing ‘the LORD’s people’. God once again instructed Moses and Aaron to get away from the people so he could kill them but this time, he didn’t wait for Moses to beg. A plague came into the camp and killed 14,700 people before Aaron could make atonement for them. Then the plague stopped.
There are certain things to note about this incident.
- It was rebellion once again. Like the people had been doing all the way from Egypt, they refused to submit to Moses. This was something that had been happening over and over and over again. This explains God’s decision to kill all of them – they just couldn’t be reformed.
- On, the son of Peleth was never mentioned after the first verse. Dathan and Abiram were the ones who were buried alive, Korah and the 250 other guys were burned but On was lost in the whole fiasco.
- Moses told the rebels that they were rebelling against God, not Aaron (16:11). In fact, their actions had shown contempt for God (16:30)
- Dathan and Abiram refused to offer incense to God like Moses suggested or perhaps he did not suggest it to them. He suggested it to Korah (16:6, 7). After ranting at Moses when he summoned them (16: 12 – 14), they stayed home.
- The people still didn’t learn their lesson. The very next day, they once again banded together against Moses. They must have been either incredibly dense or incredibly stubborn or maybe even both.
I have two main issues with the story. The first is God’s willingness to kill the whole congregation because of Korah and his cohorts. They didn’t support it, after all. But while reading this this morning, I realized that they did support it in a sense. They were all just as rebellious as Korah and his men as evidenced by the fact that they went against Moses after Korah died. They did not condemn Korah’s wrong actions. Instead, they condemned Moses.
The second issue is harder for me. God didn’t just kill Dathan and Abiram; he killed their families as well. Certainly God, since we belong to him, has the right to take the lives of whosoever he chooses and not be in the wrong but the passage disturbs me for a reason I do not know. I will try to find the issue by pretending to be a skeptic fishing for horrible things to accuse God of. 🙂
Skeptic: I know why the passage disturbs you so much even if you won’t admit it. God punishes the families of Dathan and Abiram for sins they did not commit. He was going to punish the whole congregation before Moses stopped him. Punishing someone for a crime they did not commit is also known as injustice.
Me: My Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘punish’ as: to make sb suffer because they have broken the law or done sth wrong1. Using that definition, God would have to believe that the families had done something wrong and so be punishing them for that which would be unjust if it is untrue that they did something wrong. The text nowhere suggests that God is blaming the people for Korah’s actions. God can kill people even when they haven’t been charged with an offense. He is God.
Skeptic: Okay, then why did he kill them if it wasn’t because of the sins of Korah, Dathan and Abiram?
Me: I never said that he did not kill them because of those people.
Skeptic: I’ll rephrase my statement. It is wrong to make someone suffer for the wrong actions of someone else.
Me: Not necessarily. When a murderer goes to jail, his family suffers. Their suffering is an indirect result of his punishment. Perhaps what you mean to say is that it is wrong to directly make one person suffer for someone else’s wrong. Phrased like that, I think you have a point. That does seem to be the problem I have with the passage. So, why is it wrong to directly make one person suffer because of another’s sins? Perhaps it is because the sinner deserves to suffer for it and the other person does not.
Skeptic: That’s not really what I was heading for, but I think you’ve struck gold there. Yes, God’s actions there are immoral because he makes the families suffer when only Dathan, Abiram and Korah had done something wrong.
Me: I think you’re still missing something. Even if it is wrong to make one person suffer because someone else has done something wrong, God still has the authority to take anybody’s life whenever he so desires whether they had done something wrong or not.
Skeptic: I agree with the second sentence, but I think there are wrong reasons to take a life. God has the authority to take lives, but when he does it for a reason like this, it is still wrong.
Me: So what is really wrong here is not the action, but the motive behind it. Or the action is wrong because of the motive behind it.
Me: Well, now that we’ve gotten somewhere, I can point out that we don’t really know the motive behind God’s actions. We only know that the actions of Korah, Dathan and Abiram resulted in the death of their families. That doesn’t tell us what God’s motive was. A motive would be something like: God killed Korah’s family because he was very angry with Korah and needed to kill something. That would be a motive. If God killed Korah’s family as a warning to the others, that would also be a motive. If he killed them because they were just like Korah and were likely to (or definitely going to) follow in his footsteps in the future, that would also be a motive. But simply saying that God’s motives for killing his family were wrong because God killed them because of Korah doesn’t work.
Skeptic: Okay, that might be right; I don’t know. But can you think of one motive that would justify the killing?
Me: The motive doesn’t have to justify it. So long as the motive is not a bad one, the fact that God has the right to take any life he wants means that he hasn’t done anything wrong. I think the second and third motives I mentioned are not bad and given the fact that God may do with us whatsoever he chooses, I think they are okay.
This has really helped me. I hope it helps you too. Tell me if you can bolster the skeptic’s argument in any way.
UPDATE: At least some of Korah’s family wasn’t killed. I’m yet to consider the implications of that but if this post anywhere claims that they did, notify me, please.
- Yes, that is the dictionary I own. We had to get it for high school. I kept it and haven’t gotten another one. Yes, I know it isn’t very sophisticated but I think it works. What? Do you want to get me one?