The apostle Paul is very clear that the experiences of the Israelites during their wilderness travels provide “examples” for God’s Church, and that their temptations and sins were specifically “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). In this light, let’s look at the book of Numbers, chapter 16.
A rebellion occurred, led by “Korah…with Dathan and Abiram” (Numbers 16:1) “against Moses and Aaron” (verse 3). Unlike “former rebellions” which “had been mere popular tumults, arising from the sudden impulse of the excited multitude;” this new rebellion included the formation of “a deep laid conspiracy” rooted in “a determined purpose to overthrow the authority of the leaders appointed by God Himself” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 403).
Notice carefully. Korah’s rebellion wasn’t merely to overthrow Moses and Aaron as individuals per se, but rather “to overthrow the authority of the leaders” who had been divinely appointed “by God Himself.” Thus the rebellion of Korah was a rebellion against the authority of men who had been given that authority by the Lord.
Korah had many sympathizers, including “two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:2). Thus it was “leaders” against “leaders.”
Korah and his company “gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is 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). Thus Korah and his supporters accused God’s leaders of self-exaltation and of overstepping proper boundaries.
One of the main issues concerned “the priestly office.”
“The bestowal upon Aaron and his house of the priestly office, which had formerly devolved upon the first-born son of every family, had given rise to jealousy and dissatisfaction…” (PP, 403). Korah was a Levite, who had been entrusted with the sacred work of the tabernacle, but not the priesthood. He wasn’t happy with what he considered to be such a narrow restriction. It’s not fair, he finally concluded. Dathan and Abiram agreed, and “they determined to divide with Korah the honors of the priesthood” (PP, 404).
It’s significant to realize that these leaders were not spiritual novices. Quite the contrary,
“Korah and his fellow conspirators were men who had been favored with special manifestations of God's power and greatness. They were of the number who went up with Moses into the mount and beheld the divine glory” (PP, 405). Thus—in the past—they had indeed been led by the Lord. But as the new movement grew, these leaders fell from grace. “A temptation, slight at first, had been harbored, and had strengthened as it was encouraged, until their minds were controlled by Satan, and they ventured upon their work of disaffection” (Ibid.).
Controlled by Satan? That’s what Inspiration says. Such was the verdict of Him “who reads the secrets of all hearts” (PP, 404). But by this time, Korah and his supporters were completely deceived by a masterfully subtle devil. Under strong delusion, they then convinced themselves that they were working for the true benefit of Israel.
“Professing great interest in the prosperity of the people, they first whispered their discontent to one another and then to leading men of Israel. Their insinuations were so readily received that they ventured still further, and at last they really believed themselves to be actuated by zeal for God” (PP, 405).
Such is the deadly nature of sin. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12). As their numbers grew, so did their boldness. “With these strong and influential supporters they felt confident of making a radical change in the government and greatly improving upon the administration of Moses and Aaron” (Ibid.).
Korah, Dathan, and Abiram now saw Moses and Aaron as nothing more than two faulty men who were self-righteously misleading God’s people. But they themselves were missing something. “The Israelites were continually losing sight of the fact that they were under divine guidance. They forgot that the Angel of the covenant was their invisible leader, that, veiled by the cloudy pillar, the presence of Christ went before them, and that from Him Moses received all his directions” (Ibid.). Thus, in opposing the legitimate authority of God’s appointed leaders, they were really opposing the Lord Jesus Christ Himself without realizing it.
How perilous is pride and self-deception! From God’s perspective, Moses and Aaron were His true soldiers, while Korah and his group had become unwitting tools of the great adversary. Concluding that they “desired nothing more than their rights,” the rebels viewed Moses as “an overbearing ruler” and “a tyrant” whose actions had become “fatal to the liberties of Israel” (PP, 405-407). Thus Satan and evil angels succeeded in convincing large numbers within Israel that Moses and Aaron were the real problem.
For a long time, Moses had patiently endured unjustified murmuring. Again and again he had labored faithfully to convince his fellow Israelites that he had not placed himself in a leadership position, but God had. But no matter how hard he tried—even under divine guidance—Moses “could not quell the insubordination of this people” (PP, 404).
After praying, Moses then “spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is His and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him. That one whom He chooses He will cause to come near to Him. Do this: Take censers, Korah and all your company; put fire in them and put incense in them before the Lord tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the Lord chooses is the holy one. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!’" (Numbers 16:5-8).
Notice that last sentence: “You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!" Korah himself stated those exact words in verse 3. Thus both “leaders” repeated the same words about each other. Who was right? Even today, we often hear conflicting ideas from two sets of leaders. Both groups say they’re right, and apparently have good arguments. Yet, they are on opposite sides of a fence. Sometimes it’s hard to discern, who really is right? In Numbers 16, it was Korah who was wrong, and Moses who was right. Now don’t miss this: the one who was wrong was the one who opposed “ the authority of the leaders appointed by God Himself” (PP, p. 403).
“Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you sons of Levi:
Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (Numbers 16:8-10). In other words, “Be satisfied that God has guided you into His holy work to serve in His tabernacle,” pleaded Moses. “Be content. Don’t seek the priesthood too!” But Korah and his group refused to listen. Eventually, “their stubborn persistence sealed their doom” (PP, 409).
Moses continued: “Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the Lord. And what is Aaron that you complain against him?" (verse 11). Here was the bottom line. In Korah’s mind, he was merely contending against two mortal men, defending his and other’s rights, and seeking the good of Israel. But again, he was deceived, just like holy angels were misled by Lucifer in heaven. Beneath apparently good intentions, he and his group had really “gathered together against the Lord.” This was The Great Controversy in action, real-time. And in this case, and at this time—as it was when holy angels finally settled into opposite sides in heaven—further dialog was worthless.
It was almost time for God to act in judgment.
One more night passed when the rebels were given one last merciful opportunity for sober reflection and repentance. The next day,
…the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the congregation, saying, 'Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.' Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.” So they got away from around the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, their sons, and their little children. And Moses said: “By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the Lord.” Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly. Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up also!" And a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense (Numbers 16:23-35).
Thus perished those misguided “leaders” who had stubbornly attempted “to overthrow the authority of the leaders appointed by God Himself” (PP, p. 403). By divine direction, Eleazar, Aaron’s son, was then instructed to retrieve the rebel’s censers, to hammer them out, and to cover God’s holy altar with them as “a memorial to the children of Israel that no outsider, who is not a descendant of Aaron, should come near to offer incense before the Lord, that he might not become like Korah and his companions” (verse 40). This God used the censors of the dead as “a memorial” to send a clear message to His people that only those given divine authority were to act in the office of the priesthood.
It is hardly possible for men to offer greater insult to God than to despise and reject the instrumentalities He would use for their salvation. The Israelites had not only done this, but had purposed to put both Moses and Aaron to death. Yet they did not realize the necessity of seeking pardon of God for their grievous sin. That night of probation was not passed in repentance and confession, but in devising some way to resist the evidences which showed them to be the greatest of sinners. They still cherished hatred of the men of God's appointment, and braced themselves to resist their authority. Satan was at hand to pervert their judgment and lead them blindfold to destruction (PP, 409, 410, emphasis added).
May God help us all to take these holy lessons to heart. Remember,
“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11,12).
Steve Wohlberg is the Director and Speaker of White Horse Media.