Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The rebellion of Korah and his company against Moses, Num 16:1-3. He directs them how to try, in the course of the next day, whom God had called to the priesthood, Num 16:4-11. Dathan and Abiram use the most seditious speeches, Num 16:12-14. Moses is wroth, Num 16:15; and orders Korah and his company to be ready on the morrow with their censers and incense, Num 16:16-18. Korah gathers his company together, Num 16:19. The glory of the Lord appears, and he threatens to consume them, Num 16:20, Num 16:21. Moses and Aaron intercede for them, Num 16:22. The people are commanded to leave the tents of the rebels, Num 16:23-26. They obey, and Korah and his company come out and stand before the door of their tents, Num 16:27. Moses in a solemn address puts the contention to issue, Num 16:28-30. As soon as he had done speaking, the earth clave and swallowed them, and all that appertained to them, Num 16:31-34; and the 250 men who offered incense are consumed by fire, Num 16:35. The Lord commands Eleazar to preserve the censers, because they were hallowed, Num 16:36-38. Eleazar makes of them a covering for the altar, Num 16:39, Num 16:40. The next day the people murmur anew, the glory of the Lord appears, and Moses and Aaron go to the tabernacle, Num 16:41-43. They are commanded to separate themselves from the congregation, Num 16:44, Num 16:45. Moses, perceiving that God had sent a plague among them, directs Aaron to hasten and make an atonement, Num 16:46. Aaron does so, and the plague is stayed, Num 16:47, Num 16:48. The number of those who died by the plague, 14,700 men, Num 16:49, Num 16:50.
Now Korah - took men - Had not these been the most brutish of men, could they have possibly so soon forgotten the signal displeasure of God manifested against them so lately for their rebellion. The word men is not in the original; and the verb ויקח vaiyikkach, and he took, is not in the plural but the singular, hence it cannot be applied to the act of all these chiefs. In every part of the Scripture where this rebellion is referred to it is attributed to Korah, (see Num 26:3, and Jde 1:11), therefore the verb here belongs to him, and the whole verse should be translated thus: - Now Korah, son of Yitsar son of Kohath, son of Levi, He Took even Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth, Son Of Reuben; and they rose up, etc. This makes a very regular and consistent sense, and spares all the learned labor of Father Houbigant, who translates יקח yikkach, by rebellionem fecerunt, they rebelled, which scarcely any rule of criticism can ever justify. Instead of בני ראובן beney Reuben, Sons of Reuben, some MSS. have בן ben, Son, in the singular; this reading, supported by the Septuagint and the Samaritan text, I have followed in the above translation. But as Eliab and Peleth were both Reubenites, the common reading, Sons, may be safely followed.
Ye take too much upon you - The original is simply רב לכם rab lachem, too much for you. The spirit of this saying appears to me to be the following: - "Holy offices are not equally distributed: you arrogate to yourselves the most important ones, as if your superior holiness entitled you alone to them; whereas all the congregation are holy, and have an equal right with you to be employed in the most holy services." Moses retorts this saying Num 16:7 : Ye take too much upon you, רב לכם rab lachem; Ye have too much already, ye sons of Levi; i.e., by your present spirit and disposition you prove yourselves to be wholly unworthy of any spiritual employment.
The Lord will show who are his - It is supposed that St. Paul refers to this place, Ti2 2:19 : The foundation of God - the whole sacrificial system, referring to Christ Jesus, the foundation of the salvation of men; standeth sure, notwithstanding the rebellions, intrusions, and false doctrines of men; having this seal - this stamp of its Divine authenticity, The Lord knoweth them that are his; εγνω Κυριος τους οντας αυτου, a literal translation of וידע יהוה את אשר לו veyoda Yehovah eth asher lo; and both signifying, The Lord approveth of his own; or, will own that which is of his own appointment. And let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity, alluding to the exhortation of Moses, Num 16:26 : Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men.
Respect not thou their offering - There was no danger of this: they wished to set up a priesthood and a sacrificial system of their own; and God never has blessed, and never can bless, any scheme of salvation which is not of his own appointment. Man is ever supposing that he can mend his Maker's work, or that he can make one of his own that will do in its place.
O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh - אל אלהי הרוחת לכל בשר El Elohey haruchoth lechol basar. This address sufficiently proves that these holy men believed that man is a being compounded of flesh and spirit, and that these principles are perfectly distinct. Either the materiality of the human soul is a human fable, or, if it be a true doctrine, these men did not pray under the influence of the Divine Spirit. In Num 27:16 there is a similar form of expression: Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh. And in Job 12:10 : In whose hand is the soul (נפש nephesh) of all living; and the spirit (רוח ruach) of all flesh of man. Are not these decisive proofs that the Old Testament teaches that there is an immortal spirit in man? "But does not רוח ruach signify wind or breath?" Sometimes it does, but certainly not here; for how absurd would it be to say, O God, the God of the breaths of all flesh!
If the Lord make a new thing - ואם בריאה יברא יהוה veim beriah yibra Yehovah, and if Jehovah should create a creation, i. e., do such a thing as was never done before.
And they go down quick into the pit - שאלה sheolah, a proof, among many others, that שאל sheol, signifies here a chasm or pit of the earth, and not the place called hell; for it would be absurd to suppose that their houses had gone to hell; and it would be wicked to imagine that their little innocent children had gone thither, though God was pleased to destroy their lives with those of their iniquitous fathers.
They, and all that appertained to them - Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and all that appertained to their respective families, went down into the pit caused by this supernatural earthquake; while the fire from the Lord consumed the 250 men that bare censers. Thus there were two distinct punishments, the pit and the fire, for the two divisions of these rebels.
The censers - are hallowed - קדשו kadeshu, are consecrated, i. e., to the service of God though in this instance improperly employed.
On the morrow all the congregation - murmured - It is very likely that the people persuaded themselves that Moses and Aaron had used some cunning in this business, and that the earthquake and fire were artificial; else, had they discerned the hand of God in this punishment, could they have dared the anger of the Lord in the very face of justice?
The plague is begun - God now punished them by a secret blast, so as to put the matter beyond all dispute; his hand, and his alone, was seen, not only in the plague, but in the manner in which the mortality was arrested. It was necessary that this should be done in this way, that the whole congregation might see that those men who had perished were not the people of the Lord; and that God, not Moses and Aaron, had destroyed them.
He stood between the dead and the living; and the plague, etc. - What the plague was we know not, but it seems to have begun at one part of the camp, and to have proceeded regularly onward; and Aaron went to the quarter where it was then prevailing, and stood with his atonement where it was now making its ravages, and the plague was stayed; but not before 14,700 had fallen victims to it, Num 16:49.
If Aaron the high priest, with his censer and incense, could disarm the wrath of an insulted, angry Deity, so that a guilty people, who deserved nothing but destruction, should be spared; how much more effectual may we expect the great atonement to be which was made by the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom Aaron was only the type! The sacrifices of living animals pointed out the death of Christ on the cross; the incense, his intercession. Through his death salvation is purchased for the world; by his intercession the offending children of men are spared. Hence St. Paul, Rom 5:10, says: If, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved Through His Life, i. e., by the prevalence of his continual intercession. Co2 5:18, Co2 5:19 : "And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation." By the awful transactions recorded in this chapter, we may see how jealous God is of the sole right of appointing the way and means of salvation. Had any priesthood, and any kind of service, no matter how solemn and sincere, been equally available in the sight of Divine justice and mercy, God would not have resented in so awful a manner the attempts of Korah and his company in their new service. The way of God's own appointment, the agony and death of Christ, is the only way in which souls can be saved. His is the priesthood, and his is the only available sacrifice. All other modes and schemes of salvation are the inventions of men or devils, and will in the end prove ruinous to all those who trust in them. Reader, forget not the Lord who bought thee.