Korah Got What He Said

Korah’s rebellion is an interesting story buried away in a single chapter in the middle of Numbers. If you don’t recall, a man named Korah questions Moses’ leadership, declaring that since the entire “congregation is holy” and “the LORD is among [all of us],” Moses shouldn’t be exalted above the rest of Israel (Numbers 16:3). Instead, others—like, say, maybe Korah—should be lifted up as holy leaders of the people. God told Moses that He would reveal who was right, and the next day the earth opened up and swallowed Korah and his followers whole.

This may seem like an obscure story, but it has much to teach us about the nature of God and, more specifically, how God ultimately gives us what we ask for. To make sense of this story, we first need to understand who Korah was and what God had commanded him to do.

Korah was the cousin of Moses and Aaron. Thus, he was a Levite, but not a priest (kohen). To be specific, he was a Kohathite, and the Kohathites had very specific duties regarding the service of the tabernacle. As explained in Numbers 4, the Kohathites were tasked with carrying the holy things of the tabernacle from one location to another. There were a number of regulations regarding how this was to be done:

  • First, the priests/kohen would cover all the holy things (qodesh) of the tabernacle (mishkan). Six times the Hebrew word kasa is used to describe this act of covering (vv. 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15), but the word used once everything has been covered is bala, which is generally translated as “swallowed” (v. 20).
  • Once the priests had completed (kala) the covering process, the Kohathites would lift up (nasa) and carry the holy things to the next location (v. 15).
  • The Kohathites had to make sure not to directly touch (naga) any of the holy things, lest they die.

Now with this in mind, we can consider the events of Korah’s rebellion in context.

We know that Korah and his supporters rebelled because they were angry that the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty years(Numbers 16:13, 14)—which ironically is the result of the rebellion they waged a few weeks earlier (Numbers 13, 14)—but that’s not the reason that Korah gives to Moses.

Instead, Korah declares that everyone in the congregation is holy (qadesh) and should be treated as such. What’s more, he accuses Moses of lifting himself up (nasa), effectively usurping the work of the Kohathites. Since Moses thinks himself so holy and lifts himself up in the midst of our tabernacle, thinks Korah, we who are equally holy should be lifted up as well.

So what does God do? He gives Korah exactly what he asked for.

Korah declared that he was holy and wanted to be lifted up. And as we just read in Numbers 4, what happens to the holy things before they can be lifted up? They need to be covered. And that’s exactly what God does during the course of this chapter.

God declares that Korah and his fellow rebels had essentially formed a new tabernacle (mishkan, Numbers 16:24, 27). And just as God had warned the Kohathites not to touch anything before the priest’s work was completed, so too God warns the Israelites not to touch (naga, Numbers 16:26) anything belonging to these supposedly holy people of the new tabernacle until God completes (kala, Numbers 16:21) His work.

Then, as the tabernacle of Korah’s holy rebels gathers together, God opens up the ground beneath them and swallows them up (bala, Numbers 16:30, 32, 34). Finally, once the holy rebels had been swallowed up, God closed up the earth to cover up (kasa, Numbers 16:33) their new tabernacle.

Hebrew WordEnglish meaningJob of KohathitesKorah’s Rebellion
MishkanTabernacleNumbers 4:16Numbers 16:24, 27
Qodesh/QadoshHolyNumbers 4:4, 12, 15, 19, 20Numbers 16:3, 5, 7
KasaCoverNumbers 4:5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15Numbers 16:33
BalaSwallowNumbers 4:20Numbers 16:30, 32, 34
KalaComplete/consumeNumbers 4:15Numbers 16:21
NagaTouchNumbers 4:15 Numbers 16:26
NasaLift upNumbers 4:15Numbers 16:3

When you consider the events of Korah’s rebellion in light of who Korah was and what Korah had requested, everything that happened is exactly what we would expect. Korah declared that he was inherently holy and wanted to be lifted up. And he got exactly what he asked for, even if it wasn’t what he was expecting.

These events echo the story of the faithless spies, which occurred only a few weeks before. Ten of the spies (and the entire congregation of Israel) had declared that there was absolutely no way they could take the Promised Land, and that they’d be doomed to wander the desert until they died. Two spies (Caleb the Judahite and Joshua the Ephraimite) disagreed, stating that—with God on their side—they were well equipped to take what had been promised. In response to both declarations, God said,

Just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you.” (Numbers 14:28)

And every person in that story got exactly what they said. All of Israel but two died in the wilderness. And Caleb in Joshua, though well into their eighties, had God on their side, and received their inheritance.

That same promise—you will have whatsoever you speak—continues throughout the biblical narrative, from Korah to Ahaz to Hezekiah to the disciples of Jesus. And it continues for us today.

So what are you believing for? What are you declaring? Your words have power, and your faith will bring it to pass. God will honor the choices we make, even if they are the wrong choices. Will you rebel like Korah and his tabernacle, like the ten spies and the rest of the nation? Or will you submit to the promises of God, and receive the blessings He has for you?

Be careful what you say. Because one way or another, you’ll get what you want.

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