Tough Passages: Numbers 16 – The Korah Rebellion

The Story:

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.

Skeptic: Exactly.

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.


  1. 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?

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I’m Tracy

6 thoughts on “Tough Passages: Numbers 16 – The Korah Rebellion”

  1. Numbers 26:11 Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.

    1Chronicles 6:37 The son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah

    1Chronicles 9:19 And Shallum the son of Kore, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, and his brethren, of the house of his father, the Korahites, were over the work of the service, keepers of the gates of the tabernacle: and their fathers, being over the host of the LORD, were keepers of the entry.

    Apparently, at least some of Korah’s children didn’t die. Not only did they live, their descendants were important in the work of the Temple. There are even 11 Psalms ascribed to them.

    There do seem to be times when God threatens to wipe out all the people to draw out Moses’ love for the people. Why God did this is obscure.

    Ezekiel chapter 18 has a lot to say about this issue too. It seems to be contradictory. My father (a former pastor) has the opinion that these different reactions in different places are manifestations of the three parts of God. The attribute of absolute justice and holiness is on display in Numbers 16. This same characteristic will come into to play at the time of the end of this Age when it’s time for Christ to set up His earthly kingdom.

    One of the things you might notice throughout the Bible is that God is harder on people right at the beginning of something. Here, at the beginning of the nation, then at the beginning of the church with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. One could even say God was harder on King Saul than King David.
    God seems to also react more strongly to active rebellion than to run of the mill sins of passion.
    1Sa 15:23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.

      1. It’s not in Chapter 16. The Bible is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered everywhere. We will never get all the pieces lined up just so, but it is sure exciting when we get one more piece in place!! 😀

      2. That means that whenever I read, I need to hold all my finding tentatively till I reach the end of the Bible and know for certain that there is no other passage that would change my understanding of the passage! Or I can buy a commentary. This is turning out to be a lot harder than I expected. 😀

      3. LOL. Ain’t that the truth!!!
        I wouldn’t even hold my finding too strongly after that! I’ve known people who’ve read the Bible dozens of times and they still will suddenly realize that they missed something important.

        It is good to make hypothoses though. Much like in science, if you know what you’re expecting to find, you will be more likely to notice when something doesn’t fit.
        When you ask the question, you will be listening for the answer. And God loves to teach!!

        If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. James 1:5

  2. Hi, I happened to bump into your post while looking for an answer to exactly the same question you posted above i.e. why did Dathan and Abiram’s families die because of their sins? And I happened to come across an allusion to the answer in this website (in the paragraph beginning with “Why did God punish the families?”

    From my understanding of the Biblical text in Numbers 16 and the explanation offered in this website, it can be inferred that the families of Dathan and Abiram approved of their rebellion. Let me explain my reasoning process on this. Deuteronomy 24:16 says “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.” So if the families of Korah, Dathan and Abiram died because of the sins of these three people, isn’t God contradicting His own command? Then I came across Numbers 26:11 that states that Korah’s children did not die. So my next question was: if Korah’s children didn’t die but Dathan and Abiram’s did, why was this so? Does this mean that God practices double standards? Or was there some sort of difference between Korah’s children and Dathan and Abiram’s children?

    When I went back to the text in Numbers 16 (I used the NKJV version because it uses literal equivalence in its translation and thus has a modern English text that is closest in syntax and word usage to the original Hebrew text), I realized that verses 25-26 stated that Moses went to Dathan and Abiram, and gave a stern warning to the Israelites to depart from Dathan and Abiram’s tents lest they be consumed in their sins as well. Verse 27 then states that the family members of Dathan and Abiram STOOD WITH the two men. Verse 27 may have described the family members as PHYSICALLY standing with the two men, but how I look at it is that PHYSICALLY standing with them is tantamount to standing with them IN PRINCIPLE as well. God through Moses did give a fair warning to all to stay away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and if Korah’s children survived, I believe they did heed Moses’ warning in faith and obedience. Should Dathan and Abiram’s family members heed Moses’ warning in faith and obedience as well, I believe they would have survived too, also because by heeding Moses’ warning they would have demonstrated that they chose to believe in Moses (and thus God) rather than justifying Dathan and Abiram’s rebellion in principle.

    Another thing of note is verse 32, in which it states that all the men with Korah were swallowed up with all their goods. There was no mention of the families of those men having been swallowed along; only their goods. This goes to show that probably the families of those men also heeded Moses’ warning and thus demonstrated their faith and obedience to God.

    So, from these I believe that God does not contradict His own commands, and neither does he practise double standards. What happened to Dathan and Abiram’s families were totally justified.

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